A Fascinating & Important 14th Century Pharmaceutical Manuscript

Matthaeus Platearius [attributed] (ca. 1250), Albertus Magnus (before 1200-1280), Walter Agilon (ca. 1240), et alii.

Circa instans negotium in simplicibus medicinis …”: (Concerning medical simples…). [Together with Walter Agilon’s “De dosis medicinarum”, Albertus Magnus’, “Tractatus de herbis”, and other texts.]

Northwest Germany: 3rd quarter of the 14th c., ca. 1386


Folio: 29.5 x 21 cm. 98 lvs. Text in 2 columns of 38 to 44 lines. Complete.

Water marks: A simple crown identical to Piccard Kr. I 281 and Briquet 4611, demonstrated in Lucerne, Frankfurt, Bingen for 1386-1388, as well watermark Letter B (13/14), comparable to the group Briquet 7968 -7970: mid 14th century to 1369.

This is a fine and handsome practical medical compendium, in excellent condition and in its original binding of red hair sheep over wooden boards with vellum pastedowns. Two catch-plates are present but the clasps are lacking. The binding is a bit worn with small defects to the upper board, scrapes and bumps. Rubricated with two-line Lombard initials, paragraph marks, and some larger initials. The text is very well preserved overall with only minor faults: the first eight folios have some wrinkling in the gutter and are partially separated from the text block in the lower part. There is no loss to the text. There is also some light dampstaining and some slightly defective edges to about 15 pages, again without loss to the text. The blank leaves are all present. An unusually very well-preserved example in its original binding.

Contents: (see also the discussion of these texts on pages 2-3 of this description): I. Matthaeus Platearius (attrib.) “Circa instans” (p. 1-101); II. Walter Agilon, De dosis medicinarum” (p. 101-113); III. Anon., “Ars medicinarum laxativarum” (p. 113-126); IV. Bartholomeo da Varignana, “Practica a capite usque ad pedes” (excerpt) (p. 127-133); V. Anon., “Pirorum due sunt species” (p. 134); VI. Alphabetical medical catalogue from “A”-“S” (pp. 135-142); VII. Middle Dutch tract, opening “Dyt zijn de Crachte van den Rosmarijn …” (pp. 141-142); VIII. John of Parma, “Practicella sive de medicinis simplicibus” (excerpt) (p. 144); IX. Pseudo-Alexander the Great and Thessalus, son of Hippocrates (attrib.) “Hortus sanitatis de herbis, plantis et arboribus” (pp. 153-165); X. Albertus Magnus, “Tractatus de herbis” with his “Tractatus de animalibus”(excerpt) (pp.169-173). These texts are followed by manuscript recipes , presumably added by the original owner.

This manuscript was produced for use by a doctor in the fourteenth century – the Golden Age of medical exploration and study in medieval Europe. It contains the Circa Instans, one of the foundation stones of the science of Pharmacology and of extreme rarity on the market.

Matthaeus' text is a compendium of 13-century botanical science and a prototype of the modern pharmacopoeia. "Copies were circulated throughout Europe, where its value was instantly recognized and where it shaped the literature of botany and pharmacy for the next 300 years" (Frank J. Anderson, "An illustrated History of the Herbal", 1977).

The principal work this manuscript contains is the text on ‘simples’, or substances that were observed to have medical properties, but were not formed from compounds of other substances – an area of medicine commonly abandoned to folklore before the composition of this text. It is usually known as Circa instans (from the opening two words of the text: “Circa instans negotium in simplicibus medicinis …”: ‘About the present business, concerning medical simples’). It is anonymous, but was most probably the work of Matthaeus Platearius and the crucial mid-twelfth-century Salerno school of medicine.[1] It was based on Dioscorides’ Vulgaris, but went far further than its Classical source, describing hundreds of plants, the drugs that might be obtained from them and their potential applications, forming the first major attempt of Western Pharmacy to go beyond its Greek and Arabic sources and produce a distinct work of European pharmacological medicine.

It was trail-blazing in its field and remained the standard work on the subject for the entire Middle Ages, doubtless with copies in the hands of almost every major monastic library as well as the book collections of the universities of Paris, Oxford, Montpellier and Padua (who all taught medicine) as well as private medical practitioners. An academic project run by Iolanda Ventura has so far identified over 200 surviving medieval manuscripts, and it was the first work of its type to be printed in the edition of 1497 published by Octauianus Scotus.[2] No serious library with medical interests can hope to be comprehensive without a copy on their shelves, and copies of the text were avidly collected by institutions from the Middle Ages onwards. Thus, despite this widespread popularity, the text is of extreme rarity on the open market. Apart from the present manuscript, the vast and comprehensive Schoenberg database lists only 2 copies as ever to come for sale: (i) a mid-fourteenth-century copy from France or England, offered by L. Rosenthal in his cat. 130 (1909), no. 85, and now in the Wellcome Library in London; (ii), and a mid-thirteenth-century copy from England, sold by Sotheby’s on 26 June 1913, lot 1346, and also now in the Wellcome Library.

To the Circa instans are appended a series of other complimentary medical tracts, including Walter Agilon’s De dosis medicinarum (here pp. 101-113), itself a rare text on the market, apparently unrecorded as ever for sale before the present copy. This text was in fact a close paraphrase of the crucial Arabic work on compounding medicines by Haly Abbas (more properly 'Ali ibn al-'Abbas al-Majusi; d. 982x994). Agilon wrote c. 1240, and most probably taught in the Montpellier medical school.[3]

This is followed by a text on the preparation of laxatives: “Hec est ars medicinarum laxativarum tam simplicium quam compositarum …” (here pp. 113-126), which is also recorded in Wiesbaden, Hessiche Landesbibliothek, MS. 56;[4] and an excerpt from the Practica a capite usque ad pedes of Magister Bartholomeo da Varignana (Italian physician to Emperor Henry VII; d. early fourteenth century), opening, “Egritudo vero alia universalis, alia particularis …” (pp. 127-133), and otherwise recorded in the Collectio Salernitana, IV, 1856, p. 339. That text ends with a note that its scribe finished it after the feast of St. Thomas de Kantellenberg (ie. Thomas Becket of Canterbury: 29 December). This is followed by the Pirorum due sunt species (p. 134), an alphabetical medical catalogue from “A”-“S” (pp. 135-142), and a Middle Dutch tract, opening “Dyt zijn de Crachte van den Rosmarijn …” (pp. 141-142). Sandwiched between blank leaves, there follows an excerpt of the Practicella sive de medicinis simplicibus of John of Parma (p. 144).[5] To this has been appended a common tract on the medicinal properties of herbs ascribed to Alexander the Great, the Hortus sanitatis de herbis, plantis et arboribus, claiming descent from the works of the Greek scholar Thessalus, son of Hippocrates (pp. 153-173). Another variant of the opening of the same text appears at the end of this one, presumably mistaken as a separate item by the scribe of this manuscript, or by the scribe of his exemplar. The final substantial text here is Albertus Magnus’, Tractatus de herbis (pp.169-173), here in an apparent variant format, ending with an excerpt from his Tractatus de animalibus (pp. 171-173).[6] The final blank leaves are partially filled with medical recipes, most probably additions by the earliest owner of the volume.

The fourteenth century was of crucial importance for the history of almost all branches of medicine, and the main text here, commonly known as Circa instans, was one of the fundamental cornerstones for the development of pharmacology.

The Dark Ages and the recession of learning and study was not so profoundly felt in the Eastern Roman Empire, and interest in the sciences had stronger continuity in the successor states there, those of Byzantium and the Arabic world, rather than the European West. This led to far superior schools of medicine and the survival of many fundamental scientific works, such as those of Aristotle, there during the Middle Ages. It was not until the Crusades brought Europeans into regular contact with the Near East in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that interest in such works was rekindled, and centers of learning on the borders of these two worlds, in southern Italy, Sicily, Spain, and southern France, began the lengthy task of translating the most important works into Latin and the European vernaculars. The existence of such books, alongside the new translations of Aristotle’s works on logic which urged reliance on empirical observation over received (and mostly faulty) wisdom in all scientific matters, overturned nearly a millennium of reliance on Classical ideas about medicine, and set in motion the creation of the modern medical practitioner’s art as well as the fundamental roots of his textbooks and methodology. In essence, this was an intellectual revolution. Rather than just read text books written by authors who were dead before the Middle Ages had even begun, doctors gathered together medical information, experimented with these, trialled drugs, observed the results and then collected together their findings.

From this handful of isolated centers in the thirteenth century, each with their own focal point or discipline in medical studies, the fourteenth century saw the dissemination and uniting of the sum of their findings throughout Europe. The scholars and students of that era were at the forefront of this new wave of medical knowledge, and this volume must have been compiled and copied for a successful member of the medical community in northwestern Germany around 1386. Certainly he consulted it and used it in his daily life, adding useful recipes to it at the end, and thus continuing the tradition of experimentation, trial and recording, set by his forebears.


[1] See P.O. Kristeller, ‘The School of Salerno: its development and contribution to the history of learning’, in Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters, 1956.

[2] See her ‘Il Circa Instans dello Pseudo-Matteo Plateario: Per una storia della diffusione, verso la preparazione di un’edizione’ in Minerva 23 (2010), pp. 35-80, in Italian with English abstract, available digitally at: http://dialnet.unirioja.es/descarga/articulo/3359894.pdf; and Liber de simplici medicine dictus circa instans (Venice, Octauianus Scotus, 1497); the latter now digitised by Göttingen State and University Library and the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich.

[3] See E. Wickersheimer, Dictionnaire biographiquedes médecins en France au moyen âge, 1936, pp. 170-173.

[4] See http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/nlmcatalog/101086271 with reference to Thorndike and Kibre, Catalogue of Incipits, 1963, col. 599.

[5] Thorndike and Kibre, col. 861.2 and 1295.10.

[6] Throndike and Kibre, col. 1486.

1. See P.O. Kristeller, ‘The School of Salerno: its development and contribution to the history of learning’, in Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters, 1956.