CELT Project (MS image source: CPG 359 copyright Uni-Bibl. Heidelberg)
CELT - Corpus of Electronic Texts
Documents of Ireland
Home About News FAQ Published Captured Search Languages Contact Resources People

Medical Texts of Ireland 1350–1606

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

The corpus of Irish medical tracts 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, Scottish and British 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 mainland Europe, before they were brought to Ireland, examined, translated and adapted 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, pharmaceutics, and folklore. They are a mine of information as regards philology, linguistics, lexicography, and related areas.

Among the first scholars to work in that area was Whitley Stokes. In 1900, he edited Three Irish Medical Glossaries, from TCD 1334 (H 3 15), and Manchester, John Rylands University Library, MS Irish 35 (alias Lord Crawford's Manuscript) .

In 1911, the Scottish scholar H. Cameron Gillies edited and translated a Regimen Sanitatis, which was based in part on the Rosa Anglica by John of Gaddesden, from BL, MS Add. 15582. Another manuscript, Dublin, NLI MS G 12, also contains the text, but was not known to Gillies.

Séumas Mac Gairraigh submitted a PhD thesis at Queen's University Belfast in 1922, entitled An Irish medical manuscript of the sixteenth century, containing an edition and translation of TCD MS 1326 (H 3 7) with a table of handwritten medical abbreviations and a glossary, in four volumes, which was never published; and not much is known about the author. This was a huge amount of work undertaken at a time when lexicographical resources were scant, and although there are some errors his supervisors did not notice. It was a pioneeirng and courageous effort to elucidate an elusive and complex topic.

Winifred Wulff (1895–1946) was born in Dundee to German parents. Her father had immigrated to Scotland. As a young woman she started to study medicine, but was prevented from continuing by the onset of a debilitating illness. When staying in a hospital in London, she met a young Irish nurse from Co. Tyrone, whose family was active in the Irish language movement, and after becoming friends with her, she eventually moved in with her family in Dublin. She learned Irish and became one of the few scholars who made the area of Irish medical manuscripts her own. For her edition of the Rosa Anglica she was awarded a Docotral degree.

In 1929, she compiled a list of unpublished Irish medical manuscripts and their contents which is reproduced (with some additions) 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 lost knowledge of our elders.

Winifred Wulff also edited the following medical tracts which are available on CELT:

On Wounds;
A Tract on the Plague;
De Amore Hereos;
Contra Incantationes;
Three medical fragments;
De Febre Efemera nó an Liagh i n-Eirinn i n-allod I;
An Liagh i n-Eirinn i n-allod II;
An Liagh i n-Eirinn i n-allod III & IV: De Febrium Symptomatibus;
On the Qualitees, Maners and Kunnynge of a Surgean (with a Latin version of the original text);
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. You can read more about Winifred Wulff's Life and Work here with some beautiful photos.

Winifred Wulff also inspired another scholar and cataloguer, Lilian Duncan, to edit and translate a Treatise on Fevers, from Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, MS 23 N 16 (MS 443) in 1930.

Another scholar who developed a special interest in the history of pharmacy was Shawn Sheahan. He was born in Ashford, County Limerick, who learned Irish as a young man and then became a pharmacist's apprentice. Later he emigrated to the USA where he qualified as a pharmacist and in 1928 entered George Washington University as part-time student. He published his PhD dissertation (An Irish Version of Gualterus De Dosibus) in 1938. The edition and translation is based on five manuscripts, of which three are complete, namely BL Harley 546, TCL 1326 (H 3 7) and TCL 1436 (E 4 1). He sought to integrate the different versions, arriving at a reconstruction of the base text. This publication was published in January 2018.

Another scholar who took up the challenge of editing an Irish medical tracts 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. The three volumes have been combined in one here: volume I-III.
The edition is based on Dublin, RIA MS 24 P 26 and Dublin, TCD MS H 2 13. There is no English translation available.

Micheál Ó Conchubhair was a private scholar who devoted many years to editing and translating an Irish Materia Medica . He worked on Tadhg Ó Cuinn's Herbal written in 1415, and extant in Dublin, TCD MS 1343. This is a major work, and the edition runs to 929 pages. Micheál Ó Conchubhair died in July 1993. His family donated his edition to the School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, with a view to making it available more widely. Acting on a suggestion by Professor Aoibheann Nic Dhonnchadha, Micheál Ó Conchubhair's son Philip undertook to have it digitized and donated a copy to CELT.

Beatrix Färber presented a preliminary project report at the Dublin Tionól 2018 (available online at Researchgate).

Work was completed in 2019 and the CELT Digital Edition of Tadhg Ó Cuinn's Herbal launched at the 33rd Irish Conference of Medievalists in Cork in June that year.

Ó Cuinn's work was also the subject of both Brigid Mayes's MA in UCD: "The Materia Medica of Tadhg Ó Cuinn (1415): an Irish and European work", and of Rosari Kingston's PhD Dissertation "An Ethnography-based Exploration of Irish Vernacular Medicine in the 21st Century" (University College Cork, 2019) .

In the course of his work on Tadhg Ó Cuinn's Herbal, Micheál Ó Conchubhair transcribed many extracts from the Irish translation of Bernard de Gordon's celebrated treatise Lilium Medicine, the Lile na heladhan Leighis, from the manuscript in BL Egerton 89. These transcripts will be made available in a separate file at CELT in 2020. So far, hardly any of the Irish translations of Bernard's works have been edited. (But see Beatrix Färber's edition of Bernard de Gordon's De Prognosticis, Book II, 9, Ossory, Laois and Leinster 7 (2019) 100–122.)

Micheál Ó Conchubhair also transcribed a Latin-Irish glossary of herbs and medicines from NLI, G 11, pp 98–102 (with variants from Tadhg Ó Neachtain's Irish-English dictionary of 1739, TCD MS 1290). This contains many synonyms, some of which are corrupt or otherwise unclear. Micheál Ó Conchubhair also provided a normalized list of the entries in the same file. Beatrix Färber is preparing a CELT Digital Edition (March 2020).

A welcome recent addition to this body of works is the Anathomia Guydo, edited and translated by Eithne Ní Ghallchobhair in 2014 in the ITS series, the first Irish text edition treating especially of surgery that has been translated into English. It is based on the first two doctrines of Guy de Chauliac's De Anathomia. In her edition she used six manuscripts, namely NLI G 453, NLI G8, TCL 436, NLS Adv. 72.1.12, Bl Arundel 313, and NUIG Add. 175.

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 19 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. 1415–1660, 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 and paleographer 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 Late Medieval and 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, the Irish Astronomical Tract, and Sheahan's edition of an Irish translation of Walter of Aguilon's De Dosibus Medicinarum, 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

© 2018–2021 Corpus of Electronic Texts
Email CELT: b.faerber(at)ucc.ie

University College Cork