Urine Wheels in Medieval Manuscripts: Discover the Curious Diagnostic Tool Used by Medieval Doctors

If you went to the doc­tor in late medieval Europe hop­ing to get a health com­plaint checked out, you could be sure of one thing: you’d have to hand over a urine sam­ple. Though it dates back at least as far as the fourth mil­len­ni­um BC, the prac­tice of uroscopy, as it’s called, seems to have been regard­ed as a near-uni­ver­sal diag­nos­tic tool by the thir­teenth cen­tu­ry. At Medievalists.net, you can read excerpts of the then-defin­i­tive text On Urines, writ­ten about that time by French roy­al physi­cian Gilles de Cor­beil.

When a skilled physi­cian exam­ines a patien­t’s urine, de Cor­beil explains, “health or ill­ness, strength or debil­i­ty, defi­cien­cy, excess, or bal­ance, are deter­mined with cer­tain­ty.” Urine “dark­ened by a black cloudi­ness, and mud­died with sed­i­ment, if pro­duced on a crit­i­cal day of an ill­ness, and accom­pa­nied by poor hear­ing and insom­nia, por­tends a flux of blood from the nose”; depend­ing on oth­er fac­tors, “the patient will die or recov­er.”

Urine that looks livid near the sur­face could indi­cate a vari­ety of con­di­tions: “a mild form of hemitri­teus fever; falling sick­ness; ascites; syn­ochal fever; the rup­ture of a vein; catarrh, stran­gury; an ail­ment of the womb; a flux; a defect of the lungs; pain in the joints; con­sump­tive phithi­sis; the extinc­tion of nat­ur­al heat.”

White urine could be a sig­nal of every­thing from drop­sy to lipothymia to hem­or­rhoids; wine-col­ored urine “means dan­ger to health when it accom­pa­nies a con­tin­ued fever; it is less to be feared if there is no fever.”

We may feel tempt­ed, 800 years lat­er, to dis­card all of this as pre-sci­en­tif­ic non­sense. But com­pared with oth­er diag­nos­tic meth­ods in the Mid­dle Ages, uroscopy had a decent track record. “Urine was a par­tic­u­lar­ly use­ful tool for diag­nos­ing lep­rosy,” writes the Pub­lic Domain Review’s Kather­ine Har­vey, “because the imme­di­ate phys­i­o­log­i­cal cause was thought to be a mal­func­tion­ing liv­er — an organ which was cen­tral to the diges­tive process, and thus any prob­lems would be vis­i­ble in the urine.” Indeed, “new forms of urine analy­sis have devel­oped from these ancient tra­di­tions, and our present-day med­ical land­scape is awash with urine sam­ples.”

That’s cer­tain­ly a vivid image, and so are the “urine wheels” that accom­pa­ny Har­vey’s piece: elab­o­rate illus­tra­tions designed to help doc­tors iden­ti­fy the par­tic­u­lar hue of a giv­en sam­ple, each one col­ored with the best pig­men­ta­tion tech­niques of the time. But “there was no stan­dard­iza­tion,” notes Atlas Obscu­ra’s Sarah Laskow, “and while some book pub­lish­ers cre­at­ed detailed col­or­ing instruc­tions, the arti­sans who did the work didn’t always con­form to those spec­i­fi­ca­tions.” As much pres­tige as these vol­umes sure­ly exud­ed on the book­shelf, it was as true then as it is now that you become a good doc­tor not by read­ing man­u­als, but by get­ting your hands dirty.

via The Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed con­tent:

Behold the Medieval Wound Man: The Poor Soul Who Illus­trat­ed the Injuries a Per­son Might Receive Through War, Acci­dent or Dis­ease

How the Bril­liant Col­ors of Medieval Illu­mi­nat­ed Man­u­scripts Were Made with Alche­my

Behold a 15th-Cen­tu­ry Ital­ian Man­u­script Fea­tur­ing Med­i­c­i­nal Plants with Fan­tas­ti­cal Human Faces

1,000-Year-Old Illus­trat­ed Guide to the Med­i­c­i­nal Use of Plants Now Dig­i­tized & Put Online

Down­load 100,000+ Images From The His­to­ry of Med­i­cine, All Free Cour­tesy of The Well­come Library

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • P J Evans says:

    and I went in for lab­work this morn­ing, which includ­ed a pee test…

  • John Edyvean says:

    Most of the things from the past work today the med­ical field pushs med­i­cine that only post­pones the symp­toms. Like with high blood pres­sure, and this fasle crap about Cho­les­terol!!! This med­i­cine caus­es Demen­tia hart­ing of the arthri­tis, kid­ney fail­ure. But the doc­tors won’t tell you this. Eat­ing plants and veg­eta­bles as well as roots will cure 90% of all man’s sick­ness­es, but today we are all lied to. It over mon­ey. And how much they can make off of every­one, plus your deaths. Do your research the truth is there. Doc­tors are only init for the mon­ey. Until some­thing hap­pens to them.

  • Rachael says:

    I pooped in the urine cup. Oop­sie poop­sie

  • Musa says:

    Dear Sir,
    it is unfor­tu­nate that Euro­peans are try­ing their best to rewrite his­to­ry. Know­ing very well that the medieval ages of Europe was the gold­en age of the Mus­lims. You call this the medieval times so as not to give acknowl­edg­ment to the Mus­lims who had achieved great­ness in all fields of sci­ence and where edu­ca­tion was at its best draw­ing many Chris­t­ian and Jews from Europe to trav­el over and study there learn­ing the Ara­bic lan­guage and chang­ing their attire which was most advanced at that time unlike Europe where peo­ple suf­fered at the hands of the church and the mon­archs.
    All the Europe has learnt and is today is thanks to the Mus­lims that passed over all their knowl­edge mak­ing Europe what it is today.

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