Alisha Rankin

in Renaissance and Reformation

ISBN: 9780195399301
Published online April 2013 | | DOI:

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  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)
  • Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy


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Medicine in Renaissance and Reformation Europe was a study in both continuity and change. Overall, the medical landscape was a complex web that incorporated both elite university medicine and a wide-ranging array of vernacular healing traditions, all of which competed with and influenced each other. By the early 16th century, broader trends in Renaissance culture, particularly humanism, had begun to affect university-based medical learning. The humanist scrutiny of classical texts helped lead to a number of changes, including some attempts to amend the knowledge of the ancients; a gradual increase in the perceived value of empirical investigations of the natural world; and the founding of new faculties of anatomy and botany at many universities. At the same time, classical authors such as Galen, Hippocrates, and Aristotle as well as medieval Arabic writers such as Avicenna remained important authorities through the 17th century. This environment produced the likes of Andreas Vesalius, Conrad Gessner, and William Harvey, all of whom combined a mixture of old ideas and new advancements. Meanwhile, an entirely new medical theory based on alchemical principles, led most prominently by the Swiss doctor Paracelsus, presented a challenge to Galenic learned medicine from outside the universities and became particularly popular at the princely courts of Europe. Throughout the period, however, university-trained physicians represented only a small proportion of healers. Far more populous were surgeons, barbers, apothecaries, midwives, and a wide variety of unlicensed healers. Although physicians increasingly attempted to bring the licensing of other practitioners under their control, the broader healing landscape remained essentially unchanged. Patients had a wide variety of healers to choose from, and healers had diverse approaches. Religious and magical forms of healing remained inexorably intertwined with naturalistic remedies, and this balance remained unchanged after the Protestant Reformation, despite changing ideas toward appropriate forms of religious healing. In many cases, the household remained the first recourse in times of illness, and women healers provided important functions in many areas of medicine. At the same time, the rapid urbanization that took place in the Renaissance led to an increased need for public health measures as well as poor relief. Individuals and towns struggled with recurrent bouts of epidemic disease throughout the time period, both acute diseases such as plague and chronic ailments like the French Disease. The latter was believed to come from the New World and represented one of the many effects that the discovery of the new continent had on medicine. An interest in finding new medicinal plants meant that medicine played an active role in commerce, global trade, and colonialism, while a rise in literacy and the invention of the printing press helped increase access to texts, both printed and manuscript. This combination of dynamic change and traditional healing structures makes the Renaissance and Reformation a complex and fascinating epoch in the history of medicine.

Article.  10877 words. 

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy

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