Tag Archives: medicine

Seminar CCXIII: doctors in one place, lords in many

Since 1984 (I understand) there has been a peripatetic seminar series shared between the medievalists of the universities of Chester, Keele, Lancaster, Liverpool, Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan Universities (presumably not all of those initially), which is now known as the M6 North-West Medieval Seminar, because of the six participant medieval departments and also the arterial road that links the north-west of Britain to its neighbouring regions. The papers often look really interesting, but from Cambridge or Oxford I could never have got back from it before the transport ran out for the night, and it wasn’t till 12th November 2014, when the seminar swung down to its southernmost point at Keele, that I could even attempt it from Birmingham. Even then it was a bit of an adventure, with a forty-minute bus ride through the dark from the nearest station and so on. There was a certain amount of surprise to see me! But I did, at last, make it to the M6 Seminar, and the blog backlog now crunches round to reporting on it. There were two papers, and they were “Medical Practitioners before Medical Schools: the evidence from Salernitan charters, ss. VIII-XI”, by Luca Larpi, and “Lords of the North Sea: comparative approaches to the aristocracies of the tenth and eleventh centuries” by Anthony Mansfield.

Medieval illustration of doctors attending a patient

As the below will make clear, having three doctors in attendance at once like this was probably out of reach for the early Middle Ages as far as we can document it. Speaking of documentation, I wish I knew where the University of Aberdeen got this image but their site isn’t saying so all I can do is link…

Luca is the lead researcher in a project I’d been hearing about for years by this time, trying to amass what information we have about the existence of professional doctors in the early Middle Ages by going through charters looking for them. This is my kind of work, but I’d already had to tell them long ago that I knew of none from Catalan materials prior to 1030. This is not surprising, though; even now, the database (which is online) contains the gleanings of 17,000 documents, and in those 17,000 documents they found 178 references to 109 medici, so their hit rate is either side of 1%, and most of it is from Italy and more than anywhere else from the monastery of Cava di Terreni, where 1787 pre-eleventh-century documents gave them 45 references to 22 doctors.1 That’s not really enough to process statistically, although Luca opined that most of the people we can see hang out with the kind of people that suggest they were high-status indiviudals, and more empirically 16 of the 22 were ecclesiastics. But the particular concentration in this archive is interesting, because it covers Salerno, which would (I had to find out later, so basic a fact was it for Luca) later come to boast a major medical school famous throughout Europe.2

Medieval illustration of the Scuola Medica di Salerno, from a manuscript of the Canons of Avicenna

And here is a medieval image of that school! “ScuolaMedicaMiniatura“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

So, does this mean the school was sort of there before it was a school, and if so, why? Characterising the sample led us down very quickly to individuals: only one Jew; an ecclesiastical kindred providing three of whom one, Bishop Pietro of Salerno, was son of the first, the Abbot of San Massimo; and a number of people associated with the harbour church of Santa Maria de Domno. From 989 that organisation shared pastoral care of the city with the cathedral and ran a hospital, for which purpose it at three points in the eleventh century retained doctors as part of its community, on terms that meant they couldn’t leave for more than two years and had to perform mass regularly when present (but not necessarily, apparently, treat people). Duke Gisulf of Salerno also retained a Sicilian doctor for the city in the 1060s. So there was a lot of medical traffic here, although Luca thought that the school only came into being on the back of the translation of Arabic scientific texts. But that ‘lot’ is still relative: at times, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, we can say that Salerno boasted two professional doctors, perhaps because of an ephemerally-attested drug trade. I can’t help remembering one charter of Obarra I blogged about once where two magistri witness, utterly without context and never appearing again. Two or three such charters mentioning medici at, say, Trier or Clermont (and at the latter it could happen, since unpublished charters survive there) and this picture would change quite sharply. Such is the thin sample we sometimes have…

Early modern pen drawing of the Chateau de Guines

Early modern pen drawing of the Chateau de Guines

Mr Mansfield’s paper, which came from his ongoing doctoral research, was more dogmatic, demanding that we try to stop seeing regional aristocracies as loyal, grudging or rebellious with respect to the centre and instead view their political choices in the context of their regions. The regions he picked for this were Essex in England, Guines in Flanders and Trøndelag in Norway, all of which areas he noted were delimited by water although as he was forced to admit in questions, some of those waters were pretty easy to cross; in one case one could jump it, though my notes annoyingly don’t name it. In all these places, argued Mr Mansfield, our texts show us the existence of a regional identity which must always have been those places’ lords’ first concern, because without support within the region they could do nothing, whether helpful to the centralising court or not. Much of the thinking here emerged in questions, and I imagine thateven by now the project is much further on, but for early work it was demandingly theorised and I suppose that many of the questions came from a feeling that evidence would probably bend the theory once there was enough of it in play.

Castell de Cabrera, Santa María de Corcó, by Ricardo Ballo

The obligatory Catalan counter-example, the Castell de Cabrera in Santa María de Corcó, Osona, where an outsider lineage very happily ruled an area with no clear identity beyond its name, though that’s not to say there wasn’t one. Photo by Ricardo Ballo.

For me, of course, the key question is how lords such as these are induced to take part in the enterprise of the centre, so it’s not that I don’t think they were there, quite the reverse; I’m not sure, however, that coercive lordship was getting enough consideration at the regional, rather than the supraregional level, to match with what I see in Catalonia where the local independents still don’t show much sign of participating in a wider community of their region.3 Nonetheless, it made me think, and as you can tell still is doing. And the gathering contained many people I’d otherwise only see once a year at conferences if that, so it was good to be there for many reasons and I got back all right. Whether I can make it again, even from Leeds, we shall see, but it should in theory now be easier! That hasn’t stopped me missing all this term’s papers, but I intend on being here a while, so watch out…


1. The publication of the charters of Cava is an ongoing effort with a long and painful history. There is Michele Morcaldi, Mauro Schianni & Silvano Di Stephano (edd.), Codex Diplomaticus Cavensis (Napoli & Milano, 1873-1970), 10 vols, but I gather that this is only about two-thirds of what there is and that work on the remainder since 1970 has met many difficulties.

2. This does, admittedly, from a literature search look like something that is mainly known by those writing in Italian. An introduction for others might be Paul Oskar Kristeller, “The school of Salerno: its development and its contribution to the history of learning” in his Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters, Storia e letteratura: Raccolta di studi e testi 54, 166, 178 & 193 (Roma, 1956-1996) 4 vols, III pp. 495-551.

3. Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 144-148.

Link

An array of interesting links

I tend to store up interesting links against a day when I have no content to post, but the backlog situation has meant that not only does that never occur any more but that the links themselves get very old. I thought it was about time to clear some out! I had so many that categories seem necessary, even. So let me humbly suggest that you may wish to click to learn more about the following:

    Things from out of the ground

    A Celtic disc brooch looted by Vikings and now in the British Museum

    A Celtic disc brooch looted by Vikings and now in the British Museum, see below

  1. In no particular order, a previously-undiscovered Viking fortress, at Vallø in Denmark, located in mid-2014 by laser imaging and ground-penetrating radar;
  2. I have been known, in my cynical past, to say that the best way to hide an archæological discovery you wish to keep secret is to give it to the British Museum, due to their cataloguing backlog, but I was not wholly serious obviously, whereas this is a bit ridiculous (but has that brooch in it);
  3. further stuff has also been found, as is now de rigeur for all credible archæology in the UK, under a car-park, in Haddenham in Cambridgeshire where they hit what seems to have been a small sixth-century Anglo-Saxon cemetery during development work in February 2014;
  4. some eighth- to -tenth-century bodies found stuffed in a well Entrains-sur-Nohain in Burgundy provoke the writer of that post to several equally hypothetical Carolingian-history explanations
  5. an Iron Age hillfort at Broxmouth in East Lothian, Scotaland (just), has revealed what seems to be evidence of fifth-century BC steel-making;
  6. and there has been an array of hoards discovered that need their own subsection:
    A silver lidded vessel of Carolingian date recovered in a hoard from Dumfries in 2014

    A silver lidded vessel of Carolingian date recovered in a hoard from Dumfries described below

    1. a hoard of Viking silver loot, including what was once a really nice Carolingian lidded ewer or similar, found near Dumfries in south-west Scotland in late 2014;
    2. “one of the largest Roman coin hoards ever discovered in Britain”, 22,000 or so third-century coins found in Devon in November 2013 but only breaking into the news in September last year; I think Georgia Michael told me about this one so hat tip to her;
    3. and although 5,000 coins suddenly seems like not so big a deal, nonetheless, for the Anglo-Saxon period it is; I’m pretty sure this find nearly doubles the amount of King Cnut’s coinage known to exist in the UK, for example, and this one I definitely do owe to Georgia so off that hat comes once again;
    4. Posed photograph of some gold dinars from a hoard found off the coast of Israal

      I would not let someone do this with a gold find even before it had been catalogued, myself, but I am not the Israel Antiquities Authority, in whose care this hoard of Fatimid gold dinars ended up (see left)

    5. and two thousand is hardly trying, but firstly these ones were gold and secondly they were off the coast of Israel, dating to the reigns of the tenth- and eleventh-century Fatimid caliphs Al-Ḥākim and Al-Ẓāhir, and possibly coming from a sunken tax shipment, which I bet has caused a lot more diving since the news came out and which news I owe, once more, to Georgia Michael, who must have got the idea that I like coins or something…

    Things afoot in the research world (including those parts of it that blog)

  7. A new(-ish) project running out of Oxford to map all the various hillforts of the British Isles, presumably including that of Broxmouth above…
  8. … out of which project came the following endeavours from my native land, with lots to read if hillforts are of interest to you;
  9. a thorough and useful set of suggestions about what was wrong with the UK’s Research Excellence Framework exercise, not including its terrible name but with many other good points, from the self-appointed but persuasive Council for the Defence of British Universities (and here I owe a tip of the hat to Professor Naomi Standen);
  10. more light-heartedly, here is a reason for scribal errors that I had never considered, and still rather wish I hadn’t given some of the suggested remedies;
  11. a suggestion from a doctoral researcher at Sheffield that the current male fashion for extreme facial hair has medieval precedents, and plenty of modern ones too (a tip of the hat here to one of the Australian Medievalists);
  12. Things from out of the archive

    Fragments of a mid-seventh-century manuscript of the Qu'ran in the Mingana Collection, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham

    Fragments of a mid-seventh-century manuscript of the Qu’ran in the Mingana Collection, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham, see below

  13. Some extra fragments of illustration from the Catalan comital cartulary known as the Liber Feudorum Maior have been rediscovered!
  14. Following our theme of materials for the study of Anglo-Saxon England feared forever lost to scholarship, you may not necessarily be aware that after much deliberation about what to do with it, Professors Stephen Baxter and John Hudson have published the unfinished second volume of Patrick Wormald’s The Making of English Law on the Early English Laws website as Patrick Wormald, Papers Preparatory to the Making of English Law, vol. II, for which many people may be very grateful;
  15. the Vatican Library’s digitisation project has a new website and a much more searchable catalogue, though it does admittedly appear to be broken just now;
  16. and, to end with something at least that is very new and exciting, we have a lot of people coming to the Barber Institute just now because they have not read far enough down this story to realise that the very very early Qu’ran manuscript it describes is not yet on display here, but it is still extremely exciting!

Gregory of Tours and the Demons of Alternative Medicine

When I started off this post it was towards the end of some weeks re-reading Lewis Thorpe’s translation of the Ten Books of Histories of Bishop Gregory of Tours.1 This is obviously from a bit earlier than I work on, as Gregory died in 594, but it’s not earlier than I used to teach, and besides I own it, had not yet read this copy and it’s full of interesting things. If it wasn’t for the number of stub blog posts I already had queued up at the time of writing I’m sure I would have showered snippets upon you, but even with that still being true there was one bit I can’t pass up, because it has a very strange kind of inverse contemporary relevance.

Frontispiece of manuscript of Gregory of Tours's Ten Books of Histories

Frontispiece of a manuscript of Gregory of Tours’s Histories in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, from Wikimedia Commons

The episode in question deals with a man called Desiderius who in 587 turned up in Tours making a number of dubious claims:2

“He boasted that messengers journeyed to and fro between himself and the Apostles Peter and Paul. I myself was not there, so the country folk flocked to him in crowds, bringing with them the blind and the infirm. He set out to deceive them by the false art of necromancy, rather than to cure them by the Grace of God. Those who were paralysed or disabled by some other infirmity he ordered to be stretched forcibly, as if he could restore by his own brute strength men whom he was unable to cure by the intervention of divine power. Some of his helpers would seize a patient’s hands and some would tug at other parts of his body, until it seemed that his sinews must snap. Those who were not cured his servants sent away half dead. The result was that many gave up the ghost under his treatment.”

Predictably, since we hear about it this way, Desiderius’s story does not end well. Gregory describes several of his claims to divine knowledge but finishes by saying that:

“it became clear that he was an impostor and, once the bogusness of his behaviour was comprehended by my people, he was expelled from the city boundaries. I have never discovered where he went. He used to say that he came from Bordeaux.”

There’s one phrase here that catches me straight away: “Those who were not cured his servants sent away…” seems to imply that some people were cured, at least for a short while, not that Gregory saw any of this since, as he says, he was away at the time and the people of Tours seem to have dealt with Desiderius by themselves. And indeed Gregeory’s level of explanation of the man’s power, that it came from below, from the realm of the dead, is a good step away from saying it was sheer fakery. In what you have above he names, “the false art of necromancy”, “errore nigromantici ingenii” in the Latin, and in what you don’t goes on to describe Desiderius being privy to conversations at which he wasn’t present, thus proving (beyond doubt!) that demons were his informants.3 If Gregory’s own informants could be trusted, however, Desiderius claimed quite the opposite, that he had a direct line to the Apostles in Heaven. In other words, he certainly pitched himself as a Christian, and those of us used to a later period might again wonder how this man is different, except in terms of education, from someone like Henry the Monk five hundred years after Gregory, who happened to be around at the right time to be called a heretic, or Adalbert only a hundred and fifty years after Gregory, who didn’t. Both of those claimed to be correcting the Church but if Gregory isn’t just being precious when he says this man, “gave it out that Saint Martin had less power than he: for he imagined himself to be the equal of the Apostles”, and accurately records that in public he wore humble clothes and ate and drank very little, one could certainly see resemblances all the same.4

The medieval Tour de Charlemagne and modern basilica of St-Martin in the centre of Tours

I can’t find any halfway-relevant manuscript images so here instead is a fairly gratuitous but nice picture of the medieval Tour de Charlemagne and modern basilica of St-Martin in the centre of Tours. Desiderius and Gregory would recognise none of this! “Groupe Basilique St Martin1 Dôme et Tour Charlemagne vue de la Place du Château-Neuf” by DoquangOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

But that’s not actually what I want to look at here; I imagine pretty much any snake oil salesman in the Middle Ages who was going to claim to be able to do miracle cures needed this kind of cladding of sanctity. What strikes me is the method of the cure, stretching and tension. Is this not in fact chiropractic? well, perhaps not, given the philosophical baggage that term carries, but it’s some form of manual therapy, of which traction seems the most obviously applicable link from that page on Wikipedia. I don’t know what kinds of ailment that might affect, but since it is supposed to have some application to hernias or trapped nerves, I wonder whether, if we read ‘paralysis’ here as including inability to move without crippling pain, rather than physiological incapacity in control of the muscles, it might not indeed have helped a few people. This wouldn’t make Desiderius as reported a misunderstood alternative practitioner, of course; describing your powers as coming from having a local-rate line to Peter and Paul would probably be vulnerable to disproof even in an English libel court. Neither do such methods stand much chance of curing blindness, I’d have imagined… But if he had somehow picked up the idea that traction did some people some good, and even some kind of instruction in how to do it (from a doctor from overseas, perhaps, if the Bordeaux mention isn’t a red herring5), it’s interesting to see how he seems to have tried and put this unusual knowledge to use, interesting and weirdly familiar. Today, of course, he’d have a Youtube channel and several books out. Perhaps Gregory would have had similar views on some of our sketchier practitioners of alternative therapies today if he could see them…


1. Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1974, many reprints).

2. Ibid. IX.6.

3. The Latin can be found in Bruno Krusch & Wilhelm Levison (edd.), Gregorii Episcopi Turonensis Libri Historiarum X, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) I.1 (Hannover 1951).

4. Cf. Robert I. Moore, The Birth of Popular Heresy (London 1975), repr. Medieval Academuy Reprints for Teaching 33 (Toronto 1995), pp. 33-60, for Henry and his doctrines, lots more developed than this character’s but not without resemblances of technique.

5. I left a footnote here in the first version of the blog post with no indication to myself, fourteen months down the line, what I thought should go here. Something about the Bordeaux of Gregory’s era? Well, perhaps but nothing springs to mind… However, a poke at the Regesta Imperii OPAC produces two suggestions: Hagith Sivan. “Town and country in late antique Gaul: the example of Bordeaux” in John Drinkwater & Hugh Elton (edd.), Fifth-century Gaul: a crisis of identity? (Cambridge 1992), pp. 132-143 or the more substantial but possibly no more informative Charles Higounet (ed.), Bordeaux pendant le haut moyen âge, edd. Jacques Gardelle & Jean Lafaurie, Histoire de Bordeaux 2 (Bordeaux 1962). I’ve never seen either of these so I’m afraid you takes your chances…