Beyond the Medical Text: Health and Illness in Early Medieval Italian Sources

Beyond the Medical Text: Health and Illness in Early Medieval Italian Sources

By Clare Pilsworth

Social History of Medicine, Vol.24:1 (2011)

Coin of Liutprand, King of the Lombards

Abstract: The vast majority of surviving evidence for health care, medicine and attitudes to illness in early medieval northern Italy comes not from traditional medical texts, but legal, hagiographical and archaeological sources. The political history of Italy, following the formal end of the Western Empire in AD 476, was complex. One consequence of this was that the law codes applied were dependent on how the individual was defined ethnically rather than on political territories: this makes for a rich and varied source for the history of health and illness. I argue that law-makers sought to include rather than exclude or marginalise the sick from social and legal transactions. Using the ninth-century legal official Petrus of Niviano as a case study, I show that, in the hands of a high-status individual at least, this inclusion could become a reality rather than simply a pious intention by early medieval rulers.

Introduction: The fact that so many—from military leaders to Emperors—sought to conquer Italy in the centuries following the deposition of the last western Roman Emperor in AD 476 bears witness to the strategic importance of Italy in the early Middle Ages, not to mention its cachet as the birthplace of the Roman Empire. No regime, however, whether Ostrogothic, Lombard, Byzantine or Carolingian, succeeded in conquering the entire peninsula. The result was a complex social, ethnic and political patchwork, across which, nevertheless, people, manuscripts and goods continued to move. Northern Italy in particular connected—through Ravenna and its port at Classe—east and west, and south and north across the Alps.

It is perhaps for this reason that the principal focus of scholarship by historians of medicine in early medieval northern Italy has been on the translation of Greek medical texts and manuscripts associated with the important medical centre of Ravenna in late antiquity (fifth to seventh centuries). However, despite several general surveys of herbal recipes and editions of individual manuscripts, smaller, miscellaneous Italian codices containing medical recipes have been less studied. Perhaps even more surprisingly, given the richness of the archives and similar studies for other regions, there is no systematic survey of either the charter evidence for the presence of physicians practising in northern Italy or attitudes to illness. Nor has there been any substantial comparative analysis for the provisions for coping with illness and accidents between the multiple legal codes in force in early medieval northern Italy. To date, the only major study of medicine and health in the legal material in early medieval Italy is Niederhellmann’s comparative work on barbarian law codes in early medieval Europe.

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