30th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies
Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York City: March 27-28, 2010

Shaun F. D. Hughes, "On the Circulation of Vernacular Medical Texts in Late Medieval and Early Modern Iceland"

There seems to have been little interest in recent years in the medical texts preserved in the medieval Scandinavian languages (for historical overviews see Jón Ólafur Ísberg “Heilbrigðissaga” and Líf og lækningar, Møller-Christensen, Steffensen, Þorkell Arngrímsson [“Inngangur"] — excluded from consideration in this study is the work of Kaiser, Sigurður Samúelsson, Sigurjón Jónsson, Skúli V. Guðjónsson which draws upon literary sources such as the Íslendingasögur). The dominant figure in early Scandinavian medicine is the monk, Henrik Harpestræng (†1244), who is responsible for translating Salernitan medical texts into Danish. His work has been edited by Kristensen, Hauberg Liber Herbarum and Lægebøger. The fragments of Harpestræng’s texts in Swedish (along with miscellaneous other medical material) are edited by Klemming and the Norwegian fragments by Hægstad Gammelnorsk and Eit stykke. The earliest surviving Icelandic medical text is not based on Harpestræng’s work (ed. Konráð Gíslason), but one late 14th century MS is (ed. Kålund Alfræði). Two MSS from the 15th century are claimed to be based on Harpestræng (ed. Kålund Lægebog and ed. Larsen), but the Herbarium in both cases has a different arrangements from Harpestræng’s text and contains much additional material, my hypothesis is that these texts are based on other sources. Since Daems and Keil have shown how portions of Harpestræng’s text circulated in the vernacular in the German speaking lands, it stands to reason that German texts should have circulated in Scandinavia. For example, while MS Thott 249, 8vo does contain a version of Harpestræng’s Herbarium, it opens with a medical text (ed. Hauberg middelalderlig) based on a low German version of the medical text known as the “Bartholomaeus” (ed. Pfeiffer, see also Haupt), another version of which is found in AM 187, 8vo (ed. Såby). Editions of Low German versions of the text have been made by Norrbom and Lindgren, the latter from a MS still in Scandinavia. Furthermore, the MS edited by Larsen contains a version of the “Antidotarium Nicolai” although it is not yet clear if the source was a printed version (editio princeps 1471) or one of the many vernacular versions (Goltz). And if the “Bartholomaeus” was circulating early in Scandinavia, why not the equally popular work by Ortolf von Baierland (ed. Follan, see also Riha) especially since a Low German translation was published in Lübeck in 1483 and Ortolf is the basis for Bartsker’s volume of 1596. In the early modern period material from these vernacular medical texts was copied and excerpted well into the nineteenth century throughout Scandinavia to be collected and published in volumes of charms and related materials such as in the collections by Bang, Lindeholm, Ohrt and Reichborn-Kjennerud. While no similar collection has been made for Iceland my preliminary research suggests that the situation there was no different except that in many cases the names of the original compilers of such material are still recorded.

The fifteenth century was in a sense the Golden Age of vernacular medicine, even though modern histories give the period short shrift. Not only did medical knowledge begin to circulate extensively in the vernaculars of Europe as paper became more available and cheaper than vellum, but also vernacular medical texts were found to be a profitable item for the early printers. Printed books have had an important role in providing the contents for non-literary manuscripts in early modern Iceland, a topic which has been little studied although a start has been made Örn Hrafnkelsson. My contention is that a surprising number of vernacular medical books came to Iceland (among them Bartsker, Hauberg Christiern, Smid) in the late medieval and early modern period and once there continued to influence popular medical writing for many centuries. Parts of Christiern Pedersen’s Lægebog from 1533 are found in Lbs 781, 4to from 1759 (Jakob Sigurðsson) while selections from Henrik Smid’s texts circulated continuously in translation In 1485 the vernacular herbal attributed Johann Wonnecke von Cube was first published. A Low German version appeared 1n 1492. In 1491 this work was expanded and published in two volumes under the title Hortus Sanitatis. A Low German translation was published in two volumes in 1510 and then again in one volume in 1520. A copy of this latter volume came to Iceland sometime around 1550 and was still circulating in Breiðafjörður in 1835, eagerly sought after for the information it contained. In 1553 Eucharius Rösslin the younger produced a German version of the Hortus which went through numerous editions before appearing in 1557 under the name of Adam Lonicer. A copy of one of the many editions of that book (the last was published in 1783) was in Hítardalur in 1651, and no doubt information was culled from it and entered the manuscript tradition.

This paper challenges the traditional interpretation of what is sometimes called the “Catholic Period” of Scandinavian medical history. It agues that rather than being isolated from the rest of Europe, Scandinavia participated in the circulation of medical texts in the vernacular especially those in German as a consequence of its Hansa contacts, and that this circulation was two-way. It asserts that even though Iceland was on the periphery, there was no appreciable lag time between the appearance of texts on the continent, especially printed ones, and their circulation in Iceland. It looks in particular at the continental sources of the non-Harpestræng material in Icelandic medical manuscripts preserved from before 1500 and makes some tentative conclusions about the circulation of this material in the early modern period.


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