Glasgow Incunabula Project update (5/9/13)

Three editions of a work on surgery by the fifteenth-century Italian Petrus (or Pietro) de Argellata (d. 1423) are found in this batch. Although relatively little is known about him, Argellata was a distinguished surgeon in his day; a pupil of Guy de Chauliac, he was Chair of Logic, Astrology and Medicine at the University of Bologna and seems to be chiefly remembered for performing a post mortem on and then embalming the body of Pope Alexander V in 1415*.

Title-page of 1497/98 edition

Title-page of 1497/98 edition

Opening page of 1492 edition with annotations in Latin

Opening page of 1492 edition with annotations in Latin

The first printed edition of Argellata’s Chirurgia appeared in Venice in 1480, produced by Benedictus Genuensis  (Sp Coll Hunterian Bh.1.11). Subsequent editions were all produced in Venice: some twelve years later in 1492 by an unknown printer who is simply referred to as the  “Printer of Argellata” (Sp Coll Hunterian By.2.2); in 1497/8 (Sp Coll Hunterian X.2.15); and in 1499 (not in Special Collections). The work was evidently popular enough to warrant at least four further printings in the first half of  the 16th century.

Like many medical writings of the Middle Ages, the Chirurgia is largely derivative, drawing on earlier sources such as Avicenna, Galen and (perhaps not unsurprisingly since he was Argellata’s teacher) Guy de Chauliac. Although Argellata does not actually seem to have attracted a great deal of attention from medical historians, Riesman gives a rather damning appraisal of him, saying he:

 … deserves a few words because he was the first, since the days of the Greeks, who practised operative obstetrics; otherwise he was reactionary and timid, refraining from interfering with nature and treating head injuries with a dusting powder and the Lord’s Prayer.**

To be fair, Russell praises his work for being more practical than its predecessors, and even says the section on nerves is of “extreme interest” since he discusses the effects of injury to nerves (he does then go on to say, however, that Argellata, confuses nerves and tendons).

Annotated table of contents of 1480 edition

Annotated table of contents of 1480 edition

Whatever the merits of the work by modern standards, the evidence of annotations in our books suggests that earlier readers appreciated it as a practical treatise. Foliation is added in two copies to help speedy access to relevant sections, and all are annotated in a variety of hands. Our copy of the 1492 edition bears the most marginalia, with a mix of 16th and 17th century annotations in English and Latin.

English annotation in 1492 edition

English annotation in 1492 edition

All three books are from the library of William Hunter (1718-1783); as has been mentioned previously, as a physician and anatomist, Hunter was particularly interested in collecting medical works. Unfortunately, we do not have any further information on how Hunter acquired any of these books, or who may have originally owned them – although there is a 16th/17th ownership inscription of a John Godrey in our copy of the 1497/98 edition.

*The most detailed article I found on Argellata: K. F. Russell The Cirurgia of Pietro d’Argellata (Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery, Volume 21, Issue 3, pages 231–232, February 1952)
** David Rieseman: The story of medicine in the Middle Ages (New York: Hoeber, 1936), p. 215.

The latest ten records to be found on the project website are:



Categories: Special Collections

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