- A New Order of Medicine: The Rise of Physicians in Reformation Nuremberg by Hannah Murphy
The Reformation has never been as easy to integrate into the history of medicine as the Renaissance. Fielding Garrison’s venerable classic devotes a chapter to the period now usually termed “early modern,” but has precious little to say about the Reformation. The far more recent multiple-authored Western Medical Tradition sees “the union of Reform and the Word . . . [as] a powerful one . . . what happened in religion found echoes in medicine,” but the discussion is also brief.1 Of course, there was always the quixotic Paracelsus about whom a great deal (and some of it nonsense) has been written. Hannah Murphy’s elegant, intelligent, and original book takes a very different approach to reformation by refuting the idea that religious reformation triggered or shaped medical reforms. Rather, she reframes “reformation” as a “multivalent [term] . . . used to refer far more expansively to a notion of renewal, or ordering, or formation” (p. 9). Reformatio was, therefore, an essentially political and civic concept that involved experts of all kinds, including physicians, in a reworking of sixteenth-century urban government in Nuremberg. This often unseen and protracted revolution “worked out,” she argues, “behind [the] closed doors” (p. 9) of city council chambers and in the studies (place and activity) of physicians.
Thus, not the bombast of political pamphleteering, papal bulls, and Imperial bans but “a common focus on new forms of writing in the construction and maintenance of expertise” (p. 10) characterized this less overt but nonetheless transformative reformatio. Murphy directs attention to writing in its many forms, [End Page 118] analyzing not only published texts and manuscripts but also correspondence and marginalia. In the physical activity of writing, physicians explored an incredible range of approaches to contemporary problems of medical practice and laid the groundwork for the acceptance of an expertise that ranged beyond medicine to shape civic culture and political life.
Although Murphy arranges most chapters around a single figure, this strategy produces not “great man” history but rather a sophisticated investigation of the individual, eclectic practices of Nuremberg’s physicians. Some of these overwhelmingly Galenic physicians enjoyed considerable fame, such as the anatomist Volcher Coiter. Others, like Georg Palma and Joachim Camerarius the Younger, were less prominent; the latter nonetheless led Nuremberg’s medical community and directed a European-wide epistolatory network. The world Murphy sensitively and vividly portrays rests primarily on these scriptural encounters. Together these figures sustained something like a sixteenth-century “republic of letters,” even if their concerns remained essentially municipal and engaged in quotidian practice. Murphy’s detailed descriptions of these networks and her analysis of the material, personal, and intellectual contacts involved in writing are nothing short of glorious. She demonstrates not only how networks developed. She roots them in needs of civic medicine while emphasizing the materiality and tactility of anatomy, recipes, pharmacopeia, bibliophilia, notes, glosses, letter writing, and even scribbles. Murphy has deftly crafted a rich, and realistic, portrait of how urban polities worked, how experts came to assert their place in that milieu, and what “writing” meant in a variety of situations.
If Murphy’s sensitivity to broader contexts most strikingly defines this important book, the author’s meticulous investigations also lead her to some perhaps startling revisions of long-accepted interpretations. Certainly, she contributes to the ongoing reevaluation of Paracelsus in medicine and religion.2 Moreover, Murphy’s extended analysis of the works her physicians composed and commented on reveals the unexpected wellsprings of empiricism in medicine. These Galenic physicians recognized the high stakes of practice at the bedside for asserting their authority and thus valued empiricism.
A New Order of Medicine adds substantially and innovatively to our knowledge of the triumph of expertise, the in-and-outs of political life, and the meandering paths that intellectual and medical exchanges followed. Murphy focuses on Nuremberg, but her story bears greater relevance. Particularly attractive and important is the methodology she employs in evaluating...