Medical Prognosis in the Middle Ages: William the Englishman’s De urina non visa and its fortune
By Laurence Moulinier-Brogi
Paper given at Royal Holloway, University of London, on May 26, 2012
Abstract: In 1220, while the majority of Western physicians based their diagnosis and prognosis on the examination of their patients’ urine, a practitioner named Guillelmus, native of England and citizen of Marseille, published a treatise with the provocative title De urina non visa (On Urine not seen). He aimed to give to his colleagues and fellows the means to judge the state of the patient based not on the urine flask, but on the configuration of the sky at the time of consultation. With this bombshell, which intended to demonstrate the superiority of astrology, Guillelmus wanted to deliver a memorial to posterity, and his desire was apparently fulfilled since his book appeared on the curriculum of the programme of the Faculty of Arts and medicine at Bologna in 1405. More surprising is the success that this little book enjoyed in religious circles, especially among friars. This paper will try to give an idea of the contents, originality and posterity of this peculiar treatise, ceaselessly copied, quoted and used till the end of the Middle Ages and beyond, but never printed.
Introduction: In the 20’s of the 13th century, a branch of medical semiology to which a large part of this symposium is dedicated, was flourishing in the Medieval West. That is to say, uroscopy, an art of establishing a diagnosis and a progonosis by examining the patient’s urine, which was actually born in Byzantium but highly developed in the West since two important works on that theme had been translated in latin, the Peri ouron of Theophilus and the Liber urinarum of Isaac Israeli.
Once put in latin in the 11th century, those two texts highly stimulated the medical reflection, especially in Salerno, where several famous masters paid a great attention to medical semiology, especially to the science of urine. The French physician Gilles de Corbeil received there a fundamental teaching, which allowed him then to compose a medical poem, the Versus de urinis, meant to become one of the basic readings of the scholars of the nascent faculties of medicine.
Uroscopy was of course not the only way of reading the body’s symptoms ; but at that time, at the junction between the 12th and 13th centuries, it tended to become more and more important in the texts as in practice, and sometimes overwhelming, despite of two famous Salernitan verses which invited the physicians to see everything in the urine, but not to believe that they could see everything in the urine.