The Hilandar Medical Code and the Serbian Medieval Medicine

Gallery of the Natural History мuseum at Kalemegdan Fortress

Authors of the exhibition:
Aleksandra Savić, Ph.D., Museum advisor of the Natural History Museum and Snežana Jarić, Ph.D., Scientific advisor, Institute for Biological Research “Siniša Stanković”
The author of the illustrations: Bora Milićević, art technician of the Natural History Museum
Maintenance time: : 26.01.2023.  – 02.07.2023

The medical circumstances in which the Serbs lived for centuries influenced the history, culture, economy and other activities of the Serbian people, while the living conditions, nutrition and hygiene of the time were of crucial importance for the health and survival of the nation.

Grand Prefect Stefan Nemanja, progenitor of the Nemanjić family, founded the Serbian state in 1166. It is believed that the development of medicine in the territory of medieval Serbia began with its creation, based on the foundations of the medicine of the East (Byzantium) and the West (the medical schools of Salerno-Montpellier). In Serbia, medicine reached its peak in the 14th and 15th centuries, in the period of the country’s greatest prosperity. However, during the period of the Turkish conquests, medicine underwent a period of significant stagnation and treatment relied on folk medicine alone. It was only after the liberation from the Turks, and later also from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that science-based medicine in Serbia developed in line with the circumstances in the world.

Numerous historical data on the beginning and development of medicine in Serbia can be found in the archives of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Matica Srpska, the National Library of Serbia, the Karlovac metropolis, Dubrovnik, Kotor etc. Also, the monastery archives of Hilandar, Peć Patriarchate, Dečani, Studenica, Cetinje and the monasteries in Fruška Gora preserve this important material.

However, due to numerous destructions over several centuries, a significant part of the historical material on medieval medicine in Serbia was irretrievably lost.

“The Hilandar Medical Code”

The Hilandar Medical Code is one of the most valuable and complete documents of Serbian medieval medicine. It is a unique collection of preserved medical and pharmacological manuscripts that can be viewed as the first Serbian and the first Slavic pharmacopoeia. In that period, other Slavic peoples, or most European nations for that matter, did not have such manuscripts written in the vernacular.

In 1952, academician Djordje Sp. Radojičić discovered the manuscript in the treasury of the Serbian monastery Hilandar on Mount Athos. He named it after the manuscript’s first page – “Explanation of the Diagnosis of Disease Based on the Pulse” (Бесѣда от познанїа болѣсти по пипанїю жилъъ), and in the Hilandar archives the manuscript is registered under the number 517. Its discovery represents one of the most significant steps in the research of the history of medieval medicine in Serbia and Europe.

The writings includes several types of medical manuscripts: on internal medicine, infectious diseases, pharmacology, toxicology, pediatrics, therapeutic instructions and surgery.

A phototype edition of the Code, containing 414 facsimile pages, was published 30 years after the discovery, in 1980. A transcription of the manuscript and a translation of the text from Serbo-Slavic into the modern Serbian language were published a decade later. The book was edited by academician Relja V. Katić and the manuscript was transcribed and translated by Ljubomir Kotarčić and Mladen Milivojević. Translation of the manuscript was a very difficult task, not only due to the numerous ambiguities of the medical terminology of the Middle Ages, but also because of the numerous errors in the original text and the poor condition of the manuscript itself.

However, this ambitious project was extremely important, as today, 70 years later, it still inspires scientists to continue the research and seek new answers.

The original copy of the Hilandar Medical Code (No. 517) is kept in the treasury of the Hilandar Monastery, while its phototype edition can be found in the National Library of Serbia, in Belgrade.

The exhibition is complemented by specially composed music and photographs of the Hilandar monastery and the nature of Mount Athos, by Aleksandar Marković. The exhibition was organized in cooperation with: Institute for Biological Research “Siniša Stanković”, Museum Ras from Novi Pazar, Banja Monastery (Pribojska Banja) of the Orthodox Diocese of Mileseva, National Library of Serbia, Matica Srpska Library, Faculty of Chemistry in Belgrade and National Museum of Kikinda. A friend of the exhibition is the Institute for the Study of Medicinal Plants “Dr. Josif Pančić”.