Saved: secrets of a medieval horse whisperer

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The Independent Online

It is the medieval equivalent of a Haynes car owner's manual. For the landed gentry of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the Propertees and Medicynes of Hors was the ultimate guide to keeping their four-legged transport in prime condition.

Now the 16-page pamphlet, the earliest known veterinary textbook to be printed in Britain, has been saved for the nation by the British Library.

Among the 49 remedies in the book, printed in 1497 by Wynkyn de Worde at Westminster, are cures for horse nightmares and how to deal with an animal that is cursed. The easy-to-follow instructions, which were reprinted in 1502, as well as copied by hand by those who could not afford a printed copy, also explain how to get a horse to follow its master.

Handbooks for horse owners were in common use at the time; as the ability to read English increased, so did the demand for practical books covering all aspects of domestic life, including medical care for animals.

When choosing a horse, it advises: "The best colour of any horse is a black bay with a gilt mouth and under the flanks the same colour up to the navel. And that his lips be full of wrinkles for that is the sign that he shall be a fierce horse."

The pamphlet, which has never been on public display, had been in a private collection until 1998, when it was bought by a US dealer. The British Library's purchase of it - for an undisclosed sum thought to be six figures - has brought it back to the UK. It will be available to anyone who wishes to view it.

John Goldfinch, the library's head of early Western printed collections, said: "Rather as we like to cross-check today what our doctor - or vet - tells us against what we've read in a magazine or on the internet, medieval people seem to have had a healthy distrust of professional advice.

"Little books like these are very rare. They would have been used to pieces and discarded, or replaced by more up-to-date texts. While some of the minor surgical procedures seem a little, say, cruel to us equipped with antibiotics and anti-inflammatories, many basic treatments using herbs with cleansing or disinfectant properties suggest some sign of what we today call 'evidence-based medicine'."

The library is hosting a talk at St Pancras in London tomorrow evening on the significance of the acquisition.

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