There are over one hundred manuscripts containing Irish medical texts. Most of these are written in Early Modern Irish and were produced between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. There is a great variety of material preserved in these manuscripts, including theoretical tracts, herbals, collections of remedies, poetry, charms, some important early medico-legal texts and glossaries. A major part of this material is Irish translations of classical and medieval medical texts written by authors such as Dioscorides, Galen, Hippocrates, Avicenna, Macer, Constantine the African and John of Gaddesden, and most of these were current in the program of learning taught in medical teaching centres like Salerno and Montpellier. The type of content found in the Irish medical texts is often an eclectic mix of lengthy theoretical material alongside short fragments of theory, aphorisms, collections of remedies, and various glossaries. Nessa Ní Shéaghdha describes one such manuscript, National Library of Ireland G8, as ‘a pocket-size medical encyclopaedia, containing text, in a digested form, on almost every branch of medicine and medico-philosophy. It was perhaps intended as a teacher’s note-book written with the collaboration of a whole medical school'.
There is also evidence that, in addition to translating Latin texts, Irish physicians and scribes were reworking and adapting their source material to suit an Irish context, occasionally including original Irish material. The attribution of remedies to mythical figures such as Dían Cécht, the physician of the supernatural race known as the Túatha Dé Danann, whose name appears in many of the remedies in one medical compendium, is but one illustration of this practice. There are some very exotic ingredients included in remedies, but the vast majority of ingredients is derived from plants that would grow in Ireland, pointing to adaptation of remedies and the likely incorporation of native remedies into these remedy collections. In addition to prose there are metrical remedies and charms in many of the manuscripts, and one collection of remedies alone includes at least 43 original Irish verse passages. Additional original material based on the physician’s personal observations and experience may be found in texts. For example, Aoibheann Nic Dhonnchadha has identified a method of treatment for humoural disease in the chapter on stretching and yawning that occurs in the Collectorium of the Italian physician, Niccolò Bertricco. Its Irish translation by Donnchadh Óg Ó Conchubhair contains a treatment which does not appear in the original Latin text.
Alongside all of these different texts there are various reference lists and the ones under discussion here are the medical glossaries or synonymies, that is, lists of Latin words used in medical texts with their corresponding Irish words. The vast majority of these words are plant names, but minerals, animal products, names of compound medicines and disease names are also included. Such synonymies are also found in other European vernaculars. This brief introduction to glossaries describes their layout and content, their usefulness alongside other medical texts and the difficulties presented in their interpretation and translation, especially to a contemporary audience whose expectations of the authority of a glossary or dictionary may not be realised.
Previous scholarship on glossaries
The Irish medical glossaries have received very little attention since Whitley Stokes edited a few of them in the nineteenth century. In 1899 he published three medical glossaries, two of which are found in Trinity College Dublin MS 1334 (H 3 15) and one in the manuscript he called ‘Lord Crawford’s Irish medical manuscript’ (Manchester, John Ryland’s Library, Irish MS 35). In another article entitled ‘On the Irish materia medica’, Stokes listed the chapter headings of a tract on materia medica from London, British Library (BL), Add. MS 15,403. In this article he extracted just the Latin and the Irish translation of the headword of each chapter, whereas the full original text gives much more detail, such as the properties of the materials, the diseases against which they are effective and some instructions as to how they are to be prepared for use. Stokes also published a glossary of Welsh plant names. Further scholarship on the subject of plant names followed in 1900 with Edmund Hogan’s Luibhleabhrán: Irish and Scottish Gaelic names of herbs, plants, trees, etc, his collection of about four thousand Irish and Scottish names of plants with their English translations. Hogan draws from twenty different sources (and names more which he did not have time to draw on) including medical manuscripts, Stokes’s publications, eighteenth-century botanical publications, volumes of the Gaelic Journal and Hogan’s own personal collection. His list of sources is a directory of the collectors and authorities of plant names in Ireland and Scotland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In England, in the nineteenth century, with the aim of preserving the English plant names found in various manuscripts, two medico-botanical glossaries, Sinonoma Bartholomei and Alphita were published. These glossaries give mainly Latin synonyms for plants and medicinal substances but there are also many English and French synonyms for many of the substances named. In 1989 Tony Hunt published Plant names of medieval England. This work is a collection of the vernacular plant names found in over forty glossaries listed by Latin headword and many parallels can be found between this material and the Irish glossaries.
Function and structure
The Irish medical glossaries are practical texts which must have been used for reference and as a companion to Latin texts, acting as a bridge between the Latin and the vernacular. They are found in manuscripts alongside remedies and medical treatises in Irish and their inclusion in manuscripts reflects their importance to the compilers and users of the manuscripts. Their usefulness in conjunction with texts which have already been translated into Irish is hard to understand since they are ordered alphabetically by the Latin name, but they would have been of use to both physicians and scribes while translating Latin texts into Irish or simply while referring to Latin texts. It is very possible that they were a necessary component of the physician’s collection of both Irish and Latin reference books in the often multilingual domain of academic medical texts. A very high level of fluency in Latin would have been required to translate Latin medical texts into Irish but it is very likely that many physicians would have been able to conduct their day-to-day business through the medium of Irish with less competence in Latin.
The layout and presentation of the glossaries usually follows the same pattern. Entries are sorted somewhat alphabetically into groups by the first letter of the Latin headword and usually take the brief format: Latin name .i. Irish name, as can be seen in this example: Ambrocia .i. iubur sleibhi.
Sometimes more than one Latin synonym is given, like in this example where we get three Latin names and one Irish name: Arón barba, iarus, pes uituli .i. in gedhar. Within each group, however, strict alphabetical order is not preserved. See, for example the opening ten entries of the glossary in NLI G 11: Ambrocia, Accetula, Agrimonia, Atriplex, Arna glósa, Asúra, Atanacia nigra, Atanacia alba, Auripimentum, Atramentum. Another glossary in TCD 1334 which has been edited by Stokes seems to be randomly ordered. Entries 1-20 are: Acurus, Angnus castus, Aigrimuinia, Auansia, Arustologia, Anusmusga, Anetum, Allium, Asufedita, Sarcacolla, Uernix, Olibanum, Labdanum, Galbunam Masdix, Antos, Alue, Merta, Pimintaria. The logic, if there is one, of this arrangement is not obvious, the opening nine all begin with the letter ‘A’ followed immediately by ‘Saracolla’. The qualities of almost all of these medicinal ingredients are hot and dry, making it possible that they are arranged by property, but this might be coincidental. The following block of entries, 8-14, Asufedita as far as Masdix, are all gums or resins, and this is indicated in the text by ‘.i. gum’ following each of these words. The entries immediately following in this glossary are names of plants.
Some scribes include descriptions and explanations especially for the less well known ingredients, and parallel descriptions can often be found in other vernaculars. This is demonstrated in entries that I have found for the exotic nut anacardia ‘marking nut/cashew’. It is clear that there was some uncertainty and possibly more than a little cynicism as to what this actually referred to and this is reflected in how scribes have qualified their explanations by using phrases like, ‘according to some’ and ‘which the empirics say’. What is noteworthy here is that all of the descriptions are so similar, suggesting a common original source.
|National Library of Ireland G11 98b, 42||Anacardi .i. torad crainn||fruit of a tree|
|Stokes, 'Three Irish Medical Glossaries' (3IMG), 328 84||Anacardi .i. míla na heilifinnti doréir droingi ann ⁊ doréir droingi is torad he ⁊ folmaigi se linn finn||lice of elephants according to some and according to some it is a fruit and it expels phlegmatic humour|
|Oxford Corpus Christi College MS 129, 22v 13||Anacardi fructus est nó mila na helifinti mar a deir imperiaca Gallice anacardes.||is a fruit or lice of elephants as the empirics
say, French anacardes.
|Mowatt, Alphita, 9||
Ancicardi (leg. Anicardi) fructus cuiusdam arboris in India [quos] imperiti modici testiculos uocant.footnote 7: App. ‘Anacardi, .i. fructus cuiusdam arboris in India, quam imperiti pediculos elephantium dicunt’
fruit of a tree in India which the emperics call little testicles.
fruit of a tree in India which the empirics call elephant lice.
|Hunt, Plant names of medieval England||Anacardia: anachardes ꝥe the lous of an elephant, and summe seyꝥ ꝥat hit is ꝥe fruyt of a tree.||the louse of an elephant and some say that it is the fruit of a tree.|
Complexities in the interpretation of the synonyms
While many of the entries are quite straightforward and correspond well with material in other glossaries there are often discrepancies, and a Latin word may have a different Irish synonym, sometimes even within one glossary. The examples below show three different entries for atriplex, probably ‘orache’ or ‘saltbush’ in English. The Latin word atriplex is followed by qualifying adjectives in two of the examples pointing to different varieties of this plant which is reflected in the different Irish names:
NLI G 11, p. 98b31: Atriplex minor crisalatamia .i. elefleog
Stokes 3IMG, 335 no. 60: Atriplex agrestis .i. cael feadh nó feithleog
Stokes 3IMG, 335 no. 86: Atriplex .i. cu allaid
In this case the Irish plant name rind rusc is found as a synonym for four different Latin headwords.
NLI G 11, p. 99a3: Acilia .i. rind ruisc,
NLI G 11, p. 101b40: Ypi minor .i. rind rusc
Stokes 3IMG, 334 no. 37: Calamus Pertinus .i. rind ruisc .i. lus na mela.
Stokes 3IMG, 336 no. 120: Aspulegia .i. rind roisc
Complexities like these are also a feature of the Latin and Middle English glossaries. Undoubtedly there are scribal errors in the texts, but it is also possible that some of these differences are due to dialectical and regional variations. The absence of plant descriptions or illustrations makes it difficult to absolutely determine the identity of a plant in some cases. Moreover, it cannot be assumed that a vernacular plant name in use now referred to the same plant in the fifteenth century. This is problematic especially when the risks inherent in using the incorrect plant is considered. However, we have to remember that the users of these manuscripts were trained medical practitioners and would have been aware of safe doses of medicinal plants and would have known what plants to avoid. It was not until the eighteenth century that Carl Linnaeus introduced the Linnaen classification system formalising binomial nomenclature, the modern system of naming organisms.
There is a very interesting glossary in Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS. 129, which gives names in Latin, English and French along with qualities of the substances and descriptions in Irish, but very few Irish names. It begins with: Absinthium amarum, calida in 1° gradu sicca in 2° Gallice aloyne Anglice Mormont, an entry without any Irish words. There is great variety in the detail found under the different headings. Some also give plant descriptions and attribute the information to different authorities, as in this example which quotes Simon of Genoa:
Chamhedreos quercula maighiór germandria idem Gallice germandre ⁊ bi a duille mar duille minntus ⁊ bláth an dath purpere do réir Symoin Ianuensis.
Chamhedreos quercula maighiór germandria idem Gallice germander and its leaves are like mint leaves and the flower is purple according to Simon of Genoa.
This unusual text is a wonderful example of the multilingual environment in which the physicians of medieval Ireland operated and the inclusion of many examples of code-switching merits a close examination of its contents. The entries found at the beginning of this glossary closely resemble the beginning of a glossary found in BL Add. MS 15236. This manuscript contains a number Irish glosses and even though the CC 129 glossary is more expansive, it seems likely that they could have some connection to each other. Only two Irish plant names have been noted so far in CC 129. One is a gloss in Irish, ‘.i. macall’ on the entry over the Latin word ‘auancia’. The second is ‘glunech;’ as the Irish word for pollicaria.
Lengthier descriptions of ingredients are found in texts called Materia Medica, where the entries are also arranged alphabetically by Latin headword and include additional information, such as the quality of the medical ingredient, whether it is hot, cold, wet or dry; a physical description of the ingredient; the diseases for which it is an effective cure; and instructions as to its use. The original source of these types of texts is thought to be Platearius’s Liber de simplici medicina, commonly called by its opening words Circa instans. There are Irish versions of this text in several manuscripts but Tadhg Ó Cuinn is credited with compiling the earliest Irish translation in 1415. The earliest existing copy of this text is found in Dublin, NLI G11, compiled by Donnchadh Ó Bolgaidhe and completed in 1466. That version contains 292 chapters, each one describing one ingredient beginning with aron barba (cuckoo-pint) and ending with ziucra (sugar). The entries vary in length and detail, but some are quite long.There are also some additional entries in the Irish text that do not appear in the original Latin.
As well as glossaries giving corresponding Irish names for Latin items, there are other kinds of lists. There are later texts such as the eighteenth-century manuscript Dublin, King’s Inns, MS 20, which is a list of Latin names with corresponding Irish and English names. There are lists of medical materials classified by property and arranged under the headings of seeds, flowers, gums, roots and fruits. There is also at least one wordlist which lists Irish plant names in alphabetical order with no frame of reference, no plant descriptions or Latin names.
Another interesting and understudied genre of text is the one called Quid pro quo. These are lists of substitutes for substances that may not be readily available. For example ‘Almoint millsi gab cnu cuill arason’, ‘instead of sweet almonds choose hazelnut’.pro bainni almont .i. bainni na cno ngaoidilech’, ‘for almond milk i.e. the milk of the Irish nuts (hazelnuts)’ and a third one: ‘Ar son bande alamont bande na cno coitcenda’, ‘in place of almond milk, milk of the common nuts (hazelnuts)’. These three texts give us three names for hazelnuts. Hazelnuts are very plentiful in Ireland whereas almonds, if available at all, would have been imported and expensive. These texts are predominantly Irish with a mixture of Latin and Irish headwords. They are also very strong evidence of the way in which scholars were collecting and adapting texts to suit the needs of the Irish practitioners. Another Quid pro quo tells us ‘
These understudied texts are full of clues as to the transmission of texts and ideas. Although at first glance glossaries and wordlists may appear to be uninteresting, they are definitely worth further examination. Recent scholarship on the Irish medical texts has demonstrated that they do not simply contain slavish translations of the material contained in the curriculum of the European medical universities. The frequent inclusion of the glossaries and quid pro quos within the medical manuscripts demonstrate their importance in the book collections of the medieval Irish physician. Their use was invaluable alongside remedy collections in both Latin and Irish.