The physician’s folding almanac: a misnomer of the medievalist?

| Amy Moore, University of York |

Extract from the winning entry of the Association for Art History’s Undergraduate Dissertation Prize 2016.

In November 2013, the Wellcome Library acquired a small folding manuscript, MS 8932. Previously unknown to scholars, this private manuscript was sold as a ‘folding almanac’, becoming one of 29 known folding astrological calendars produced in 15th-century England. In response to the diagnostic and prognostic potential of its contents, Wellcome 8932 joins a group of manuscripts known by historians of medicine (and the British Library) as ‘physicians’ folding almanacs’.

Whilst their name suggests scholarly certainty in the ownership and function of these manuscripts, we have no surviving textual or visual evidence that associates the almanac with a 15th-century physician. With examination of provenance already exhausted, material evidence offers a tantalising opportunity to draw new light on these mysterious manuscripts.
Using the 19 surviving illustrated folding almanacs, this investigation uses the discipline of art history to critically reconsider a consensus crafted by historians of medicine. In exploring their visual similarities and differences, iconography, and form, it addresses three foundational questions: where did the folding almanac come from, who owned them, and how might they have been used? In comparing the body of survivals, one finds convincing arguments for a shift in their function.

The iconography and stylised decoration of earlier editions point towards plausible ecclesiastical patronage; the folding almanac is no longer simply in the hands of the physician.
To think about the folding almanac without the subconscious association with a secular physician opens new environmental and prosopographical enquiries. The results point to a wider range of users – including itinerant friars and monastic infirmaries – and new visual connections between contemporary codices and religious iconography. Findings of this kind provide a poignant case for the value of visual investigation in sources typically removed from the art historical canon.

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