Early Modern Medicine: Far From the Medicine We Know

by darkexodus on October 25, 2016 - 11:32pm

Mercurius Compilalitius: or, a Guide to the Practical Physician is the extravagant title of this three-hundred-year-old book written by Theoph Bonet available at the Osler Library for consultation. The binding is half ripped off due to its age. Its cover is hard and woody, with nothing written on it. It is of a dark brownish color with a tinge of red and the fore edge of this book is also of this same color. Only a few words are carved on the spine of the book. From far, it looks like a large brick.

As we uncover the pages, a faint smell similar to that of some Chinese herbal medicine is liberated from the old volume. The yellowed pages are wrinkled by moisture and repeated handlings and are stained in multiple places. Published in 1684, this massive manual of roughly 8x13 inches is about 850 pages long and weights approximately five pounds. It is written in English and there are Latin translations for every major section’s title. A few Greek words can also be found here and there. It is noticeable that the whole book is printed and that there are no illustrations at all, unlike modern textbooks. As we go through the pages, we can note that several fonts are used to distinguish the different parts of the volume and the font size varies considerably.

This manual consists of a long list of diseases and ways to cure them. This guide is a practical reference book and probably belonged to literate people who are educated to some degree, like physicians or pharmacists. A table of general heads is placed at the end of the book, where all the diseases covered are alphabetically listed. This is similar to manuals and textbooks nowadays, since they all have a table of contents to facilitate researches.

By taking a brief overview of the book, some topics in this guide may seem absurd to modern people. Terms like preparers of the Humours, purgation or witchcraft can be found in the table of general heads. These are words and expressions that are really unlikely to be found in a modern medical textbook.

In fact, to be able to see this book more as something educative than nonsense, it is crucial to understand the paradigm of the early modern period, where people were trying to use the scientific method to explain everything. The body was studied regarding the naturals, the components of the body itself including the four humours, and the contranaturals, the exterior impacts on the body (Cook 410). The four humours we are talking about are the phlegm, the black bile, the blood and the yellow bile. Every human being has a unique balance of these humours and has to maintain it in order to stay healthy. Witchcraft was an issue at the time because physicians explained delusional illnesses by the work of witches and warlocks as they can throw off this equilibrium (417). Purgation is a way to regain the original balance as the patient frees the harmful matters from the body by the mean of bleeding, vomiting or diarrhea. As we can see, this is far from the modern concepts of viruses and bacteria, and our methods to cure are much more specific.

Moreover, by analysing the table of general heads, we can see that diseases are considered to be in the same category if they affect the same body part or the same organ. Today, diseases are classified according to their nature. For example, a scratch on the elbow and a scratch on the knee would belong to the same category of injury and would therefore require the same treatment.

Nevertheless, the manual also discusses about numerous diseases and health-related problems that modern people still deal with, such as kidney or bladder stones, tumours, miscarriages, coughs, etc. Although their methods of curing may differ sometimes from nowadays approach, specialists from both periods are aware of the severity of these sicknesses and try to do something about it in order to increase the quality of life of the population.



Work Cited


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


It's strange to think that educated people used to think that some illnesses are caused by witchcraft and that the body was made of only four humours. However, as you said, we may think it's absurd, but in their time it was common knowledge because they were a part of a different medical paradigm than we are today. It also makes you wonder how these methods of curing people worked in that time since their medical knowledge was mostly wrong in terms of what we consider medical knowledge today.

The beginning of this post really put a clear image in my head of what this book looks like. It was very descriptive and made me want to see it in person. I find artifacts from the past to be fascinating because it shows how far society has come. It is cool to be able to almost put yourself in their mindset when you stumble upon something like this medicinal book. For example, how they believed witchcraft could heal disease. Humans have had to be dealing with the same issues for generations but we just hold so much more knowledge about the issues today and you don't find doctors using witchcraft today. However, those are the resources they had available to them so they made do. It makes me question if doctors today use any information that was included in earlier books about medicine. Maybe we could learn more by taking a step back to see what used to work.