Finding definitions for medieval remedies

Several modern illnesses were already known in the medieval times, but luckily many of them are now rare. The cover of the first volume depicts a man suffering from rabies. Juhani Norri found the picture in a surgical manuscript written in the mid-15th century.

Several modern illnesses were already known in the medieval times, but luckily many of them are now rare. The cover of the first volume depicts a man suffering from rabies. Juhani Norri found the picture in a surgical manuscript written in the mid-15th century.

Fifteen years of work resulted in a unique dictionary.

There is no doubt that Juhani Norri, University Lecturer in English at the University of Tampere, is a patient man. For fifteen years, he studied medical manuscripts written in England and compiled an unparalleled 1,300-page two-volume dictionary of medical terminology.

All of the terms in the dictionary come from the period of 1375–1550. Prior to 1375, Latin and French were almost exclusively used in medicine, but from 1375 onwards, English started to gain ground.

“This is the time when the foundations of English medical terminology were laid,” Norri says.

He originally planned to complete the work sooner, in five or six years. However, it turned out that compiling a dictionary, especially a dictionary of historical terminology, was a more complicated process than anticipated. New perspectives kept cropping up, which made Norri start the whole project from the beginning and study the material again several times.

“Certain words are harder to process than others, but you still have to try to find information on them, too. There are words in this dictionary I wish I knew more about. But I had reached the point when the work seemed complete and it was high time to get the book printed!”

Juhani Norri

Juhani Norri

When you look at a 14th century medical manuscript, the squiggly handwriting alone poses a challenge. Norri read over 11,000 such pages, and so his research data was extremely large. There were about 6,000 pages nobody had studied before from the lexical perspective.

“There were a lot of words which had not previously been discovered. New meanings were also found for familiar words which had already appeared in English dictionaries.”

There are four kinds of medical words in the dictionary: body parts, sicknesses, instruments and medical preparations.

Sometimes Norri needed to consult doctors and chemists in order to come up with exact definitions of the words.

At one point, the Department of Chemistry at the University of Turku prepared a medieval medicine called the green ointment because Norri did not believe an ointment prepared from the ingredients mentioned would be green. The researchers got hold of the ingredients, prepared the ointment and it did indeed turn out to be green.

The School of Information Sciences at the University of Tampere also provided invaluable help and created a well-functioning online database.

“This project was a prime example of multidisciplinarity.”

For the first six years of the research, Norri received funding from the Academy of Finland and the Finnish Cultural Foundation. For the rest of the time, nine years, he conducted the research work as part of his job as a university lecturer at the University of Tampere.

The Herculean effort was motivated by the interesting topic. Norri had already previously completed two other works related to medical terminology so he was not completely unfamiliar with the subject.

For present-day doctors, the dictionary demonstrates that in the medieval times, words had many more meanings. One of the basic principles of modern medicine is that a word should have a fixed meaning, preferably just the one. In the medieval times, the terminology was more chaotic.

During his research work, Norri started to appreciate modern medicine more.

“I came across very exotic conceptions of illnesses and medicines. We have come great leaps forward from those times.”

Juhani Norri: Dictionary of Medical Vocabulary in English, 1375–1550: Body Parts, Sicknesses, Instruments, and Medicinal Preparations. Routledge 2016.

Text: Tiina Lankinen
Photographs: Jonne Renvall