A hundred more manuscripts from the John Rylands Library’s Hebrew Collection have just been published on the Manchester Digital Collections website. Among these newly added items there is a fascinating little book (Gaster Hebrew MS 1425) containing a collection of medical texts by Luis Lobera de Ávila (ca. 1480-1551). The Castilian anatomist had become the court physician of Charles I of Spain alias Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, and accompanied him on his travels in Europe and Africa. Apparently, on their visit in England, Lobera even attended a meeting between Henry VIII and the Emperor.
The manuscript in our collection contains two or three texts (depending on how you count), all of which have been based on earlier printed Spanish editions of Lobera’s works. The first part of the manuscript (folios 1-11) is from Lobera’s famous treatise on personal hygiene, health, and nutrition. It is entitled Vergel de sanidad: que por otro nombre se llamava Banquete de nobles cavalleros y orden de bivir ansi tiempo de sanidad como de enfermedad (‘Orchard of health or the knights’ banquet and rules for living in times of health and of sickness’). The Jewish scribe most probably produced the manuscript using the second edition of the Banquete published in Alcalá de Henares by Joan de Brocar in 1542. Though he copied the Spanish text faithfully (and omitted the Latin commentary), he used the Hebrew alphabet instead of the Latin!
In Vergel de sanidad, Lobera explains in detail about topics such as personal hygiene, exercises and periods of rest, sex life, healthy diet such as when to eat and how much, what sort of food and drink to consume, and what diet to have when travelling by land or by sea. Unfortunately, the first few leaves of the Jewish manuscript copy containing the first 44 chapters are missing (including the chapter on the importance of brushing one’s teeth in order to prevent bad breath). The majority of the chapters that survived in our manuscript discuss the nutritional value and the beneficial and harmful qualities of certain types of food. We can learn about almonds, sugar, asparagus, liquorice, mustard, spearmint (‘yerva buena’), and so on.
Did you know for instance that if you add some borage to honey and boiled water, it will sooth mouth ulcers and cough? (see Chapter 64: “קון מייל אי אגואש קוזידאש סון בואנאש פארה לאס לייאגאס די לה בוקה אי פארה לה טוש”, in the Spanish edition co[n] miel y agua cozidas [las borrajas] son buenas para las llagas de la boca y para la tos).
We can even learn potentially lifesaving and life-changing tricks. Remember, for instance: if you eat garlic and drink some strong wine with it, it will protect you against venomous snake bites and against “cold passions” such as fear and sorrow (see Chapter 53: “קומידו אי ביוידו וינו פואירטי אונשימה ואלין קונטרה לאס מורדידוראס די לאש סירפינטיס וינינוזאש אי קונטרה פאשיוניש פריאש”; in the 1542 Spanish edition: “Comidos y beuido vino fuerte encima vale[n] contra las mordeduras de las serpie[n]tes venenosas: y co[n]tra passiones frias”).
And there are plenty more useful tips on these pages…
The next section of the manuscript (folio 11-14) contains Lobera’s Libro de anatomia which presents a description of the microcosmos “in the form of a dream or fiction”:
דיקלאראשיון אין סומה בריוי די לה אורגאניקה אי מאראבילייוזה קונפוזישייון דיל מיקרו קורפו גוזמוש או מינור מונדו קי איש איל אומברי אורדינאדה פור ארטיפישייו מאראבילייוזו אין פורמה די שואינייו או פיקטייון (“Declaracion en suma breve de la organica y marauillosa disposicion del microcosmos o menor mu[n]do que es el hombre ordenada por artificio marauilloso en forma de sueño o fiction”).
In this work, Lobera describes a vision that came to him as after a sleepless night he fell into a slumber. In this vision he saw a well-built tower with a beautiful young maiden imprisoned in it. The young lady was served by three captains and four stewards who ran the tower and attended to all her needs.
You may well ask: what is this all to do with anatomy? But of course, it is an allegory of the human body and its lifecycle! If you cannot identify the different characters, have a look at the outer margins: it is all explained there. The tower is the human body; the three captains who run it are the brain, the heart and the liver; the four stewards are the four humours; and the beautiful maiden incarcerated in the tower is none other than the human soul. Though imprisoned, the maiden is very happy and would not want to leave. However, as time passes, the tower’s structure deteriorates and the captains and stewards do not serve the maiden as they used to. Until one day a very old and ugly man (representing old age) arrives and tells the maiden that the Lord of the Tower (“el señor de la torre”) is asking her to leave because time is over (“porque ya era cumplido el tiempo et suprision”). In the margins of the Spanish printed edition, the Lord of the Tower is identified as Dios nuestro señor, which could be understood as a reference either to God the Father or Christ. At this point our Jewish copyist did make a small diversion from the Spanish and used the word ‘Dio’ instead of ‘Dios’: “דייו נואיסטרו שינייור”. El Dio is the Ladino version of the Spanish word el Dios and it was probably meant to differentiate the God of Israel from the Christian God. (Another explanation is that by dropping the s from the end it was meant to avoid the plural form and any Trinitarian connotations. However, since the original Hebrew word ‘elohim’ is similarly a plural form, this explanation does not sound entirely satisfactory.)
The Libro de anatomia is in reality the first chapter of Avila’s larger work on medicine entitled Remedio de cuerpos humanos y silva de experiencias y otras cosas utilísimas. This work contains two more parts: Silva de experiencias and Antidotario. This second part takes up the rest of our Jewish manuscript (folios 15-213), though its end together with the entire third part about antidotes are missing. The Silva de experiencias is a medical compendium in which you can find explanations about the causes and cures of a wide range of illnesses from headache, heart diseases, and deafness via problems effecting the urinary and digestive system to maternal illnesses.
For whom could this manuscript have been copied? Sephardi Jews (Jews of Hispanic origin) usually used Ladino (also called Judeo-Spanish or Judezmo) and not Spanish per se. Still, as I mentioned at the beginning, this manuscript was written in pure Castilian in Hebrew script (aljamiado). So why was this work not translated into Ladino? From the choice of the Hebrew script and its style we could conclude that it must have been written for a Jew, perhaps somewhere in North Africa or Turkey. Could s/he have been a Jewish doctor who spoke good Spanish and wished to read the work in the original language but was more comfortable reading the Hebrew script than the Latin? We will probably never know for sure.
This codex is just one of the hundred new items on Manchester Digital Collections, so start browsing now to find similarly fascinating manuscripts!
Josep Lluís Barona Vilar, “Luis Lobera de Ávila,” Diccionario Biográfico. Real Academia de la Historia. Accessed 24 August 2021. https://dbe.rah.es/biografias/19554/luis-lobera-de-avila
Josep Lluís Barona, “El Cuerpo alegórico. Claves renacentistas para una interpetación de la naturaleza humana”, Medicina e historia 47 (1993): 10-12. http://www.fu1838.org/pdf/47-3.pdf
Enrique Muñoz de la Nava Callejas, “Francisco Bernardo Xijón (1555-1626): Un calatraveño que obtuvo el primer título de Licenciado en Medicina (Cividad Real, 2014), 134-136. Accessed 24 August 2021. https://www.lacomarcadepuertollano.com/diario/noticias/2014_11_29/2014_11_29_No_19-tripasfcobernardoxijon.pdf
Rafael Chabrán, “Medieval Spain,” in Regional Cuisines of Medieval Europe A Book of Essays, ed. Melitta Weiss Adamson (London: Routledge, 2011), 133-135.