One of the most well-known manuscripts of the Carolingian world is St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 878 – a vade mecum (notebook) compiled over a number of years by Walahfrid Strabo (d. 849). It provides a fascinating window into the possibilities for learning in the first half of the ninth century, with a variety of short texts and extracts on grammar, calendrical science and medicine.

One particular medical text raises some interesting issues about the transmission of medical knowledge. This is a letter about diet, the humours, and the changing seasons. It usually circulates in Latin as The Letter of Hippocrates to King Antiochus, although it is actually translated from a Greek work that purports to be from Diocles of Carystos to Antigonus. In Augusto Beccaria’s (non-exhaustive) handlist of early medical manuscripts he counts 24 witnesses to the text, probably making it one of the most popular such works before c.1200. Its popularity is also evident in the way it seems to have inspired other works and it was even cited at length by Bede in On the Reckoning of Time ch. 30 (725).

It is with Bede that problems with the text might become evident. Bede gives a long quotation from the last section of the Letter, which is a practical guide to dealing with the changing humours over the year, mostly by eating different kinds of food or fasting, or by having more or less sex. The odd thing is that, if one compared it to Walahfrid’s text, it isn’t quite the same. There aren’t any big differences apart from a weird extra suggestion about washing less in Autumn. But it is not the same, and Walahfrid and his entourage were moved to copy the Bedan extract into the vade mecum – alongside a third subtle variation of the same little guide.

That there are multiple versions is possibly not that surprising or interesting. (I have added a working list at the end). These do, however, open up the opportunity to explore some of the ways that medical knowledge was circulating in the centuries before Walahfrid was active.

Let’s start with Walahfrid’s own version of the Letter. Can we identify much about its origins? The earliest roughly datable Latin version can be found in Marcellus’s De medicamentis liber, probably compiled after Marcellus’s retirement from the court of Theodosius I in c. 395. Walahfrid’s is not that version. Nor indeed is it the version edited by Axel Nelson in 1932 largely on the basis of St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 44 (St Gall, s.ix).[1] It is assigned to the ‘k’ family in Pearl Kibre’s 1979 ‘repertorium’ of Hippocratic letters – although of the seven other manuscripts in that group I looked at, Walahfrid’s text matched only one (St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 265 (St Gall, s.x)).[2]

A surprisingly close relative to Walahfrid’s text can be found in the Codex Salmasius. This is a famous collection of poetry, grammar and other materials, much of which came from late antique North Africa and Spain, although the manuscript itself is probably from Central Italy c. 800.[3] It only contains the end of the Letter (p. 273), unfortunately, and there are a couple of minor textual differences, but I would align it with ancestors of Walahfrid’s text rather than the Marcellus version. It might, at least, point towards channels of transmission other than via Marcellus.

For extra intrigue, the Salmasius version ends APULEI PLATONICE EXPLICIT. Apuleius in the Latin medical tradition was associated with a herbiary. The misattribution, however, makes sense in the wider transmission of the end of the Letter. At some point, the information on the humours and the seasons was edited to form the second half of a Letter of Hippocrates to Maecenas, also known in its shorter ‘original’ form from Marcellus’s book. The new hybrid circulated in early medieval manuscripts almost exclusively as prefatory material to… Pseudo-Apuleius’s Herbarius. The Apuleian version is, quelle surprise, not quite like the Walahfrid or Salmasius versions, which possibly places the Salmiasius version in an awkward place in the lines of transmission. Well, things get messy.

The repurposing of bits of text like this is quite common. Remember that other extract on the humours Team Walahfrid had that wasn’t Bede? It occurs in two other early manuscripts, in both cases as an addition at the end of Book III of the fourth-century Medicina Plinii.[4] So that’s something they might have been reading. (Coincidentally, the prefatory letter to the Medicina Plinii was also included in Marcellus’s book of medicine, which starts to give the impression medical knowledge available to Walahfrid was quite similar to that available to Marcellus in fourth-century Narbonne).

Something that both the Apuleian and MP versions share is a comment about working less in Autumn. In the Apuleian version, the author suggests ‘we will take more acidic and bitter foods, we will work more sparingly, and we will abstain from sex’ (utimur acidis et acribus, et parcius laborabimur, et abstinebimur venerem). Similarly, the MP version states ‘make use of acidic and bitter food, and work less’ (utendum acidis acribus quibus cumque escis; minime laborandum). In both cases, this fits well with the Diocles original, which says to ‘take the most bitter and most acid [substances] and cause as little vomiting as possible and labour and abstain from sex’ (καὶ προσφέρεσθαι δριμύτατα καὶ ὀπωδέστατα καὶ ἐμετοποιεισθαι ὡς ἐλάχιστα φιλοπονεῑν τε καὶ τοῡ συνουσιάζειν ἀπέχεσθαι).[5] The Marcellus and Walahfrid versions both add avoiding excessive fasting in place of the labour, which underlines their departure from the Greek – which is funny because Walahfrid preserved Greek terms in Greek characters in his copy. Walahfrid’s version was also the victim of a copying error at some point because the instruction to take ‘acidic and bitter’ things had become an instruction to take ‘all warm and bitter foods’ (utere [cibis] calidis et accerimis omnibus).

Somewhere in this crossfire of versions, it becomes possible to identify a little more about Bede’s copy of the Letter. For a start, the weird suggestion to wash less looks like it might be an unfortunate mix-up of lavabis and laborabis, while still perhaps pointing to an ancestor that was closer to the Greek than Marcellus’s or Walahfrid’s. But how close? It is notable in the same passage that the acidic foods from most versions have become the warm foods of Walahfrid’s. It is also noticeable that, again like Walahfrid’s, the charting of the seasons using Pleiades has become glossed with the star-cluster’s Roman name, the Vergiliae. It may not be possible at present to identify which version of the Letter Bede had or in what kind of medical collection. What we can see, however, is yet another stage in a constantly restless and complex Latin transmission history of a once-Greek text. But how many translations from Greek there were and how many Latin-to-Latin versions we are dealing with it is hard to say.

I Early MSS of Marcellus Version

M1 Paris, BnF, lat. 6880, 4v-5r [online]

M2 Laon, Biblothèque municipale, MS 420, 1r-4r.

NB London, British Library, MS Arundel 166 (E. France? Early s.ix) lacks the letter although there is a space for it on 3r [online]

II Walahfrid Version

W1 St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod Sang 878, pp. 327-31. Various locations 827-49. [online]

W2 St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod Sang 265, pp. 93-7. St Gall s.x. [online]

W3 Paris, BnF, lat 10318, 273 (ending only). ‘Codex Salmasius’. Central Italy c.800. [online]

III Systematic Version (ed. Nelson from N1)

N1 St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 44, pp. 197-201. St Gall s.ix. [online]

N2 Karlsruhe, Badische Landesbibliothek, Cod. Aug. 172, 74v-75v. [online]

N3 Zurich, Zentralbibliothek, C79b, 37r-v.

IV Paraphrased Version and Its Abridged Version

P1 BAV, Reg lat 1143, 135r-140r [online]

P2 Paris, BnF, lat. 11219, 41r-41v. St Denis, mid-s.ix. [online]

p1 BAV, Reg lat 1143, 89v-92r [online]

p2 BAV, Reg lat 598, 26r-27r [online]

V Shortened St Gall Version

S1 St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 751, pp. 163-5. St Gall late s.ix. [online]

VI Addition to Medicina Plinii

A1 St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek Cod. Sang. 752, pp. 80-1. St Gall c.900. [online]

A2 Leiden, UB, VLO92, 79r.

A3 St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 878, pp. 374-5. [online]

VII Addition to Letter to Maecenas/ Apuleian Version

z1 Florence, Biblioteca Laurenziana, Plut.LXXIII.41, 10r-11r. S. Italy early s.ix. [online]

z2 Leiden, UB, VLQ13, 2v-3r.

z3 London, British Library, Add. 8928, 26r. [online]

[Paris, BnF, lat. 6862, 3v-5v, followed by Ps.-Apulieus but the end of the letter is missing].

z5 St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 751, pp. 171-2. St Gall late s.ix. [online]

z6 Wrocław, University Library, III.F.19, 20r-21r. s.ix. [online]

NB for the Maecenas letter Kibre lists the Marcellus manuscripts (see above) which don’t include the temporal ending plus St Gall 761 which is incomplete. A second group is listed as including Paris BnF lat 7027 2v-13v and Paris BnF lat 11219 212r-221r but these are neither the letter nor the same as each other.


[1] A. H. Nelson, ‘Zur pseudohippokratischen Epistula ad Antiochum regem’, in Symbolae philologicae (Uppsala, 1932), 203-217.

[2] P. Kibre, ‘Hippocrates Latinus: Repertorium of Hippocratic Writings in the Latin Middle Ages (V)’, Traditio 35 (1979), 273-302 at 279.

[3] B. Bischoff, ‘Manuscripts in the age of Charlemagne’, in his Manuscripts and Libraries in the Age of Charlemagne, trans. M. Gorman (Cambridge, 1994), 44-5 and 51.

[4] St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 752 (c.900), 80-1; Leiden, UB, VLO92, f. 79r. It is not included in Önnerfors’s 1964 edition as it occurs after the explicit of Book III.

[5] Ed. P.J. van Eijk, Diocles of Carystus 1 (Leiden, 2000), 320-1.