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Early Medicine: exploring medicine and health before 1700

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By | Early Medicine

Alchemical image from German book printed in 1512.

EPB/1114/D: Hieronymus Brunschwig, Liber de arte Distillandi de Compositis. Das buch der waren kunst zu distillieren die Composita und simplicia … (Strasbourg: J. Grüninger, 1512), folios 182v–183r. Wellcome Images L0021271.

Welcome to Early Medicine, the Wellcome Library’s blog channel on medicine and health in Europe in the ancient, medieval and early modern periods. Our new blog was born from a wish to exploit our growing body of early digitised content to explore key themes in pre-modern health and medicine. At the same time, we wanted to highlight, contextualise and increase access to our digitised manuscripts and early printed books.

Early Medicine’s authors come from a range of disciplines, and are established experts, doctoral and postdoctoral researchers, and library and archive professionals. Pieces may focus on a single manuscript or early printed book, or indeed a single page or image, or may be a broad-ranging overview of a topic. Some articles present very new findings, and some pieces draw connections between the holdings of different library and archive collections across the world.

Contributors consider the unique material features of manuscripts and early printed books, such as ownership inscriptions, annotations, and even the defacement of the page. Sometimes, such aspects enhance the subject interest of the item, as with the marginal notes in a 14th century manuscript of Bernard de Gordon’s ‘Practica medicinalis’. These notes were added in the 15th century by medical practitioners, and record comments and remedies, sometimes mentioning patients by name.

Image of 14th-century manuscript of Bernard de Gordon, showing marginal notes.

MS. 130 (Bernard de Gordon, ‘Practica medicinalis’, Montpellier, 1330), folio 12r. Wellcome Images L0049760.

Our aim is for an international community of readers and contributors to grow around the Early Medicine blog. We also hope that the blog will be particularly useful to undergraduate and Master’s students and, to that end, it will explore a number of key themes in the study of early health and medicine.

The first theme, until the end of 2015, is Sex and Reproduction. Sexual and reproductive health was a central issue for men and women in pre-modern Europe. This theme opens up both the theoretical aspects of medicine, and the lived experience of disorders and diseases before the end of the 17th century. Contemporaries were preoccupied with the vital phenomena of pregnancy and childbirth, but also with problems such as impotence, infertility, venereal diseases and monstrous births. Other issues within this theme include contraception, abortion, sexuality, male and female reproductive anatomy, and infant health.

With the advent of print in the second half of the 15th century, information about sexual and reproductive matters began to circulate much more widely. A specialised literature on gynaecology, in particular, developed rapidly in the 16th century, as did the body of printed works on the pox, the venereal disease that spread through Europe in this period. Sources for the Sex and Reproduction theme, both printed and manuscript, range from learned medical treatises in Latin to vernacular recipe collections. The embedded image below, for example, is the opening page of the ‘Liber Trotile’, the treatise on women’s medicine, from a 14th century manuscript.


If you are interested in contributing to the Early Medicine blog, on the Sex and Reproduction theme or any other topic, please see our notes for contributors, and contact Dr Elma Brenner, the Commissioning Editor, at earlymedicineblog@wellcome.ac.uk.

Elma Brenner

Elma Brenner

Dr Elma Brenner is the Wellcome Library’s subject specialist in medieval and early modern medicine. Her research examines the medical and religious culture of medieval France and England, especially the region of Normandy. She is also interested in the materiality of early books and manuscripts, and the digital humanities. For her publications, see http://www.unicaen.fr/crahm/spip.php?article557&lang=fr. She can be found on Twitter @elmabrenner.

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