Medical books

The “real” balm of Jerusalem: journey through the old medical books of the Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land

Giacomo Pizzi10 October 2015


This month, the Library of the Custody of the Holy Land published a “virtual” exhibit on its official website entitled, “The ‘real’ balm of Jerusalem”. A total of 27 books from the fourteenth to the twentieth century have been made available online. They are thus able to be seen by an international audience, not just a Jerusalemite one, as is the case with “physical” exhibitions. Picture of the manuscripts are put on display, along with descriptions in Italian and English.

Br. Lionel Goh, the library director, explained how the project came about: “While we had just finished cataloguing the medical section of the library, the Tower of David Museum decided to create an exhibition on medicine in Jerusalem. They finally ended up using a lot of our materials in their exhibition, which had success with visitors from around the world. We wanted to make some of these works accessible to all, thanks to the Internet, whether they are medicine or book lovers!”

The three criteria

The exhibited works were selected by Francesca Turrisi. “We had three criteria: first, the value and beauty of the work itself, according to its age. Then, the content: some of them contained comments about famous doctors, and they described the various aspects of the medicine of the time that include botany, anatomy, surgery and pharmacology, as well as alchemy and magic, and finally the various tables, etchings and illustrations, which provided further clarification to the readers: descriptions of plants, animals, representations of the human body and instructions for surgery.”

What these books show is that the Franciscans have always worked for the welfare of the people, whether Christians, Muslims or Jews. They were healing the people, similar to how Jesus healed the blind and the lame, without discrimination for different tribes or religions,” added Br. Lionel. By special papal permission, the Franciscans were allowed to practice medicine in the Holy Land. The medical book collection was not kept in the library of the monastery but rather in the pharmacy, so that it could be reached at any time. Traces of acid fumes found on an 1833 book are proof of this.

Why “balm”?

The title of the exhibition refers to the balm of Jerusalem, the drug created by a Franciscan friar in the seventeenth century that quickly became widespread throughout Europe and the Middle East for two centuries. “This collection of works, because of the knowledge that it brought to the friars, allowed them to treat people for centuries. We can say that it was the real balm of Jerusalem,” Francesca explained with a smile.

This exhibition was made possible thanks to the significant work of Br. Augustin Arce, OFM, who was a librarian for forty years starting in 1936, and more recently through the inventory done by Emilia Bignami, and through further research by Francesca Turrisi. It is part of the “Books, Bridges of Peace” project supported by the Association pro Terra Sancta and the European Center for Research on Book, Publishing and Library (CRELEB) of the Catholic University.

The next exhibition on the premises of the Custody’s library will take place on November 3-5, 2015, at Saint Savior’s Monastery in Jerusalem. It will highlight the precious book covers of the library and will allow people to reflect on this object that is essential to the use of a book. Professor Gino Roncaglia, of the University of Tuscia in Italy, will give a lecture on “The past, present and future of the book,” addressing the e-book as a new way to conserve the contents of books.