Medical knowledge through books

by KAMIL5000 on October 20, 2016 - 1:47pm

Medical Knowledge through Books

Empirical observation

In the early modern period of Europe, the survival of books was rare and "hinged on the occasional copy being made by interested scholars who acted as their own scribe." (Defining the initial Shift, page 65). While visiting the Osler Library, my group was introduced to a book by the title The Work of Ambrose Parey, written by an intellectual author called Ambrose Parey.

The first remark on the book was that the cover page was nothing more than a stack of paper covered by a thin layer of leather with no content whatsoever. In fact, all the books seen over there had similar outside looks and could only be distinguished with each other by their size. A rough estimated dimension of The Work of Ambrose Parey was 25x35cm which is considerably bigger than most textbooks we read today.

After marching through several empty pages that were severely infested by bugs bites and water marks, we have arrived to what was considered the cover page. It contained the title, the author’s name (Ambrose Parey) and a brief summary of Human anatomy and general surgery. After giving a quick look through the rest of the book, it was noticeable that one of the biggest empirical difference between The Work of Ambrose Parey and medical prints we have in the modern era is the font. The letters are small and compressed and only a few images which contained a very small portion of a page were shown to support the text. Consequently, compared to modern medical books, The Work of Ambrose Parey was definitely harder to read and extract knowledge.


As time passes, clusters of innovations involving books are created, furthering the advancement of medical knowledge production. Therefore, the difference between the early modern period’s perspective of this topic and today’s perspective becomes more significant.

The production of medical knowledge through books in the early modern period, while sharing similarities to modern ways, was different on a global scale. As the publication of books in the medieval time was an exhausting, time consuming and mostly expensive process, people had to make adjustment to it. While the application of printing resolved into time consumption, many alternative and cheap materials that prevented the longevity of books were essential to solve the financial issues. As observed on The Work of Ambrose Parey, the thin layer of leather that consists the cover was highly damaged due to it being very low-graded. It was also noticeable that, in general, the letters and the font were not fancy at all despite certain letters being illuminated. However, the financial problems "also led to the formation of partnerships that brought rich merchants and local scholars into closer contact." (Defining the initial Shift, page 71) This made so people with different medical backgrounds were able to express their beliefs into the books. Consequently, medical knowledge was created, although containing many misconceptions of human anatomy and surgery. Today, by adopting the scientific method, knowledge needs to be tested and approved by specialists before being taught to the population. As shown on the picture drawn from The Work of Ambrose Parey, the human anatomy that was believed in the early modern time does not correspond to the one experts approved on today. In brief, knowledge was created from different people who offered financial aid and dispersed it through the publication of books.

As for a more in depth analysis of the distribution of medical knowledge, the process took place in a different way from the modern era. The book introduced to us was a translated version from French to English of the original copy of The Work of Ambrose Parey as written on one of the librarian notes. Translation was very significant since it allowed people with different language backgrounds and social classes to be able to acquire medical knowledge through reading the book, thus facilitating the distribution of medical knowledge throughout Europe. Also, some features found on the book such as footnotes and tables of content also made the transaction more convenient. In fact, "well before 1500, printers had begun to experiment with the use of graduated types, footnotes...tables of contents...cross reference and other devices available to the compositor." ("Defining the initial Shift", page 69) Although the placements of these features differ from those of textbooks we use today, it was an important contribution to the spread of knowledge as it allowed different owners to learn more efficiently

1-Ambrose Parey, The Work of Ambrose Parey: 3-700
2-Elizabeth Eisenstein, "Defining the initial Shift", The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 2nd Edition (Cambridge University Press, 2005): 13-45