Untangling the Manuscripts and Medicine of the Pseudo-Apuleius Group

Shirley Kinney

Shirley Kinney is a 2023–24 Consortium NEH Fellow.



For tooth pain. The ailing person should drink the root of the herb simfoniaca cooked with strong wine and should hold it against the teeth that hurt. This soon relieves the tooth pain.

Keep a small piece of badger skin in your shoe and you will never have foot pain.

For those who wet the bed. Hare brain given to drink with wine is a wonderful solution.


So read some typical examples of medicinal remedies from the Pseudo-Apuleius Group, a late antique collection of Latin medical texts, each falsely attributed to a famous author. This collection consists of a short treatise on the medicinal virtues of the plant betony (the De herba vettonica of Pseudo-Antonius Musa), a longer work of herbal medicine (the Herbarium of Pseudo-Apuleius), a short epistolary treatise on the medicinal uses of the badger (De taxone, attributed to an Egyptian pharaoh), a work of remedies from a variety of animal substances (the Medicina de quadrupedibus of Pseudo-Sextus Placitus), and finally, an additional herbal falsely attributed to Dioscorides (the De herbis femininis). Filled with sometimes incomprehensible but always fascinating remedies for everything from headache to curse removal, this collection of five texts constituted an accessible manual of medicine from plant, animal, and mineral material.

Just as the true authors of these works remain mysteries, we can only make attempts at the proper dating of these texts. They were most likely individually composed during the last centuries of the Roman Empire but had been gathered together by the fifth century. The late Roman Empire was a time when the medical profession was viewed with some suspicion, with authors such as Cato urging their readers to rely on their own knowledge to heal themselves, as physicians could only be trusted to overcharge and underperform. The texts of the Pseudo-Apuleius Group claim to have been written to allow educated readers to obtain a level of self-sufficiency in medicine so that they could avoid medical charlatans. The practical “self-help” medicine of these works likely had a significant effect on the staying power of the Pseudo-Apuleius Group in the medieval period, during which time the Group became one of the most popular collections of practical medicine in Europe. The Pseudo-Apuleius Group circulated Europe until the end of the sixteenth century, with a wide range of geographic distribution, translations into multiple vernaculars (such as Old English and German), and a notable influence on several subsequent medical texts. The impact of this medical collection, particularly during the early medieval period, fashions the Pseudo-Apuleius Group as a valuable representation of the medical ideas of antiquity and the middle ages in Europe. My research project aims to publish the first translation and comprehensive study of the Pseudo-Apuleius Group, its history, reception, and medical content.

As a 2023-2024 NEH Fellow at the Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine, I was able to examine different copies of this medical collection currently held at several of the Consortium’s member institutions. This research was a crucial component of my project because it will demonstrate one of the hallmarks of this collection: its dynamic nature. Although each medical text of the Pseudo-Apuleius Group has a theoretical ‘canonical’ form, none of these texts are stable creations, unchanging throughout the centuries of their transmission. Much like someone today might swap ingredients and measurements in a cookbook without a thought for preserving the authentic text, copyists of this collection often felt free to alter it, sometimes so significantly that extant witnesses can appear almost unrecognizable as such. Almost every known example of the Pseudo-Apuleius Group contains unique features, such as heavy interpolations or a complete rearrangement of the format of the collection. These changes to the copies of the collection and their significance to the reception of the Pseudo-Apuleius Group are essential for demonstrating the changing medical interests of the medieval people who continued to read this work for centuries. I therefore focused my time at the Consortium on studying these fluid characteristics of the collection.

The Consortium institutions I consulted during my research were Yale’s Medical Historical Library, the Wellcome Collection in London, the National Library of Medicine, and Johns Hopkins University. These institutions hold manuscript witnesses and early modern printed editions of the Pseudo-Apuleius Group. Special thanks must be given to the librarians at John Hopkins University, who helped me find in their archive a crucially important set of photographs of one of the earliest manuscripts of the collection that had been destroyed during the Second World War. The copies of the Pseudo-Apuleius Group held at these institutions range in date from the ninth to the fifteenth century, and each demonstrates the adaptability of the collection. Many of the changes in these manuscripts are significant alterations to the format or content of the collection, such as, in one manuscript, the addition of a long foray into the medicinal properties of insects. There is too much to note here about each manuscript examined for my research project, so I will rely on one example to offer the impression of the whole: 

While at Yale’s Medical Historical Library, I was able to examine a little-studied manuscript of the Pseudo-Apuleius Group produced in Italy in the fifteenth century (MS 18). The scribe of this manuscript has added information to almost every remedy in the texts of the collection. These additions appear to clarify the remedies’ instructions when their original content is vague. For example, the Yale copy often includes information about how long to continue taking a particular remedy, which is almost never expressed in the canonical version of the collection. This manuscript also includes more specific information about where and how to apply topical remedies. Most remedies also contain more precise information about ingredient measurements, preparation technique, and dosage.

In addition to the changes to the remedies, this manuscript also exhibits several other alterations. For example, most copies of the Herbarium of Pseudo-Apuleius contain lists of synonyms by which the plants in the text are purportedly called in various places around the Mediterranean. In this manuscript, the Herbarium contains some synonyms I have not yet found in other extant copies (such as plant names attributed to Macer Floridus, the pseudonymous eleventh-century author known for his poem on the medicinal virtues of plants). The attributions to an eleventh-century author are an indication that these plant name lists were still being adjusted centuries after the original late antique composition of this herbal.

Another significant feature of this manuscript is its set of illustrations. Many copies of this medical collection are illustrated with images of the plants and animals mentioned in its texts. The Yale copy of this collection is illustrated with such images, but also with large pen drawings of various scenes: a man riding a horse while carrying an herb, three people sitting together while holding books (perhaps copies of this collection), what appears to be people using this collection to find plants in the wild, physicians preparing and administering remedies, as well as detailed author portraits. One may guess at the function these drawings perform for this manuscript, but their presence, especially when taken together with the intentional changes to the content, demonstrate that some copies of the Pseudo-Apuleius Group were still being produced with deliberation and care even at this final stage in the collection’s transmission.

In addition to examining the manuscripts of this medical collection, I was also able to consult several copies of the early modern printed editions of its texts. My research indicates that during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the texts of the Pseudo-Apuleius Group were printed several times, but often not together. Instead, a single text from the Group might appear inserted into an entirely different collection, and not necessarily a collection with a medical focus. For example, the Wellcome Collection possesses a book published in 1560 that contains the Herbarium of Pseudo-Apuleius alongside several writings actually written by Apuleius of Madaura, the second-century author to whom the Herbarium is falsely attributed. Apuleius was not a physician and his writings deal primarily with philosophy. The other medical works of the Pseudo-Apuleius Group likewise appear in collections on natural science, astrology, and agriculture, although they do continue to appear in medical collections, as well. At this stage in the transmission of these texts, the Pseudo-Apuleius Group was no longer dealt with strictly as a unit. One is more likely to find an individual text of the collection in an entirely new situation than one is to find the complete Pseudo-Apuleius Group printed together. This treatment of the collection is a clear shift from its handling in earlier manuscripts, in which the texts of the Pseudo-Apuleius Group were only rarely separated.

Beyond the Consortium’s vast array of resources at its various member institutions, the intellectual community created among its scholars is one of the Consortium’s greatest strengths. The Consortium provided the opportunity to engage with other scholars working in the field of History of Medicine. I received valuable feedback on my work that I know will strengthen my research process. For example, delivering a paper on my research project to other fellows allowed me to learn from them about tools I could use to keep track of all of the Pseudo-Apuleius Group’s manuscripts and their features. My discussions with other fellows also helped me to decide upon the best approach for one of my project’s challenges, which is how to present my discussion of the many manuscripts of the Pseudo-Apuleius Group and their changes in as concise a way as possible. The fellows meetings were an invaluable resource for improving my research process and for creating connections with other scholars.

My time as a fellow at the Consortium was invaluable for my research and for my development as a scholar. I am extremely grateful to the Consortium for providing the time, space, and funding needed to complete this portion of my research project, for facilitating access to important collections, and for connecting me to other scholars in the field.