Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Medicine and Religion C. 1300. the Case of Arnau De Vilanova

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Medicine and Religion C. 1300. the Case of Arnau De Vilanova

Article excerpt

Medicine and Religion C. 1300. The Case of Arnau de Vilanova. By Joseph Ziegler. [Oxford Historical Monographs.] (New York: Clarendon Press, Oxford University Press. 1998. Pp. x, 342. $80.00.)

In his odious defense of the Inquisition, Historia de los Heterodoxos Espanoles, the nineteenth-century scholar Marcelino Menendez y Pelayo implies that appearances before ecclesiastical tribunals were an honor for those summoned-and doubly so for those acquitted. Scholars who stayed away from religion could thus pursue their researches in peace, with nothing to fear.

The temptations of theology were too great to resist. Since the dawn of the institutional Church, the greatest brains of each generation had felt the magnetic pull of religious debate. By the medieval period, medical men too had begun dabbling in the field (from their perspective, their surgical discoveries showed them the keys to God's creation). But their anatomical insights lured them into flights of oratorical fancy that would prove their downfall. Michael Servetus (d. 1553) is the best example of this.

Church Fathers referred to our Savior as "the antidote to all sins," the ultimate physician; in some medically-oriented medieval sermons, Jesus performed urinalysis! In analyzing the writings of the Catalan physician and theologian Arnau de Vilanova and his contemporaries, Joseph Ziegler astutely describes the rich cross-fertilization between medical and religious language at the dawn of the Renaissance.

Fourteenth-century doctors were still in the thrall of Dark Age superstition, numerology, and hocus-pocus (common concerns were: might surgery harm a man's soul?; did the Last Rights provide temporary physical relief from terminal illness?). Arnau de Vilanova helped to pioneer a faculty of medicine at Montpellier in the late 1200's. Arnau, a reformer, rejected direct cause-and-effect relationships between sickness and divine displeasure, adopting a more rational philosophy. However, he left the door open for divine revelation as a tool in a physician's armory (academic credentials were only part of the picture). Doctors to this day rely on their "instincts"-we would call them hunches. This distinctive and somewhat flexible approach toward professional activity Arnau subsequently extended to theological analysis, which a lay person (as Arnau himself was) had the right, at least in theory, to perform. …

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