The Viennese manuscript of Medicina Antiqua, is one of the most significant manuscripts of its kind, not least for its precious illustration, a comprehensive medical and pharmaceutical manuscript in Latin, produced in the 1st half of the 13th century in Southern Italy, possibly in the environment of the Staufer court. The various texts whose authors cannot be traced, neither in biography nor even by name, go back to Late Antiquity, to the 4th or 5th century.
This manuscript thus presents a testimony to the extremely popular reception of classical medical conceptions in the Middle Ages and in Modern Times. The celebrity of this codex is due to the countless images of plants and animals and the sheer wealth of therapeutic scenes and depictions of physicians.
All illustrations go back to classical models and are executed in bright opaque colours. Besides them, almost each page contains feather drawings that were added some fifty years later and guide the visitor directly to the surgery of a medieval physician. It is a contemporary pictorial commentary with spontaneous, expressive illustrations to lend the codex a very special charm.
A Magnificent Testimony to the Reception of Classical Knowledge in the Middle Ages
The authors, or more correctly, compilers, refer more or less plainly, directly or indirectly, to classical standard works, such as the Materia Medica by Dioscorides, a well-known Greek botanist and physician of the 1st century, and to the Natural History of Pliny the Elder.
The text is much damaged in some parts, as certain passages and depiction's were offensive to later Christian readers who tried to erase even the most minor trace of pagan elements from the manuscript. Thus, the prayers to Dea Sancta Tellus, the Holy Mother Earth, and a prayer to the plants incurred the displeasure of Christian readers so that texts were spoilt by rubbing.
The female Tellus had to undergo sex modification and was changed to a Father God, as the text of this prayer was not only rubbed out in places, but also re-or overwritten. Furthermore, representations of Phalloi have been rubbed out in many places throughout the manuscript.
The feather drawings, the most recent element added to the opaque colour paintings, fascinate by their coarse realism, often on the verge of caricature; the artist must in any case have been very familiar with the running of a medieval physician’s surgery.
A Medical Reference Book for Daily Use
Materia Medica were intended for laymen and - utterly sceptical of the medical profession and its integrity - recommended self-medication. The general orientation of the work is thus not primarily scientific, even by the standards of this period.
The individual texts were more nourished by magical ideas than by scientific theory (although the authors just as gladly referred to contemporary medical literature and accepted popular medical knowledge).
A True Treasure-trove for Medical Historians
The continuing popularity of this comprehensive pharmaceutical volume seems to be due to a wide range of reasons. The Viennese manuscript, richly illustrated with both paintings and drawings, not only presents a truly precious object for research into the history of art but also an invaluable source for the history of medicine.
Last but not least its miniatures provide interesting details on medieval clothing, furniture and therapeutic instruments. The fact that this work is also often consulted by laymen may also be due to Pliny the Elder’s insulting of physicians, whom he said should never be trusted, and the consequent praise of self-medication, or else to the wealth of magical conceptions it contains, thus underlining the miraculous aspect of any healing process.