- Health and Wellness in the Renaissance and Enlightenment by Joseph P. Byrne
Health and Wellness in the Renaissance and Enlightenment appears as the third entry in the new Health and Wellness in Daily Life series, of which Joseph P. Byrne is also the general editor.1 The proposed seven monographs are to “explore the courses that human health and medicine have taken from antiquity to the present day” (p. ix). The intended audience is not the “specialist scholar” but rather the “younger and general student, as well as . . . the general public” (p. x). Thus, it seems reasonable to judge each work principally on how well it fulfills this agenda. In this case, the answer must be a qualified one. Certainly tone and content put no too-great demands on the neophyte scholar. This book, like the two other volumes currently in print, consists of thirteen roughly similar chapters covering, for example, education and training, environmental and occupational hazards, religion and medicine, women’s health, infectious diseases, war, health, and medicine, healing and the arts, and so on. This common organizational frame has the advantage of facilitating easy reference across volumes, geographies, and chronologies. The downside, however, is that its mechanical nature encourages repetition and, in many places, imparts a bumpy, almost cut-and-paste, quality to the narrative. Rather than introducing, exploring, and analyzing important concepts relative to his period, the author struggles, it seems, to “hit all the points.”
Despite this somewhat straitjacketing framework, the volume possesses several quite attractive features. First, and unusual for a short synthesis, it actually covers the world. Virtually every chapter includes sections on non-Europeans (among them, Aztecs, Chinese, Persians, various African groups, and Turks) and devotes significant space to the enslaved peoples of the Caribbean. While this reviewer is not best placed to render an informed judgment on this non-European material, it seems roughly congruent with current scholarly trends and interests. Moreover, [End Page 378] the entire volume takes pains to be comparative, albeit with sometimes rather facile results. Still, it would be unrealistic—and unfair—to expect extensive comparative study or complicated analysis in a short primer intended for “beginners” in medical history
In other ways, however, the volume fails to cut free of some old-fashioned views and approaches (although, one should add, the notes and bibliography are quite up to date). First, a certain Whiggish air persists. Repeated references to “advanced states” and comments on “ignorance” mark these passages, as does the tendency to dwell on some outstanding figures. Although Byrne generally eschews focusing on the “great doctors,” his discussion of men like Vesalius, for example, veers toward hagiography. Surely even beginning students would be able to grasp an interpretation that situates Vesalius (or Harvey for that matter) in a longer tradition of anatomical practice and as an integral part of a broader Renaissance anatomy project. Likewise, and despite the very welcome attempt to include non-Western medicines, the author occasionally produces statements tinged with Eurocentrism or even Orientalism. Is it really true that “nonliterate societies tended to be more accepting of varying approaches to healing” (p. 17), when we know that medical pluralism existed virtually everywhere and at all levels of society? Perhaps even more tellingly, Byrne speaks of the “disagreeable area of Safavid surgical performance” (p. 127) in maiming condemned criminals. It is not quite clear here that surgeons actually carried out these punishments. Still, the gruesome litany of gouged eyes and lopped-off limbs renders the Persians exceptionally cruel, when, of course, mutilating penalties for particular crimes were also common in Europe.
The book covers a series of topics that fully belong in any course on medical history at an introductory level. Students will indeed come away with a broad idea of what health and wellness meant to people throughout the world. Still, the lack of conclusions to most chapters and to the book as a whole, the tendency for coverage to become listing, the many repetitive sections...