In the Late Middle Ages, man saw himself surrounded by an earthly world in which material structures were described by Empedocles' theory of the four elements, fire, air, water and earth, the ingredients of which all matter was composed. Even the human body was seen in this context with the exception that in this case, the four elements were represented by the four fluids of the body according to Hippocrates.
The theory of the four elements could nearly be applied to everything and also to natural phenomena, such as the four seasons, the colour spectrum as well as the prescription of remedies made from plants or from minerals. In the medieval mind, man is determined by cosmic forces, both in terms of character and health.
Starting with the climate with its seasonal variations governed by the sun's position in relation to the constellations, to the importance attributed to various days of the month according to the phases of the moon, all this becomes evident in the moment of birth when the prominent constellation, the planet governing the day and not least the relevant phase of the moon determine both character and destiny of the new born.
A Medical Book
This very complex action of the stars was difficult to understand and was even taught in the framework of university studies as an independent subject.
However, this complexity also fostered lay astrology, which as a counterpart to expensive calculation tables handed down its know-how to non-specialists in an easily comprehensible manner. On the Influence of the Stars is a resume of such texts written by lay astrologists.
The work guides the head of the household through the climatic variations of the seasons of the year, teaches him the benefits of a hot bath, lets him know when he or his family should be bled, when to administer laxative drinks or when to give enemas and, last but not least, warns him of the horrible consequences of bloodletting done at the wrong moment.
A main feature of the book are the planets which are said to govern certain hours of the day. Their position, orbit and arrangement in relation to one another as well as to the signs of the Zodiac characterise macroscopic connections which were thought to influence earthly matters.
They determine the weather, the seasons, special days and hours; they have an effect on diverse events, on every temporal thing, thus exerting an influence on man himself.
Character, destiny and life expectancy of the individual are all determined by the stars and the planets; they also influence the development of an illness and any doctor will take their position into account when administering a treatment.
Such a compendium is called an "Iatromathematical House-book". Our work, the Codex Schürstab carries the name of the person who commissioned it, a patrician from Nuremberg.
It occupies an important place in ancient German collections as it is a unique and unsurpassed example of this book genre which by its balanced decoration still conveys some of the harmony of the medieval view of the world.
A Wealth of Useful Information
Copied by two later scribes, the manuscript starts with genealogical tables regarding the Schürstab dynasty. They are followed by tables indicating the calculation of certain lunar and feast days, completed by a calendar containing the monthly rules.
Thereafter follow the constellations in twelve exhaustive, charmingly illustrated chapters.
In the second portion, subjects range from wandering stars and predictions for the New Year to planets which rule the hours as well as descriptions of the upper spheres, and most important, a theory of the planets composed of various types of text.
A third part refers to the different temperaments, including a vivid description, which is illustrated by miniatures, of behaviour and characteristics associated with the four humours that have been known since Antiquity and were still current in the Middle Ages (choleric, phlegmatic, sanguine or melancholic).
One concluding range of subjects deals in particular with health rules, treating medical aspects such as bloodletting as well as steam baths and cupping, and last but not least air and air pollution.
The work then continues with psychotherapeutic advice. It concludes with a number of recipes and tables for the calculation of feast days as well as for the determination of the planets governing certain hours.
The 54 Miniatures
The medieval vision of the world was a very closed and harmonic one, a feature which is also indicated in the open-mindedness of its various miniatures. The 54 miniatures betray an able artist's hand and are, technically speaking, state-of-the-art medieval book illumination.
These true gems of illumination were carried out using the most noble pigments and shimmering gold leaf. Although relying on traditional motives, the artist used his own style and variations for the decoration of the book.
He certainly combines Gothic realism with ancient German truthfulness, while also referring to the serenity of the late medieval bourgeoisie. He appears as a sharp and open-minded character with a great delight in observation for the medieval world around him.