Infectious and Epidemic Disease in History

Department of History
University of California, Irvine
 Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker

Lecture 6.  Medical Practice:  Early Modern.

The Rise of Humanism (15th c)

The Black Death tested the authority and expertise of medical scholars and practitioners.  Ancient texts were woefully inadequate as guides in dealing with this unexpected catastrophe.

At the same time, scholars in all fields were growing more confident in their ability to create new knowledge.  Many became increasingly aware of the liabilities and limitations inherent in relying on Latin translations of Arabic translations of Greek manuscripts.

The goal of scholars shifted from strict preservation of existing versions of ancient knowledge to that of seeking out original Greek manuscripts and translating them afresh.

To rescue ancient manuscripts, new translators must:

  • strictly adhere to original text;
  • identify true intention of ancient authors; and
  • purge old errors of interpretation and translation.

The Humanist movement in the 15th c led to

(1) the re-examination of ancient texts:

  • Hippocrates, Galen and Avicenna were available in Latin from the 12th c through translations from Arabic by various individuals
  • Galen translated from the original Greek in 1531

(2) the introduction of new means of practical instruction:

  • apprenticeships and clinical practica are augmented by instructor-directed dissection 

and (3) the emergence of new ideas:

  • Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) promoted instructor-conducted classroom dissection, introduced anatomical charts as instructional aids, and published de Humani Corporus Fabrica [On the Fabric of the Human Body] (1543)
  • Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) elevated anatomical illustration to a new art form with his drawings from living and dissected bodies:

Magic Tradition
in Medical Theory and Practice
Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493-1541)
a.k.a., Paracelsus

from the writings of Paracelsus--

Mercury is imperfect as a metal:  it is semi-generated and wanting in coagulation, which is the end of all metals.  Up to the half-way point of their generation, all metals are Mercury.  Gold, for example is Mercury; but it loses the Mercurial nature by coagulation, and although the properties of Mercury are present in it, they are dead, for their vitality is destroyed by coagulation....

Any one can at pleasure learn this art in Alchemy, since it is so simple and easy; and by it, in a short time, he could make any quantity of silver and gold.

It is tedious to read long descriptions, and everybody wishes to be advised in straightforward words.

Do this, then; proceed as follows, and you will have man.

Wait awhile, I beg, while this process is described to you in a few words, and keep these words well digested, so that out of Saturn (lead), Mercury, and Jupiter (tin) you may make Sol (gold) and Luna (silver).

There is not, nor ever will be, any art so easy to find out and practice, and so effective in itself.

The method of making Sol and Luna by Alchemy is so prompt that there is no more need of books, or of elaborate instruction, than there would be if one wished to write about last year's snow.

Paracelsus followed the doctrine of "two lights":
  • two ways to illumination:  nature and scripture:
    • Book of Scripture is revealed knowledge
    • God has also placed secrets in nature for the adept to find
  • these two routes lead to same end; are not contradictory
He was not a scholar; wrote in German, not Latin
Paracelsus believed chemistry to be equal to all other philosophical subjects from antiquity
  • practiced iatrochemistry -- chemical medicine
He emphasized correspondence between macro- and microcosm:
  • individual reflects the universe in miniature
  • forces causing change in body are analogous to those operating in world at large
  • to understand cosmic forces, study astrology, not astronomy
  • no need to dissect -- study body as a whole
  • no need for books -- study nature directly

Zodiac Man
Paracelsus was opposed to the notion of disease as systemic humoral imbalance:
  • disease is characterized by a natural (and usually localized) chemical dysfunction
  • God has made remedies for each disease in the world
  • minerals and metals lie hidden from our view; their silence indicates that these are the most potent of curative agents
He viewed the good healer as an artist or craftsman:
  • learns by doing, not interpreting theory
  • meets patient's needs on an individual level
Go to:
  • excerpts from Al'-Arjuzat fi' t-tibb (Poem on Medicine) by 'Abu 'Ali al-Husain ibn 'Abd Allah ibn Sina, called Avicenna (980-1037)
  • Regimen Sanitatis Salerni (The School of Salernum), English translation (1608) by Sir John Harington (1561-1612) accompanied by excerpts from The English physitian: or an astrologo-physical discourse of the vulgar herbs of this nation (1652), by Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1655):
Weekly Readings
Lecture Notes