Seeing is Believing: Ophthalmology Over the Ages

We have all heard the phrase “an eye for an eye.” The full passage, from The Code of Hammurabi, 2250 B.C.E., reads, “If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye.” Less well known are the other ocular codes, including, “If a physician open an abscess (in the eye) of a man with a bronze lancet and destroy the man’s eye, they shall cut off his fingers.”

Ophthalmology, in a way, thus existed in ancient Babylon, meaning that the field is over 4,000 years old. Indeed, the ancient Egyptians detailed the treatment of cataracts and trachoma in papyri dating to 1650 B.C.E.

Hippocrates, the father of all medicine who lived in Greece in 5th century B.C.E., knew of the optic nerve, though he did not understand its function. He described many treatments for maladies of the eye, including restricted diets, hot footbaths and even cutting incisions into the scalp to excise the “morbid humors” of the eye. Galen, whose influence on Western medicine through the 18th century cannot be overstated, wrote two volumes related to ophthalmology, both of which are lost to history. However, his Anatomy and Physiology of the Eye exists to this day and prevailed for nearly 1,500 years after his death in 210 C.E.

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Over the past 11 months, we have examined the College’s collection of all things medieval: manuscripts, incunabula bound in manuscript waste, and uncatalogued documents.  Features of our medieval materials that I’ve written about include catchwords, ink (here and here), illuminations (here, here, and here), scripts (here, here, here, and here), and parchment.  But what’s the point?  Why study these books, leaves, and documents that are over 500 years old?


f. 2r. A tonsured scribe, likely Bede. Bede, Prose Life of Cuthbert; extracts from the Historia Ecclesiastica. Durham, England, 12th c. British Library, Yates Thompson MS 26.

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“A moth ate words”

Look closely at the first folio of 10a 210, Arnald of Villanova’s Regimen sanitatis ad regem Aragonum.  In the left and bottom margins you’ll see holes.  These holes are not the result of parchment tearing or existing holes in the skin (as discussed in this earlier post), but bookworms.  Bookworms are “Any of various insects that damage books; spec. a maggot that is said to burrow through the paper and boards,” as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary.


Folio 1r. Arnald of Villanova,
Regimen sanitatis ad regem Aragonum. Spain or southern France; 14th century or c.1400. Call number 10a 210.

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Behold the Body: Capturing the Spectacle of the Anatomy Theater

– by Jessica Sara Sternbach*


The frontispieces and title pages of early anatomical texts served as teasers for many Early Modern readers, offering the primary information necessary to engage with the text. Once the spine was cracked opened, the viewer would encounter these new medical ideas for the first time, whether it be the authority of a post-Vesalian anatomist as in the Anatomia reformata by Steven Blankaart (1695), the philosophical prowess and artistic pride of William Cheselden and Gerard van der Gucht’s Anatomy of the Human Body (1740), or the sublime awe of the embryology of Nicolaas Hoboken’s Anatomia secundinae (1675). The illustrations in these books drew upon existing visual language in order to decrypt the unfamiliar medical subject matter. Mastery was needed from both the artist and the anatomist, who were trying to comprehend and clarify what it meant to be human.

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Ghoulies and ghosties and medieval beasties

10a 249 is nearly the only illuminated manuscript we have in the Library.  As I mentioned last week, 6 out of the 7 original illuminations are still extant.  All 6 are initials, and the one pictured below signifies the beginning of Book IV and features 3 human heads.


Close-up of illuminated initial, f. 132r. Bernard de Gordon’s Lilium medicinae, 1348 (Oxford?). Call no. 10a 249.

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