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Two Manuscripts of the Practica Phisicalia Magistri Johannis de Burgundia and their Censorship.

This article identifies two previously unknown early sixteenth-century manuscript copies of the Middle English translation of the Practica phisicalia, the recipe book of John of Burgundy (circa 1338-1390). (1) Both censor the same section of the text: that concerning the treatment of male genitalia. John of Burgundy, a professor of medicine from Liege, was a widely circulated and much translated author with an audience that included non-professionals and those informally trained. (2) Indeed, the practical character and vernacular language of the codices examined here suggest they were likely owned or used by barbers, or perhaps even by laymen or women. The post-production lives of these manuscripts register, through glossing and excising, a shift in taste and sensibility and a recognition that certain recipes were obsolete for post-medieval readers. This activity forms part of a trend in which early-modern medical practitioners became increasingly concerned with transmitting "decency" and obscuring the "obscene"--namely details of reproductive organs and vulgar language--in their works. (3)

Two manuscripts of the Practica phisicalia--London, Wellcome Library MS 406 and Montreal, Osier Library, Bibliofheca Osleriana 7591--have gone unacknowledged until now, presumably because they contain no reference to the title of the work or its author. (4) In fact, these details are only featured in one of the surviving manuscripts: London, British Library, Additional MS 33996. (5) The lack of such information in all but one copy has made it difficult for cataloguers to associate the Practica with John of Burgundy in the first place. (6) The most significant examination of the work was by Fritz Heinrich, who in 1896 produced an edition of the Practica using Additional MS 33996 as his base text. (7) Heinrich identified six manuscripts of the work, all of which are now held in the British Library: Additional MSS 3396 and 19674, (8) Harley 1600, Royal 17 A. Ill, and Sloane MSS 405 and 3153. A seventh manuscript, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rawlinson D. 251, is discussed by M. Claire Jones in an unpublished thesis from 2000. (9)

To this list, we can now add London, Wellcome Library MS 406 (hereinafter "Wellcome") and Montreal, Osier Library, Bibliotheca Osleriana 7591 (hereinafter "Osier"). The recipes of the Practica phisicalia appear in these manuscripts alongside works not known to be composed by John of Burgundy, such as charms and poems that espouse the virtues of particular ingredients. (10) The manuscripts are very similar in their composition and layout. Each contains a condensed version of the Practica, leaving a number of the recipes wanting. The pages of Wellcome are 140 x 100 millimeters; Osier is slightly larger, at 201 x 130 millimeters. Both codices are relatively small, cheap productions composed of parchment in quires of eight (with one exception, as I shall discuss). Both were produced in the first quarter of the sixteenth century, featuring Anglicana and Bastard-Anglicana (cursiva-antiquior) hands. Osier is written in a single hand: a neat, fluid Anglicana with large looping ascenders and descenders. The titles for each recipe are written in a thick redfere-textura Bastard-Anglicana. (11) The main scribal hand of Wellcome is similar to the looping Anglicana of Osier. The distinctive features are its z-shaped r and backwards sigma-shaped e. However, the opening twenty-two folios, before the Practica begins, present a significantly neater and more disciplined Bastard-Anglicana on parchment of fairer quality than the rest of the codex. These folios include ornamental capitals in blue and red ink, with semi-vinet marginal decorations that are occasionally embellished with grotesque animal heads. (12)

Neither scribe relied on any other surviving copy as an exemplar. Osier has linguistic similarities to both Sloane 3153 and Royal 17 A. III, as shown in its spelling and use of thorn, (13) but it also contains a number of textual divergences that cannot be explained by scribal intervention or error. For example, in the recipe of an ointment "for the skaldyng of a mannes pyntell" (78), (14) Osier presents a sentence on the preparation of the ointment out of sequence. Instead of preparing the butter and herbs before placing the concoction in an earthen pot, as all the other manuscripts prescribe, Osier states: "take a new erthen potte & do in thys erbis & thi buttre when they be medlid." This is unlikely to be a scribal error, per se, as the sentence still makes syntactical sense and the final product would not be much affected; it merely means that the recipe is to be prepared in a different order. Wellcome is linguistically close to Sloane 405 (15) but features variant lines, such as this extra line in the recipe "for swellyng of a mannys pyntell" that does not feature in the other surviving manuscripts: "Anoper take pe jus of planteyn [ribwort plantain or plantago lanceolata]." (16) It would be a stretch to suggest that both Osier and Wellcome are separate recensions of the Practica, but at the same time neither wholly conforms to any other surviving manuscript. These divergences are illustrative of Irma Taavitsainen's assessment of recipe books, which she argues are more "adaptable and flexible" than typical academic medical works. As a result, scribes and owners often adapted recipe books for their own ends instead of rigidly following an authoritative exemplar. (17)

Possibly the most significant commonality between Wellcome and Osier is that their sections concerning treatments for male genitalia have evidently been censored. Wellcome censors two recipes: "for swellyng of a mannys pyntell" (folio 35v) and "for scalding of a mannes pyntell" (folio 36r). In each case a reader has ruled through the word "pyntell" (penis) in the title with a thick black ink, so that only the tips of the ascenders and descenders are visible. "Pyntell" is replaced with the Latin equivalent, "veretrum," which is written in a more formal, laterally compressed fere-textura. Next to the annotation on folio 35v, a second, later hand has again written "veretrum." (18) Perhaps this annotator deemed the original gloss to be illegible, as this repeated word is thinner, with disconnected, set letters. (19) These glosses are written in an archaizing style by a post-medieval reader, in an attempt to mimic the other titles in the codex. This ostensible censorship does not extend to the recipes themselves, however, but only to their titles. The exchange of Middle English for Latin may very well have been because the word "pyntell" changed from a relatively neutral anatomical label in the sixteenth century to an obscenity in the late seventeenth century. (20) Presumably this censorship was intended for those thumbing through the manuscript looking for a desired text, as someone wanted to keep certain readers away (most likely laymen and particularly women) with an added level of mediation. (21)

Osier does not obscure words, but excises recipes altogether. Two leaves are missing that must have contained almost all of the recipe "Ffor swellyng of ballokes" (only the title and five lines survive on page 78) and the entirety of the recipe "Ffor ache in mannes lendes [loins or genitalia]." We can be sure that two leaves are missing because the quire in which these recipes are partially contained (quire six of ten) is the only quire of six in the entire manuscript and remnants of the excised pages are clearly visible in the gutter. The missing leaves are likely not the result of wear, as this kind of physical intervention is exceptional in the manuscript, and elsewhere there is minimal damage. Furthermore, the remaining stubs show clear signs of excision with clean lines that must result from cutting.

Adding to this, the portions of the recipes concerning the penis and testicles that do survive are the only recipes in the entire manuscript that have manicules pointing to their titles, suggesting that they were at some point considered notable. It is possible that the two missing leaves were removed by a reader for ease of access in continued consultation of the recipe "Ffor ache in mannes lendes." Alternatively the leaves may have been removed because the owner of the manuscript did not appreciate the attention that they received. The annotations in the manuscript, written in an eighteenth-century hand, add comments, modernize the spelling of certain words, and offer judgments on the effectiveness of recipes. The annotator inscribed his name at the beginning of the codex: "Ed. Cooper. 1726." (22) Next to a poem in tetrameter elsewhere in the codex, entitled "Ematites is the stones name," Cooper explains in a marginal note: "Ther [sic] is a specimen of the poetry in those / Days; bring the virtues of the lapis / Hamatitis set forth in stylish verse" (100). If Cooper appreciates the "stylish" verse so much as to comment on it, perhaps he was moved to expunge pages that he found uncouth or offensive in some way. Cooper did not view the entire codex as an archaic artifact, as his annotations suggest that he found practical use in some of the recipes. The excisions may represent an attempt to update the work for post-medieval readers, as evidently the removed recipes (if indeed he was responsible) were unnecessary for his use.

Clearly different forms of censorship are registered in the two manuscripts: one obscures the titles of two recipes and presents a desire for selective readership in the use of Latin; the other excises portions of the recipes themselves. Still, it is significant that the same section of the Practica is altered in both manuscripts. This is not merely coincidence, as nothing else in either manuscript is emended or removed. Osier and Wellcome reflect a trend that started in the early modern period, where authors and owners of manuscripts became concerned to obscure references to reproductive organs because they were considered indecent, and yet the manuscripts were still seen as worthy to preserve. Joan Cadden illustrates that physicians showed "signs of discomfort" when referring to sexual organs, (23) signs that the manuscripts in this study display in their physical alterations. Equally, as mentioned earlier, the discomfort could have been with the specific word "pyntell," as the term became a vulgar obscenity during the time that the annotations were made. Whether the instances of censorship were a matter of repressing distasteful material, excising the outdated and redundant, or a mixture of both, the physical interventions provide a clue as to how these codices continued to be relevant to post-medieval readers.

McGill University


I thank Michael Van Dussen and Faith Wallis for their invaluable comments and help in drafting this article. Thanks also to Elma Brenner and the staff of the Osier and Wellcome Libraries for granting me access to the manuscripts discussed.


(1.) The precise date of composition is unknown.

(2.) Lister M. Matheson, "Medecin sans Frontieres?: The European Dissemination of John of Burgundy's Plague Treatise," ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews, no. 18 (2005): 19-30.

(3.) Christine de Pisan and Bartholomaeus Anglicus were particularly concerned with avoiding the "naming of parts" because of the post-lapsarian connotations attached to sexual reproduction. See Michael Camille, "Obscenity Under Erasure: Censorship in Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts," in Obscenity Social Control and Artistic Creation in the European Middle Ages, ed. Jan M. Ziolkowski (Leiden: Brill, 1998), 148, 152.

(4.) The last leaf of Montreal, Osier Library, Bibliotheca Osleriana 7591, features a signature that is obscured by a tear in the parchment. All that remains is "Iohannes...." It is conceivable that it once read "Johannes Burgundia" (104).

(5.) John of Burgundy identifies himself in some copies of his most famous work, De epidemia, as "John with the beard": "ego iohannes de burgundia, aliter dictus cum barba, civis Leodiensis et artis medicine professor" (Matheson, "Medecin sans Frontieres?," 19).

(6.) This is reflected in the catalogue records, none of which supply the title, and only the record for Sloane 405 (as opposed to the manuscript itself) names "Johannes Burgundia" as the author. This is typical for recipe books. See Irma Taavitsainen, "Middle English Recipes: Genre characteristics, text type features and underlying traditions of writing," Journal of Historical Pragmatics, no. 2 (200l): 97.

(7.) John of Burgundy, Ein Mittelenglisches Medizinbuch, ed. Fritz Heinrich (Halle: M. Niemeyer, 1896).

(8.) Heinrich wrongly labels this manuscript as Royal 19, 674.

(9.) M. Claire Jones, "Vernacular literacy in late-medieval England: the example of East Anglian medical manuscripts" (PhD Thesis: University of Glasgow, 2000), 229-233.

(10.) See Tony Hunt, "The Poetic Vein Phlebotomy in Middle English and Anglo-Norman Verse," English Studies, no. 77 (1996): 311-322; Claudius F. Mayer, "A medieval English Leechbook and its 14th century Poem on Bloodletting," Bulletin of the History of Medicine, no. 7 (1939): 381-391.

(11.) This hand is characterized by its two-compartment a, the f and tall s that do not regularly descend below the base line, and its semi-regular quadratus minims.

(12.) See folios 8r, 13r, 16v.

(13.) Heinrich, Bin Mittelenglisches Medizinbuch, 17-39.

(14.) Osier is paginated in a modern hand.

(15.) This is particularly reflected in the scribes' sparing use of thorns and yoghs. Wellcome chiefly uses thorns when the scribe runs out of space in a line. Cf. Heinrich, Bin Mittelenglisches Medizinbuch, 17-39.

(16.) Wellcome, f. 35v; Heinrich, Bin Mittelenglisches Medizinbuch, 126, line 21. The rest of the recipe conforms to Sloane 405.

(17.) Irma Taavitsainen, Middle English Lunaries: A Study of the Genre, Memoires de la Societe Neophilologique de Helsinki XLVII (Helsinki: Societe Neophilologique, 1988), 116.

(18.) The annotator likely took his Latin translation from John Trevisa's translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus's De Proprietatibus Rerum, which glosses "veretrum" with "pintle." Juhani Nori, Dictionary of Medical Vocabulary in English, 1375-1550: Body Parts, Sicknesses, Instruments, and Medicinal Preparations, Parts I & II (London: Routledge, 2016), 834.

(19.) There is insufficient evidence for dating these glosses, but it is clear that the annotations are later than the main hands of the codex.

(20.) The word was always somewhat impolite but it was commonly used in medical texts. By the seventeenth century, however, the term was con sidered to be a profanity only used by those lowest in society. See Eric Partridge and Paul Beale, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English: Colloquialisms and Catch Phrases, Fossilised Jokes and Puns, General Nicknames, Vulgarisms and Such Americanisms as Have Been Naturalised (London: Psychology Press, 1984), 887; Michael Adams, In Praise of Profanity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 41-2.

(21.) The codex and its censorship might suggest a domestic setting, where a paterfamilias would not wish his wife or daughters to stumble across this recipe. For discussion, see Irma Taavitsainen and Paivi Pahta, "Vernacularisation of Medical Writing in English: A Corpus-Based Study of Scholastics," Early Science and Medicine, no. 3 (1998): 160-7.

(22.) For provenance: William Osier, Bibliotheca Osleriana: A Catalogue of Books Illustrating the History of Medicine and Science (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1969), 680.

(23.) Joan Cadden, "'Nothing Natural is Shameful': Vestiges of a Debate about Sex and Science in a Group of Late-Medieval Manuscripts," Speculum, no. 76 (2001): 66-71.
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Author:Outhwaite, Patrick
Publication:The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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