Monastic Domestic Medicine in Italy

By Emily Hagens

When I encountered three manuscript recipe books by an early seventeenth-century monk in the Wellcome Library last fall, I was excited to investigate what differences I might see between the traditionally categorized domestic medicine (women and men in households) and other types of domestic practice in early modern Italy. [1] The monk, Bernardino da Riminio, wrote his name in a short note at the front of each book, but we do not have any biographical information about him. Luckily, the first recipe book contains a two-page note that he left to his monastic brothers. It is unclear whether this type of letter was typically included in such recipe books, whether compiled by monks or not, but it does help provide some insight both to how Bernardino wanted to present himself to his community and to how we as scholars of recipe books might consider expanding what we categorize as domestic medicine. [2]

My general interest in recipe books stems from wanting to understand how non-professional medical practitioners (ie: not physicians, surgeons, apothecaries, itinerant practitioners, etc) used medical knowledge as a tool for navigating social structures. Examining rhetorical strategies in these volumes has been a fruitful way for peering into the social positions that recipe book compilers constructed for themselves. Bernardino’s note, which appears after several pages of recipes and a table of contents, is rich with language that he used to present himself as a particular kind of person and practitioner.

Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Bernardino begins the letter, “Do not settle dear brothers for the things of our ancestors without greatest diligent effort of seeing and not [simply] rewriting…” After a while he continues, “Now, with attention to the prayers of my dear disciples and brothers, I wrote most faithfully these following little things that I practiced and experimented for many years for the benefit of my sick brothers, and others, and for the good of the district.” In both statements, Bernardino aligns himself with those who had for centuries emphasized the great value of empiricism in medical pursuits. Bernardino showed his reader how effective he and his medical recipes were by attesting to his attention to the creation, testing, and regular use of his own advice, thus imbuing the text with his own authority.

Bernardino also emphasizes the importance of making his advice, and the resulting medicines, available to more people. For example, he says, “you have, my dear brothers, this little book [which] is not [only] beneficial for the poor but also for the rich, I am most grateful now because I have said this to be a great treasure and knowing many [needy people] in the district [will use it]….” Later, he also says, “In case there are those who still do not have the Latin language I have very gladly faithfully translated these few labors so they might be able to know and understand the secrets of nature, those which the ancients left are for our use and we should use them to good end, not let them remain so.” Presenting the book as a guide for particular individuals who would be able to treat those around them, these notations might be read as indicators of Bernardino’s ideal of domestic medical practice. Though it was non-familial and not based in a home, it was care that was motivated by the ideal of offering assistance to those for whom one was responsible without requesting payment.

Bernardino’s letter is a window into how he viewed his responsibilities and expectations as a member of a community, but there are still many more questions to ask of his manuscripts. Bernardino saw himself as an authority who could provide specific medical advice and general medical education to his readers. In reading the letter, with the structure of the recipes and the didactic material found sprinkled throughout the first volume also in mind, it is clear that a kind of monastic domestic medicine was taking place. Domestic medicine has been understood to be a medical practice undertaken in a household, often by and for members of a particular family and those for whom they were responsible. When considering Bernardino and other monastic healers in early modern Italy, it may prove useful for historians to reconsider the domestic and re-think the category as simply a type of practice outside of a fee structure whose motivation was social responsibility.

[1] Sharon T. Strocchia has demonstrated that monastic involvement in medicine was not uncommon in early modern Italy, “The nun apothecaries of Renaissance Florence: marketing medicines in the convent,” Renaissance Studies 25 (2011): 627-647.

[2] London, Wellcome Library, Rimino, Bernardino Da [Archive Material] MSS.689-691, Vol 1, 37v-r.

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