The Medieval Physician’s Almanac
During the Middle Ages, the belief that spiritual and cosmological forces affected the body and mind was commonly accepted (BBC, 2010). Understanding celestial events such as the lunar phases and solar eclipses was an important aspect of medieval medical practices (Carey, 2003). To assist the medical practitioner as he visited patients, a portable almanac was developed. Created in England during the 15th century, these miniature books contained a wealth of text, diagrams, and tables to assist the medieval doctor in determining ailments and courses of treatments.
Each manuscript contained six to eight parchments, folded in half and then folded again so that when expanded there would be four to six oblong sections. The leaves are sewn to a tab on one end. These vade mecum (latin for “go with me”) were covered with fabric which extended past the parchment so that the end could be fastened to a girdle or belt. This video from Wellcome Library demonstrates just how small these portable almanacs were and how they unfolded.
Harley MS 5311
Harley MS 5311, housed at the British Library, is an example of a physician’s folding almanac that was created in southern England around 1406. The author of the almanac is unknown and the provenance can only be traced back to William Brome (b. 1664, d. 1745), an antiquarian who donated the manuscript to a friend, inscribing it ‘Given by the worthy & learned Mr Brome of Withington, Herefordshire, 1732’ (Detailed, 2009).
As was typical with portable almanacs, this physician’s almanac is small, measuring 340 x 230 mm unfolded and 180 x 80 mm when folded. It is one of 29 known English folding almanacs created during the Middle Ages (Detailed, 2009).
The manuscript was written in Latin using Gothic cursive (Anglicana). Most of the text is written in black ink with rubrics written in red ink. Margins and line rulings were delineated using red ink. Blue decorated initials mark the start of pages of text.
There are pages with charts of diagrams of solar and lunar eclipses from 1398 to 1462 which are colored in red and gold. As was common with physician almanacs, this manuscript contains diagrams of Zodiac Man (Homo signorum) and Vein Man (Homo signorum). Medieval medicine was practiced with the notion that the heavenly bodies influenced the human body, a theory known as melothesia (Albright, 2013). Zodiac Man was a diagram of a man with the 12 different signs of the Zodiac mapped on to the areas of the body where the sign was believed to have influence.
Bloodletting was another common medical practice. The almanac contains a diagram of Vein Man with lines indicating where on the body blood should be extracted depending on the ailment.
Uroscopy is the visual examination of a person’s urine. In the Middle Ages, ailments were believed to be detectable based on the perceived color of the urine. This almanac contains a uroscopy chart with flasks of urine shaded different colors.