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Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 58.3 (2003) 374-376

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Nancy G. Siraisi. Medicine and the Italian Universities, 1250–1600. Leiden, The Netherlands, Brill, 2001. xx, 389 pp. $122.

Nancy Siraisi’s most recent book brings together fifteen of her published essays on medicine and learning in late medieval and Renaissance Italy. Written over approximately twenty-five years, they show the development of her interests from her earlier work on medicine and scholasticism to her more recent studies of the work of Andreas Vesalius and his contemporaries, including two fascinating chapters on medicine, sanctity, and the supernatural [End Page 374] in Renaissance and Catholic Reformation Italy. All reflect her concern with understanding the intellectual environments in which medicine flourished as a kind of knowledge. While Siraisi is always sensitive to issues of context, arguing in her introduction that the social and economic vitality of the Italian cities made them an exceptional location for the early development of medicine as a practice, she is generally more interested in how practice shaped knowledge, and how medical knowledge developed in relationship to philosophy and the arts during this 400-year period.

In many of her essays, Siraisi repeatedly highlights the dynamic aspects of scholasticism and humanism. Rather than simply drawing distinctions between scholastics and humanists, she is careful to differentiate among them. The image of the medical community that emerges reflects the importance of debate and dissent among its learned practitioners. If medicine was a scientia for medieval commentators, such as Albertus Magnus and Pietro d’Abano, it was also the product of experience for surgeons, such as Guglielmo of Saliceto, who wrote of the importance of anatomy for surgeons in 1268. In a chapter on pulse diagnosis, for instance, Siraisi demonstrates how the late medieval fascination with the music of the pulse, which made the human body a microcosm of the harmonic macrocosm, did not impress practically minded physicians, such as Ugo of Siena. He declared it useless for diagnosis because it was a beautiful theory that did not stand up to further inspection. Like the Renaissance physicians—who debated the relative merits of reviving Greek medicine in relationship to its Latinized Arabic counterpart and to the new medical knowledge that emerged in an era of increased dissections and humanistic textual criticism—medieval medical professors offered no simple solution to the question of how authoritative ancient theories and texts should be.

The complex history of medical knowledge remains Siraisi’s central focus. Collecting many of her best essays together allows us to see diverse strands of her thinking. She reminds us that Avicenna’s Canon was one of the most long-lived medical texts of this period because of its adaptability and utility; even if Petrarch and other humanists claimed to distrust physicians because of their reliance on Arabic knowledge, the reading, teaching and study of Avicenna provided a key element of continuity between medieval and Renaissance medical learning. Siraisi’s seventh chapter points out the importance of looking for the emergence of different traditions in a single moment; she presents scholasticism as a kind of “local” knowledge that emerged differently in the medical communities of Padua, Bologna, and Montpellier. Similarly, chapter 14 describes the decision of Giovanni Argentario to stop teaching Avicenna at Pisa in the 1540s, while aggressively criticizing Galenic medicine. The debates that followed made it apparent that not every sixteenth-century medical professor was necessarily a humanist in love with the revival of ancient learning. [End Page 375]

Perhaps the most interesting theme to emerge in the second half of the book concerns the role of probability and certitude in medical knowledge. In the late fifteenth century, the Florentine physician Antonio Benivieni invited his readers to contemplate the limits of the physician’s understanding of disease in the era of Savonarola’s religious reforms. Almost a century later, the Milanese physician Girolamo Cardano would catalog the miraculous things that had happened to him as proof of his special role as a healer. Great observation of the body did not...


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