History, Medicine, and the Traditions of Renaissance Learning
In the past three decades, Nancy Siraisi has made a major contribution to the studies in medieval and early modern history of medicine. Yet—I would argue— her contribution largely exceeds the disciplinary limits of this field of scholarship, as Siraisi has constantly made a case for understanding medicine as part of the broader history of Renaissance learning. This book is a masterly achievement in this intellectual enterprise, showing the multiple and intimate connections between medicine and history in early modern European culture.
Between the mid-fifteenth century and the mid-seventeenth century, a number of authors trained in medicine (or regularly practicing it) were involved in the production of history texts, while many medical books published during this period presented authors’ relentless attention to historical facts, texts, and objects. This was certainly due to the fact that fifteenth- and sixteenth-century physicians [End Page 601] were also, in many respects, humanists. With the humanist intellectual community, physicians shared education, sociability, and patronage networks, as well as cultural values and—above all, and most noticeably—a general interest in antiquity and a specific engagement in the philological analysis of classical sources of learning. But, as Siraisi convincingly argues throughout this book, during these two centuries, the correlations between medicine and history appear even more profound. In fact, she points out, the theory and practice of these disciplines converge on the value assigned to empirical observation, on the attention devoted to particulars and to material evidence, and on the meticulous analysis of past texts and facts; moreover, they present noticeable similarities in their narrative constructions.
The amount of information that Siraisi examines is truly considerable, although—as she acknowledges—the book has no pretence of exhaustiveness. Most of the material is organized in two distinct parts: the first on the place of history in medical literature and the second on the contribution of authors trained as physicians in the specific fields of civil history and antiquarianism. Each chapter is somewhat autonomous and presents one particular aspect of the multiple possible approaches to history springing from the early modern medical world. In chapter 1, Siraisi presents sixteenth- and seventeenth-century physicians addressing historical ideas and interpretations of biblical, classical, and archaeological sources about the possibility that the human body had anatomically changed through the ages. In the next two chapters of the first section, she considers different forms of history and historical narrative employed in sixteenth-century medical texts and paratexts. In chapter 2, she looks at medical collections, such as consilia, observationes, and medical epistles; the authors of these genres of medical writing employ narrative skills and deliberate stylistic choices in order to accurately describe particular medical facts, cases, and observations. Moreover, she also looks at commentaries on two Hippocratic works, Epidemics and Airs, Waters, Places, which are often accompanied by historical digressions and examples through which the physician displayed his humanistic culture and learning. Single biographies of ancient and modern physicians, collections of biographies, medical orations, and the history of medicine or of a single medical institution (for instance, Gabriel Naudé’s history of the Paris medical school)—all written by medical authors—are examined in chapter 3; the analysis of these literary genres allows Siraisi to illustrate the increasingly conscious use of sources and historical criticism by medical writers.
The four chapters in the second part of the book—each of which relates to a specific regional context—concern mostly the second half of the sixteenth century. Siraisi analyzes Girolamo Cardano’s historical methodology and his critique of exemplary history within the context of humanistic historical writing in Milan in chapter 4. In chapter 5, she presents the intersections of history, natural philosophy, medicine, and antiquarianism, mostly in the works of three Roman physicians (Andrea Bacci, Marsilio Cagnati, and Angelo Vittori) writing on issues of public health and water management in papal Rome, on diet and dining customs, and on ancient baths and natural springs. In these works, the use of the notion of historia, in the specific sense of “a brief, factual narrative or description” (p. 193), [End Page 602] is consistently attested, allowing Siraisi to brilliantly demonstrate the centrality of this notion for medical practice, teaching, and communication. The historical works of a group of Viennese physicians who produced extensive writing for the Habsburg rulers on the history of central Europe (Johannes Cuspinianus, Wolfgang Lazius, and Joannes Sambucus) are discussed in chapter 6, whereas the last chapter considers the involvement of medical writers with history and antiquities “beyond Europe,” namely Egypt and the Levant. Here Siraisi shows how, for example, travels in Egypt allowed physicians to combine antiquarian interest and medical curiosity about plants and remedies with the search for manuscripts, as well as with the quest for the source of ancient wisdom in medicine.
This sketchy presentation cannot possibly do justice to a book that is, probably more than any of Siraisi’s previous work, an impressive combination of a ground-breaking historical perspective with a solid traditional approach. Demonstrating how, between the fifteenth and the seventeenth centuries, history and medicine shared methods, concepts, interests, and actors, Siraisi opens the field for further investigations in medical humanism and definitively demonstrates that it is necessary to approach the study of the history of early modern medicine within the broader intellectual history of this period.