Henricus Harpestreng

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by Karen Dreyer Jørgensen

We know little about the life of Henrik Harpestreng (Henricus Dacus). Sources from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, all originating from either the Liber Daticus Roskildensis or the Liber Sorensis (both burned during the fire of Copenhagen in 1728) tell us that he died on 2 April 1244, a highly esteemed master (magister) and canon at Roskilde Cathedral. While still living he provided the church with generous endowments, and after his death he donated funds through his will. Two manuscripts from the fifteenth century (see below) mention Harpestreng in connection with medical treatment prescribed for King Erik (presumably King Erik Plovpenning, Danish king 1241–1251).Thus Henrik Harpestreng was a wealthy man, perhaps even the personal physician of King Erik.


The title of magister indicates a university degree. As no such title was available in Denmark in the time of Harpestreng, he must have graduated abroad at one of the universities where medical studies were possible about the year 1200. Harpestreng’s Liber Herbarum and a medical book De simplicibus medicinis laxativis, whose author, Henricus Dacus, is assumed to be identical with Henrik Harpestreng, are both very much influenced by the medical school in Salerno, and perhaps this is the place where Harpestreng was educated. The similarities may, however, be due to the existence of some sort of medical canon-book. After returning to Denmark Harpestreng became a canon in Roskilde, and he either assisted Erik Plovpenning in connection with some illness of the king’s, or he was the royal physician proper. The Latin works of Henrik Harpestreng are assumed to have been written when he was young, perhaps in Salerno, but he also wrote in the Danish language, obviously when addressing the Danish laity. These works are assumed to have been composed after his return to Denmark. So Harpestreng is remarkable for having both a scientific production in the Latin language and a more popular, didactic one in Danish. Apart from some law-texts the Danish works by Harpestreng are the earliest which have survived in this language. It is, however, possible that the works in Danish are translations of now-lost Latin works.

A maistre Henry de Danemarche, who worked in France at the end of the twelfth century, was identified with Harpestreng for a period of time, but later on this turned out to be rather unlikely.

(1) De simplicibus medicinis laxativis

Thirty-five herbs arranged in alphabetical order are enumerated here. As in the Liber Herbarum (see below) qualities (calidus, frigidus, siccus, humidus) are mentioned. With each herb recipes are given for purgative medicines with exact doses, which does not occur in the Liber Herbarum. Finally there is a passage containing good advice for dose, use and storage. This codex has a passage almost identical to one in Harpestreng’s Danish Herbal Book (see below). The original codex, probably written at the end of the twelfth century, no longer exists.


JOHNSON, J.W.S. 1914: Henricus Dacus (Henrik Harpestreng): De simplicibus medicinis laxativis, Copenhagen (first edition, with introduction, Latin text and notes. Not translated into Danish or any other language).

Medieval reception and transmission

Copenhagen, Royal Library, GKS 1654 4°, fols. 104r–110r, fifteenth century. This is the only transmission of the text.

(2) Liber Herbarum

The Liber Herbarum is a Latin Book of Herbs containing a catalogue of up to fifty-three different herbs, most of which are specified with qualities and instructions for medical use. The book represents the humoral-pathological system, according to which illness is caused by disharmony of the humours in the body. The education in the Salerno school was in agreement with this system.

Regimen Sanitatis, a Salerno script composed in the tenth century, can be traced in the text, but the occurrence of Angelica, Benedicta alba and Benedicta ruffa points to a Scandinavian author. Herbs, diseases and cures are treated in a rather academic way, and prayers and enchantments are only mentioned a few times in connection with medical treatment. The original manuscript, composed about 1200, no longer exists.


  • HAUBERG, P. 1936: Henrik Harpestreng. Liber Herbarum, Copenhagen.
  • JØRGENSEN, K.D. 1986: Henrik Harpestreng. Liber herbarum i udvalg med illustrationer fra håndskrifter, Svendborg. (Twenty-six herbs from the Liber Herbarum. Edition for pupils with introduction and glossary).


  • HAUGBERG, P. 1936: Henrik Harpestreng. Liber Herbarum, Copenhagen.
  • OLESEN, A. 2005: Henrik Harpestrengs urter, Skarresøhus. (A popular edition with 113 herbs from Liber herbarum and The Danish Herbal Book).

Medieval reception and transmission

Harpestreng’s Liber Herbarum was transmitted through a number of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century manuscripts. The following contain the text in Latin:

  • (1) Uppsala, University Library, D 600 8°, fifteenth century: A collection of medical texts. The Liber Herbarum is included in fols. 175–195.
  • (2) Copenhagen, The Arnamagnæan Institute, AM 792 4°, fifteenth century: A paper manuscript of mixed contents. Fols. 147r–152v have forty-eight chapters, each containing the description of a herb from the Liber Herbarum.
  • (3) Giessen, University Library, Ms.Giessensis 610.Fol.: A paper manuscript from the middle of the fifteenth century. Twenty-six chapters from the Liber Herbarum fols. 17v–19, and in addition two chapters on fols. 42r–44r.
  • (4) Vienna, National Library, Bibl.Pal.Vind.Cod.2962: A paper manuscript from the last half of the fifteenth century. Fols. 60v–66r have the greater part of the Liber Herbarum, that is a total of forty-five chapters.
  • (5) Copenhagen, Royal Library, GKS 3457 8°, from the beginning of the sixteenth century: forty-three chapters from the Liber Herbarum on fols. 144v–151r.
  • (6) Copenhagen, Royal Library, NKS 134 4°, from about 1500: Pipinella, Serpentina and Zinziber (Gingiber) (Edition: KRISTENSEN 1908–1920, 285–86).
  • (7) Copenhagen, Royal Library, NKS 67 8°, from the end of the sixteenth century: Fols. 97–122 have five herbs from the Liber Herbarum.

The order of the herbs differs in the manuscripts. HAUBERG (1936, 40–41) supplies a table with numbers and orders of the herbs in the first five Latin manuscripts mentioned above. Liber Herbarum was translated into Danish, Swedish and Norwegian in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Danish translations of the Liber Herbarum:

  • (1) Copenhagen, Royal Library, NKS 314b 4°, about 1500: This is Harpestreng’s Herbal Book in the Danish language (see below) mixed with greater or smaller parts of twenty-two chapters translated from the Latin Liber Herbarum. The last chapter, Grana juniperi, included only in a small number of manuscripts, is written in Latin by a later hand.
  • (2) Stockholm, Royal Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities, Lavrids Pedersens Lægebog, from the middle of the sixteenth century: Fols. 33–34 contain seven chapters from the Liber Herbarum in an abridged translation.
  • (3) Ledreborg manuscript collection, 15 4°, 1594: The Danish Herbal Book mixed with chapters from the Latin Liber Herbarum translated into Danish. Twelve chapters in all distributed on fols. 2r–34r and 120r–121r.

Swedish translations:

  • (1) RYDAHOLM, A.M. 1628: En nyttigh Örtebok (Published seven times between 1628 and 1654. Among others a script close to Klemming 3 (see below) has been used.
  • (2) Stockholm?, Klemming 3, from the beginning of the sixteenth century: Fols. 51–144 contain a translation of the Liber Herbarum mixed with chapters from the Danish Herbal Book.

(3) Stockholm? Klemming 7, from the first half of the sixteenth century: Fols. 215–234 contain short Swedish extracts of the Liber Herbarum.

Norwegian translation:

  • Oslo, the library of Kristiania Katedralskole, Lægebog fra Vinje, from the beginning of the sixteenth century: Page 155 contains Grana Juniperi.

German translations:

  • (1) Copenhagen, Royal Library, GKS 262, from the fifteenth century: Fol. 93r has Angelica and Abrotanum in a German translation.
  • (2) Copenhagen, Royal Library, Thott 194 fol. has Grana juniperi from the middle of the fifteenth century.
  • (3) ? Promptuarium medicinae. Madsen 3383, from 1483: Contains Benedicta alba and ruffa in German (Edition: HAUBERG 1936, 147 & 149).

(3) The Danish Book of Herbs

The Book of Herbs (which in fact is perhaps two books) is a medieval pharmacopoeia meant for reference. For a part of the book the herbs and a few minerals are alphabetically arranged according to their Latin names. The Book (or Books) of Herbs represent(s) the views of the school in Salerno concerning the causes and cures of diseases. The major sources are Constantinus Africanus: De gradibus liber (about 1050) and Floridus Macer: De viribus Herbarum (about 1100). In the manuscripts the Book of Herbs is often followed by a book of stones and a cookery book, which can hardly be attributed to Harpestreng. The original manuscript, composed about 1200, no longer exists.


  • KRISTENSEN, M. 1908–1912: Harpestræng. Gamle danske Urtebøger, Stenbøger og Kogebøger, Copenhagen.
  • MOLBECH, CHR. 1826: Henrik Harpestrengs danske Lægebog fra det trettende Århundrede, Copenhagen.

Medieval reception and transmission

The Book (or Books) of Herbs – or sections of it – has been preserved in several divergent manuscripts whose interdependence is difficult to determine. The Book of Herbs exists in Danish as well as in Swedish, Norwegian and Icelandic translations. Only the most important manuscripts are included here.

  • (1) Stockholm, Royal Library, K 48, from about 1300: A fragment containing The Book of Herbs with 150 chapters, fols. 2v–43v. Fols. 25v–27v look like a medical book proper, whose subject is not herbs but diseases in different parts of the body with instructions for treatment. In this manuscript fol. 27r–27v we find a direct translation of the Latin text of Henricus Dacus: De simplicibus medicinis laxativis, fols. 108r–109r (see above). Fols. 44r–47r contain procedures for blood-letting and cup-suction, originally perhaps an independent work.
  • (2) Copenhagen, Royal Library, NKS 66 8°, from about 1300: The so-called “Knud Jul’s manuscript” with two Herbal Books (fols. 1r–141v and fols. 142r–219v), a book of stones (fols. 1–48) and a cookery book (fols. 1–14 – the pagination being resumed in the middle of the codex), a total of 135 chapters. The two Books of Herbs are (more or less correctly) considered works of Henrik Harpestreng. At the end of the first Book of Herbs the copyist has written his name: “per manum fratris kanuti yuul”. The text is related to K 48, but the order of the chapters is different. The editorial form is hardly as close to the original as K 48.
  • (3) Linköping Gymnasiebibliotek, T 67, no. 199, from 1300–1350, has seven chapters of Harpestreng’s Book of Herbs and one line of an eighth chapter.
  • (4) Copenhagen, Royal Library, Thott 710 4°, from about 1450: A manuscript which – among others – contains the Book of Herbs and also traces of a medical book proper.
  • (5) Copenhagen, Royal Library, Thott 249 8° fols. 161–272, from about 1400–1450. The text depends on NKS 66 8° (“Knud Jul’s manuscript”).
  • (6) Copenhagen, Royal Library, NKS 314b 4°. The text is related to Thott 710 4°.

Translations of the Book of Herbs up to the sixteenth century:

  • (Swedish) A substantial part of Harpestreng’s Book of Herbs is found in Klemming 2,3,5 and 7. These translations are closely related to Knud Jul’s manuscript.
  • (Norwegian) Copenhagen, AM 696 I 4° from about 1350 contains fragments of the Danish Book of Herbs.
  • (Norwegian) Copenhagen, AM 673 a 4° from about 1370 contains fragments of the Book of Herbs.
  • (Icelandic) Royal Irish academy 23 D 43 has, among other writings, forty-seven chapters of the Book of Herbs closely related to Knud Jul’s manuscript.

(4) Other works

(1) The name of Harpestreng is explicitly mentioned in connection with astrologic-prognostic works with procedures for letting the blood of King Erik Plovpenning:

(a) Copenhagen, Royal Library, GKS 3656 8°, from about 1500: Thette ær legen mesther Hinrick harpæ strengh aff konnyngh Erick.

(b) Linköping, Diocesan Library, Saml. 1 a, Codex Grensholmensis, from about 1500: Ithem thette er then legedom som mesther Henrik Harpestrængh gaff konigh Erik. The texts are not edited.

(2) Articles dealing with hygiene, diagnosis and surgery often constitute the final part of the Books of Herbs, and were originally perhaps a work of their own.

(3) Some of the manuscripts have traces of a medical book proper, originally perhaps a work of its own.


  • HAUBERG, P. 1927: En middelalderlig dansk Lægebog, Copenhagen.
  • HAUBERG, P. 1936: Henrik Harpestræng. Liber Herbarum, Copenhagen.
  • HOLCK, J.P. 2001: Middelalderens danske lægebog. Et kontaktfænomen, Copenhagen.
  • JOHNSSON, J.W.S. 1914: Henricus Dacus (Henrik Harpestreng). De simplicibus medicinis laxativis, Copenhagen.
  • KRISTENSEN, M. 1908–1920: Harpestræng. Gamle danske Urtebøger, Stenbøger og Kogebøger, Copenhagen.
  • MOLBECH, CHR. 1826: Henrik Harpestrengs danske Urtebog, Copenhagen.
  • PETERSEN, E. (ed.) 1999: Levende ord og lysende billeder. Den middelalderlige bogkultur i Danmark, Exhibition catalogue for the Royal Library, Copenhagen.
  • SØRENSEN, J.K. 1966: “Lægebøker,” (“medical books”) in KLNM 11.

Danish texts are available at http://smn.dsl.dk/