Medical Manuscripts

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XIV....continued

2. Medical Manuscripts.

The physicians of ancient Ireland, like those of other countries, derived a large part of their special learning from books, which in those times were all manuscripts. The members of each medical family had generally their own special book, which was handed down reverently from father to son, and which, at long intervals, when it had become damaged and illegible through age, was carefully transcribed into a new volume. Several of these venerable leech-books are still preserved, as mentioned farther on.

But besides these special books belonging to particular families, there were many others, which were copied and multiplied from time to time; so that the chief medical families had libraries containing such medical knowledge as was then available. There are still preserved in various libraries a great number of Irish medical MSS., forming a collection of medical literature in Irish, probably the largest in existence in any one tongue.

The manner in which these books were generally compiled and the motives of the compilers may be gathered from the following translation of a prefatory statement in Irish by the writer of a medical manuscript of the year 1352, now in the Royal Irish Academy,—a statement breathing a noble spirit, worthy of the best traditions of the faculty:—

"May the merciful God have mercy on us all. I have here collected practical rules from several works, for the honour of God, for the benefit of the Irish people, for the instruction of my pupils, and for the love of my friends and of my kindred. I have translated them into Gaelic from Latin books containing the lore of the great leeches of Greece and Rome. These are things gentle, sweet, profitable, and of little evil, things which have been often tested by us and by our instructors. I pray God to bless those doctors who will use this book; and I lay it on their souls as an injunction, that they extract not sparingly from it; and more especially that they do their duty devotedly in cases where they receive no pay [on account of the poverty of the patients]. I implore every doctor, that before he begins his treatment be remember God, the father of health, to the end that his work may be finished prosperously. Moreover, let him not be in mortal sin, and let him implore the patient to he also free from grievous sin. Let him offer up a secret prayer for the sick person, and implore the Heavenly Father, the physician and balm-giver for all mankind, to prosper the work he is entering upon."

The Book of the O'Lees in the Royal Irish Academy is a large-sized vellum manuscript, written in 1443, partly in Latin and partly in Irish. It is a complete system of medicine, treating of most of the diseases then known. The Book of the O'Hickeys, now in the Royal Irish Academy, commonly known as the "Lily of Medicine," is a translation into Irish of a Latin work, originally written by Bernard Gordon—a Continental physician—in 1803. The Book of the O'Shiels, now also in the Royal Irish Academy, which was transcribed in 1657, from some manuscript of unknown date, contains a system of medical science still more complete and scientific than even the Book of the O'Lees. There are many other medical manuscript books belonging to particular families.

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