Medieval Surgery

Edward Worth had copies of works by the two leading surgeons of the Middle Ages: the eleventh-century Cordoban scholar Al-Zahrawi (936-1013) and the fourteenth-century French surgeon Guy de Chauliac (c. 1300-68). Both scholars looked to the past in their writings, drawing attention to tracts by ancient authors such as Hippocrates and Galen, but they were also highly innovative and their works proved to be popular for hundreds of years.

The status of surgery at this time depended on location: McVaugh notes that it was being taught in Italian studia from 1300 onwards – and Worth had a 1519 Venetian edition of a treatise by one of these surgeons, Dino del Garbo (c. 1280-1327), who taught at Bologna in the early fourteenth century.[1] However, as McVaugh states, Dino del Garbo’s treatise (itself a commentary on Avicenna’s Surgery) tilted towards medicine, rather than surgery.[2] McVaugh argues that, though surgical instruction was available in Italian studia from the fourteenth century onwards, it was still considered to be of only ‘a sort of second-class academic status’.[3] This, however, was better than the situation in France, where surgery was very much regarded as a non-academic pursuit.

Practica Ioannis Arculani … particularium morborum omnium, in qua partium corporis humani anatome, morbi, symptomata, causae, ac signa, atq; omniò vniuersa medendi ratio, et remedia … magna diligentia cum probatis exemplaribus collata, et plurimis locis emendate Joannis Marinelli … opera … (Venice, 1560), image facing p. 1.

The introduction to Guy de Chauliac’s work provides us with his view of the state of surgery in the centuries immediately preceding him:

‘Before Avicenna everyone was both physician and surgeon, but afterwards, whether because of greed or because of too much to do, surgery was set apart and given into the hands of mechanics. The first of these was Ruggiero, Rolando, and the Four Masters, who wrote separate works of surgery into which they put much of an empirical character … Afterwards came Bruno, who correctly adopted the teachings of Galen and Avicenna and the techniques of Albucasis, though he did not have a complete translation of Galen’s books and left out anatomy almost entirely. Immediately after him came Teodorico, who wrote his book by stealing everything that Bruno said and adding a few tales from his master Ugo da Lucca. Guglielmo da Saliceto was a notable figure, and wrote two texts, one in medicine and one of surgery, and in my judgment he wrote well about what he treated. Lanfranco also wrote a book in which he put very little besides the things he found in Guglielmo, though he reordered them … At Paris, Henri de Mondeville began a treatise in which he tried to harmonize Teodorico and Lanfranco, but it was left incomplete at his death’.[4]

Despite these strictures, De Chauliac included the tracts of some of these in his work: certainly Worth’s 1546 Venetian edition includes tracts by Rogerius Frugardi (d. c. 1195), Gulielmo di Saliceto (1210-77), Rolando da Parma (c. 1240), Lanfranchi (1252-1315), Bruno of Calabria (d.1352) and Leonardo da Bertapagatie of Padua (d. 1460).

Worth’s copy of the Chirurgia Magna is bound with his 1531 edition of Al-Zahrawi and a Venetian 1460 edition of the work of a fifteenth-century surgeon named Giovanni Arcolani (d. 1484). Arcolani had been Professor of Surgery and Medicine at the University of Bologna from 1412-27 and was particularly known for his commentaries on the medical authors Abū Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī (854–925, known in Latin as Rhazes) and Avicenna.


Al-Benna, Sammy, ‘Albucasis, a tenth-century scholar, physician and surgeon: This role in the history of plastic and reconstructive surgery’, European Journal of Plastic Surgery, vol. 35 (2012), 379-87.

Guigonis de Caulhiaco, Inventarium sive Chirurgia Magna, edited by Michael R. McVaugh (Leiden, 1997).

Mc Vaugh, Michael, ‘Surgical Education in the Middle Ages’, Dynamis. Acta. Hisp. Med. Sci. Hist. Illus., vol. 20 (2000), 283-304.

Text: Dr Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library, Dublin.

[1] Mc Vaugh, Michael, ‘Surgical Education in the Middle Ages’, Dynamis. Acta. Hisp. Med. Sci. Hist. Illus., vol. 20 (2000), 289.

[2] Ibid., 290.

[3] Ibid., 297.

[4] Guigonis de Caulhiaco, Inventarium sive Chirurgia Magna, edited by Michael R. McVaugh (Leiden, 1997), i, pp 6-7 and ix-x.