What’s Wrong with Merovingian Medicine?

Merovingian Gaul – Gaul after the ‘Fall of Rome’ – was terrible. All that anarchy and violence and illiteracy and moral decline. Just read Gregory of Tours’ Histories.

Sadly for some people, most historians of the Merovingian period don’t really buy into that any more. They even think Gregory was a sophisticated writer, or they might even worry that one grumpy social commentator does not necessarily mean that society is actually falling apart. (No promises, there, sadly).

But what about science and medicine? Surely for any society to have any claim to be looked upon with respect, it needs progressive and robust science and medicine? And historians are not so kind for Merovingian Gaul. At best, we might be able to make a claim for the Carolingian Renaissance?[1] launching a new golden era of knowledge, because there are plenty of manuscripts and even the most genocidal rulers also read books and poetry. (There is some excellent new work here: see especially Meg Leja’s 2016 study in Viator). But otherwise we find comments like Vivian Nutton’s on early medicine in the 2011 Cambridge History of Science vol 2 (surely therefore authoritative) that ‘the economic, political, and military decline of the Roman Empire entailed in the Latin West the decline of ancient science’ (p, 327).

Such judgements might be fine. But it is worth having a look at Peregrine Horden’s 2009 critique, ‘What’s Wrong with Early Medieval Medicine?’ and asking if the slight obsession with the rise and fall of relative standards en route to modern medicine is necessarily the only way of thinking about such things. Horden highlights some important points, including:

  • Our categories don’t map onto those employed by people in the distant past.
  • Where we have manuscripts, we don’t have much sociological evidence that tells us how the medicine or texts were used in practice.
  • The manuscripts usually show some sophisticated (and less sophisticated) editing, translating and juxtaposing of texts, so you could have fun with intellectual-cultural history using them.

This might all involve being a bit more relativist about things and thinking about medicine as part of a culture and society. But that is what more historians of science do these days.

The problem with Merovingian medicine is that it is not immediately clear that being less judgemental gets us any further forward. At least for Anglo-Saxon or Carolingian medicine, there are lots of texts and manuscripts. For Merovingian Gaul: not so many. But of course, we have been here before with the Merovingians, and the age-old question: ‘Do we mistake absence of evidence for evidence of absence?’ (Loaded question deliberate). There are so many problems with the survival of evidence for the period including, as Horden notes, the fact that many things that were written down in the period were written on papyrus, which just does not keep well in Northern European climates.

It is the great illusion of the Carolingian Renaissance?: it is not just that people wrote so much more in the ninth century because they had rediscovered a love of learning, it is that we have lost most of what anyone wrote in the period before. The seventh century could have been amazing. We will probably never know.

One weak way forward is to hold in mind the question ‘Where did all this Carolingian medicine come from?’ It is like the Black Pearl: if nobody lives to tell the tale, where do all the tales come from? Might Carolingian medicine not have been built on foundations from Merovingian libraries and practices?


The Bern MS

One interesting piece of evidence here comes from an old friend of mine from my studies of computus and apocalypse: Bern, Burgerbibliothek, MS 611. This is a complicated early eighth-century manuscript, sections of which contain such joys as a Computus of 727, an early copy of Pseudo-Methodius’s Apocalypse, a Latin version of the Physiologus, and – in a section now in Paris – a legal formulary that mentions Bourges. The last section contains some medical texts (or possibly one, as they are run together). It has clearly given the cataloguers for e-codices a bit of a headache, as most of it is attributed to Gargilius Martialis or is listed as ‘unidentified’. It is in fact not Gargilius, as you find if you follow their own directions to Valentin Rose’s edition, but rather a related text known as De virtutes herbarum, which can also be found as part of the ‘Dynamidia’ they also direct you to (also in the early Carolingian collection St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 762). And much of the ‘unidentified’ material is taken from Pseudo-Apuleius’s book on herbs, most famous from the ancient (sixth-century) copy in Leiden.


The Leiden Ps-Apuleius

In short: it’s not remotely original (although there are still some bits I haven’t identified – more work to do!), but it is at worst a reminder that Merovingian libraries had access to some of the same Late Antique texts the later period otherwise seems to have magicked from nowhere. And they seem to have been playing around with them, building new compilations, rather than just copying texts as they found them.

One would not want to put too much pressure on a single datapoint, but where there is demonstrably not absence of evidence (because there is evidence), it’s hard to see what was so wrong with Merovingian medicine. It fits neatly between what people were doing in Late Antiquity and in the Carolingian period.

[1] Which I recommend is always pronounced quizzically, like the Peploe? in 44 Scotland Street.