The Medieval Plague Tract Or Consilium

The medical consilium was a formal written communication, usually in the form of explanation and advice, sent by a physician to someone who requested it. It could be short and to the point or long and complex, but it was written for a specific nonacademic audience to address a specific, therapeutic purpose. The Black Death elicited many of these, and they are important windows into medieval medical theory and practice.

Between 1910 and 1925 the German medical historian Karl Sudhoff collected and published the original texts of over 200 different consilia written by late medieval physicians on the plague, its prevention, and its treatment. He mentions or prints a total of 288, but more recently historian Samuel Cohn has estimated that there were perhaps as many as 1,000 written between 1348 and 1500.8 This was clearly a major literary genre, and it remained important. Many of these works, usually written in Latin, were translated into various vernacular languages, and after 1454 they were printed for more general distribution. Eighteen of those known and confidently dated were written during the initial outbreak of the disease; some, such as those of the University of Paris medical faculty and that of Pierre de Damouzy, a physician from Reims, France, were written before their authors had even witnessed a single case.

The Damouzy consilium, titled Treatise on epidemic, suggests remedies he had used on other illnesses, and he boldly declared "none who uses this [remedy] dies from plague."9 In fact, the remedy came directly from the Persian ar-Razi. Damouzy's tract is replete with quotations from and citations to the works of Aristotle, Galen, Avicenna, and the Arab Ali-Abbas, and others, among whom only Galen had ever witnessed the Plague. As the Black Death advanced through southern France, the French king Philip VI demanded a consilium on the disease from the medical faculty at the University of Paris. Their Compendium de epidemia was the medical school's first major scholarly work. The Compendium was written by committee and presented in October 1348 as the Plague ravaged Paris. Like Damouzy's work, it is filled with references to Greco-Muslim medical authorities and their ideas. It became immensely popular in France, where it was quickly translated and abridged and even appeared in a poetic version by Olivier de la Haye in 1425.

But manuscripts of the Compendium circulated even more widely, influencing authors in Spain, Italy, the Holy Roman Empire, and even Poland; it was still being copied for use in the seventeenth century. In Prague the imperial physician Master Gallus wrote a consilium for Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV (see biography) and a less complex "Preventives and measures against the disease" for the margrave of Moravia, both based on the Paris Compendium.10 At Montpellier, an anonymous "practitioner," probably connected to the rival university there, wrote a critical response to the Paris tract dated May 19, 1349. Assuming he was in Montpellier as the Plague struck the city, killing the entire medical faculty in the process, his analysis and recommendations should have reflected his experience and trumped the mere conjectures of the Paris faculty. In fact, his work is every bit as reliant on medical tradition and ancient authorities as any other, though he cites Aristotle, the astrologer Ptolemy, the mathematician Euclid, and Pope Gregory the Great more than medical writers. In Italy the earliest consilium was writ ten by Gentile of Foligno, a member of the University of Perugia's faculty (see biography). He wrote "for the common benefit of all" and "to preserve and honor this university, moved by affection as much as by the praise of many citizens."11 Christian Spanish physicians such as Alfonso de Cordoba, Jacme d'Agramont of Lerida, and Juan de AviƱon of Seville wrote in the vernacular for their fellow citizens, relying on classical authorities as well as contemporary physicians such as Gentile and the Muslim Ibn Khatimah.

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