- Communities of Learned Experience: Epistolary Medicine in the Renaissance by Nancy G. Siraisi
Why did Renaissance physicians write and, more important, publish letters? This simple question animates Nancy Siraisi’s most recent book, the product of the inaugural Charles S. Singleton Center for the Study of Premodern History lectures she gave at Johns Hopkins University in 2010. In three well-constructed chapters Siraisi investigates the function of communication and the nature of community among Italian and German physicians in the century after the appearance of the printing press. While this subject recently has been discussed by Ian Maclean and Candice Delisle, Siraisi offers us the benefit of her considerable knowledge of Renaissance medicine in describing the role of letters in scholarly communication, professional disagreements, and the pursuit of virtue, honor, and reputation.
During the sixteenth century learned physicians discovered the virtues of printed correspondence. Celebrating the medical letter as a genre described by Galen and practiced by other distinguished Greco-Roman physicians, they presented their own letters, in part, as a rediscovery of a certain kind of medical writing licensed by antiquity. In 1521 the Ferrarese physician Giovanni Manardo inaugurated this tradition with the publication of his Epistolae medicinales. Twenty other physicians followed his lead by 1626. Successive editions of such works swelled to accommodate more letters, as the size and significance of various correspondences, not to mention the ambitions for one’s authority and reputation grew. By 1556 medical letters were sufficiently popular among certain Renaissance readers to inspire the first anthology, aptly titled Epistolae medicinales diversorum authorum. Famous physicians such as Conrad Gesner, Pier Andrea Mattioli, and Girolamo Mercuriale felt compelled to offer up selections of their letters while obscure medical practitioners such as Johann Lange and Orazio Augenio quite literally made their reputation in letters by the end of the century. The printed medical letter had truly come into its own, but what exactly did it do?
According to Siraisi, Manardo had a fairly simple answer: letters and consilia were interchangeable. Thus, the learned physician saw the letter as a place to render judgment at a distance, responding to questions posed by patients, patrons, and fellow practitioners. In this respect, a letter was the extension of one’s professional authority. Not everyone agreed with this assessment. The medical letter was also a place to display the virtues of erudition in the tradition of other humanist writers who, following Cicero, Erasmus, and many other learned scholars, past and present, believed that the letter made the absent present by memorializing friendship, dialogue, and intellectual exchange. Letters need not always be about medical matters but learning in general. In this respect, they illustrate one of [End Page 195] the important strands of Siraisi’s work on learned physicians, namely, the role of medical men in the early modern Republic of Letters and their participation in the advancement of learning.
Yet many medical letters did indeed focus on pressing professional concerns, namely the status of different kinds of practitioners, the efficacy and advisability of more controversial forms of knowledge such as astrology, magic, alchemy, and Paracelsianism, the identification of efficacious drugs, and the causes of and cures for contagion. In the end, most physicians’ letters publicized their professional preoccupations as well as their learned predilections and social milieus. Siraisi attends to the question of community by looking at physicians whose geographically diffuse correspondence reflected an expansive intellectual and professional network of relations cultivated in travel, through education abroad, and in some cases in defiance of the confessional boundaries of Reformation Europe. The presence of German Protestant medical students and at the University of Padua provides a focal point for this discussion. Siraisi contrasts the exceptionally controversial case Girolamo Donzellini—in correspondence with Germans, inclined to Paracelsianism, and ultimately executed for his “Lutheran” heresies in 1587— with someone such as the Heidelberg court physician Lange whose published letters reflected his intense investment in the local world of academic medicine between Heidelberg and Leipzig, including his pronounced disdain for Jewish physicians, as...