A Fifteenth-Century Medical Handbook in York Minster Library (YML, XVI.E.32)

General description

Books in York Minster Library

York Minster Library is the largest cathedral library in the UK. It accommodates more than 90,000 printed works on various subjects that range from theology, ecclesiastical history, arts and architecture to other non-religious topics, especially playbills and books and pamphlets on York and Yorkshire history. Its 250 medieval manuscripts are unsurprisingly religious; however, like the rest of the collection, they cover other matters too.

The Minster collection houses a reasonable number of medical books, including two late medieval manuscripts: York, York Minster Library, XVI. O. 10 and York, York Minster Library, XVI. E. 32. York Minster Library, XVI. O. 10 contains a collection of medical and culinary recipes written in the fifteenth century. A work entitled ‘A Medieval Book of Herbs and Medicine’ examines the forty-three folios that comprise this manuscript. The York Minster Library holds a copy of this study written by Elizabeth Brunskill, a former library assistant.1

Another medieval medical manuscript in York Minster Library
York Minster Library, XVI. O. 10 with a mark of ownership: ‘Thomas Ellys hau thys buke quod Thomas Ellys’ (fol. 13v)
York Medical Manuscript: General Characteristics

York Minster Library, XVI. E. 32 (hereafter the York medical manuscript) is a fifteenth-century compilation which contains a series of therapeutic texts. The majority of these texts are collections of herbal recipes which offer treatments to cure various maladies. It also contains other practical texts used to treat, diagnose and prognosticate diseases and their outcomes; e.g. a bloodletting man or a urine treatise. These texts ― which will be further described in later posts ― were believed to be medical in the Middle Ages and appear in little books called ‘booklets’.


Booklets were independent textual and formal units that had meaning in themselves and when put together formed books. This practice was rather standard in late medieval book production. Medieval manuscripts were composed of folios ― made of parchment 2 or paper ― that were bound together to form quires or gatherings which were in turn bound together to form books or booklets.

Thus, the York medical manuscript has 174 folios, distributed into 21 quires and 10 independent booklets. It also has 6 flyleaves or endleaves the bookbinder added to protect the book from worming or damage to the binding.3 The palaeographical features of its ten booklets show that they were copied by various scribes between 1375 and 1500. The manuscript does not contain any sixteenth-century writings but does contain sixteenth-century marginal annotations. These annotations appeared all through the manuscript and date primarily to the early sixteenth century, which suggests the ten booklets were already a book around 1500.     

Spine of the York medical manuscript
Spine of the manuscript with a title that ascribes the codex to William Killingholme
Date of Production

The spine of its nineteenth-century binding indicates its date of production was 1412. It also points to a William of Killingholme as its author: ‘MEDICINE. by WILL: DE KILINGHOLME AD MCCCCXII’. This name appears in an ascription to a ‘Willelmus leche de Kylingholme’ in the manuscript’s fourth booklet (fol. 109v).4

There is nothing in the manuscript which confirms the date shown in the spine of the book. Even if there was, it is impossible to establish the exact date of production of a volume like this. A manuscript made of independent booklets written at different times cannot have a precise date of production. It is possible, however, to infer the date of production of some texts by their content. For instance, the list of kings that opens the book (fol. 2) was probably written between 1413 and 1422 under Henry V’s reign. He is the last king mentioned in this questionable list which names the English monarchs from Alfred the Great to Henry IV along with the years they reigned.

Overall Condition

The majority of the booklets in the York medical manuscript are in good condition and have abundant marginal space. However, some folios show dark areas due to reagent — a former practice used to improve the legibility of those parts that were difficult to read. It consisted of applying a series of chemicals to the manuscript, normally gallic acid, potassium bisulfate, an alternation of hydrochloric acid and potassium cyanide, and more frequently, hydrophosphate of ammonia.5

Stained folios in the York medical manuscript
Folios stained by reagent (fols. 28v-29r)

The York medical manuscript was produced in a period when medical texts written in English spread through the country. That explains why it is mostly written in Middle English, the dominant language in England from 1100 to 1500 roughly. The manuscript shows a variety of Midlands dialects (Shropshire, Herefordshire, Leicestershire, Derbyshire, and Nottinghamshire). It holds various recipes and charms in Latin, and a charm in Anglo-Norman, the French spoken in Britain after the Norman Conquest. Medical manuscripts written in the three languages were not uncommon in late medieval England. Latin was still the European lingua franca amongst scholars and Anglo-Norman became an important written language after the Normans’ arrival. Also, as said before, the production of texts copied in English increased.

Early Owners

The fact that the manuscript is written primarily in English and contains practical, medical texts suggest that the book was probably commissioned or made for the use of a medical practitioner with a basic knowledge of Latin. Otherwise who else would be interested in acquiring a manuscript composed exclusively of medical writings? Higher layers of society, especially the gentry, commissioned works in English on various topics in the fifteenth century — medicine included. However, they appeared to have a literary tendency for romances and devotional texts.    

Colophon that attributes the text to William of Killingholme
The colophon that attributes the text to William of Killingholme (fol. 109r)
Medical Practitioners

Like modern doctors have medical handbooks in the shelves of their surgeries, medieval medical practitioners owned rather specialised medical books. In the fifteenth century, there were physicians who, due to their high tariffs, took care of royal and noble households. These physicians were university-trained and Latin literate, therefore could own and commission works both in vernacular and Latin.

Most medical practitioners, however, would have worked in the country and treated the majority of the population. These rural practitioners did not attend university: they acquired their medical knowledge through apprenticeship. It is unlikely that these practitioners, who had an elementary level of Latin, owned the complex Latinate works used by university physicians. They most likely commissioned and owned books, which like the York medical manuscript, contained uncomplicated medical texts produced in English.

As a matter of fact, is my belief that the York medical manuscript was originally owned and compiled by a rural medical practitioner who marked the place of the quires in the manuscript by means of annotations (see below). 6

Example of quire annotations in the York medical manuscript
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Quire annotation: ‘quaternus 6 in 10 folios’ (fols. 57v-58r)


  1. E. Brunskill, ‘A Medieval Book of Herbs and Medicine’, North Western Naturalist, I (1953), pp. 9-17, 177-89, 353-69. The work consists of three parts published in March, June and September 1953. You can book an appointment to see Brunskill’s work (Yorkshire Pamphlets SC Pamph Box 64/3) or any other item from York Minster´s Special Collections or Archives at collections@yorkminster.org.
  2. Parchment was the name given to the animal skin, more particularly goat and sheepskin, that was prepared as a material on which to write or/and paint.
  3. For a better understanding of how to make medieval manuscripts, see these videos from the Getty Museum and the Fitzwilliam Museum: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKBJkf2xbqI and https://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/pharos/sections/making_art/index_manuscript.html. As it is an interactive video, you will need the Flash 6 plugin for the second one, which you can download for free in the museum´s page.
  4. There is a transcription of the fourth booklet of the York medical manuscript in my MA dissertation: R. Cubas-Peña, A Collection of Medical Recipes in York Minster Library, MS. XVI. E. 32(unpublished master’s thesis, University of York, Centre for Medieval Studies, 2009).
  5. R. Clemens and T. Graham, Introduction to Manuscript Studies (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 2007), p. 104.
  6. For further details, see my doctoral thesis: R. Cubas-Peña, ‘Every Practitioner his own Compiler’: Practitioners and the Compilation of Middle English Medical Books with Special Reference to York Minster Library, XVI. E. 32 (Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Birmingham, 2017).


    • Becky

      Thank you, Elaine! ? I’m really glad you enjoyed it! I´ll be posting more about this manuscript soon, so you might want to stay tuned or subscribe to the blog.

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