Natural World

Examination of the natural world shaped not only how people understood the environment, but also their physical and spiritual health.

The night sky was very important to medieval philosophers and scientists. Studying it influenced their theories about how the universe worked and the Earth’s place in it. Sophisticated calculators were developed to make measurements of the stars, and writers illustrated scientific texts with elaborate charts and diagrams. Astronomy and astrology, two very different ways of thinking about the stars and planets, were often written about together, and astrology was central to both the practice and the writing of medicine.

Many scientific concepts came to Europe from classical antiquity. This knowledge survived in texts from ancient Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Indian, and Persian empires that were frequently copied and translated through the centuries. During the medieval period, scientific writings from antiquity eventually reached Central and Western Europe.

The natural world helped organize medieval thought. A book might include recipes for pigment dyes alongside headache remedies next to instructions for making wine. And imagery from nature wasn’t limited to scientific writings; Christian religious works centered the symbolic importance of things like trees and rainbows.

The Urine Wheel

Today, a visit to the doctor sometimes includes a trip to the bathroom with a urine cup. Modern urinalysis, the clinical tests run on a sample to diagnose disease, developed from a much older method called uroscopy. In uroscopy, physicians examined samples of urine not with chemical tests, but with their eyes.

Cup with lid sealed by a paper label

90 mL specimen urine cup

Contemporary urine cups are sterile inside. A seal guarantees that the urine sample won’t get contaminated.

Some of the oldest writing about uroscopy is from the ancient Greek Corpus Hippocraticum, written more than 2,400 years ago. These texts survived, were translated into Latin, and became centrally important to medicine in medieval Europe. One reason for uroscopy’s popularity may have been that religious laws made it socially unacceptable to directly examine a patient’s body, so doctors had to use other methods—including astrological readings and uroscopy.

A doctor would collect a sample of urine in a glass flask and compare the contents to a urine wheel, a chart divided into 20 different parts, each with a different color of urine and notes about the variations of urine odor and flavor. Using the information from the urine wheel, the doctor would make a diagnosis and suggest treatment.

Creased page of manuscript with flasks of various colored liquid arranged in a circle with text in circles and surrounding
⮝ Almanack
The Rosenbach, MS 1004/29
England, 1364

A physician would have carried this “belt book” on a cord attached to his waist—hence this manuscript’s unusual shape. The book has ten sheets of parchment, each folded several times to fit compactly between the long, narrow covers. It includes calendar information, tables of solar and lunar eclipses, and medical charts.

Medieval European medicine relied on bloodletting and urine analysis, and diagrams about both are reproduced here. The ymago flebotomie” (phlebotomy image) shows the major veins and what complaints could be treated by bleeding them, and the urine wheel depicts 20 flasks of urine and descriptions of what their differing colors mean. Urine analysis was such an important tool that the urine flask was the visual symbol of a doctor, much like the stethoscope is today.

Manuscripts in Star Wars

Medieval manuscripts aren't just in museum exhibitions. A careful watching of Star Wars: The Last Jedi reveals Jedi manuscripts clearly based on medieval astronomical texts.

Learn more about how the manuscripts in Star Wars: The Last Jedi reflect medieval manuscripts in “Sacred Texts: Codices Far, Far Away,” a series of YouTube videos by the exhibition curator, Dot Porter, and her colleague, Brandon Hawk.

Handwritten manuscript with line-drawing diagram of planets
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Collection of scientific treatises

University of Pennsylvania Kislak Center, LJS 384, fol 10v-11r
Germany, circa 1150

This remarkable compilation includes works on astronomy, geography, meteorology, medicine, and theology. Featured here are diagrams of the solar system depicting the positions of the major heavenly bodies, including the phases of the moon. Compare it to the diagram from The Art of Star Wars: The Last Jedi above.

Circular image with lines around the edges for measurement
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De 12 signis et eorum naturis in generali

Free Library of Philadelphia, Lewis E 3, part 2 fol 8r
England, circa 15th century

This diagram is from a text concerning astrology and planetary movements. It is an illustration of an astrolabe, an important type of astronomical calculator.

Portion of colorful map showing a castle, a church, a river, and fields
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Map of district in Tarn-et-Garonne (facsimile)

University of Pennsylvania Kislak Center, LJS 310
Southern France, circa 1460–1545

This map was possibly produced to illustrate water rights between the neighboring French towns of Castelferrus and Castelsarrasin. The Garonne River is pictured with bridges, a mill, sandbanks, and ferry points, and the buildings are detailed and labeled.