Among the most beautiful items at the Academy is this illuminated and illustrated manuscript of the Chirurgia magna, or great surgery, by Guy de Chauliac. The author was one of the most influential surgeons of the Middle Ages and certainly the best educated; he had studied medicine at Bologna, Montpelier, Paris and Toulouse. In the Chirurgia, he attempted to collect the best medical ideas of his time. Guy described the Chirurgia as a compilation of sources from Arabic and Greek writers, including Rhazes, Avicenna, Hippocrates, Aristotle and others. The text of the Chirurgia was published in many editions and remained the authoritative text on surgery through the seventeenth century.
Guy wrote the first text of the Chirurgia in Latin at Montpellier, in approximately 1363. At this time, French surgical practice was regarded as much superior to English technique. The Latin text was speedily translated into English, Italian, Dutch, Hebrew and Provencal. It was commissioned by John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and father of Henry IV (d. 1399).
The manuscript consists of 181 pages of English black letter in double columns and lines lightly ruled in red. It is ornately illuminated in gold and silver with finely decorated floral borders and large floriated initials, heightened with gold leaf. The manuscript includes 24 drawings of surgical instruments. Of special interest is the item’s very beautiful calf binding, dating to Henry VIII’s reign or to the Elizabethan era. The original brass and leather clasps are engraved with stars and lion heads.
There has been some dispute about the date of this manuscript. The firm of bookseller Bernard Quaritch as well as collector E.C. Streeter dated the manuscript to the late 14th century, based on paleographic details. The scholar Seymour de Ricci dated it to the first half of the 15th century, and Sir D’Arcy Power, to the second half of that century. British Museum specialists date it to the 15th Century, but assign it an earlier date than the Guy de Chauliac manuscript in the Bibliotheque Nationale.
Among the manuscript’s earliest known owners are James Clerke (fl. 1634), whose family pedigree decorates the front fly leaf, and Richard Coffin, owner of an extensive library of rare books, whose family can be traced to the reign of King Henry II. Before Coffin obtained the manuscript, it appears that leaf 106 was excised by John Bagfor, a seventeenth-century bookseller who gutted fragments from books and manuscripts as aids for an intended publication on the history of printing. That work was never published. Leaf 106 is now part of the Fragmenta Disiecta at the British Library.
In the eighteenth-century, the manuscript was owned by Prince William Henry, Duke of Clarence, later King of England. William Henry was known for his good-natured eccentricity and rambling speeches. His bookplate bears the initials WH and the coronet, and appears on the front paste-down. Three other esteemed collectors, Charles Fairfax Murray, Charles William Dyson Perrins, and E.C. Streeter, owned the manuscript before it was sold with the Streeter collection to the New York Academy of Medicine in 1928.
Photography by Ardon Bar-Hama courtesy of George Blumenthal.