Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

Medicine and miracle: StFX faculty member receives prestigious $10,000 DeBakey Fellowship to learn more about medieval medical care 

January 13th, 2023
Dr. Winston Black

Dr. Winston Black, the Gatto Chair of Christian Studies at StFX, has been awarded a prestigious fellowship that will allow him the rare opportunity to delve into the history of hospitals and gain a better understanding of cutting edge medical care in the 12th century, particularly at a medieval English monastery that carried great influence before it was destroyed by Henry VIII during the Reformation. 

Dr. Black was recently named one of four 2023 DeBakey Fellows in the History of Medicine at the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM), a prestigious and competitive fellowship that provides a one-time $10,000 stipend to pursue research on materials at the NLM and elsewhere for his project “Medieval Medicine in Transition: The Manuscript Evidence from Twelfth Century England.”

The fellowship will allow Dr. Black, an historian whose research focuses on the intersection of religion and medicine, to pursue research that’s fascinated him for years and could answer important questions. 

The National Library of Medicine has in its collection a 12th century medical manuscript, known as E8, that could provide insight into an area that scholars have long wondered about, including shedding more light on the interplay between medicine and miracle in the monastery. 

“I was amazed and overjoyed to receive this fellowship,” says Dr. Black. “I want to tell the NLM, and the world, more about one of their books, the oldest European manuscript in their collection.

“It’s kind of a mystery to scholars where it came from,” says Dr. Black on the 380-page book, believed to be from the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, England. It shares handwriting, texts, and recipes with other manuscripts confirmed to be made there. 

The monastery was one of the country’s largest, wealthiest, and most influential institutions, famous for its medicine, during its heyday in the 12th-15th century.

Monasteries, Dr. Black says, were among the most important institutions in Medieval Europe, and historians of medicine and religion are deeply interested in monastic hospitals. They want to figure out what medicine was like there as so little is known about it. 

Dr. Black is hoping his research will provide a better understanding of cutting edge medical care in the 12th century.  

“The history of hospitals is hugely important,” he says, “and this is a period when the hospital was just sort of a guest house. It was in this period where larger hospitals starting providing more medical care.” 

E8 consists of up to 50 different texts, written in different hands, filled with remedies and descriptions from how to recognize medicines to how to diagnose a patient’s health. Its margins are crammed with notes and annotations including notes detailing what works and what doesn’t. 

Making it particularly fascinating, Dr. Black says, is that the last 10 pages of the 900-year-old book contains a section of stories dedicated to the Virgin Mary, including miracle stories, hymns and chants.   

“Why would they put this in the same book?” he asks.

The inclusion may indicate how they viewed the connection between miracle and medicine, perhaps seen in a way like holistic care, treating body, mind, and soul. 

The monks, with their deeply held Christian beliefs, were praying for one’s soul—and creating medication to treat the illness. “They could do both,” he said.

By studying the manuscript and tracing relationships between other surviving books of the era, Dr. Black wants to paint a larger photo of the period, including who was sharing and learning from these texts.

“It was not an age of any mass media,” he says, and by piecing together medical networks and who was sharing these books (for instance, he says, the monks were looking at Christian culture but also drawing from wider cultures including Islam to gain new knowledge) it can provide an idea of what healers were most interested in and what they were using to heal people.  

Adding to the intrigue is the fact the manuscript E8 was stolen for 50 years, and recovered through international police efforts. “It was gone for 50 years. People thought it was gone forever. Only in this millennium are we getting a closer look.”

Dr. Black will conduct research at the NLM, at the Library of Congress, and at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library in Minnesota, home to the world’s largest collection of medieval manuscripts on film.

Dr. Black says the fellowship fits nicely with research he is already conducting as part of the Gatto Chair, looking at the overlap of medieval medicine and medieval religion. He will present some of this research when he delivers the annual Gatto Chair Lecture at StFX on Feb. 1, “Medicine, Mary, and Miracle: Holistic Healthcare in a Medieval Monastery.” He also recently published a blog post with the U.S. National Library of Medicine about some of his fellowship research. The post is available HERE


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