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16.12.11, Dora, et al., eds., Abracadabra

The Medieval Review

16.12.11, Dora, et al., eds., Abracadabra

This attractive catalog accompanies the summer 2016 exhibition on medieval medicine (500-1500) at the Abbey Library of St. Gall. Prefatory material includes forewords by abbey librarian Cornel Dora; St. Gallen Canton health department director Heidi Hanselmann; and Novartis board of directors president Dr. Jörg Reinhardt. Two illustrated introductory essays follow: one, an overview of early medieval medicine by Professor Kay Jankrift, and the other on the history of botanical pharmacology ("From monastic garden to pharmaceutical enterprise") by Dr. Frank Petersen, head of the natural products unit at Novartis. The chapters follow the layout of the exhibit: seven vitrines in all, with three to five (mostly four) objects in each. Each chapter contains a one-page introduction providing background and context as well as one- or two-page descriptions of the manuscript pages on display.

The first chapter, "Magic and Medicine," is by Cornel Dora. The magic word "abracadabra" found in Quintus Serenus Sammonicus' Liber medicinalis (c. 200 AD) as a cure for malaria is on view here in two St. Gallen manuscripts from the ninth century, where it is spelled "abratadabra" (with variant "c") and "abracadrabra" (with added "r"). According to the text's instructions, the word should be written in a "disappearing scheme," repeated with one letter missing on each line, and worn around the neck as an amulet. That even learned scholars believed in the efficacy of magic is demonstrated by a passage from Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People that recommends dipping pages from Irish manuscripts in water to be used as an antidote to poisonous snakebites. Another ninth century example involves using the sign of the cross as an amulet against poison, the sword, fever and the devil. Skepticism regarding medical astrology can be seen in the eleventh century glosses of St. Gallen monk Ekkehart IV, recorded on a blank page of a ninth century manuscript.

The second display case with four manuscripts described by Franziska Schnoor concerns the legacy of Greek and Roman medicine. The first manuscript (Ireland, c. 800?), containing the Ps.-Hippocratic letter to Maecenas, Galenic and Ps.-Galenic texts and excerpts from a medical encyclopedia by Oribasius, attests to the central importance of humoral theory as developed by Hippocrates (b. 460 BC) and elaborated by Galen of Pergamon (c. 130-200 AD). Hippocates' name appears prominently in the incipit and greeting on the first page of the manuscript. The second manuscript from the ninth century, the Physica Plinii, a late antique compendium based on Pliny the Elder arranged in an a capite ad calcem scheme, contains red interlinear glosses with magical formulas and instructions for amulets. A third manuscript shows a late antique letter on diet in a manuscript from Italy(?), c. 800, addressed to the Frankish King Theuderic by the Greek physician Anthimus. Cassiodorus, the one author besides St. Benedict and St. Isidore responsible for the transmission of ancient medicine to the Latin West before the twelfth century, is represented by a ninth century manuscript of his Institutiones divinarum et saecularium litterarum with the opening lines of its chapter on medicine.

Chapters 3 and 4 by Cornel Dora focus on the Christian context of medicine and the infirmary at St. Gall. An Old High German version of the miracles of Christ, the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37) in Greek with interlinear Latin from the Vulgate, chapter 36 on health care from the Benedictine rule and a Latin prayer for the dying (Ireland, eighth century) represent the Christian ideal of charity and care for the sick. The well-known plan of St. Gall (c. 820) exhibited here, with its extensive healthcare facilities including a leprosarium, an infirmary with adjacent kitchen, bathhouse and chapel for the sick, a bloodletting house, physicians' residence with pharmacy and room for the critically ill and medicinal herb garden of sixteen beds with as many different herbs, embodies this ideal.

Chapter 5 by Franziska Schnoor is devoted to Notker the Physician (d. 975), one of the most famous representatives of early medieval monastic medicine. He is known to us from the monastery annals and through Ekkehard IV's monastery chronicle, Casus sancti Galli (980-1060), where his abilities as a diagnostician are reported. A small-sized medical compendium with herbal in Latin from northern Italy (c. 800) might well have served a wandering physician like Notker on his visits to the court of Otto the Great. Notker was celebrated as well as a painter and poet, composing hymns, antiphonals and welcome poems for guests. A hymn to honor St. Otmar, in use through the fifteenth century, is displayed here.

Miracle cures from saints' legends are shown in Vitrine 6 described by Philipp Lenz. Miracles performed by St. Gallus whose settlement in the Steinach valley became the site of the monastery later founded by St. Otmar are described in the oldest version of his vita, including one in which a man unable to walk was healed when he put on the stockings of the deceased saint. The healing of a shattered hip is described in Adamnan's life of St. Columba (c. 520-597), founder of a monastery on the Scottish island of Iona. Finally, the healing powers of St. Wiborada (the first woman formally canonized, in 1047) are illustrated in a book of saints' legends produced between 1451 and 1460 under the supervision of Konrad Sailer, a St. Gall citizen. Here, a colored ink drawing shows a young man's toothache being healed when his father touches it with a piece of wood from Wiborada's cup or tub. Finally, the "water of Canterbury" cure in the miracle collection of Benedict of Petersborough about Thomas Becket describes how drops of the saint's blood dissolved in water restored speech to a mute priest.

The seventh and last display case, also described by Philipp Lenz, is dedicated to medicine of the late Middle Ages. With the translation of Greek and Arabic medical texts starting in the twelfth century in Southern Italy (Salerno) and Toledo, the rise of Aristotelian natural philosophy, and the establishment of university faculties of medicine, the importance of monastic medicine waned. As university-trained physicians existed side by side with lay practitioners, the demand for medical literature in the vernacular increased. Academic medicine is represented here by a 1522 Lyons edition of Avicenna's Canon medicinae. The frontispiece depicts Avicenna on a level with Hippocrates and Galen. Next, a fifteenth century Southwest German housebook on medical astrology includes instructions and a colored ink drawing on how to cleanse the bowel with a clyster. The exhibit ends with two fifteenth century vernacular manuscripts from Southwest Germany, a short treatise on venesection and blood analysis and a plague regimen in rhymed couplets.

An afterword (labeled simply "&") by Cornel Dora reflects on the Greek inscription above the library door: "hospital (or apothecary) of the soul," also the origin of our word "psychiatry." Certainly, the St. Gall library holds a wealth of medical literature and it served as a hospital library, but the expression also relates to reading as a cure for the soul. It calls to mind the pharmacological history of St. Gall abbey. The catalog ends with a photo of a putto as physician with the characteristic attributes of urine flask, medicine jar and books that decorates the baroque library hall. An appendix with extensive notes and list of manuscripts, prints and reproductions (all but two are from St. Gallen; Ms. C78 from the Zürich Zentralbibliothek is shown on p. 41, not p. 42) lacks an index and bibliography.

While documenting medieval medical thought and practice at the abbey of St. Gall, this exhibit showcases some of the library's manuscript treasures and highlights the history of the abbey, in particular the role of the abbot in health care. Its emphasis is on monastic medicine that in a Christian context promotes spiritual as well as physical wellbeing. There is a slight tendency to debunk medieval medicine--venesection, humoral theory and astrology, in particular--by lumping it together with magic and superstition. Does wearing the cross to ward off illness and the devil really result from medical failure? Does astrological explication, an integral part of "rational" medicine since antiquity, really serve to comfort those who lack a cure (39)? Rather than judge these ideas from a modern perspective in terms of their efficacy, it is perhaps better to regard medicine in the Middle Ages as an amalgam of distinct and parallel traditions--science, folklore and religion--as this exhibit effectively demonstrates.