Medicina Antiqua

Medicina Antiqua

Southern Italy, possibly in the circle of the Staufer court (Italy) — 1st half of the 13th century

A medical manual for laypeople: self-treatment instructions for critics of conventional medieval medicine

  1. A 13th century medical handbook containing various classical authors like Dioscorides and Pliny the Elder

  2. These codices were intended for self-treatment and were utterly skeptical of the medical profession

  3. Some contents were offensive to later Christian readers who tried to erase every trace of pagan influence

Medicina Antiqua

  1. Description
  2. Facsimile Editions (1)
Medicina Antiqua

Many people in the Middle Ages followed the warnings of Pliny the Elder regarding physicians, whom he often insulted and said should never be trusted, and so sought self-treatments of the kind contained in the Medicina Antiqua. Although the richly illuminated manuscript's individual texts were more nourished by magical ideas than by scientific theory, it is nonetheless a comprehensive medical and pharmaceutical manuscript in Latin, produced in the first half of the 13th century in Southern Italy, possibly in the environment of the Staufer court. It contains medical knowledge from writers of late antiquity like Dioscorides and as such, contains pagan gods and symbols, which later Christian readers found offensive and attempted to erase or Christianize.

Medicina Antiqua

The Viennese manuscript of Medicina Antiqua, is one of the most significant manuscripts of its kind, not least for its precious illustration as it is a comprehensive medical and pharmaceutical manuscript in Latin, produced in the first half of the 13th century in Southern Italy, possibly in the environment of the Staufer court. The various texts whose authors cannot be traced, neither in biography nor even by name, go back to Late Antiquity, to the 4th or 5th century. This manuscript thus represents a testimony to the extremely popular reception of classical medical conceptions in the Middle Ages and in modern times. The fame of this codex is due to the countless images of plants and animals and the sheer wealth of therapeutic scenes and depictions of physicians. All illustrations go back to classical models and are executed in bright opaque colours. Besides them, almost each page contains feather drawings that were added some fifty years later and guide the visitor directly through the consultation hours of a medieval physician. It is a contemporary pictorial commentary with spontaneous, expressive illustrations to lend the codex a very special charm.

The Medical Knowledge of Late Antiquity in Medieval Miniatures

The authors, or more correctly, compilers, refer more or less plainly, directly or indirectly, to classical standard works such as the Materia Medica by Dioscorides, a well-known Greek botanist and physician of the 1st century, and to the Natural History of Pliny the Elder. The text is quite damaged in some parts, as certain passages and depictions were offensive to later Christian readers who tried to erase even the most minor trace of pagan elements from the manuscript. Thus, the prayers to Dea Sancta Tellus, the Holy Mother Earth, and a prayer to the plants incurred the displeasure of Christian readers so that texts were rubbed out. The female Tellus had to undergo sex modification and was changed to a Father God, as the text of this prayer was not only rubbed out in places, but also re- or overwritten. Furthermore, representations of Phalloi have been rubbed out in many places throughout the manuscript. The feather drawings, the most recent element added to the opaque colour paintings, fascinate with their coarse realism, often on the verge of caricature; the artist must in any case have been very familiar with the running of a medieval physician’s practice.

A Medical Reference Book for Daily Use

Materia Medica were intended for laymen and – utterly skeptical of the medical profession and its integrity – recommended self-medication. The general orientation of the work is thus not primarily scientific, even by the standards of this period. The individual texts were more nourished by magical ideas than by scientific theory (although the authors just as gladly referred to contemporary medical literature and accepted popular medical knowledge).

A true Treasure-Trove for Medical Historians

The continuing popularity of this comprehensive pharmaceutical volume seems to be due to a wide range of reasons. The Viennese manuscript, richly illustrated with both paintings and drawings, not only presents a truly precious object for research into the history of art but also an invaluable source for the history of medicine. Last but not least, its miniatures provide interesting details on medieval clothing, furniture and therapeutic instruments. The fact that this work is also often consulted by laymen may also be due to Pliny the Elder’s insults to physicians, whom he said should never be trusted, and the consequent praise of self-medication, or else to the wealth of magical conceptions it contains, thus underlining the miraculous aspect of any healing process.


Alternative Titles
Die Medicina Antiqua
Libri quattuor medicinae
Size / Format
322 pages / 27.5 × 18.6 cm
1st half of the 13th century
Textualis Rotunda
More than 400 illustrations, including 6 full-page miniatures, most of them in color, partly with gold, pen drawings in the margin

Available facsimile editions:
Medicina Antiqua – Cod. Vindob. 93 – Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (Vienna, Austria)
Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt (ADEVA) – Graz, 1971
Facsimile Editions

#1 Die Medicina Antiqua

Binding: Embossed leather. All folios are cut according to the original.
Commentary: 1 volume by Charles H. Talbot and Franz Unterkircher
Languages: English, German
1 volume: Exact reproduction of the original document (extent, color and size) Reproduction of the entire original document as detailed as possible (scope, format, colors). The binding may not correspond to the original or current document binding.
Price Category: € (under 1,000€)
Edition available
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