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Reviewed by:
  • Vulgariser la Médecine: Du Style Médical en France et en Italie (XVIe et XVIIe Siècles)
  • Ann Blair
Andrea Carlino and Michel Jeanneret, eds. Vulgariser la Médecine: Du Style Médical en France et en Italie (XVIe et XVIIe Siècles). Geneva: Droz, 2009. 349 pp. Ill. €37.95 (978-2-600-01263-8).

This innovative edited volume focuses on examples of early modern vernacular medical writing in French and Italian between 1550 and 1650 as part of an international research program on "Styles and the Sharing of Knowledge" across different disciplines. The ten essays by scholars of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature and/or history of science (Massimo Rinaldi, Radu Suciu, Michel Jeanneret, Agnieszka Steczowicz, Cristina Rudareanu, Xavier de Saint-Aignan, Concetta Pennuto, Ariane Bayle, Dominique Brancher, and Alexandre Wenger) examine a broad range of works with a special interest in language, genre, and interactions with literary themes and forms.

As Andrea Carlino articulates in a helpful and substantial introduction, one of the conclusions to draw from these studies is that there was no distinctively medical style in the Renaissance (p. 18). Instead, medical writers shared in a generalized humanist style. Doctors wrote on nonmedical topics, as Nancy Siraisi has shown (after this book went to press) in History, Medicine and the Traditions of Renaissance Learning, and conversely, as this volume emphasizes, doctors drew on literary examples and forms in their medical writings. Treatises on melancholy (e.g., by André du Laurens in 1594 and Jacques Ferrand in 1610) discussed medical causes and remedies through artfully (at times allegorically) interpreted examples taken from ancient sources, fables, and contemporary poets. Similarly, three different works on the eye illustrate the intermingling of literature and medicine: Pierre de Marbeuf won a religious poetry contest in 1617 with a poem on the anatomy of the eye that drew on vernacular treatises on the eye by Jacques Guillemeau and du Laurens, the latter itself rich in poetic elements. The pastoral setting and theme was another element that writers like Pierre Bailly (in Songes de Phestion, 1634) and Laurent Joubert (Erreurs populaires, 1578) borrowed from contemporary poetic taste. The vernacular was the language of choice for medical writing that used literary devices to ensure its appeal.

At the same time this volume illustrates vividly that vernacular medical writing cannot be equated with popular as opposed to Latin and learned writing. These essays do not concern surgeons (like Ambroise Paré, who achieved more fame than most of these authors), but doctors, all of them Latin educated (Barthélémy Aneau included a Latin version of his preface in his French work on the qualities of vinegar, precisely to make that point). These learned authors made a conscious decision to use the vernacular, for a range of reasons. Some praised vernacular writing as plain, pure, and free of rhetoric, as Troilo Lancetta did in translating Fracastoro's Latin work on the causes of critical days. Aneau stressed the depth of understanding in one's mother tongue, which allowed for a special je ne sais quoi (in an early use of that term; p. 99). Of course there was not a single vernacular in either French or Italian in this period, and Joubert makes a point of enumerating and explicating regional French parlances, notably for sexual terms (which were omitted in later editions of his work; see p. 229). [End Page 504]

Writing in the vernacular as opposed to Latin was a means of reaching not an international audience of university colleagues but rather an audience of nobles and courtiers, burghers and merchants, and women (who were rarely Latin educated). Some of these authors used the vernacular to engage in polemics against traditional university teaching: for example, Lancetta in translating Fracastoro's attacks on Galen, or Leonardo Fioravanti, who voiced doubts about university medicine in some of his letters to patients that he published in 1570, or Théophraste Renaudot, ever hostile to the University of Paris. But Aneau chose French to defend traditional medicine against another vernacular work attacking it, in an interesting example of the genre of the paradox (demonstrating something against received opinion) eliciting an antiparadox...


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