Arcane working dog duty in rare manuscript exhibit at Penn’s Special Collections Center

Conditions for working dogs have greatly improved, although their duties have changed over the ages, as illustrated by an image displayed in the new exhibit A Legacy Inscribed.

As the exhibit describes, the image, part of a 16th century book on herbal medicine, depicts a mandrake…

…the roots of which can resemble the human form. The mandrake was associated with a number of superstitious beliefs, and this artist captures one of the more colorful legends surrounding its use. When the root is dug up, according to legend, it not only screams but also kills all who hear it.

To harvest it, as we are told by the 1st-century Roman-Jewish historian Josephus, “A furrow must be dug around the root until its lower part is exposed, then a dog is tied to it, after which the person tying the dog must get away. The dog then endeavors to follow him, and so easily pulls up the root, but dies suddenly instead of his master. After this, the root can be handled without fear.”

Mandrake working dog

Depiction of dog pulling mandrake root

Presumably this outcome rarely if ever manifested.

From the site:
On exhibit March 11 – August 16, 2013
The Schoenberg Collection contains several herbals, descriptions of plants to be used primarily for medicinal purposes. Often beautifully (if not always accurately) illustrated, herbals were the primary source of pharmaceutical and botanical knowledge in the Middle Ages. They supplied information on the identification, nomenclature, cultivation, and use of plants that had been passed down through centuries of observation and legend.

The Lawrence J. Schoenberg Collection of Manuscripts, donated to the University of Pennsylvania Libraries by Penn Libraries Board members Barbara Brizdle Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Schoenberg (C53, WG56), brings together many of the great scientific and philosophical traditions of the ancient and medieval worlds. Documenting the extraordinary achievements of scholars, philosophers, and scientists in Europe, Africa, and Asia, the collection illuminates the foundations of Penn’s academic traditions. Often illustrated with complex diagrams and stunning imagery, these manuscripts bring to the present the intellectual legacy of the medieval past.


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