15 October 2015

The Arnamagnæan leechbook

"Take juniper berries or the root of inula, dry it, grind it well and mix it with wine". Thus reads a recipe for cough mixture from the Middle Ages.

While the learned medical arts of medieval Denmark have survived in the writings of Henrik Harpestreng from the middle of the thirteenth century, the Arnamagnæan leechbook, AM 187 8vo, represents an alternative, non-scientific tradition, comprising folk remedies of a superstitious or magical nature. This little book from the first part of the fifteenth century was produced with the aim of making reliable medical treatment available to practitioners, too many of whom, the unidentified author stresses in his brief foreword, go about their work without sufficient training. For this reason, he says, he has studied sæn lækædom (true leechdom) and set it down in writing.

Remedies from top to toe

The content is to a certain extent arranged according to the shape of the human body, beginning with remedies against complaints relating to the head: headaches, eye diseases, nose, ear and mouth diseases, coughs and other afflictions of the chest. The sections continue with remedies for complaints relating to other parts of the body, beginning with heart problems and continuing on to diseases of the feet and ending with advice concerning various other matters, among others leprosy, wounds and skin conditions. The original collection of medical remedies and recipes for medicines ends abruptly after 56 leaves. On the empty pages at the back of the book an owner, Hans Hansen, has written his name, and readers from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have written various moral aphorisms and added extra household remedies.

The script

The book is written by the same scribe who between the years 1408 and 1439 drew up a number of diplomas for the St. Clara Convent in Roskilde. The hand, a younger gothic bookhand, is recognisable from the particular diacritic placed over the letter ø which looks like an ‘s’, and the letter æ which is a ligature of a two-compartment ‘a’ and a ‘v’. The major sections are introduced with red rubrics (headings) stretching over several lines and a large red initial, two to four lines in height. Large red letters, one line in height, and initial letters stroked in red are used to mark smaller subdivisions, often in combination with the Latin word Item (also). The Danish text also has some Latin mixed in, for example where an affliction is referred to by its Latin designation, and the headings have a parallel Latin text, as in the rubric Contra fluxum narium (against chronic rhinitis).

The binding

The book is bound in a contemporary binding of red-coloured alum tawed skin with a heart-shaped metal anchor plate (fragment of fastening device) on the front cover. On the back cover a pattern of diagonal lines and the initials ‘ihs’ (for ‘Jesus’) have been tooled onto the leather. The spine itself is not original; it was repaired when the old spine covering was removed in the period between 1911 and 1913, when many fragments from Latin parchment manuscripts which had been reused in bookbindings were removed for study. The old spine covering, now Hs 141 in AM Accessoria 7, contains an unidentified theological text.


The book is among the many manuscripts of Danish provenance which Árni Magnússon bought at the auction of the library of Frederik Rostgaard (1671–1745), his one-time colleague as well as ambassador and book-collector. On the accompanying slip Árni has noted: ‘Num. 1038. ex auctione Rostgard’, and he elsewhere gives the sales price as 2 rixdollars, 1 mark and 2 shillings. The same price is printed in the auction catalogue, in which the language of the text is erroneously said to be Swedish: ‘Liber Medicinalis vetustus, lingva Svecica, in membrana scriptus’. 

Anne Mette Hansen