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Medicine, Society, and Faith in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds (review)
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Reviewed by
Darrel W. Amundsen. Medicine, Society, and Faith in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. xv + 391 pp. $39.95.

For more than two decades, Darrel Amundsen has produced some of the most interesting and useful publications on ancient and medieval medicine available today. Medieval canon law, the writings of the early Christian fathers, late Roman medical legislation—these topics and more form the subjects of articles and contributions to collected volumes that no one interested in early medicine should be without. Unfortunately, these valuable pieces have been scattered over the years through numerous sources, because Amundsen, like many classicists, has never written a book. Johns Hopkins’s handsome production of many of this writer’s essays is especially welcome. [End Page 335]

Amundsen is at his best when he is examining (and exploding) the sorts of hackneyed notions about early medicine that are repeated so often that they are assumed to be true. “Medieval Canon Law on Medical and Surgical Practice by the Clergy” (Bull. Hist. Med., 1978) dismisses the canard that clerics were forbidden to use the knife. The actual situation was not as simple as historians previously had assumed, and Amundsen’s scholarship into this subject is truly groundbreaking. Another essay of major significance is “Casuistry and Professional Obligations: The Regulation of Physicians by the Court of Conscience in the Late Middle Ages” (Trans. Stud. Coll. Phys. Phila., 1981), which remains one of the most important discussions of the unique demands placed on the medieval physician ever published.

Also very valuable, especially to the teacher, are survey pieces on medicine and the early church. “The Medieval Catholic Tradition,” taken from a collected volume edited by Ronald Numbers along with Amundsen (Caring and Curing: Health and Medicine in the Western Religious Traditions, 1986), brings together themes difficult to find discussed elsewhere. An equally useful summary is “Medicine and Faith in Early Christianity” (Bull. Hist. Med., 1982), a meticulous examination of attitudes toward healing by early Christian writers.

Amundsen’s more recent work deals by and large with bioethics, a philosophical and legal discipline whose historical roots extend back to the 1960s. The writer tells us in his preface that an anonymous referee remarked that “care must be taken when presenting historical essays which describe issues that are of current concern” (p. x). Suicide, abortion, infanticide, and topics of sin and disease indeed are with us still, and Amundsen is bold to deal with these problematic issues. Writers like Peter Brown, Caroline Bynum, and Joan Cadden offer a nuanced and contextualized approach to early Christians’ bodily concerns. By contrast, there is a distinct lack of historical context for many of Amundsen’s conclusions that is all too apparent in the book’s introduction. This schematic finality may appeal to the philosophically and legalistically minded, but the historian, like the anonymous referee, must remain cautious.

Faye Getz
Cooksville, Wisconsin
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