'Sermo de membris genitalibus' by Niccolò Falcucci

From reproductive organs to a child’s drawing

Some manuscripts are an open book and offer several interesting clues that invite further research. Other manuscripts remain one big mystery and reveal little of their background. Ms. 692 of the Utrecht University Library is one of those big mysteries. It is a relatively large manuscript which is still in good condition. It contains the sixth sermon of Niccolò Falcucci’s Sermones medicinales, a medical encyclopaedia. This work consists of seven big medical sermons and was very popular in the fifteenth century. The sixth sermon, Sermo de membris genitalibus is about anatomy, physiology and diseases on reproductive organs of both males and females.

Sixth sermon

In other manuscripts and early prints we usually find all seven Sermones. However, this manuscript only consists of the sixth sermon, which seems to function as a self-contained book (Green 2008, 251, n. 12). It is plausible that there existed a series of similar manuscripts, each with its own sermon. Whether this is true, or that the copyist only regarded the Sermo de membris genitalibus as interesting, will for now be one of the mysteries of this manuscript.

Scholastic medicine

Niccolò Falcucci († 1411 or 1412) wrote his Sermones medicinales around 1400 and based himself mainly on earlier medical works by Arabic and classical authorities, being reticent on adding new information (Rider 2014, 50). Regardless, his work is a clear example of scholastic medicine. Not only the written texts of medical authorities were taken into account, but also Niccolò’s personal experiences and observations as a physician clearly come out in his text (Crisciani 1999, 77). This is also apparent in Ms. 692, where Niccolò writes about his own observations. An example can be found on fol. 7r (tract I, cap. 6):

- Ego tum vidi in uxore Jacobi dini xi del pecora xi abortiuos

- ‘I saw aborted [fetuses] at the wife of Jacobus Dinus del  Pecora’ (Green 1999, 251)

Name confusion

Although Niccolò’s Sermones knew great popularity in the fifteenth century and is frequently copied and printed from then onwards, some confusion about his name began to exist. His name is wrongly connected to the medical tract Antidotarium Nicolai. Besides this, he is called ‘Nicolaus Nicoli Florentius’ in early prints of the Sermones and this has been copied print after print (Rhodes 1979, 199). This mistake can be found in various library catalogues, including the one in Utrecht. The catalogue of the Utrecht University Library P.A. Tiele also mentions Nicolaus de Florentia [Niccolo de’ Niccoli] as the author (Tiele 1887, 181). Because of this, the credits for Niccolò’s Sermones end up with a completely different Niccolò, an Italian humanist. If Niccolò had known his name created so much confusion, would he have specified it more?

Partly due to the name confusion, research to the Sermones medicinales and more specifically to the Sermo de membris genitalibus is still in its early stages (Velt 2003, 262). Research that has been done also uses his name in various spelling variations. Neither a complete overview about the manuscript and early print tradition of the Sermones, nor about the background of Niccolò himself,  exists anno 2017. Therefore, lots of research can still be done on this subject.

Aanwijshandje op fol. 21r van handschrift 692 uit de Bijzondere Collecties van de Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht

From reproductive organ diseases to a child’s drawing?

Uitsnede uit fol 74r. van handschrift 692 uit de Bijzondere Collecties van de Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht

Ms. 692 is a neat manuscript, written by one hand. Apart from some rubrics, initials and some maniculae (pointing hands), it has no illustrations. Therefore the manuscript offers barely any clues as to its origin or former owners. However, there is one peculiar and mysterious illustration in this manuscript. On the very last page, fol. 157v, a remarkable drawing can be found. Although it is speculating, it seems to be a drawing made by a child. With some fantasy we could imagine a tough knight with a sword in his left hand. Would it be possible that the son or daughter of one of the former owners got its hands on a feather and some ink at an unguarded moment? And what did the father think when he noticed that his neat manuscript suddenly was ‘decorated’ with a somewhat striking image? We probably will never know, but it is obvious that this “knight” has found himself a special place, next to the anatomy and diseases of reproductive organs.


Femke van Hilten, May 2017