Unexpected Notes on Syphilis

One of the more pleasant surprises when cataloguing rare books is finding a note or comment that gives some insight into the thoughts of the owner of a book. Even better when the note still has some relevance to current research.

While cataloguing the many rare books on syphilis collected by Dr William Hunter I discovered a note more noteworthy than most in a copy of Nicola Massa’s Liber de Morbo Gallico (Sp Coll Hunterian Ab.6.31). With the help of staff members of Special Collections I was able to confirm that this note was in William Hunter’s hand.

Note from Sp Coll Hunterian Ab.6.31 facing title page.

A note by Dr Hunter querying the claimed publication date of an edition of Nicola Massa: Liber de morbo Gallico, Venice : July 1507[i.e. 1527].

The publication details of this work are noted in the colophon printed on its last page, which state it was printed in Venice in 1507 by Francesco Bindoni and  Maffeo Pasini. Hunter’s quote questioning this reads:

This edition of Massa was printed 25 years before what Astruc supposes to have been the first edition of the book: and carries Massa upwards in the catalogue of venereal disease writers from 1532 to 1507. Yet I think there must be an error in the date of this edition: for in the 4th chap. he tells us of a venereal body which he dissected An. 1524; and he hears of guaiacum, which was not known in Italy till 1517. J. Astruc Vol. 1 p. 144.

Taking my lead from Dr Hunter I set about finding out what I could about this disputed publication information.

While few of us can claim the in-depth knowledge of the early works on syphilis possessed by Dr Hunter, we do have access to contemporary tools which would be the envy of any 18th century scholar. In this case, one of the first ports of call for any query relating to publisher activity is the Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL) Thesaurus. From their own description:

The CERL Thesaurus File is a unique facility developed to address the particularly European issue that place name and personal names in Europe varied from country to country in the period of hand press printing (1450 – c. 1830). As such, it is an essential research tool for scholars and researchers of the period.

The CERL Thesaurus file contains forms of imprint places, imprint names, personal names and corporate names as found in material printed before the middle of the nineteenth century – including variant spellings, forms in Latin and other languages, and fictitious names.

As a first step to debunking the 1507 publication date we can determine from CERL whether of not these printers were actually operating in Venice at the time of publication. Sure enough, CERL records support Hunter’s claims by showing that neither Francesco Bindoni (fl. 1523-1557) or Maffeo Pasini (fl. 1524-1551) were active in Venice in 1507. This places the claimed publication date of 1507 firmly in the ‘very probably didn’t happen but we’ll have to check a bit more just to be sure’ category. What Hunter had deduced using his intellect and subject knowledge, we were able to confirm with a database search.

Now at this point we could simply quote the publication details from the colophon, mention and transcribe Hunter’s note, confirm his supposition with contemporary information and leave the publication date with a question mark (i.e. 15??, in this case). Certainly, in terms of time and resource management within a short-term cataloguing project, it would be hard to justify much more time being devoted to the cataloguing of this one book from ca. 250.

However, still being intrigued, I decided to try one last (very quick and simple) search and typed ‘Liber de Morbo Gallico’ into the Library article search service, to see if anyone else besides Dr Hunter had queried this publication date…

Hello! Quite possibly the most relevant top three results of any search ever performed.

As far as articles on the publication of early works on syphilis go, Peter Krivatsy’s is up there with the best.

In this excellent 1974 article Peter Krivatsy identifies not only the three other copies of this work known to him, but another claiming to be printed in 1507 in Parma by printers Ugoletto and Viotti. He was able to commission and receive photographs of the colophons of these various works and, through some sterling detective work, pin down the publication date to 1527. This date is still five years earlier than the previously accepted first appearance for this text.

Dr Hunter delivered a paper to the Royal College of Surgeons on December 14th 1775 on the Origins of Lues Venerea (the documents relating to this are worthy of a blog post themselves). Specifically he questioned the established thinking of the time on the of the origin of the disease. It is an easy step to assume that his note on the publication date of Massa’s Liber de Morbo Gallicus was written while researching this paper and attempting to establish a timeline of reporting of the disease.

Two centuries apart, two scholars ask the same question relating to the publication of the same work.


We will be hosting a workshop on the afternoon of January 27th 2015 to raise awareness of this newly discovered collection. Our speakers will be University of Glasgow’s Professor Samuel Cohn and Dr. David Shuttleton, and our guest from Manchester University Dr. Noelle Dückmann Gallagher. We will have items of note from the collection displayed and will launch our new website teaching resource.

This post appears as part of a Wellcome Trust funded project to have ca. 250 rare books on syphilis held in Special Collections catalogued to international standards, in order to aid academic research.

If you would like to know more about the project, or are interested in taking part in our upcoming event, just get in touch (sonny.maley[at]glasgow.ac.uk). There will be further blog posts on the progress of the project over the festive period.

Categories: Library, Special Collections

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1 reply

  1. Reblogged this on Basta! and commented:
    Sobre livros!

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