Reading the Literature – The Materia Medica and Tacuinum Sanitatis as Early Herbal and Health Handbooks

Reading the Literature – The Materia Medica and Tacuinum Sanitatis as Early Herbal and Health Handbooks

By Kali Barrett

The Proceedings of the 15th Annual History of Medicine Days, edited by W.A. Whitelaw (University of Calgary, 2006)

Abstract: Medical texts have played an important role in the practice and delivery of health care for centuries. Today, access to texts, journals and information databases is an integral part of medical education and practice.  Many home libraries often include a medical reference book to help in the treatment of minor illnesses.  Both types of these medical texts have existed for hundreds of years.  The Materia Medica and the Tacuinum Sanitatis in particular are interesting examples worthy of study.
The Materia Medica, first published by Dioscorides some time between 50-70 CE, was widely translated, copied and circulated amongst physicians throughout the Middle Ages all across Europe and into the Islamic world.  The text – with accompanying diagrams – lists the medical properties of hundreds of plants, animals and minerals.  The Tacuinum Sanitatis was written in the eleventh century by Ibn Butlan el Bagdadi, and translated into Latin some time in the thirteenth century in Naples or Sicily.  The text describes the health related impact of different foods and environmental factsor.  Later editions of the Tacuinum Sanitatis were illustrated, but unlike the Materia Medica, served to delight the noble consumer of such types of texts rather than to inform the professional.
Surviving copies of the Materia Medica and the Tacuinum Sanitatis provide insight into historical medical theory and practice.  The illustrations found in many versions also provide a wealth of information pertaining to artistic practice, diet, architecture, dress and daily life in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance.  Though created for different audiences and with different intended functions, the common subject matter of both texts makes them an ideal pair for study.

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