The manuscript of Johannes de Altre: a varied collection of knowledge

At first glance, the collection manuscript of Johannes de Altre (KBR, ms. 15624-41) appears to contain a mishmash of texts. In addition to Jan Yperman’s “Cyrurgia” on wound surgery, we also find Jacob van Maerlant’s nature encyclopaedia “Der naturen bloeme”, a text on palm-reading and the ‘Boec van astronomiën’. The multitude of texts contrasts with the austere appearance of the book. The manuscript contains no illustrations, little embellishment and the pages consist of cheap parchment.

So what makes this manuscript interesting? Well, this seeming mishmash of lyrics was deliberately brought together in a single volume. And by a person known by name: Johannes de Altre.

The common thread: a physician

Johannes de Altre collected all these texts most likely for his own use, in 1351. He was interested in wound surgery, nature, palmistry and the universe. Today, that seems like a very broad sphere of interest, but in the Middle Ages, there was a link between all these fields: medicine.

So Johannes de Altre was, in all likelihood, a physician. This assumption is reinforced by other texts found in the manuscript, such as the “Herbarijs” on medicinal plants, texts by the Arab healer Ibn Sinna (Avicenna), numerous recipes for oils and waters, and texts on urology.

That all sounds logical, but what is a medic to do with a treatise on stars and planets?

Mediaeval medicine

What would you do if your doctor asked about your star sign before making a diagnosis? At the very least, you would be surprised. That was very different in the Middle Ages. Any self-respecting physician took the otherworldly into account while making a diagnosis. In his “Cyrurgia”, Jan Yperman notes:

“Een surgijn es sculdech te wetene ten minsten vander manen ende vanden tekenen.”

In other words, “a surgeon should at least have knowledge of the moon and the signs of the zodiac”.

A mediaeval physician took the stars into account for the timing of treatments. Indeed, it was assumed that the position of the moon and other planets had an influence on terrestrial life. Just as the moon pulls upon sea water and creates ebb and flow, so was the moon thought to pull upon bodily fluids such as blood. This would create ebb and flow in the body. Astronomy was therefore mandatory reading for every mediaeval medical student. In the ‘Boec van astronomiën’, this is emphasised once more:

“Hier bi en soude gheen meester sijn, wildi hi wesen goet phisicijn, hi en soude van astronomien leren.”

Or: “No-one can be a master, if he wants to be a really good doctor, without also learning about astronomy.”

Astronomy for doctors

Anyone who wants to be a good doctor must learn about astronomy. Perhaps that is why Johannes de Altre included the “Boec van astronomiën” in his manuscript. The 13th-century “Boec van astronomiën” is what is known as a cosmography: a description of the entire cosmos.

The author tells us not only about the distance between planets and why shooting stars fall, but also where earthquakes come from and what hail is. The (unfortunately anonymous) author of the cosmography does so in rhyme and in Middle Dutch.

Avant-garde in Middle Dutch

The fact that this “Boec van astronomiën” was written down in Dutch in the 13th century is quite extraordinary. This is because subjects such as astronomy were studied mainly at universities before the thirteenth century. In Latin. Therefore, this book is pretty progressive. In fact, most of the texts in Johannes’ manuscript were written in Middle Dutch, although he also included Latin recipes and verses. Johannes could probably get by in Latin, but seems to prefer the everyday language.

Another unusual thing is the way the text has been handed down. Ten manuscripts are known to contain this cosmography. Of these, nine are illustrated with cosmos diagrams, among other things, suggesting that there was a clear relationship between text and image from the beginning. Yet Johannes de Altre chose not to illustrate his version:

‘‘Hare namen ende hoe si staen,

siet hier in ene figure staen…’’

‘‘…Die ic hier niet en wille scriven,

ic hebber so vele laten bliven.’’

Did he think the images were a waste of parchment? Or perhaps Johannes de Altre was simply not a gifted draughtsman? We will never know. Most likely, he did not consider the illustrations necessary for the practical application of the text. The fact that he omitted the illustrations thus supports the idea that he produced the manuscript for his own use.

Beeswax, broken legs and the road to Jerusalem

Texts about stars and planets and on medicine belong to the genre of art literature. They are texts about practical matters – non-fiction that revolves around knowledge transfer. For example, there are artes texts on the various uses of beeswax, how to splint a broken leg and the best routes to Jerusalem.

It is common within artes literature to collect several titles in one volume. This is what we call a compilation manuscript. Today, we have a very narrow definition of what a book is: one book binding covering one title.

In the Middle Ages, that definition was a lot more flexible. Bringing texts together in such a compilation manuscript could be a process spanning years or even centuries. This manuscript is a fine example: in the sixteenth century, it came into the possession of Godefridus Leonijs, a Mechelen chemist, who added recipes for remedies for head lice.