Codex Mustelae: A Late 14th Century Physician's Girdle Book

Codex Mustelae is my project to produce a book that may have been owned and used by a physician living in Ireland in the late 14th or early 15th century. Codex is the technical term for a medieval book; handwritten, usually on parchment, and bound along one edge. Many medieval books are named after this fashion, e.g. Riesencodex, Florentine Codex, Codex Argenteus, etc. As to mustelae, that's an inside joke. Codex Mustelae (CM) is in progress; this page was last updated on 5 October 2021.

Goals

Historical Context

I started by researching the time and place in which I wanted to make my book. Academic papers about manuscripts often discuss the lives of the scribes, and the purposes and economy of bookmaking. This helped put me in the proper mindset to make informed creative decisions. The Book of Ballymote (Royal Irish Academy MS 23 P 12), an Irish manuscript created in the late 14th or early 15th century, was the main focus of my research. Pádraig Ó Macháin has published a very informative paper on its particular context.

In the 14th century, large parts of Europe had a flourishing secular book trade that supported a class of professional scribes. This was not so in Ireland, where educated professionals such as doctors and lawyers produced books for themselves, accumulating libraries for the family trade over generations. Apprentice lawyers were required to copy the law as part of their training. These were not the illuminated manuscripts, but practical texts, with little or no decoration.

I was also inspired by other SCA projects, namely a girdle book that was gifted to one of my friends at her elevation to the Order of the Laurel. A girdle book is a small book bound in such a way as to allow it to be hung from the belt; these were popular among traveling clergy and lawyers who needed to have a book conveniently at hand, and among lay women who wanted to carry a personal prayer book such as a Book of Hours. Unfortunately very few girdle books survive, and of these none contain medical information. There are surviving examples of vade mecum (Latin for 'go with me') and foldable almanacs which allowed doctors to carry around helpful medical information, along with small and easily portable codices that contain detailed medical texts. Therefore this combination, i.e. a girdle book containing an extended medical text, is speculative.

A girdle book containing the Confessio Amantis of John Gower.
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

The Text

Meddygon Myddfai (The Physicians of Myddfai) is found in the Red Book of Hergest (Jesus College MS 111). It is a collection of herbal remedies and other medical advice attributed to a family of physicians from Myddfai, Wales. Written originally in Welsh, it combines Celtic medical traditions with those found in the wider medieval world. The Welsh and Irish both imported the larger part of their medical learning from the same Greco-Arabic tradition that served the rest of medieval Europe. I selected this text for its content, length (At the beginning of the project I calculated ~185 pages when fully written down) and time period (the Red Book dates from the 1380s). I am transcribing from an 1861 translation which is free to read on Google Books.

The Script

I accessed high-resolution images of Irish manuscripts at Irish Script on Screen. Zooming in on any of them is practically like holding the actual book up to your nose. I chose the Book of Ballymote as my primary exemplar and sometimes referenced other 14th-15th century MSS, such as the law text mentioned above.
Irish Script on Screen.

The hand in the Book of Ballymote, and the most common Irish book hand at the time, is an Insular Miniscule. Professor Juan José Marcos' Manual of Latin Paleography breaks down the characteristics of this hand and helped me learn more about it. As to the particulars of the 14th century script, Tomás Ó Concheanainn says in 'The Scribe of the Leabhar Breac': "One of the most distinctive characteristics of the script of LB is the bold style of the serifs ... [earlier manuscripts] having none, or little, of the stiff angular thickening of the tops of letters, which so distinctly mark [the Leabhar Breac and Book of Ballymote]." Even without a scholarly analysis like this it is possible to analyze a manuscript by comparing a number of different images from different times and places. Much of my investigation into the script of BB was trial and error with my own pen.

Insular Letterforms. Notice the interesting shapes of ⟨g⟩, ⟨r⟩ and ⟨s⟩.
The Irish in Early Medieval Europe: Identity, Culture and Religion. Ed. Roy Flechner & Sven Meeder. Google Books preview.

Medieval manuscripts often display multiple shapes for one letter. The Book of Ballymote has two different forms of ⟨r⟩, and tall and short versions of ⟨e⟩. Letter ⟨i⟩ is only dotted when it appears next to ⟨u⟩; this is because ⟨ii⟩ and ⟨u⟩ look very similar and might get confused. I have made the purely artistic decision to import thorn ⟨þ⟩ and wynn ⟨ƿ⟩ from English varieties of the Insular script; these are unnecessary in Irish as they represent the English /th/ and /w/ phonemes. As far as I can tell, BB does not capitalize names, but does capitalize the beginning of a sentence. Medieval scribes were also fond of abbreviations, both because writing was laborious and because parchment was expensive. Often an abbreviation is marked with a line above, called a 'suspension stroke'. In order to decipher these and find more to use I referenced Tionscadal na Nod.

A heavily abbreviated line from the Book of Ballymote. Notice the tittle on 'vi' and the long ⟨e⟩ in 'veniet'.
"[iohannem] baptistam .vi. a iohanne usque ad iudicium in quo dominus noster veniet iudicare..."
[John the] Baptist. 6. From John to the Judgement, at which Our Lord will come to judge...
Irish Script on Screen.

The Decoration

At the beginning of De Dosibus Medicinarum, the second text in CM, I decided to start adding decorated initials to the major section headings. These are based primarily on the Book of Ballymote. An extant copy of De Dosibus with decorated initials can be found in Royal Irish Academy MS 24 B 3.

Zoomorphic capital F from the Book of Ballymote.
Irish Script on Screen.
Zoomorphic capital M and decorated text from the Book of Ballymote.
Irish Script on Screen.
Dicto de medicinis ev[acuantibus]...
Having spoken about the medicines [which purge]...
Decorated section heading from an Irish collection of medical treatises.
Royal Irish Academy MS 24 B 3, pg. 23. Irish Script on Screen.

The Page

In the medieval manuscript, modern formatting is never guaranteed. Things like punctuation and paragraph spacing may or may not have existed in any given time or place. The methods of dividing up sections or highlighting important information varied as well. When you don't read the original language, it can be difficult to figure out what kind of punctuation or section breaks are used in the original text, since modern translations often have these added for the reader's convenience. My edition of Meddygon Myddvai does provide the original Welsh for comparison to the Red Book, and it appears that very little sectioning was used. But then, the Red Book is not at all a portable object. In fact, Daniel Huws, an expert on Welsh manuscripts, calls it "by far the heaviest of the medieval books in Welsh, the largest in its dimensions". Were I a 14th century physician, I would hate to make myself a portable book, only to leave a patient lying around waiting for me to find the right information. Therefore I reference the sectioning from BB. As far as I can tell, at the beginning of a section, the capital overhangs the margin of the page. Sometimes, a capital is colored in with red or yellow pigment. I use this at the beginning of each remedy in CM. Each section ends with a ceann faoi eite, a piece of punctuation used for saving space. It marks the end of a section, and the continuation of the text from the line below, i.e. the next section, on the remainder of the line. It can be disorienting to try to read in this order at first, but I had to get used to it quickly. I leave myself wide margins, as are seen in many period manuscripts. Medieval scholars were fond of writing notes to themselves.

Hanging capitals in the Book of Ballymote.
Irish Script on Screen.

The Size

While putting the manuscript together I began to get curious about the page count of similarly sized manuscripts. I have made note of manuscripts from several centuries in the British Isles which fit my informal idea of 'small books'. Manuscript historians usually make this count in folios that is physical sheets rather than text pages. In modern page numbering we count the front and back of the same sheet as two 'pages' while a manuscript historian would count this as one folio.

BookOriginCenturyContentDimensions (mm)Folios
Jesus College MS 22Wales15thmedical texts135x8581
Royal Irish Academy MS 24 B 3Ireland15th/16thmedical texts216x13364
St. Cuthbert's GospelBritain8thGospel book138x9294
Book of DimmaIreland8thGospel book175x14274
Codex MustelaeSCA21stmedical texts178x13378

CM is about the middle of the pack among these manuscripts, which represent book production both before and after the goal date for CM.

Materials & Methods

Medieval scribes often ruled their pages by using a knifepoint or awl to make small pricks through multiple pages at a time. These could then be connected using a dry point (scoring the writing surface), lead, or ink. I prick through several pages at a time and rule between with a thin mechanical pencil. Rulings are visible on medieval manuscripts even today, so I do not plan to erase the lines.

Lines and pinpricks still visible in the Book of Ballymote.
Irish Script on Screen.

Medievan European books were written on parchment, that is, the skin from some large domestic animal that has undergone intense processing. Parchment was expensive to produce in the medieval period, and, since we have moved onto paper, parchment is not cheap today either. Rather than shell out for actual parchment, I have opted for Speedball Calligraphy Parchment, which was given to me by a friend. I do not vouch for its resemblance to actual parchment, but I was very grateful for the gift. In the future I would like to work with pergamenata, a modern writing surface which more closely resembles high-grade parchment.

Medieval ink recipes are often quite acidic; this was helpful to the scribes, because it allowed the ink to set in the not-very-absorbent parchment. This is not necessary with paper. Additionally, medieval inks can corrode modern metal pen nibs. (Someday I'll get good enough at cutting quills that I can use them for extended calligraphy.) For these reasons and for its ease of availability, I have opted for india ink, which can be gotten at most large craft stores. For the few red highlights I use gouache, a kind of watercolor paint which is the recommended pigment for award scrolls in the SCA.

The dimensions of one page of Codex Mustelae are as follows:

Doing the work

Notes made during the creation of the Codex.

The work so far

Folio 24r, lines 8-12, showing several period abbreviations used in the text and the ceann faoi eite, a piece of punctuation used for saving space. It marks the end of a section and the continuation of the text from the line below. Ruling and pinpricks are also visible.
...eruptions palsy and many other things.
From the condition of a mans urine may be determined his defects dangers fevers and diseases whether he be present...

Folio 24r, lines 14-16, showing period abbreviations for 'con', 'si', 'tio', along with my innovated abbreviations for 'the' and 'urine' (a word repeated quite often in this section on uroscopy). The Roman numeral 'iv' is also included.
...first show what is the composition of the urine. It contains 4 radical elements. First the humor of the...

Folio 20r, showing the way the manuscript is sectioned.
Extreme thirst...
Smallpox...
Surfeit...
Burn or scald...
Retention of urine...
Bite of an adder...
Vomiting of blood...

I have digitized the most recent (at time of writing) gathering, folios 16 to 24.
Click on a link to see full-sized images. Opens a link in a new tab.

About the Scribe

Túathal na Coilleadh is a 14th century Irish persona from the Midrealm, Society for Creative Anachronism. He has been awarded the Gilded Reed of the Middle Marches by Their Excellencies Talymar and Melisande, for his scribal work for the Barony. Outside of the SCA he teaches English, writes fiction, and improves on his constructed language. He can be contacted via:
Email: bdkcorrigan@gmail.com
Instagram: @sylvanauctor
Facebook: brennan.corrigan.50

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