King's College London
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'The very age and body of the time': Shakespeare's world

A physician's manual

Opening from medical manuscript, with various handwriting styles employed. Includes discussion of stomach complaints and their treatmentOpening from medical manuscript, with various handwriting styles employedThe scribal culture of medieval England was by no means eclipsed by the advent of the printing press, the two media of manuscript and print co-existing and combining to further the transmission of texts. Shakespeare’s plays circulated in manuscript form for some years before being printed; equally, a printed text might be copied by hand for circulation or private ownership many years after its first appearance in print.  

The pages reproduced here are from a manuscript copy, roughly bound in limp vellum, of a medical manual aimed at the practising physician, An hospitall for the diseased. Generally attributed to Thomas Cartwright (1535-1603), the work was first published in 1578 and went through successive editions over the following 50 years.

Internal evidence suggests that this manuscript copy was made in about 1609 and it appears to have been well thumbed by its first owner, an unnamed London physician. He may have commissioned the manuscript copy from a scrivener, bought it from a stationer or bookseller or made it himself from a borrowed copy of the printed version. He may have chosen to possess a manuscript copy simply because he could not locate a copy of the printed book available for purchase or, more probably, because the manuscript format enabled him to supplement and interpolate the author’s text with passages from other sources and with his own comments, additions and illustrations.

Typically for its time, this manuscript volume is a hybrid in terms of handwriting styles. The bulk of it is written in a secretary hand, but certain short passages, notably those in Latin, quotations from other sources, illustration captions, section headings and a few isolated and unfamiliar words, are written in an italic hand.

Increasingly popular in England from the mid-16th century, both for its elegance and for the ease and speed with which it could be written, the italic hand was often included in a manuscript otherwise written in secretary in order to lend emphasis to particular words or passages. In the opening reproduced here, the indented paragraph on the left-hand page (starting ‘A medicine very precious called:  flos unguntum …’) is written in an italic hand, for emphasis and possibly also to indicate an interpolation drawn from another source.

These pages, which deal with stomach complaints and their treatment, also contain examples of the manicule, or pointing hand, a marginal symbol used to draw attention to passages of note.

In this exhibition


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