Medicine before Science: The Business of Medicine from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment

By Roger French | Go to book overview
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Introduction

This book presents an argument rather than a narrative survey. The premiss of the argument is that from the high Middle Ages onwards, physicians built up their trade into an elaborate professional stucture, endowed it with an even more elaborate theory, and contrived to present it with great authority. Some physicians became rich, others famous and powerful, as teachers and practitioners. Great households retained physicians as part of the 'family' and towns sought out university-trained physicians for contract- based employment. 1

Many physicians were, then, successful. We have no way of measuring their clinical success, for that would be to ask modern questions and expect modern answers from inappropriate historical material. Moreover, our instinct is to believe that old medicine was less effective than our own, which is so conspicuously scientific. Indeed, froma modern viewpoint pre-scientific medicine can look ridiculous in its theory and bizarre and disgusting in its remedies. How, then, did physicians in the past meet the expectations of their society, and so succeed? 2

The argument of this book is that they did so partly by helping to create those expectations, which were accordingly easier to satisfy. The fully trained university doctor had two main methods of cultivating his image as a capable medical man, his reason and his learning. These two characteristics will often be capitalised in this book to show that they are technical terms in a historical sense. The Learned and Rational Doctor was

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1
See for example Michael R. McVaugh, Medicine before the Plague. Practitioners and their Patients in the Crown of Aragon 1285—1345, Cambridge (Cambridge University Press), 1993; and Luis García-Ballester's introduction to Luis García-Ballester, Roger French, Jon Arrizabalaga and Andrew Cunningham, eds., Practical Medicine from Salerno to the Black Death, Cambridge (Cambridge University Press), 1994.
2
As Nancy Siraisi observes, a doctor's 'success' in the Middle Ages consisted of prolixity of authorship, fame and senior teaching positions. Success in attracting students into the studium was a financial benefit to the town, and on this basis, for example, Taddeo Alderotti received privileges from the civic authorities in Bologna. See Siraisi's 'Medical scholasticism and the historian' and 'Two models of medical culture, Pietro d'Abano and Taddeo Alderotti', in Nancy Siraisi, Medicine and the Italian Universities 1250—1600, Leiden (Brill), 2001, pp. 140—56 and 79—99, respectively.

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