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Medieval medical manuscripts

At our Graduate Seminar last week we were wowed by the range of research carried out by our graduate students.

Here, Taylor McCall (2013) talks about her work on medieval medical manuscripts.

What are you studying?

Diagram of the Muscles, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 399, fol. 22r. Courtesy of the Bodleian Library.

I look at a specific series of anatomical illustrations that appear in medieval manuscripts and are called ‘The Funfbilderserie’, or ‘The Five Figure Series’. They show a repeated template of a man with his arms outstretched and his legs squatting. Each image shows a different one of the five system of the body according to Galen, the most famous physician of the classical world. The manuscripts come from all over Europe and while the earliest image is from 1158, they go right up into the fifteenth century.

I’m really trying to understand the purpose of these images: how were they made, how were they circulated and how were they used? Some are very diagrammatic and clearly had a practical purpose for the book-learning that doctors would have undertaken. Others are highly decorative and had a more artistic function.

I am based in the Department of History of Art but I also work closely with the Department of History and Philosophy of Science. These manuscripts have been looked at quite a bit by historians of medicine and science, but not by art historians. I want to fill this gap in the scholarship by taking a fairly traditional art historical approach and creating a catalogue of the images. However, I think that you have to see these works within their contexts and so my study will also focus on their uses and the way that they evolved throughout the middle ages. It’s a social history of art.

What does your research entail?

The manuscript visits themselves are so important because that’s when you can really sit there with the book in front of you and understand what it would have felt like to use it. Sometimes you see a Latin word you don’t know what that means, so you look over at drawing and it is labelled; you really find yourself interacting with the manuscripts in a way that’s not dissimilar to how they would have really been used. To see some of the manuscripts for myself I go to Gonville and Caius Library here in Cambridge, to Oxford and I’m soon going to Rome, Pisa and Milan. Whilst I am on a visit I take lots of photographs of the manuscripts and so I also spend quite a lot of time at my laptop looking at these photos.

What makes these manuscripts so important?

These manuscripts are from a time before human dissection. In fact, they come from a time when our whole modern understanding of scientific exploration didn’t exist.  They show us what medieval people understood about the interior workings of the body. My ‘five guys’ show the arteries, veins, nerves and muscles. They were also circulated with system diagrams showing the brain, stomach, eyes, nose and genitalia, so we can learn a lot about how people understood the body at the time.

They might also tell us something about the way actual medical doctors of the time trained and worked. Many of the early images circulated with a text and descriptive captions, but some of the later images seem not to. I want to discover why this was the case and, if they originally illustrated a text, how the two things got divorced from each other.

How did you originally become interested in this subject?

During my undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia I took a seminar in science and medicine as part of medieval culture. I wrote a paper on a miniature that is arguably the earliest image of an autopsy in the west. This came from the same collection of manuscripts as ‘The Funfbilderserie’ and I went on to study the anatomical images in the collection closely in my Master’s, which I took at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Now I want to do a survey of the whole collection that would have circulated together. They are also beautiful objects; that was certainly part of their original appeal.

What do you like most about the graduate community at Pembroke?

Taylor (left) running a GP charity dinner

It is so special to go into the GP for a break and forget all about your own research and department politics for a bit. Instead, I get to hear from my friends who do totally different kinds of research to me and have spent a day struggling in the lab or running computer programmes to try and understand black holes. We are all equally impressed by each other’s efforts. I find that they are often interested in my work; people are always interested in images from our past and medicine is something they can relate to.

I love Pembroke. We have a very active and close-knit graduate community made of up of people who are here because they want to be. Overall, it’s just a great place to be.

During Michaelmas 2014, Taylor helped organised the weekly Graduate Research Seminars at the Department of History of Art. For more information, see their website.
Image: Diagram of the Muscles, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 399, fol. 22r. Courtesy of the Bodleian Library.

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