Lori Jones
University of Ottawa

The first medical book printed in English emerged from William de Machlinia’s London workshop in 1485–86. Here begynneth a litill boke necessarye [and] behouefull a[g]enst the pestilence was a plague tract published in the midst of the first outbreak of the mysterious English Sweating Sickness. Purportedly supported by the newly crowned King Henry VII, and intended to quell disquiet about the epidemic and the legitimacy of his reign, the tract was printed three times over twelve months. Over the subsequent decades, it appeared in five further editions.

The new print technology introduced into England in 1476 enabled the rapid and less expensive production of multiple copies and editions of the same text. For almost a century, printers primarily chose to publish medical books that were taken directly, translated, or modified only slightly from manuscript sources. This was because these works were already popular and readily accessible to printers. Plague tracts, health regimens, almanacs, recipes and remedies, herbals, and practica (practical medical handbooks) all made the transition from manuscript to print largely intact, and were then reproduced in multiple editions. Not just their texts, but the physical size and page layout of the typical “workaday” manuscript of the mid-fifteenth century also continued into the early decades of print. The typesetting, the decoration and/or rubrication (red-coloring) of initial letters, paragraph markers, font or typeface, and even the wide marginal spaces left for note-taking all meant that early printed books mirrored their manuscript predecessors.

The plague tract noted above has its own unique story: adapted from Johannes Jacobi’s popular fourteenth-century Latin manuscript text, it was assigned a new author by a Parisian printer in 1480: “Kamiti, Bishop of the city of Arusiens in the Kingdom of Denmark, expert professor in medicine.” By 1500, it was circulating in print in English, French, Dutch, German, and Portuguese. Other early English printed medical texts have similarly long roots. The …Gouernayle of helthe (1490) was adapted from John Mirfield’s late fourteenth-century regimen which circulated for a century in both Latin and English translations before William Caxton slightly modified and printed the English version around 1489. It was then republished at least five more times in slightly different versions until 1555.

Thomas Paynell translated another famous centuries-old Regimen sanitatis Salerni in the late 1520s. It appeared in seven print editions between 1528 and 1597, the first four editions coming from the shop of Thomas Berthelet, the King’s printer. A miscellany entitled the ...Myrour or glasse of helth, containing a plague tract, a zodiac, and remedies, erroneously attributed to the Dominican Friar Thomas Moulton, was reprinted at least twenty times between the late 1520s and early 1580s. Its core text – a plague treatise that Moulton did write in around 1475 – was itself an adaptation of a popular tract penned by John of Burgundy around 1365, which survives in more than one hundred manuscript copies. Common medieval herbals went through dozens of print editions in the sixteenth century.

Despite their popularity in medieval manuscript, however, learned medical texts written by Englishmen were largely excluded from the print market until the late 1500s. In the first century of print, technical works old and new, especially those in Latin, were more often imported from the continent than produced in England. There were some exceptions, such as Hieronymus Brunschwig‘s, The noble experyence of the vertuous handy warke of surgeri… (1525) which was translated into English and repeatedly printed in London from the 1520s, and the Flemish refugee Thomas Geminus’s mid-century anatomical treatise Compendiosa totius anatomie delineatio (1553), adapted from the De fabrica (1543) of Andreas Vesalius. Although produced in England, however, these were not the works of English writers.

There were, of course, some early exceptions to this translation and reproduction trend: the physician Thomas Phayer’s Book of Chyldren (appended to a translated regimen and plague tract in the early 1540s) was the first English book written about pediatrics. In 1552 John Caius produced A boke, or counseill against the disease commonly called the sweate, or sweatyng sicknesse, the only printed work in English on the disease. Works like the surgeon William Clowes‘s A prooued practice for all young surgeons (1588) and A profitable and necessarie booke of observations (1596) were based more on his first-hand observation and experience than on compiling the maxims of past authorities. In A treatise: wherein is declared the sufficiencie of English medicines (1580) the physician and clergyman Timothie Bright argued strongly against the use of “foreign” remedies, believing them to be harmful to the complexions of Englishmen. These writers were, though, in the minority.

Like their late medieval predecessors, most early printed medical books represented generations of accumulated and reworked knowledge. As such, few were attributed to an actual author. Named authors were sometimes fictitious (such as the Bishop of Arusiens, who appears as the author of the first plague tract discussed above), misidentified (like Thomas Moulton), or foreign authors-in-translation (like Hieronymus Brunschwig). The ideas promoted through alternative medico-chemical theories in the sixteenth century, initiated by the Swiss physician Paracelsus and the Flemish chemist/physician Jan van Helmont, were also popular in England, especially in translations of Continental texts. Translators, of course, also adapted their source texts, sometimes inserting local equivalents and contexts to make their English versions more appealing to local audiences. Early printers and stationers sometimes actively procured these translations, and were therefore more than simply the mechanical producers of others’ books. Instead, they directed and acted alongside translators and editors, and played an integral role in determining which books to print, to whom to attribute them, and what format they took. In the printers’ calculations, perhaps, translated Continental medical works had greater appeal than domestic ones.

English medical writing that was not based on continental exemplars really came into its own during the seventeenth century, especially in London, where the printing industry was concentrated. The medical paradigm experienced major epistemological shifts, as medieval scholastic learning based on tradition and authority started to give way to an empirical, humanist medicine that assigned more credence to personal observation and experimentation. As the number of printers and printing shops rapidly grew, so too did the number and variety of authors and readers increase. The medium of print both democratized authorship and – in breaking away from the intellectual and material conventions of the medieval manuscript tradition –gave birth to new genres of medical writing. Rather than republish the same texts over and over again, printers put more and more new titles on the market. In fact, about as many medical titles appeared per decade after 1660 as had appeared in the entire period 1485–1604. Translations and adaptations still continued, but the range and number of new authors writing their own texts exploded.

Some of the most notable and prolific authors of the seventeenth century sought to challenge medical orthodoxies and traditions: Nicholas Culpeper’s London dispensatory (first edition 1649) confronted the monopolistic and Latinist privileges of London’s physicians and apothecaries, while George Thomson’s plague treatise Loimologia (1665) and his works of chemical medicine challenged Galenist medicine and openly defied the Royal College of Physicians. The Philosophical Transactions journal of the Royal Society of London made information about new medical and scientific discoveries readily available at the same time that a plethora of new popular or lay medical books came on the market. Such books had existed since the advent of print, of course, but the mid-seventeenth century – when England’s censorship enforcement changed – marked a watershed in volume and variety of both titles and authors.

The transition to print did not mean that people simply stopped producing medical texts in manuscript. Some books, like plague tracts and remedy collections, circulated simultaneously in both formats. Medical practitioners continued to produce original manuscripts, and borrowed and made personal copies of printed books. Early modern women copied recipe collections and medical advice from printed books, and then adapted them to their own tastes and means. Medical students copied printed books and blended them with their lecture and study notes. Some practitioners even reworked printed medical books into something new as they copied them out by hand. Adding marginal annotations into printed texts, creating handwritten indices, and taking notes to summarize printed texts further allowed medical script and print to co-exist. But print made these texts accessible to a much wider audience. Relatively cheap, readily available, and largely vernacular, it brought more medical knowledge into the homes of Englishmen and women than had ever been possible before.

Further Reading

Barker, S.K. and Brenda M. Hosington, eds. Renaissance Cultural Crossroads: Translation, Print and Culture in Britain, 1473–1640. Leiden: Brill, 2013.

Boffey, Julia. “From Manuscript to Print: Continuity and Change.” In A Companion to the Early Printed Book in Britain 1476–1558, edited by Vincent Gillespie and Susan Powell, 13–26. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2014.

Fissell, Mary. “Popular Medical Writing.” In Oxford History of Popular Print Culture, vol 1: Cheap Print in Britain and Ireland to 1660, edited by Joad Raymond, 418–31. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Fissell, Mary. “The Marketplace of Print.” In Medicine and the Market in England and its Colonies, c. 1450- c. 1850, edited by Mark S.R. Jenner and Patrick Wallis, 108–132. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Jones, Lori. “Itineraries and Transformations: John of Burgundy’s Plague Treatise.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 95, no. 2 (2021): 277–314.

Jones, Lori. Patterns of Plague: Changing Ideas about Plague in England and France, 1348–1750. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2022.

Jones, Lori. “Early Modern Renewal of John Mirfield’s Fourteenth-Century Gouernayl of Helþe in Wellcome Collection MS 674.” In Genre in Medical English: Sociocultural Contexts of Production and Use 1500–1820, edited by Irma Taavitsainen, Turo Hiltunen, Jeremy Smith and Carla Suhr. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022.

Jones, Peter Murray. “Reading Medicine in Tudor Cambridge.” In The History of Medical Education in Britain, edited by Vivian Nutton and Roy Porter, 153–183. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995.

Keiser, George R. “Two Medieval Plague Treatises and Their Afterlife in Early Modern England.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 58, no. 3 (2003): 292–324.

Leong, Elaine. “‘Herbals She Peruseth’: Reading Medicine in Early Modern England.” Renaissance Studies 28, no. 4 (2014): 556–578.

Lutz, Cora E. “Manuscripts Copied from Printed Books.” The Yale University Library Gazette 49, no. 3 (1975): 261-267.

Slack, Paul. “Mirrors of Health and Treasure of Poor Men: The Uses of the Vernacular Medical Literature of Tudor England.” In Health, Medicine and Mortality in the Sixteenth Century, edited by Charles Webster, 237–74. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Taavitsainen Irma and Pävi Pahta, eds. Medical Writing in Early Modern English. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Wear, Andrew. Knowledge and Practice in English Medicine, 1550–1680. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.