Apothecary preparing medicaments with his assistants. Besançon - BM - ms. 0457. Cliché IRHT © Institut de recherche et d'histoire des textes - CNRS

Per un libre de medecina en molla appellat Mesue s. XVI.

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Joannis Mesuae Damasceni, De re medica (Lyon, 1550). © Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek, Heinrich Heine Universität Düsseldorf.

One of the most important transmitters of the medical knowledge of ancient Greece was a Nestorian Christian, Yuhanna ibn Masawaih (d. 243 AH/857CE), a court physician who was active in Baghdad in the first half of the 9th century. Mesue, as he was known in Christian circles, was the author of several medical treatises, including Disorders of the eye (Daghal al-ain) and a book of medical aphorisms known in Arabic as al-Nawādir al-ṭibbiyya. Though not as familiar to historians today as Ibn Sina (Avicenna, d. 428AH/1037CE), Mesue had a considerable reputation in the Christian west as a medical authority.

Throughout the fifteenth century, Mesue's writings circulated widely in manuscript, and apothecaries often owned a copy. In his study of Readers and Books in Majorca 1229-1550, Jocelyn N. Hillgarth ranks Mesue as the second most popular medical author in Sicily and the eighth most popular in Majorca, judging by his prominence in the inventories of libraries and individuals. Mesue is the first book listed in the 1463 inventory of the apothecary Bartholomeus Claret, which notes “1. Primo hun libre de pregamins, appellat Eben mesue,” to be followed by another parchment edition of “Agregacor e mesue,” likely another reference to Mesue.

The earliest decades of printing saw the consolidation of his reputation. In her 2013 study, "The Prince of Medicine," Paula de Vos observes that in the corpus of incunabula (books printed before 1501), editions attributed to Mesue are more common than those authored by Ibn Sina. From 1471 to 1492, printers cutting their teeth in the nascent publishing industry published 22 editions of his works. Most came from Italy, but one was printed in Lyon and two in Strasbourg. Mesue's reputation endured across the sixteenth century, which saw the publication of 65 editions of his works. By the seventeenth century, however, he had started to lose prominence. Admittedly, the authorship of Mesue's works remains obscure: De Vos argues that "Mesue" was a pseudonym used by the unknown author of the three important Latin works attributed to him. These works, extant in manuscript form from the 13th century, were often bundled together under the title Opera medicinalia. The first of the books, De simplicibus, offered a list of forty-nine natural substances that could be used as purgatives. The second, Grabadin, identified four hundred compound medicines bound together by substrates such as honey, sugar, oil, lard, and wax. The third treatise, the Canones universales, identified how these substances were to be used. Though Yuhanna ibn Masawaih may not be the author, these works do show considerable familiarity with Arabic medicine, according to De Vos.

As shown by Emily Beck, Mesue or pseudo-Mesue was particularly well known as an authoritative source for recipes for medicines, one of the subjects featured in the influential Grabadin. In the Nuovo Receptario Fiorentino (1498), a compilation of recipes approved for use by apothecaries and physicians, Mesue is far and away the most cited authority. The authors of the Nuovo Receptario Fiorentino recommended that apothecaries keep Mesue's works ready to hand, along with those of Avicenna and several other standard references for pharmaceutical practice. They believed it was quite as important for an apothecary to have read and be ready to consult the ancient authorities as to store fresh medical ingredients properly.

As indicated by this month's featured object, a woman named Donna Miquella took that advice to heart. Donna Miquella was an apothecary and shopkeeper active in the French city of Avignon in the latter part of the 15th century. She was one of several female apothecaries whose inventories are found in the DALME corpus. The inventory of her shop was generated in June of 1492 when an individual named Jacques Chanut began making arrangements to lease Donna Miquella's pharmacy. Though no explanation is provided, a possible scenario is that Miquella had recently died and her heir or heirs had chosen to rent out the pharmacy rather than sell it outright. To prepare for the rental, Johan de Toron, a spicer, and Jaumet Chanut, an apothecary, compiled or supervised an inventory of the contents of the pharmacy, listing all the items found along with line-item appraisals of value. Like other individuals described as apothecaries, Miquella prepared and sold many goods in addition to drugs and medicines, including sugar, candles, and paper. But she clearly operated in the pharmaceutical trade as well. Among other things, the inventory of her shop includes a pewter goblet for giving medicine, valued at 2 sous, and medicines described in the Provençal language of the record as litargiri auri, senisa, torbit, and pillulle balsami. The total value of the contents of the shop came to 111 florins and 12 sous.

Along with everything else, Miquella possessed two books, one of which was identified as a "chronicle of France" and appraised at 1 florin and 12 sous. The entry indicates that the chronicle was "en molle," a phrase that literally means "in form" and refers to a book printed with movable type. It is possible that the book formed part of her stock but this seems unlikely, since there are no indications that she otherwise was much concerned with the bookselling trade. The most arresting item, though, is "a medical book, in movable type, called 'Mesue'," valued at 16 sous. Given the casual indifference to the title of the book, we can infer that the spicer and the apothecary responsible for the inventory thought a perfectly ordinary thing that Miquella should possess a Mesue. But which Mesue? The most likely candidate is one or more of the works that constituted the Opera medicinalia, given that this collection served as a handbook for pharmaceutical practice. The proximity of Lyon, a major printing center located a little over 200 kilometers to the north of Avignon, suggests that Miquella's edition may have been the one printed in Lyon by Martin Huss and Johannes Siber in 1478.

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Opening page of the Mesue edition a copy of which was possibly owned by Donna Miquella. Johannes Mesue, Opera medicinalia (Lyon: Martin Huss and Johannes Siber, 1478). München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek -- 2 Inc.s.a. 1112 a#Beibd.1 © Münchener Digitalisierungszentrum

If the inventory is complete — and there is no reason to believe otherwise — this appears to have been the only pharmaceutical reference work owned by Donna Miquella. This singularity speaks volumes to the high regard in which Mesue was held by practicing apothecaries. Equally noteworthy is the comparatively low value of the book, which was appraised at roughly 1/3 the value assigned to the chronicle of France. Of course, any number of factors, including the quality of the paper, binding, and type, could explain the difference in value. But we know that the value of books was also diminished by wear-and-tear occasioned by ordinary use. From this, it seems likely that Mesue's book was a well-thumbed resource for pharmaceutical knowledge in late 15th-century Avignon.