One of the Earliest Illustrated Medical Books Offers a Lens Into Medieval Health

Originally published in 1491, Fasciculus medicinae quickly proved popular, and dozens of editions followed until 1522.

Illustration of the Zodaic Man from the 1500 edition of ‘Fasciculus medicinae’ (all images courtesy the New York Academy of Medicine)

Our astrological signs today are most often used to forecast our near futures,  but in medieval times, the zodiac often dictated how medical practitioners treated their patients. Physicians consulted an illustrated nude figure whose body parts correspond to signs, and after calculating the phases of the moon, would decide whether they could safely draw blood from the region in question.

Known as the Zodiac Mac, this figure was one of the curious representations of man to appear in Fasciculus medicinae, one of the earliest printed, illustrated medical books. First published in 1491 by the brothers Johannes and Gregorius de Gregori, the book collected medical treatises independently written by scholars; its name literally means “little bundle of medicine.” Originally written in Latin, the texts quickly proved popular, and dozens of editions followed until 1522. These were translated into different languages and consulted by individuals in the medical field across Europe.

Cover of the 1509 edition of Fasciculus medicinae

The number of illustrations increased after the second edition to cover an array of medical issues. Among them is the earliest depiction of a modern dissection, a urine color chart, and a pregnant anatomical female figure.

Notably, these scenes and charts were also redrawn over time. The updated pictures, “exhibiting the influence of contemporary Venetian artists like Giovanni Bellini and Andrea Mantegna, reflect the changing aesthetics of the period,” according to Dr. Taylor McCall, a postdoctoral fellow at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. “In general, these images include muscled, classicized figures with an emphasis on careful attention to proportion, background, and perspective.”

McCall examines the making of Fasciculus medicinae in an online exhibition recently launched by the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) Library titled Facendo Il Libro. The library owns five editions of the packet, the oldest of which dates to 1495, and digitized all five in their entirety for web display. The exhibition, which examines the medical illustrations, allows you to see how these images varied slightly over three decades. At times, artists would rearrange a scene or add more details; the 1509 image of the dissection, for instance, is more dynamic than earlier versions. While these images could have been enjoyed purely for their aesthetics, the treatises were likely purchased by specialists in the field.

“The original run of the Fasciculus was in Latin, the language of the elite and educated scholars, but the texts were popular and not especially complicated, compared to much of the theoretical medical literature available at the time,” McCall told Hyperallergic. “I think we can say it was meant for educated and literate medical practitioners, to be consulted in the course of their practice.”

Dissection scene from the 1495 edition of ‘Fasciculus medicinae’
Dissection scene from the 1590 edition of ‘Fasciculus medicinae’

The Library’s editions also hold traces of their original users, some of whom evidently modified pages to better suit their tastes. Some scenes have been hand-colored, while other edits are more unique: the male figures in the 1495 edition, remarkably, wear tight speedo-like trunks, sketched in by a careful hand to mask their private bits.

The latest edition the Library owns is also the final version of Fasciculus medicinae, printed in 1522. By then, the collected treatises had become outdated, as McCall explains, and other manuals were readily available. Seen today, they not only reveal Europeans’ early understanding of anatomy but also speak to the role artists played in presenting medical concepts in a novel way.

Bloodletting Figure from the 1495 edition of ‘Fasciculus medicinae,’ with hand-drawn “speedos”
Disease Figure from the 1495 edition of ‘Fasciculus medicinae,’ with hand-drawn “speedos”


Urine wheel diagram from the 1500 edition of ‘Fasciculus medicinae,’ with colors
Anatomical woman from the 1495 edition of ‘Fasciculus medicinae’
Frontispiece from the 1500 edition of ‘Fasciculus medicinae’
Plague Visitation Scene from the 1509 edition of ‘Fasciculus medicinae’
Urine Consultation Scene from the 1495 edition of ‘Fasciculus medicinae’
Wound Figure from the 1495 edition of ‘Fasciculus medicinae’
Zodiac Man from the 1509 edition of ‘Fasciculus medicinae’
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