Mercurius Compitalitius, or a Guide To The Physician

by shaps12 on October 22, 2016 - 11:01am

Empirical Observations


               Mercurius Compitalitius, or a Guide To The Physician, was translated to English by author Theoph Bonet. Published in 1684, the 788-page novel is bound in a brown, mahogany leather cover. The dimensions of the book are approximately 1.5 feet by 1 foot. The age of the novel can be felt by its fragility, where the spine of the book has begun to fall apart. The texture of the stained pages can be compared to that of an ancient Torah scroll. In addition, the book contains a very distinct scent, resembling the smell of an oak tree. The book also contains a very basic print, similar to the simple fonts used in textbooks today. There is discrepancy between the way certain letters were printed in the book and in modern times, where the letter ‘c’ in the word physician resembles the letter ‘f’. It was also observed that each page began with the last word of the previous page, a printing technique that was likely employed to ensure that the pages were being printed in the correct order.





               The modern day field of medicine consists of a vast network of inter-reliant practices, such as the proper coordination of knowledge between pharmacist and doctor. This unified system that allows our modern health care system to thrive did not always exist.  In it’s beginnings, the field of medicine-acquired knowledge through a more metaphysical approach, examining the body according to its universals and particulars. For instance, it was believed that the human body could be classified by four universal elements: hot, cold, wet and dry. Furthermore, the body was then analyzed in terms of particulars, or aspects that were more specific to the individual.


                The 16th and 17th century saw a large transition from theoretical based approaches to more practical approach to medicine. There was a “move intellectually from knowledge rooted in certainty to opinion based on the certainty”, where empirical observation was at the forefront of medical examination. (48) This heavy reliance on theory in can be observed in the 16th century edition of Mercurius Compitalitius, which resembles a theoretical Manuel on how to treat various illnesses. The abundance of stains and other signs of use are likely attributed to large dependence on the book for the treatment of patients. 


               The Christian belief that the soul left the body after death justified the use of human dissections, causing a new emphasis on eyewitness works and an emergence of new forms of medical inquiry. Chemists, barber surgeons and alchemists alike began to contribute to the field of medicine, causing a separation of published works issued by academic institutions and amateur, independents. The advanced printing technology and quality materials used to make the book may be indicative of a work published by these wealthier academic institutions. This prospect seems likely considering the subject of the book caters to physicians, and the fact that physicians were part of societies elite group with access to the necessary funding for such high quality printing.


              The emergence of new medical practitioners in the 17th century caused a lack of unification and regulation in how medicine was practiced, which became an issue of health and safety for society. This lack of cohesion between medical knowledge of different sciences in the 16th and 17th centuries can be observed in Mercurius Compitalitius, which solely pertains information related to physicians. A look at the textbooks used in today’s more cohesive medical field supports this speculation, as the textbooks used today cover a vast array of medical sciences. 


Works cited

Harold J. Cook,  “Medicine,” in Katherine Park and Lorraine Daston (eds.) The Cambridge History of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003): 407-434.

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