Ortus Sanitatus 1491

A rare medieval book gives an insight into the medical practices used 500 years ago. It has gone on display for the first time at the University of Aberdeen. The De Hortus Sanitatis, which translates as the Garden of Health, shows some of the medical methods practiced in Scotland five centuries ago.

The book, first printed in Mainz, Germany, in 1491, is a fusion of late medieval science and folklore. It contains detailed writings and annotated illustrations on plants, herbs, animals, and minerals. Meanwhile, detailed illustrations reveal how physicians used to study the colour of urine to make diagnoses.

It was once owned by George Peacock, an Aberdeen apothecary who in the early 1600s taught at the then newly-established Marischal College – one of the two founding colleges which merged to become the University of Aberdeen in 1860.

Siobhan Convery, head of Special Collections at the University of Aberdeen, said: Hortus was the most popular and influential herbals of its time, and served as an encyclopedia of all knowledge and folklore on plants, animals, and minerals.

It combines elements of natural history with subjects traditionally found in herbals, accompanied by mythical fantasies and fables. There are striking depictions of contemporary medical practice, the making of drug compounds, treatment for the removal of head lice etcetera, as well as the settings for much of this, a surgery and an apothecary’s shop. One image shows a woman removing head lice from a young boy.

Another shows a boy removing honey from a comb. In the medieval period honey was used in a wide variety of ways, to cure coughs, as a diuretic, as a cure for some poisons and even as an application to rid hair of lice.

A lively scene from an apothecary’s shop shows physicians analyzing the color of urine samples to diagnose ailments. Urine charts and astrological charts were used side-by-side by physicians to diagnose diseases and to determine treatment.

 

A woman removing headlice from a young boy
A woman removes lice from a boys hair with a brush.

A scene from an apothecary's shop showing physicians analysing the colour of urine samples to diagnose ailments
Physicians analyze the color of urine samples to diagnose ailments in an apothecary’s shop.
A hand coloured illustration of the Iris flower with an annotation by owner George Peacock
A hand colored illustration of the Iris flower with annotation by George Peacock

The book is part of a new exhibition, Pharmacopoeia, meaning ‘preparation of drugs’, which includes some of the earliest recorded interpretations of the natural sciences.

Another ‘very rare’ compendium written in Middle English in the early 15th century includes  herb and plant based remedies for a range of minor and major ailments, from bad breath, nose bleeds and snake bites to broken limbs, childbirth and tumours.

The title page reads: ‘Here men may see the uses of diverse herbs, which may be hot and may be cold, and how many things they can be used for.’

The curator said: ‘It was an easy-to-use reference book.

A boy removes honey from the comb and makes a mess of his face in the process
A boy removed honey from the comb and makes a mess of his face in the process

Physicians consulting a series of patients in a sick room
Physicians consulting a series of patients in a sick room

A woodcut illustration of a group of intellects deep in discussion on a medical or botanical matter
A woodcut illustration of a group of intellects deep in discussion on medical or botanical matter

It lists fennel leaf which is said to be good for headaches and also that “to do away with aching and swelling in the womb” the patient should “drink dried fennel leaf”.

More soberly, and reflecting the high infant and maternal death in childbirth there are numerous references to concoctions and recipes to ease labour pains, to accelerate deliveries and to assist with childbirth situations.

For example on this page, “if the child be dead in the mother’s womb take mugwort and stamp it small and plaster it to the mother’s womb until all cold and she will have delivery”.

Following on from that is the use of hemlock as a cure for insomnia: “hemlock will make a man sleep. Soak the herb in water and apply it to the temples and forehead and after bathe his feet in it, as hot as he may suffer it. Then make a plaster of henbane seed and apply it to his temples”‘.

Many of the detailed drawings provide an insight into the relationship between humans and animals at the time
Many of the detailed drawings provide an insight into the relationship between humans and animals at the time

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