Medieval Irish medicine in its north-western European context: a case study of two unpublished texts (MIMNEC)

From Kelten
Published: 6 December 2021
Medieval Irish medicine in its north-western European context: a case study of two unpublished texts (MIMNEC)
Deborah Hayden

Title (NL): Middeleeuws Ierse medicijnen in hun noord-west Europese context: een onderzoek naar twee niet eerder verschenen teksten (MIMNEC)
Abstract (NL): Nu het MIMNEC-project naar de bredere context van de Ierse medische traditie is afgelopen, praat hoofdonderzoeker dr. Deborah Hayden ons bij over de resultaten. Ondanks de tussenkomst van de pandemie, heeft het project een grote hoeveelheid artikelen, populaire publicaties, lezingen en zelfs een grootschalige conferentie opgeleverd. De handschriften die de basis legden voor het onderzoek (National Library of Scotland MS 72. 1. 2, en Royal Irish Academy MSS 24 B 3 en 23 N 29) bleken een schat aan informatie te bevatten, waaronder vele elders ongebruikelijke termen.

In the autumn of 2018, researchers in the Department of Early Irish at Maynooth University began work on the two-year project Medieval Irish Medicine in its North-western European Context: a Case Study of Two Unpublished Texts (MIMNEC), funded by an Irish Research Council Starting Laureate Award made to the Principal Investigator, dr. Deborah Hayden. Dr. Siobhán Barrett was hired as a postdoctoral Research Assistant in the summer of 2018, and office space and administrative support were provided by the Arts and Humanities Institute at Maynooth, where the research got underway at the beginning of September.

The core aim of MIMNEC was to make progress in the study of medieval Irish medical writing by focusing on an analysis of two texts that shed new light on the relationship between medical learning, the wider early Irish literary tradition and intellectual exchange across various northern European vernaculars during the medieval period. The first of the two works in question is preserved in Section 4 of National Library of Scotland MS 72. 1. 2, a composite codex made up of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century material that was compiled by a member of the Beaton family of medical practitioners in Scotland.[1] The text consists of a collection of questions and answers on elementary topics relating to diseases and human anatomy, many of which place emphasis on parts of the body considered to be particularly vulnerable to injury.[2] It is possible that the compiler of this ‘medical catechism’, who is likely to have been a student, was concerned with identifying the locations of major arteries or veins, the accidental incision of which could result in dire consequences for the patient. Although the teaching transmitted in the text is on the whole quite rudimentary in nature, the work is of considerable interest due to the fact that it contains a number of terms for diseases or parts of the body that are either poorly attested or entirely unattested in published dictionaries of the Gaelic languages. It also incorporates passages that are paralleled in texts from early Irish legal, grammatical and narrative sources, pointing to the very intertwined nature of various learned disciplines throughout the medieval period.

Detail of RIA MS 24 B 3, p. 48 (by permission of the Royal Irish Academy © RIA).

The second text on which the MIMNEC team focused was a large collection of herbal remedies, charms and prayers that can be tentatively connected to the medical catechism by its use of similar technical terminology that is not widely attested elsewhere. This compilation, parts of which are now found in two separate codices (RIA MSS 24 B 3 and 23 N 29), was written primarily by Conla Mac an Leagha (fl. 1496–1512), a figure who is known from extant sources of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to have been a practising physician belonging to the hereditary family of medical practitioners of that name.[3] The Mac an Leagha medical scribes seem to have been primarily active in the region of North Connacht during the late-medieval period, although some of them clearly travelled to other centres of learning to receive training or access other medical texts not available at home. For example, Conla’s brother Máel Eachlainn, who was ollamh in medicine to the two Mac Donnchaidh lords in Sligo around the turn of the sixteenth century, is known to have copied a collection of medical definitions in National Library of Scotland, Advocates’ MS 72. 1. 4 for the ‘cleric and physician’ Niall Mac Beathadh (Beaton), and was on circuit in Kildare for at least part of the time that he spent writing the contents of Dublin, King’s Inns Library MS 15 in 1512.

Conla Mac an Leagha’s remedy collection in RIA MSS 24 B 3 and 23 N 29 is a significant survival due to the fact that it is a unique example, in an Irish medical context, of a prosimetrical work (i.e. a text comprising both prose and verse passages). Among the more than 900 remedies for ailments affecting all parts of the body that make up the text as a whole are some 43 separate passages in verse, most of which are versified remedies that were probably composed with a didactic purpose in mind and may indicate familiarity with similar instructional poetry found in Anglo-Norman medical manuscripts. One very intriguing and unexpected discovery in relation to this corpus of metrical material was that a copy of a single quatrain from one poem in the collection is found on a previously unprovenanced signboard preserved in the Wellcome Collection in London. In a forthcoming article for the journal Irish Historical Studies, Deborah Hayden has argued that both this signboard and Conla Mac an Leagha’s collection of medical cures can be linked to the early nineteenth-century Dublin doctor an antiquarian Michael Casey, who in 1825 had advertised a herbal containing cures derived from early Irish manuscripts.

The remedy book compiled by Conla, with some help from his brother Máel Eachlainn, clearly draws (albeit possibly via the medium of existing Irish translations) on a wide range of different sources, including many works by authors of the classical and late antique periods. It is especially noteworthy, however, for its numerous allusions to aspects of the wider early Irish literary tradition. A striking example of this is the fact that several remedies and passages of medical teaching in the compilation are attributed to members of the Túatha Dé Danann: most frequently the healer-figure Dían Cécht, but also his children, Míach and Airmed. The collection also features a very substantial number of charms and other kinds of ritual cures, some of which may reflect the copying of much older, but now lost, manuscript exemplars as well as the circulation of medical learning between England and Ireland during the early medieval period.

Members of the MIMNEC project engaged in numerous outreach activities that highlighted enormous public interest in the history of Irish medicine. Deborah Hayden spoke about medical manuscripts at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition in Dublin and at the Rathcroghan Visitor CentreShe also gave various radio interviews,  including one for the East Coast FM podcast series Cool Science and Curious Minds, and wrote a widely-read piece for RTÉ Brainstorm.[4] In collaboration with dr. Sharon Arbuthnot (Sabhal Mòr Ostaig/Cambridge) and dr. Sarah Baccianti (Queen’s University Belfast), the MIMNEC team gave a presentation on medicine in medieval Ireland and Scandinavia for the UK ‘Being Human’ festival in February 2020, and another similar event is currently being planned for the Northern Ireland Science Festival in February 2022.

Like many research projects, MIMNEC was profoundly impacted by the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, as team members grappled with dramatically increased administrative loads and the challenges of balancing academic work with full-time childcare duties during the extended school closures that were in force across Ireland during 2020 and 2021. One of the first major problems to be faced in this regard was the project conference on ‘Medicine in the Medieval North Atlantic World’, which had been organized by the MIMNEC team in collaboration with dr. Sarah Baccianti and dr. Bernhard Bauer. This event was originally scheduled for 19–21 March 2020, and some thirty international speakers were set to travel to the Maynooth campus to give papers on the literature, archaeology and language of medical texts and learning across medieval Ireland, Scandinavia, Wales and England. Thanks to the generosity of the Irish Research Council and the British Academy, which were jointly funding the conference, the organizers were also able to award eight full-cost bursaries to postgraduate students and early career scholars who wished to attend and deliver papers. The onset of the pandemic closures in early March 2020 meant that the conference had to be cancelled at short notice, but thanks to the dedication of the entire organizing team and the continued support of the Irish Research Council – which granted additional funding to extend the MIMNEC project for one extra year – it was possible to resurrect ‘Medicine in the Medieval North Atlantic World’ via Zoom on 13–15 May 2021. The final programme for the event featured nearly all of the original speakers, including three plenary lectures by Charlotte Roberts (Durham University), Guy Geltner (Monash University) and Debby Banham (University of Cambridge), and the proceedings of the conference will appear in a forthcoming volume that will form part of the Knowledge, Scholarship and Science in the Middle Ages series published by Brepols.[5]

The project members presented their work at numerous other conferences and smaller meetings, including the Humanities and Medicine seminar series at the University of Limerick, the Classical and Medieval Cultures seminar at Queen’s University Belfast, the University College Dublin Ó Cléirigh seminar, Léachtaí Cholm Cille, the Marburg Celtic Seminar and events organized by the School of Celtic Studies at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. Deborah Hayden also delivered a keynote lecture for the 2018 Maynooth University Research Week, and organized two further international meetings: one a workshop on ‘Medieval Manuscripts meet Modern Science’ at the University of Nottingham (with dr. Christina Lee), and the other a pair of panels on ‘New Work on Medical Texts in the Celtic Languages’ for the sixteenth International Congress of Celtic Studies at Bangor University in July 2019.

The work presented by project members at these events has formed the basis for a number of publications, details of which are given in the bibliography at the end of this report. Some of these contributions discuss the links between the two texts that were the focus of the project and other aspects of early Irish literary and pedagogical tradition. Others deal with the classical source-material that underlies medical teaching in medieval Ireland, as well as the relationship of this written genre to scientific material in other contemporary vernaculars such as Welsh, English and Anglo-Norman French. A number of articles shed new light on terminology for plants, diseases and parts of the body that are either poorly attested or entirely unattested in published dictionaries of the Gaelic languages. The project also resulted in editions and translations of texts that had not previously been available to scholars, including six didactic medical poems and a full chapter of remedies from Conla Mac an Leagha’s collection.

Although the MIMNEC project has now officially come to an end, work in this area by the team members is still very much ongoing. In 2020 Siobhán Barrett was awarded an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship to begin an independent project on medieval Irish medical glossaries, for which she will remain based in Maynooth and work under Deborah Hayden’s mentorship. Emer Kavanagh, a PhD student in the Department of Early Irish who joined the project as a Research Assistant in its final year, was awarded an Irish Research Council Postgraduate Scholarship to complete her thesis on conceptions of magic and the supernatural in medieval Ireland under dr. Hayden’s supervision, and will incorporate some of her recent findings on Irish medical charms into this work. Deborah Hayden is now embarking on a year of sabbatical from Maynooth, much of which will be spent writing a book on medieval Irish medical learning while working as a Visiting Researcher in the Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University. So watch this space – there is more to come!


In the medieval and early modern periods, professional medicine in Ireland and Gaelic-speaking Scotland was, like other vocations such as poetry, law and history, the preserve of a number of learned families who exercised their occupation on a hereditary basis and often received land tenure in exchange for the services they provided to their aristocratic patrons. For discussion of some of these families, see e.g. Nic Dhonnchadha, Aoibheann, ‘The medical school of Aghmacart, Queen's County’, Ossory, Laois and Leinster 2 (2006) 11–43, and Ó Muraíle, Nollaig, ‘The hereditary medical families of Gaelic Ireland’, Rosa Anglica: Reassessments, ed. by L. P. Ó Murchú, Irish Texts Society Subsidiary Series 28 (London 2016) 85–113. The Beaton medical practitioners are discussed in detail by Bannerman, John, The Beatons: A Medical Kindred in the Classical Gaelic Tradition (Edinburgh 1986).
For a preliminary study of this theme in the text, see Hayden, Deborah, ‘Observations on the “doors of death” in a medieval Irish medical catechism’, Rosa Anglica: Reassessments, ed. by Liam P. Ó Murchú, Irish Texts Society Subsidiary Series 28 (2016) 26–56.
See Walsh, Paul, ‘An Irish medical family – Mac an Leagha’, Catholic Bulletin 25 (1935) 646–53, reprinted in Ó Lochlainn, Colm (ed.), Irish Men of Learning (Dublin 1947) 206–18.
For the full conference programme and abstracts of all papers delivered, see


  • Barrett, Siobhán, ‘Varia I: the king of Dál nAraide’s salve’, Ériu 69 (2019) 171–8.
  • Hayden, Deborah, ‘Auraicept na nÉces and the Art of Medicine’, Glossing practice: comparative perspectives, ed. by Franck Cinato, Aimée Lahaussois and John Whitman (Lanham, MD, forthcoming 2022).
  • -----, ‘The context and obscure language of medical charms in a sixteenth-century Irish remedy book: four case studies’, Obscuritas in medieval Irish and Welsh literature, ed. by Chantal Kobel (Dublin, forthcoming 2022)
  • -----, ‘From the “king of the waters” to curative manuscripts: water and medicine in medieval Irish textual culture’, An interdisciplinary study of the elements: earth, water, fire, air (4 vols.), ed. by M. Cesario, H. Magennis and E. Ramazzina (Leiden, forthcoming 2022)
  • -----, ‘Old English in the Irish charms’, Speculum 97.2 (forthcoming April 2022)
  • -----, ‘Medieval Irish medical verse in the nineteenth century: some evidence from material culture’, Irish Historical Studies 45, no. 168 (2021) 1–19.
  • -----, ‘A sixteenth-century collection of remedies for ailments of the male reproductive organs’, Celtica 33 (2021) 248–76.
  • -----, ‘Téacs leighis ó thuaisceart Chonnacht: comhthéacs, foinsí agus struchtúr’, Téamaí agus Tionscadail Taighde: Léachtaí Cholm Cille 50, ed. by Eoghan Ó Raghallaigh (Maynooth 2020) 60–84.
  • -----, ‘Attribution and authority in a medieval Irish medical compendium’, Studia Hibernica 45 (2019) 19–51.
  • -----, ‘The lexicon of pulmonary ailment in some medieval Irish medical texts’, Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie 66 (2019) 105–29.
  • -----, ‘A versified cure for headache and some lexicographical notes’, Keltische Forschungen 8 (2019) 7–22.
  • -----, ‘Three versified medical recipes invoking Dían Cécht’, Fír fesso: a festschrift for Neil McLeod, Sydney Series in Celtic Studies 17, ed. by Anders Ahlqvist and Pamela O’Neill, (Sydney 2018) 107–23.
  • Hayden, Deborah and David Stifter, ‘The lexicography and etymology of OIr. eclas, North American journal of Celtic studies 6/2 (forthcoming November 2022).

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Lian Blasse
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