1 sheet (22 x 29 in.; 555 x 735 mm). Illuminated manuscript. 44 lines. Ink, gouache and gold on vellum. Historiated illuminated initial "I", with white vine initial decoration accomplished in gold, red, blue and green; adorned with parrots and hare; above at center, a whimsical weasel and cockerel. Below, 4 lines in the hand of the notary, Thomas Nauclerus, and his notarial emblem, a monstrance incorporating the name Tomas; In right margin, a sleeved hand holds a quill; the same emblem is emblazoned and richly illuminated at bottom right. Issued by Iacopo Carazulus, associate chancellor of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, incorporating the text of a papal bull of Innocent VIII. Some stains, tears and holing, holes affecting only a few letters, mostly along creased folds; tears repaired; a single larger loss at bottom center not affecting text (perhaps the remains of an armorial seal), repaired. Docketing on verso.
an exceedingly rare fifteenth century medical diploma awarded to a Jew
The present document is a rare material witness to the successful efforts of a Jewish scholar in 15th century Christian Europe. It is among the earliest surviving documents of its kind. In light of the ecclesiastical origins of the University in Medieval Europe, the precedent of excluding Jews, especially from the pursuit of medical degrees, was established early on. Only by special application and with pontifical authorization could a Jew attain the degrees necessary to become a physician.
This imposing document was issued to Abraham ben Meir de Balmes on July 5th 1492, attesting to his admission to the degree of Doctorate of Arts and Medicine. By decree of Pope Innocent VIII (dated June 13, 1492), the text of which is incorporated here, Abraham was examined by the medical faculty of the University of Naples over the course of two days (4-5 July, 1492).
Abraham de Balmes had studied medicine at the University of Naples for several years in advance of his application for the Doctorate. He had also practiced medicine for two years, although presumably, his patient roster was limited to his coreligionists. The text of the papal document makes clear that Abraham, upon successful completion of his examinations will be permitted to treat all persons, including Christians, and that Christians who receive medical treatment from him need not fear the incurring of sin and may still partake in the sacraments of the church. Furthermore, the papal document specifically permits the university, "as a special gift of grace" to award Abraham this degree, notwithstanding all other previously existing statutes that may have prevented Jews from practicing medicine.
De Balmes (c. 1440–1523), was born in Lecce, southern Italy, and in addition to having been a physician was also a philosopher, translator, and grammarian. In 1510 when the Jews were expelled from Naples, de Balmes migrated to Padua in northern Italy. There he became personal physician to Cardinal Domenico Grimani, who was deeply interested in Hebrew literature. Under Grimani's auspices, de Balmes translated the works of a number of medieval Arabic authors from their Hebrew versions into Latin. The Christian printer Daniel Bomberg urged de Balmes to write his famous Hebrew grammar Mikneh Avram.
When Abraham ben Meir de Balmes, who, as a Jew, had required special papal dispensation to enter into the field of medicine, died in 1523, his funeral procession included his Christian students at the University in Padua, who paid him the final tribute of following his bier. This historic document bears witness to the commitment and dedication of an individual Jew who was able to surmount the obstacles placed in his path, and despite the odds, rise to prominence in the medical profession.
A complete transcription and translation is available upon request.
Harry Friedenwald, "On the Giving of Medical Degrees During the Middle Ages by Other Than Academic Authority" in Harry Friedenwald, The Jews and Medicine, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Press: 1944.
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