“Epidemic Print” at Cambridge University Library

by librarydot

10th May 2012

The full title of this masterclass was “Epidemic print: medical incunabula and their readers”. For the class, Peter Jones (Librarian of King’s College, Cambridge) had selected 20 incunabula for us to view, which were grouped thematically around particular topics. After a short introduction he led us through the texts, deftly drawing out themes as he went along. The size of the group was kept small so that we would have a chance to view the books, look through them and ask questions during and after the class.

First up was a group of works demonstrating the link between plague and printing. Of course, epidemic illness was a major problem in large metropolitan centres in the later fifteenth century, and the fear of plague brought with it a desire to obtain medical advice. In each and every town affected by epidemic disease, a printing press was established, although the advice distributed was seldom specific or up-to-date. From plague tracts we moved on to the most common form of medical printing, the medical calendar. Closely related to portable almanacs, these broadsides were designed to be displayed: they were often printed in red and black and illustrated with medical and religious motifs. Calendars contained zodiac-based medical advice, including advice about the best times of the year to be bled, to take medicine and to undergo medical interventions. Ephemeral texts such as these bucked the trend for Latin medical works, and those printed in the local vernacular appealed to a much broader market.

From here we moved on to household medical books and  herbals.  These included the so-called Mainz herbal of 1484, and a Hortus (or Ortus) Sanitatis ,  of which the Wellcome Library has copies .  We then examined academic medical textbooks including  Savonarola’s 1486 Practica medicinae  a venician Articella and the extremely beautiful Fasciculus medicine (pictured).

Peter Jones pointed out that, in the majority of cases, medical books that made it into print weren’t works by living authors, but rather by deceased authors with long established reputations. Before the 1470s no books by living authors were printed at all, whilst many of those shown to us were compiled from fourteenth- and even thirteenth-century manuscript exemplars. Indeed, thirteenth-century texts such as Simon of Genoa’s Clavis sanitationis were still circulating and being used in the later fifteenth century. Above all, surviving copies of medical incunabula show a high degree of annotation by owners, evidencing the practical purpose of these books.