Glasgow Incunabula Project update (25/11/13)

The first printed edition of De Medicina by Celsus is featured in this clutch of books.

This was a standard medical textbook in the Middle Ages – we already have three other incunabula editions of the work described by the project. All these books are from William Hunter’s library, who  – as we have discussed previously – had a professional interest in collecting medical related material.

Decorated page from Celsus: De Medicina

Decorated page from Celsus: De Medicina

Printed in Florence in 1478, our copy of this first edition includes a nicely decorated page at the beginning of the main body of the text. Although this leaf has unfortunately been damaged at some point in its history, it is still possible to appreciate its former splendour. As well as a fine floral border that incorporates roses, strawberries and blackberries, it features a lovely historiated and illuminated initial “U”. Depicted is a seated physician, dressed in a pink robe and cap and holding aloft a urine flask.

Historiated initial "U"

Historiated initial “U”

Initial from MS Hunter 32

Initial from MS Hunter 32

Studying urine (uroscopy) was, of course, a standard diagnostic tool in the medieval period, and there are numerous examples of historiated initials showing doctors peering at glass vessels holding dubious coloured liquids (see, for example, our MS Hunter 32, a 14th century compilation of medical works).

I was particularly excited to see this illustration because initially I thought it showed a black physician. Images of black figures in medieval miniatures are fairly uncommon, so this would be unusual in the standard iconography (one exception to this is in the depiction of the magi in nativity sequences, where a black king is often featured).

However, our conservator examined the initial closely under a microscope and concluded that the colouring is probably the result of tarnishing.

Detail of figure

Detail of figure examined under microscope

There is a matt appearance to the pigment found on the face in comparison to the black hair and the edging on the belt. This is possibly the result of the use of white lead, which can tarnish when exposed to hydrogen sulphide (a gas produced by coal fires). However, it is odd that there are no discernable details to be seen on the face when there has obviously been a conscious effort to provide details of the hair by adding single strokes of colour. So another possibility is that the features have been deliberately defaced and obliterated. We would like to try and find out more about this.

In the lower margin of the decorative scheme is an unidentified coat of arms, incorporating a now almost illegible symbol (perhaps two griffins) together with traces of what might be the letter “P”. This may well be a clue regarding the identity of the book’s original owner and, as usual, if this means anything to you, we would be delighted to hear from you.

Unidentified coat of arms

Unidentified coat of arms

Two other books in this batch include difficult inscriptions that we would appreciate help with in trying to decipher.

The first is a monastic ownership inscription relating to the Augustinians, possibly of Saint Salvator, Venice. This is found in the Ethica ad Nicomachum of Aristotle [Bologna: Ugo Rugerius?, ca. 1475]:

Partially read Augustinian ownership inscription

Our reading so far is: “Iste liber est mon[aster]ij s[anc]tj [word largely erased – Salvatoris(?)] d[e] ven[etiis]. Cuius vsus erat [unread abbreviations] flor / d[e] ven[etiis]”. What do you think?

Plant name "borage" given in English

Plant name “borage” given in English

Our copy of the Louvain 1474 edition of Crescentiis’ Ruralia commoda, meanwhile, includes a heavily washed out and partially deleted 16th century ownership inscription, which is possibly English. Under UV-light, this inscription seems to read “Anno d[omi]ni 1560 inductus fui in vicariam de Regati”. Could this relate to Reigate in Surrey? An English provenance is supported by the fact that in book six many of the printed Latin names for plants have their English equivalent added in a 16th-century hand.

Finally, from this same book: since it is now a month to Christmas, something to start getting us into the festive spirit. At the end of the section on trees, a 15th/16th century annotater has written in the first two verses of the Christmas hymn “Psallimus cantantes Domino nova cantica dantes”:

Beginning of Christmas hymn

Beginning of Christmas hymn

This Latin chant may be found in its entirety in  Songs and Carols Now First Printed, From a Manuscript of the Fifteenth Century (Thomas Wright, The Percy Society, 1847).

Details of the following ten books have now been added and indexed on the project website:



Categories: Special Collections

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