Object of the Week: Scotland's first medical book, to be read out to people infected by the plague

By Culture24 Reporter | 17 December 2015

Object of the Week: This week we bring you a medical book from a medical era shrouded in fear

A photo of the front page of an ancient medical book with black ink on the front
The title page of Scotland's first ever printed medical book© National Library of Scotland
Scotland's first printed medical book was inspired by the plague that broke out in 1564-69 and published in response to it. Ane breve descriptioun of the pest (plague) was written by Gilbert Skeyne, Medicinar to His Majesty James VI.

It was written in Scots to be read out to people in infected towns, where the sick had often been abandoned to care for themselves, and provides advice on avoiding infection and on possible treatment.

A photo of a woman holding up a stuffed black rat
Curator Dr Anette Hagan with a stuffed version of a black rat - the main source of plague infection during the 16th century© National Library of Scotland
Although there are references to hygiene, Skeyne concluded that “the principal preseruatiue (preservative) cure of the pest is, to returne to God.”

Up to a third of the Scottish population is estimated to have died in the worst outbreaks. “In today’s medically sophisticated world, it is very hard to imagine the fear and helplessness that people felt when death was perhaps only a few doors away,” says Dr Anette Hagan, the Curator of Rare Books at the National Library of Scotland, where the book has just gone on display.

  • Plague! A Cultural History of Contagious Diseases in Scotland is at the National Library of Scotland until May 29 2015.

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