Acquisitions Highlight: Astrology and medicine in the 16th century

Many of the items in our rare book collections feature beautiful illustrations of the human body. While these are often the obvious choices to use in exhibits and highlight on social media, a book does not need to be visually spectacular to be interesting. Some of our most fascinating holdings are small and unassuming in appearance, but they still have compelling stories to tell.

For example, we recently acquired an herbal published in 1575 in Strasburg, Germany. At first glance, it’s unremarkable to look at: it’s bound in a plain paper wrapper, has no illustrations, and is smaller than most modern paperback books. If you put this next to one of our copies of Vesalius’ anatomical atlas, chances are most people would go straight to the Vesalius. This is an understandable impulse, but this little herbal offers a somewhat surprising perspective on the early modern medical landscape.

The herbal was written by Bartholomäus Carrichter, a German physician and astrologer who served in the courts of the Holy Roman Emperors Ferdinand I and Maximilian II. He was a follower of Paracelsus, the Swiss physician and alchemist who decried traditional medical practice. Paracelsus believed that the only true medical authority was nature and that astrology had implications in health and disease, a view that Carrichter apparently shared.

Carrichter’s interest in astrology can be seen in how he chose to arrange his herbal. Rather than categorizing the herbs by name or the diseases they were meant to treat, Carrichter grouped them according to the signs of the zodiac. Why would he do such a thing? The answer lies in humoralism. According to this old medical theory, the body was governed by four fluids, which were known as humors – blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. Each of these had distinct hot, cold, moist and dry qualities. The humors were related to the four seasons, the four elements, and the twelve signs of the zodiac, which could be divided into four groups of three. Carrichter’s book therefore contains four subsections: the “sanguine” signs (Libra, Aquarius, Gemini), the “choleric” signs (Sagittarius, Aries, Leo), the “melancholic” signs (Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn), and the “phlegmatic” signs (Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces). The materia medica ruled by each sign contained intrinsic humoral qualities. For example, the herbs governed by Cancer were considered cold and moist, while the ones governed by Sagittarius were hot and dry.

These substances were more effective when taken under their ruling sign. In the introduction, Michael Toxites, Carricther’s editor and another Paracelsian physician, informed the reader that, “roots, seeds, leaves, metals, and other things each have their own seasons of spring, summer, and fall when they can be much more potent than at other times.” In this vein, Carrichter provided instructions for when herbs should be gathered and used. For example, when describing wall germander, which was used to treat gout, he advised the reader to gather them “in the morning early in the day, at the beginning of May when the sun is still in Taurus.”

Today, astrology and medicine occupy separate realms. But this humble little herbal, with its dog-eared pages and handwritten annotations, reveals that this was not always the case. Although it is not the most magnificent book to look at, it still gives us a glimpse into the medical world of five centuries ago.