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Medical Texts of Ireland 1350–1650

We are currently seeking private or corporate funding for our Irish Medical Texts project.

The corpus of Irish medical literature comprises over a hundred manuscripts written in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance, in Early Modern Irish. Most of them are kept in Irish and Scottish libraries. Many have never been edited, let alone translated. In the 21st century, the secrets of their Materia Medica are still hidden away unexamined on library shelves. Ireland and Scotland are nearly unique, having vernacular translations of the major medical corpora, corpora which were studied at the centre of medical scholarship, in the great universities of Europe, before they were brought to Ireland, and scrutinised by Irish physicians.

Read an extract from the history of medicine and medical doctors in Ireland from Patrick Weston Joyce's Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland.

The Irish manuscripts bear witness to the medical practice of physicians in Ireland and Scotland, with Early Modern Irish as their medium. They allow fascinating insights into the history of medicine and health, the families, schools, practice and patients of the hereditary physicians. The manuscripts contain a great wealth of knowledge on herbalism, pharmacy, and folklore. They are a mine of information as regards philology, linguistics, lexicography, and related areas. Winifred Wulff was one of the few scholars who made that area her own.

In 1929, she compiled a list of unpublished Irish medical manuscripts and their contents which is reproduced here.

As she remarked, her 1929 edition of the medical tract Rosa Anglica, translated into English by her here, was representative of a vast body of manuscript material hitherto practically uninvestigated, which contains great resources in scientific and medical terminology and expression. This is still true today, as we realise more and more that herbal medicine can only benefit from unveiling the secrets of our elders.

Winifred Wulff also edited the following texts which are now available on CELT:

A Tract on the Plague; De Amore Hereos; Contra Incantationes; Three medical fragments; On Wounds; A mediaeval handbook of gynaecology and midwifery [...] (Irish text); A mediaeval handbook of gynaecology and midwifery [...] (Latin text). The latter two contain material that has become famous in Medieval Europe under the name of (the) Trotula. Here is a concise summary by Professor Monica H. Green, the authority on this subject, on who or what the Trotula was.  Here is another summary that describes the content of the Trotula texts, and puts the Irish version into its context.

Another scholar who took up the challenge of editing an Irish medical manuscript was James Carney (Séamus Ó Ceithearnaigh) who came from a medical family himself. He published an Irish version of the Regimen Sanitatis in three parts: volume I, volume II, and volume III.

CELT has been digitising and publishing Ireland's historical and literary heritage on the web since 1996. Our expertise in this area is second to none in Ireland. Our searchable Text Corpus contains over 16 million words of text in scholarly editions, mostly from mediaeval and early modern Ireland. To the chosen texts, we apply deep-level XML markup conformant to the rigorous academic guidelines of the TEI, guaranteeing the highest standard of content delivery.

We have patiently developed our infrastructure to include both source material in the best editions, from which electronic texts are created, and tools for text interrogation. Our aim is to make CELT a sophisticated, searchable and comprehensive Irish Text Corpus. It is crucial that such a Corpus contain materials from the widest possible range of genres, including hitherto neglected materials of Irish medicine and materia medica. Adding a selection of these materials opens them to research, attracts scholarly interest, and fits excellently into the existing infrastructure of CELT and ISOS (see below).

Only a few of the over a hundred medical texts in Early Modern Irish, written c. 1400–1650, have ever been edited. At present, to our knowledge Professor Aoibheann Nic Dhonnchadha at the School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) is the only Irish philologist working in this field. She is researching professional Irish medicine and the learned families of hereditary physicians (see her article Medical Writing in Irish). The Irish Script on Screen (ISOS) Project at the DIAS has digital images of manuscripts from TCD's Medical Collection, as well as manuscripts from the Royal Irish Academy and the National Library of Ireland available online, at http://www.isos.ie/. The corresponding catalogue at the School of Celtic Studies is nearing completion. Users may register to view the high resolution images.

Despite the high image quality, at present the manuscripts are only readable for those with a background in palaeography, in spite of considerable interest from the public. In our view, the time has come for a collaborative project, which would create significant synergies for both partners, complement the ISOS images, and invite pharmacists and herbalists to examine what the old texts teach. The manuscript images will come to life again once we discover what the tracts say about health in Renaissance Ireland. This fascinating area can enhance our knowledge about the interaction of native with European medical literature. It deserves far more attention than it has hitherto received.

To overcome a shortage of researchers in this area, CELT is developing a network of suitable collaborators. We are liaising with Professor Nic Dhonnchadha in CELT's recent editions of the Rosa Anglica, the Regimen Sanitatis, the Regimen na Sláinte I, Regimen na Sláinte II, Regimen na Sláinte III, and the Irish Astronomical Tract. and are lucky to have her advice and unrivalled expertise in this area.

Editions would in the first instance include material from printed editions, where copyright is expired, accompanied by translations and bibliographies, to serve as base for the medical glossaries which will be a prerequisite for a systematic overview of medical terminology in the vernacular. This will complement recent developments in digital Irish Lexicography. The glossary will then be used in editing short manuscripts after they have been transcribed. The transcriptions can be made from the ISOS images, and/or in situ. For encoding, the TEI extensions.dtd for transcripts and text-critical tags can be used. Tagging at manuscript level allows us to pass directly from MSS to digital delivery.

In a small country such as Ireland, collaboration between those involved in promoting this country's cultural heritage is vital. We hope to promote interest in researching the history of native Gaelic medicine and Gaelic hereditary physicians, how they received and adapted their knowledge, developed their medical terminology, early modern pharmacy, herbalism, philology and linguistics. There is also important information to be gleaned about the reception of standard medical practice from the continent. This whole complex is very rich, but little known, and opening it up to scholars, students, and to the general public promises exciting discoveries.

University College Cork

Compiled by Beatrix Färber

© 2007–2014 Corpus of Electronic Texts
Email CELT: b.faerber(at)ucc.ie

University College Cork