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Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 58.3 (2003) 376-378

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Luis García-Ballester. Medicine in a Multicultural Society: Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Practitioners in the Spanish Kingdoms, 1222–1610. Aldershot, England, Ashgate Publishing, 2001. $117.95.

This book, a collection of nine essays by Luis García-Ballester, highlights many of the author’s avenues of research. The much-revered “doyen of Spanish historians of medicine” was an expert on the multicultural world [End Page 376] of medieval Spain (ix). His extensively documented views on medical practice, teaching, and perceptions of health and disease confirm the particular historical interest of medicine in a society of Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Medicine becomes a tool used to shed light on this complex world, in which three major religious groups coexisted for nearly four centuries.

The first part of the book, “Christians in a multicultural society,” discusses the foundations of medical science in thirteenth-century Castile, and the social factors perceived as crucial in the assimilation and transmission of medical thought. These included Muslim culture, an important Jewish social presence, and the relative weakness of Spanish universities compared with their more developed European counterparts. The second section addresses the role of Jewish doctors in a Christian society and their stance vis-à-vis Christian scholastic medicine. The third, entitled “The Threefold Incomprehension,” considers how medicine was affected by the gradual disintegration of Muslim society under Christian rule.

The numerous Arabic treatises translated at Toledo during the second half of the twelfth century shaped much of the curriculum of thirteenth and fourteenth century Italian and French medical faculties. Yet, as the author points out, for nearly 200 years, no trace of this rich scientific and medical corpus was to be found at Castilian universities. It was “as if the Castile of Alfonso X were indifferent to the upheaval caused in European intellectual circles” by such works as Aristotle’s Libri naturales, the Canon of Avicenna, or newly translated writings of Hippocrates and Galen (I, 190). Meanwhile, in the territories of the Christian reconquista, Greco-Arabic medical literature persisted in Arabic, which remained the undisputed scientific language of thirteenth-century Jewish and Muslim scholars, as well as of Christian scholastics, such as the Catalan physician Arnau de Vilanova. García-Ballester catalogs the known surviving manuscripts, which are testaments to the wealth of Arabic medical literature that circulated clandestinely, outside the Christian university and social order.

The collection includes a monograph, co-authored with Michael R. McVaugh and Agustin Rubio-Vela, about the development of medical licensing procedures in fourteenth-century Valencia. Of special interest are thirty-one previously unpublished documents appended here describing the 1329 Valencian furs (laws), which codified medical practice in a population overwhelmingly made up of Jews and Muslims. The furs required all physicians to possess a university degree, effectively Christianizing medicine since non-Christians were denied entrance to universities. Examinations by local doctors and municipal authorities screened all applicants, physicians as well as surgeons, barbers, and apothecaries. Women were not permitted to “practice or give potions, under penalty of being whipped through the [End Page 377] town . . .” (III, 61). However, it appears that legal restrictions imposed on practitioners, whether Christian, Jew, or Muslim, were unevenly implemented, likely because of the general shortage of health care, exacerbated at the time of the Black Death. Nevertheless, the emergence of these regulations in a city that did not yet have a medical training institution clearly reveals the social tensions present: a growing medical corporatism with its attendant monopolistic tendencies, clashing with actual public health needs; conflict between ecclesiastic authorities and secular professionals, and their respective healing prerogatives; and, finally, increasingly overt persecution of religious minorities by a privileged Christian majority.

García-Ballester’s research is carefully apportioned throughout. The image that emerges from his portrayal of three groups of healers is one of two concurrent, and competing, medical systems. Although similar in theory (both were based on Greco-Arabic textual tradition), the Christian system...


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