Gale’s Herbarium

Manuscript O.2.48 is a medical miscellany combining the works of various authors. Part of a well-known group of manuscripts, the Herbarius corpus, the Trinity copy – donated by Roger Gale in 1738 – is one of the most extensively illustrated manuscripts of these medieval herbals. Written and illustrated in Germany in the second part of the 14th century, it contains approximately 800 drawings of plants and 40 drawings of doctors and patients. The text begins with a prayer, to recite when preparing plant-based medicines, and then explains the properties of each plant, the illnesses they are most suitable for, and how to prepare the potions. Rather than an interesting read for plant lovers, the Herbarium was a detailed manual for the general practitioner that allows us to glimpse at the life of medieval doctors, busy attending their patients and advising them on the most appropriate treatments for their illnesses.

The drawings also include two female doctors:

Female doctor with assistant and patient, f. 29v
Female doctor with assistant and patient, f. 29v


Female doctor, f. 99v
Female doctor, f. 99v

On f. 64r there is a portrait of Galen, the Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher, together with his students. He is represented as a feudal king surrounded by his vassals:

"Galenus et eius discipuli", f. 64r
“Galenus et eius discipuli”, f. 64r

Another remarkable aspect of this manuscript is the presence of a bestiary (Liber de medicina ex animalibus), with pictures of 54 animals, insects and birds. The text explains the properties of each animal, and how some of their features (hair, dung, milk, claws…) can be used to treat illnesses successfully. Among the drawings, there are common animals such as a goat, a bull, a dog, a horse, a cock; some more exotic ones, such as an elephant, a lion, an ostrich; and some mystical beasts, such as a unicorn and a dragon.

Appropriately as Halloween approaches, a cat is also featured and its feral aspect clearly shows that cats were not kept as pets in Medieval Europe. Although cats protected food stores from rodents, they were mostly associated with witchcraft and shape shifting, and were hunted accordingly until the advance of the Black Death.

Cat, f. 262v
Cat, f. 262v
Unicorn, f. 273r
Unicorn, f. 273r


The full manuscript has been digitised and recently added to our online collection: see here.


3 thoughts on “Gale’s Herbarium

  1. Piero Trebiciani

    Molto interessante. In particolare le riflessioni sulla figura del gatto, di cui si fanno notare delle caratteristiche poco conosciute e che non siamo soliti associare alla paciosa, sorniona immagine di uno degli animali solitamente e tradizionalmente più domestici e tranquilli per noi immaginabili.

  2. Reblogged this on ejournals@cambridge and commented:
    There is a search option on the James Catalogue of Western Manuscripts that allows you to ‘browse all manuscripts’ and then to ‘only include virtual manuscripts’. I had a quick look through ‘Newton’s Notebook’ (classmark R.4.48c), a ‘Roll of Carols’ (classmark O.3.58) and a 15th century ‘Medical Texts’ (classmark R.1.86). What will you find?

  3. Pingback: Weekly Roundup of History, Archaeology and Writing Wisdom Dec 5-11 | Judith Starkston

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