Seeing With New Eyes: Rediscovering Medieval Manuscripts in a Digital Age


Several times over the past 30 years, I’ve consulted a mid-13th-century manuscript in the New York Academy of Medicine’s holdings. This large, 94-leaf, handsomely bound volume was formative to my training as a historian of medieval medical history, having been the first “real” manuscript I examined when I was beginning my researches on the so-called Trotula texts in the early 1980s.

Like most scholars who study the history of intellectual traditions, my eyes were on my immediate object of study—in this case, a 12th-century compendium of texts on women’s medicine and cosmetics. My peripheral vision went no further than the other texts on women’s medicine that surrounded it in the manuscript. These were certainly enthralling: they included one of only two known copies of the Gynecology of the 4th-century writer, Caelius Aurelianus. But the other contents of the manuscript, let alone its structure as a whole, were all but invisible to me.

I did come back, many years later, with some questions about one of the surgical texts in the volume.  This was the visually stunning (and rightly famous) Surgery of the early 11th-century Cordoban physician, Abu al-Qasim Khalaf ibn ‘Abbas al-Zahrawi, whose work had been translated from Arabic into Latin in Toledo.  But the NYAM manuscript was not a unique copy (al-Zahrawi’s work exists in some 33 extant Latin manuscripts), and so—my questions quickly answered—I moved on again.

But my attention was brought back to the NYAM volume again last year, because of some questions being raised by a new project.  Two problems seemed to revolve around each other:  why was there a 50-year gap between when the Arabic-into-Latin translator Gerard of Cremona died in 1187 (he was the one who had translated al-Zahrawi) and when his texts first started to be regularly used and cited?  And, secondly, why did so many copies of these works, once they did appear, seem (a) to cluster around Paris and (b) show a level of magnificence in decoration that most medical texts had never previously enjoyed?

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