Understanding Pestilence in the Times of King Matthias

The Black Death 2Understanding Pestilence in the Times of King Matthias: The Plague Tract in the Manuscript of János Gellértfi of Aranyas

By Ottó Gecser

Matthias Rex (1458-1490): Hungary at the Dawn of the Renaissance. (Budapest, 2013)

Introduction: Even if medieval medicine was revealed to be powerless by the mass-scale epidemics of the mid-fourteenth century, the Black Death was far from ending the career of university-trained physicians or the continuation of their art. To the contrary, it led to an unprecedented proliferation of medical texts based on scholastic learning. What is loosely called “plague tract” or “plague treatise” in English-language scholarship denotes, in fact, a series of genres – including tractatus, quaestio, consilium, or regimen – in which ideas about the plague were communicated to different audiences in different ways. The great historian of medicine, Karl Sudhoff, who registered and partly edited almost 300 pieces of this diverse group of texts, gave them the more fitting name of Pestschriften.

The oldest Pestschrift which has survived from medieval Hungary was written down at Lőcse (Levoča) in 1473 by János Gellértfi of Aranyas, a little known cleric who was active at various places in the Szepes (Spiš) region. The text has been known to Hungarian scholarship since the end of the nineteenth century when János Csontosi published a detailed description of the manuscript comprising it. Since the text starts with the author’s statement of purpose in first person singular reading as “I want to write something about the plague briefly compiled from the sayings of more authentic physicians”, Csontosi considered it an authentic work of its scriptor, János Gellértfi. A few years later, in a short note, the acclaimed historian of medicine, Gyula Magyary-Kossa, called the text “the oldest medical work from a Hungarian author” and urged to study its content in detail. Despite his enthusiasm, however, nobody cared about this purportedly earliest monument of medical lore in Hungary. Apart from a few mentions in general histories of the period, it merited only a short article by Sándor V. Kovács who praised it as a witness to the reception of Avicenna’s Canon in medieval Hungary, and emphasised its having understood the disease in utterly non-religious terms.

Synchronically to V. Kovács’s article, in the catalogue of Latin manuscripts of the Budapest University Library, where the codex has been preserved, László Mezey described the Pestschrift as the work of the Moravian physician and archbishop of Prague, Sigismund Albicus of Uničov who lived at the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. By this move Mezey degraded the first Hungarian medical writer to a mere scribe. If he was neglected even in the first capacity, small wander that he has remained so in the second.

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