History, Medicine, and the Traditions of Renaissance Learning

History, Medicine, and the Traditions of Renaissance Learning

by Nancy G. Siraisi


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A path-breaking work at last available in paper, History, Medicine, and the Traditions of Renaissance Learning is Nancy G. Siraisi’s examination of the intersections of medically trained authors and history from 1450 to 1650. Rather than studying medicine and history as separate traditions, Siraisi calls attention to their mutual interaction in the rapidly changing world of Renaissance erudition. With remarkably detailed scholarship, Siraisi investigates doctors’ efforts to explore the legacies handed down to them from ancient medical and anatomical writings.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472037469
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 02/26/2019
Series: Cultures Of Knowledge In The Early Modern World Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 460
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Nancy G. Siraisi is one of the preeminent scholars of medieval and Renaissance intellectual history. Now Distinguished Professor Emerita of History at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center, and a 2008 winner of a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, her books include The Clock and the Mirror (1997), and the widely used textbook Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine (1990), which won the Davis Prize from the History of Science Society. In 2004 she received the Renaissance Society of America’s Paul Oskar Kristellar Award, and in 2005 she received the American Historical Association Award for Scholarly Distinction.

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History, Medicine, and the Traditions of Renaissance Learning



Copyright © 2007 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-11602-7

Chapter One


In a famous passage, Sylvius, teacher and subsequently critic of Vesalius, explained to the readers of his Introduction to Anatomy (1555)

the reason why a few things in our bodies today appear somewhat different than [they were] in the time of Hippocrates, Galen, or others among the ancients. If I did not think this testimony superfluous for you, I would prove, both from the writings of the ancients and from tombs that survive to this day, that our bodies have greatly diminished from their original size. You will agree that this [size] is very much reduced today, especially in those regions where marriage is permitted too freely and before the proper age. Many testimonies in both sacred and profane literature plainly convince one that the life span of the ancients was also longer than that of people in our own time. Indeed, the internal parts differ in size, number, and shape in different parts of the world, and both the writings of the ancients and our bodies abundantly testify that the same things that the ancients observed are not still found in all our bodies. So it is believable that the people of particular regions, just like other animals and indeed the very plants, either receive something peculiar to the region [in which they are found] or have undergone some change from their earlier nature.

In short, when Galen reported that the sternum had seven segments and Vesalius observed only six, Sylvius concluded, "It is not an error of Galen, but a change of nature in us." Vesalius, of course, turned out to have the better case.

Sylvius's remarks have earned him "the enormous condescension of posterity" (or at least of historians of science and medicine), yet his assertion that the human body itself had a temporal as well as a natural history, in the sense of having undergone physical change since antiquity, was neither an argument hastily constructed ad hominem nor an idea peculiar to rabidly Galenic learned physicians. Rather, it drew on ideas that, in one form or another, were pervasive in medieval and Renaissance learned culture, were supported by both sacred texts and an array of ancient secular authorities, and were continuously addressed in a variety of contexts other than medical or anatomical debate. The belief that the human body had changed since early times belonged to the larger pattern of thought that viewed all of nature-indeed, the world itself-as subject to aging and deterioration. As a number of well-known studies have shown, such ideas, which drew on both classical and Christian sources, were widespread in the Middle Ages and persisted in one form or another into the seventeenth century. Sylvius's appropriation of these ideas is only one of many possible examples of Renaissance and early modern discussions of ancient and modern human bodies. When physicians addressed this theme (which emerges not only in relation to anatomy but also in claims and counterclaims about changes over time in human life span, susceptibility to disease, physical appearance, and body culture), they took up a historical topic that was at once uniquely close to their special professional interests and expertise and a prime instance of the integration of their learning with broader contemporary currents of humanist historical and antiquarian erudition and developments in historiography.

This chapter illustrates that integration from four different vantage points across the sixteenth and first half of the seventeenth centuries. One is the role within medical literature of historical concepts and information in controversies over supposedly new diseases and new findings in anatomy. The second is the contributions of medically trained authors, in both medical and antiquarian works, to debates over the putative existence of giants in antiquity. Finally, two works seem to constitute particularly notable individual examples of the integration of medical and antiquarian or historical culture in treating the human body of the past. These are the De arte gymnastica of Girolamo Mercuriale (an investigation of ancient athletics and physical training in which this famous and highly esteemed Italian physician presented the results of his cooperation with classicizing antiquarians) and a treatise that the German polymath Hermann Conring (equally celebrated for his historical, legal, and medical erudition) devoted to comparison of the anatomy and physiology of the ancient and the modern Germans.

But first, some aspects of the broader context demand consideration. Several late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century developments seem likely to have stimulated fresh interest in the implications for the human body of venerable ideas about the aging world. One was the recognition of discrepancies between ancient anatomical description and contemporary anatomical observation to which Sylvius was responding. Another was an epidemiological event or, rather, set of events-namely, the outbreak of morbus gallicus and other unfamiliar epidemics that sparked controversy over the possibility that human beings were now subject to new diseases unknown to the ancients. In addition, other, more general intellectual trends that were by no means specific to anatomy or medicine also served to encourage new interest in the idea of differences between the early and the modern body.

In the first place, humanist learning was yielding fuller and more nuanced knowledge of the entire range of classical accounts of human origins and primitive development and of the extent of their diversity. These accounts tended to agree that the bodies as well as the social behavior of early people differed from those of their later successors, but were by no means in agreement as to the nature and causes of the physical differences. In some versions, the ease and fertility of a Golden Age produced bodies endowed with subsequently unachievable health and longevity; in others, early people were stronger than their descendants because of the rigors of primitive life. Some authors told of a sudden transformation of the human body from its original to its present form through an external cause (divine or not); according to others, change was gradual and resulted from changing human behavior. Some accounts referred to a past of mythological remoteness; others were clearly, at least in intention, anchored in historical time.

A new interest in the nature of the giants of antiquity, whose existence was asserted both in the Bible and by some classical authors, also served to focus attention on ancient human bodies. Indeed, as Walter Stephens and Antoine Schnapper have pointed out, biblical endorsement of ancient giants was enough to secure their survival, at least in clerical circles, through most of the eighteenth century, well after the demise of most other fabulous beings. Renaissance debates about giants owed much to the writings of Annius of Viterbo (1432?-1502) and to his gift for forging authoritative "ancient" sources. His claim that the biblical patriarch Noah and his immediate progeny were both founders of peoples and cities in western Europe and literally giants was widely influential. One important implication of Annius's account was that postdiluvian giants of antiquity were neither a soulless monstrous race nor individual anomalies but fully human.

In addition, reports from transatlantic voyages brought awareness of peoples whose way of life might seem comparable to the early stages of human existence as portrayed by ancient authors. Moreover, some of these reports also reinforced the notion, already familiar from such authoritative ancient texts as the Hippocratic Airs Waters Places and Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos, that both climate and custom affected the physical characteristics of different human populations. Among the more extreme examples were widely disseminated accounts of Amazons in Brazil and of naked giants in Patagonia.

Furthermore, in different ways, two very different faces of Renaissance and early modern antiquarianism both encouraged attention to the physical characteristics of early people. Authors interested-usually from a highly localized and protonationalistic standpoint-in the origins, characteristics, and conditions of life of the peoples of northern Europe in the remote past might draw information, comparisons, ideas, and speculations from all the types of sources just mentioned. At the same time, classicizing antiquarianism, which particularly flourished in Italy, was characterized by an insatiable interest in every detail of the customs and practices of the Greek and Roman past, including textual and material evidence relating to physical culture and body training.

But notwithstanding elements of real novelty in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century stores of information, controversies, and genres just summarized, the debates over whether, when, and how the human body had altered its characteristics over time rested on strongly rooted and extremely durable traditional concepts. As already noted, some of the classical accounts of the primitive state and physiology of humankind were already well known in the Middle Ages (notably the account of the Golden Age in Ovid's Metamorphoses). Much more important, patristic and medieval Christian theology and anthropology-which held that along with sin, the Fall of Man brought death, disease, and physical weakness into the world-located bodily change in a single episode in the deep past. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, medical and nonmedical writers alike asserted that medicine was a divine gift given as a remedy for the debility natural to fallen man, a formulation that enhanced the standing of medicine by insisting on lasting physical consequences of the Fall. Furthermore (as Joseph Ziegler has pointed out), in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, theological expositions of Adam's physical nature in paradise became more and more suffused with medical terminology used to explain the differences between pre- and postlapsarian physiology.

The topic of change in the human body since early times had certainly entered scholastic medical discourse by 1303, when Pietro d'Abano gave extended consideration in his Conciliator to the question "whether human nature is weaker than it was in antiquity." Unusually for him, his exposition of this quaestio invoked sacred as well as secular authorities, but his stated purpose was to solve the problem according to "the opinions of astrologers, philosophers, and physicians." Arguments against greater debility were, he thought, the Aristotelian teachings that the world was eternal (since an eternal world presumably implied that things in the world would remain the same), that every natural motion and order of nature tends toward its own perfection, and that the human life span remained about that attested by both the Psalmist and Hippocrates. In favor of modern debility were Solinus's assertion that the men of early times were very long-lived, bigger and stronger than those who came after, extremely beautiful, and giants; that the world, now in its seventh and last age, was growing older and decaying and that Aristotle had also said that everything grew weaker the further it was from its origin; that some statements by Aristotle about animals and by Serapion and Mesue about the properties of herbs no longer held good; that diseases affected people differently than in the time of Hippocrates; and that people no longer achieved the great ages of the biblical patriarchs.

Pietro asserted that biblical authority proved both that human nature was physically weaker since the Fall and that life spans were longer in the time of the patriarchs. But he also identified natural, secondary causes of diminution in the strength and longevity of the human body over time: namely, effects of planetary conjunctions and of the motion of the eighth sphere; corrupt and pestiferous mixtures of the elements in some places; failure to follow good dietary regimen (a worsening problem since the time of Galen); and too youthful marriages, resulting in weaker offspring. The genre of the scholastic quaestio, together with Pietro's own pronounced Aristotelian and astrological interests and his relative neglect of accounts of human origins and early development by ancient literary or historical writers, distinguished Pietro's treatment from the more historically oriented contributions of later authors. Nevertheless, although the nature of his own ideas about relative chronology remains unclear, he already incorporated historicizing themes that would be characteristic of many later treatments of the topic: the implication that change in the human body was not confined to the dawn of history, the comparison of descriptions by classical and postclassical medical and natural philosophical authors with modern conditions, and the assertion that human behavior was responsible for physical as well as moral deterioration continuing until the writer's own time.

Both sacred and secular sources also appear in the one of the earliest explicitly historical treatments of human origins written by a physician, the prologue of Hartman Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle (1493). Schedel drew attention to the contrast between the creation story presented in the biblical Book of Genesis and accounts by ancient authors claimed that the earliest human beings had emerged, along with animals and plants, from primal mud (through a natural process involving mixing and differentiation of the four elements) and describing the life of early humans as savage and primitive. But once having familiarized his readers with a naturalistic explanation-which he attributed to Euripides and Anaxagoras-Schedel, unlike Pietro d'Abano, firmly repudiated it in favor of the biblical version. Thus, although discussions of change in the human body over time were to be greatly elaborated in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century in the light of contemporary issues and interests, some central themes and approaches had already been laid down not only by ancient authorities but also by writers working in late medieval theological, medical, natural philosophical, and historical contexts and genres.


The sixteenth-century controversies over new diseases and new findings in anatomy involved dramatic epidemiological events, major scientific and technical innovations, and such central figures in Renaissance medicine as Niccolo Leoniceno and Vesalius. As a result, these controversies have deservedly attracted considerable attention from and been well studied by historians of science and medicine. Here, I propose only to note a few examples of their reliance on essentially historical arguments that on occasion drew on sources or concepts from outside as well as within the tradition of learned medicine.


Excerpted from History, Medicine, and the Traditions of Renaissance Learning by NANCY G. SIRAISI Copyright © 2007 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures     xiii
Abbreviations     xv
Note to the Reader     xvii
Introduction     1
History in Medical Literature
A Diagnosis from History     23
Bodies Past     25
History and Histories in Medical Texts     63
Life Writing and Disciplinary History     106
Physicians, Civil History, and Antiquarianism
Rival Physician Historians of the Italian Wars     137
Milan: Problems of Exemplarity in Medicine and History     141
Rome: Medicine, Histories, Antiquities, and Public Health     168
Vienna: Physician Historians and Antiquaries in Court and University     194
Beyond Europe     225
Conclusion: Medicine, History, and the Changing Face of Scientific Knowledge     261
Notes     269
Bibliography     357
Index     421

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