& Urine Wheels: Color Me Medieval

From Almanach, tabula festorum, mobilium ab anno 1364 usque annum domini 1462: manuscript [Physician’s belt book]. York, England, 1364. The Rosenbach Museum & Library, Philadelphia, MS 1004/29

A few relatives with more blogging experience than myself have gently suggested that I might want to reconsider my alphabetical approach to research coverage. After all, what am I going to do when I come across a compelling Z item and I’m up to my eyeballs in the letter B? That would be pretty frustrating, wouldn’t it?

I hear this advice, and it sounds very sensible. But I also am thinking: Don’t you take my alphabet away from me.

Then, while working on some A’s (and feeling absorbed in Arsenic and Attoseconds), I happened to come across the above picture of a medieval urine wheel. It’s beautiful. Sigh. Can’t I have my alphabet and eat it, too?

I can and I will, I’ve decided. I’ll simply use &, the ampersand symbol, for those nuggets of research that grab my attention and pull me out of my place in the alphabet. I’ll come right back. Promise.

Now on to that urine wheel with its colorful flasks and Latin descriptions. This particular image comes from a 14th-century almanac and medical reference book that’s in the collection of the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. As the museum’s website explains, the book would have been attached by a cord to the physician’s belt. Pretty handy.

I knew just the person to contact for a little more commentary: Dr. Steven Peitzman. He helped me with an article I recently wrote on Dr. Benjamin Rush’s 200-year-old mental health treatise, Diseases of the Mind, for The Pennsylvania Gazette. In addition to traveling around the country to give talks about the history of medicine, Peitzman is a nephrologist who teaches at Drexel University. Continue reading