In 1893 the great Merovingianist Bruno Krusch published a little-noticed Gesundheitskalendar “of the Merovingian period.”[1] He had found it in the library in Laon in a Carolingian manuscript most likely from the city (MS 426 bis = Bischoff, Katalog, no. 2117).

If it is “Merovingian,” that would be interesting. There isn’t a whole lot known about healthcare in Gaul in the period. The most famous Merovingian medical text – and for some people the only one really – is a work by the legate Anthimus called On the Observance of Foods. That text offers dietary advice to King Theuderic I (d. 533/4), mostly stressing the philosophical point that taking anything to excess can be harmful. It is quite a downbeat and austere text, although it can be fun to encounter Anthimus struggling to get his head around the particularly Frankish delicacy that is bacon (better boiled than fried, allegedly). A Gesundheitskalendar would be a nice companion piece to Anthimus.

Krusch, sadly, didn’t offer any real justification for his judgement that the work was Merovingian. The text is mostly recycled Hippocratic advice, with suggestions about diet, bloodletting, and purgation, designed to balance the body through the seasons. There are actually quite a lot of witnesses to the calendar or versions of it, as discussed by Groenke and Fischer.[2] The oldest seems to be in Glasgow Hunter 96, a very early Carolingian manuscript from the Narbonne region. Compared to these, the Laon text seems to be incomplete.

There is perhaps a logic to Krusch’s judgement at the point he made it. With emphasis on radishes, agrimony, lettuce, and cabbage, nothing here is that exotic (not that the Merovingian world lacked spice). Moreover, references to beer and mead might bring to mind a northerly audience. Jonas of Bobbio’s Vita Columbani from the early seventh century seemed to suggest that one had to explain what beer was to people south of Burgundy – something Krusch no doubt knew, as he worked on an edition of the text published in 1902.

We can perhaps add some more circumstantial evidence to suggest some version of the calendar were known in the Merovingian world. Several texts in Hunter 96, for instance, are related to texts in the genuinely Merovingian compilation Bern Burgerbibliothek MS 611 produced at least in part in the 720s and likely in Bourges. There is also a version as an appendix to the compilation known as the Teraupetica in the Saint-Denis manuscript Paris Bn Flat 11219 – and an earlier exemplar of that text was known to the scribes of Bern 611 too.[3] Could a calendar have been part of the medical books known in Merovingian Bourges? And indeed elsewhere at the time given its wide distribution?

It is all perhaps a bit speculative. I like Krusch’s suspicion. I suspect quite a lot of medicine known in the Carolingian world was derived from Merovingian exemplars. Proving it is the harder bit. In the meantime, at least, we can enjoy seeing what kinds of things passed as health advice in the early medieval Latin world.


In the month of March take sweet drinks, use agrimony, eat chopped radish, take a sudatory bath, do not let blood, and do not take a purgative as the purgative itself generates cold.

In the month of April let blood, drink a purgative, eat fresh meat, make use of warm foods, purge the suffering of the stomach, use mallow ointment; and if it is done so, all limbs ought to be healthy.

In the month of May, drink warm drinks and use warm foods, [and purge the head,] because heat is set in the heat of the breast so cold is permitted. In the month of May cut into the hepatic veins and take a potion for purgation, apply a poultice to the head to sooth disturbed eyes, to clean itches, and use cold oil to take care of urine.

In the month of June, fasting every day, drink wine but do not drink beer or use water mixed with vinegar; eat lettuce; drink sour wine.

In the month of July do not let blood, not from the veins in that time, nor drink a purgative; use sage and rue.

In the month of August, do not eat any cabbage, chew agrimony; do not drink beer or mead.

In the month of September, you ought to take whatever you please, because all foods can be prepared any of the time.

In the month of October, use grapes and unfermented grape juice, because it makes the body healthy and loose.

In the months of November and December, it is good to pay attention to incisions of the hepatic veins, and to the use of a bloodletting cup, because in that time all the humours are ready.

In the month of January, one ought in no case to let blood, or drink a concoction unless it is against choking. One should also take an electuary.

In the month of February, one should let blood from the thumb.

[1] Bruno Krusch, “Reise nach Frankreich im Frühjahr und Sommer 1892,” Neues Archiv der Gesellschaft für ältere deutsche Geschichtskunde 18 (1893): 549-649, at 579-80.

[2] Frank-Dieter Groenke, Die frühmittelalterlichen lateinischen Monatskalendarien. Text—Übersetzung—Kommentar (Berlin: Diss. med. dent. Freie Universität Berlin, 1986); K.-D. Fischer, ‘Gesund durchs Jahr mit Dr Hippokrates – Monat für Monat!’, in B. Holmes & K.-D. Fischer (eds.), The Frontiers of Ancient Science (Berlin, 2015), 111-37.

[3] Arsenio Ferraces Rodríguez, “Un recetario medico inexplorado: los Teraupetica (con una tentative de restitución y traducción des prefacio),” Revue des études tardo-antiques 8 (2018-19): 25-65.