- From Body to Community: Venereal Disease and Society in Baroque Spain by Cristian Berco
Studies about medicine in early modern Spain have tended to focus on concepts or ideas proper to academic medicine that often had little bearing on patients' experience of health, sickness, and the wide range of therapeutic options that were available to them. This meant that the objects of the history of medicine were traditionally the development of medical sciences, the forms these sciences took in the past, and the slow process of advancement toward modern medicine. This approach tended to overlook that health and sickness, as well as the attempts to alleviate suffering and cure diseases, were experiences shared by an entire culture or society (whether or not access to academic medicine was widely available or affordable). The past two decades have seen radical changes; some historians of early modern medicine have expanded the objects of the field to include diverse practices and concepts related to disease and healthcare. Their efforts have multiplied the approaches, sources, spaces, patients and practitioners. Furthermore, focusing on the nature of the interactions among medical systems lessens the temptation to understand past practices in terms of their "proven," modern counterparts. Sickness, health, cure, and remedy are unstable concepts, each with a history that can be better understood when we understand medicine as a cultural act. Most important, expanding the ways in which we can understand medicine, puts patients and their choices front and center. This shift in focus—from healer to patient—has taken place over the past thirty years. Nevertheless, it is still relatively uncommon to recount "medical history from below" in studies of early modern Spain.
From Body to Community: Venereal Disease and Society in Baroque Spain is a sophisticated contribution to this new history of medicine. This study assumes that medical theories and practices are social constructions, are culturally dependent, and must be situated in their social, cultural, and political contexts because patients would have faced certain cultural expectations surrounding disease. As the Cristian Berco explains in the introduction, his work explores "the way patients lived with venereal disease, including both physical manifestations and economic and social implications" (16) to contextualize and problematize the experience of illness. With these ends in mind, Berco follows the lives of pox patients beyond hospital care. This is one of the main interests of the book: to show the everyday reality of venereal infection and the interconnected "experiences of venereal disease and fragile social processes" (XII) in Early Modern Spain, more specifically in the city of Toledo and surrounding areas. All this takes into account that ideas about disease, sexuality, and marriage in the period studied were radically different from today. In this way, Berco addresses the scenes of interaction and mediation among discourses, practitioners, and experiences that allow us to document the complexities of the control and practice of medicine in all of its cultural dimensions.
One of the many strengths of this book is the impressive array of historical sources on which it relies, including archival documents (notarial, hospital, and municipal records, etc.), creative literature, and medical texts. Through these sources, Berco analyzes the interactions between scientific discourses and other [End Page 623] forms of cultural production. The methodological challenge here is to follow the patients beyond the hospital guards and reconstruct their lives in order to understand the experience of venereal disease.
The author demonstrates great familiarity with the historical studies and classical medical treatises on pox, or the morbo gallico, an uncommon feature in English-language historical studies about Early Modern Spain. Unfortunately, Berco tends to juxtapose medical texts from wide and changing historical periods. He mixes together discussions of Lobera de Ávila or Vives (medical authors from the first half of the sixteenth century) and Juan Calvo (from the second half of the sixteenth century) with analyses of writers from the late seventeenth century. Treating academic medicine of this period homogeneously as if no changes occurred across two centuries is problematic, especially since...