The Lily of Medicine

Bernard de Gordon finished his Lilium medicinae in 1305 at the University of Montpellier.  Lilium medicinae (literally, the lily of medicine) is his most well-known work.  It is an encyclopedia of diseases with their symptoms, causes, effects, and treatments; and includes plague, tuberculosis, scabies, epilepsy, anthrax, and leprosy.  Lilium survives in approximately 50 manuscripts (and numerous later, printed volumes) and was translated into French, German, and Hebrew in the 14th century, and Spanish and Irish in the 15th century.  It was considered required reading at Montpellier beginning in the early 1400s.


Front cover, Bernard de Gordon’s Lilium medicinae, 1348 (Oxford?). Call no. 10a 249.


The Library’s copy, call no. 10a 249, dates to 1348 (more on this in a later post) and was most likely written at Oxford.  Its binding is late 15th- or early 16th-century.  10a 249 is missing the first leaf – and therefore the first illuminated initial – but has the other 6 illuminated initials intact.

Not much is known about Bernard de Gordon, and what we do know has come from small clues in his authored works.  He was a physician and professor of medicine at the University of Montpellier, and it’s possible he received his education at Montpellier as well.  In Lilium, Bernard wrote extensively about leprosy and included what is regarded the first clinical description of a petit mal seizure:

I have often seen the paroxysm so short that the patient had only to lean against a wall or the like, or rub his face, and it ceased. Sometimes he did not need a support, but there came to him a dizziness in the head, and blindness in the eyes, and he himself, sensing it, recited the Hail Mary, and before he had finished it, the paroxysm had passed.  (II.xxii, British Museum MS Harley 3698 n. 33, fol. 12v)


This month’s #MedievalMondays will explore illuminations and the Black Death, both part of Bernard’s Lilium.  Stay tuned!


Note re: leprosy, flyleaves ii & iii, Bernard de Gordon’s Lilium medicinae, 1348 (Oxford?). Call no. 10a 249.



Demaitre, Luke E.  Doctor Bernard de Gordon: Professor and practitioner.  Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1980.

Kidd, Peter.  A Descriptive Catalogue of the Medieval Manuscripts in the Library of the College of Physicians, Philadelphia. 2015.