A Hidden Gem at the Osler Library

by Alexa_Da12 on October 26, 2017 - 12:58am

    At the Osler Library, you can find a plethora of rare books on medicine. Among the rows of shelves, there are treasures such as the “De humani corporis fabrica libri septem” (1543) by Vesalius (worth 500 000 USD), but there are also hidden gems. One of them is the book “Aristotle’s Master-Pieces or Every Woman’s Book! Displaying all the Secrets of Nature as Exhibited in the Creation of Man”. At first glance, it seems fairly unremarkable; its cover is tattered, its pages are pages stained - it’s clear that the book has been heavily used. The 18th century London Edition, which is currently at the library, is a reprint of an older version (the date of publication of which is unknown). It’s a book, about midwifery and childbirth. It gives instructions to women regarding their virginity, conception, childbirth and physical relations with their husbands. The popularity of this book, well into the 18th century, demonstrates the general tendency of those, who are not in the Upper Rank of Society to conserve traditionalist beliefs and reject new information, specifically concerning medical knowledge.

    This book was clearly very popular when it was in circulation. The first clue is its condition. The cover is ragged, the binding is practically falling apart and the pages are stained. Clearly, this was a book that was used for more than just decoration. People really read it and tried to find answers to their everyday questions in it. Another indication is that this book was precious enough to conserve. It is important to note that it had very little monetary value at the time.
    Most interesting, is the fact that the version at the library is a reprint, published a few hundred years after the first edition was printed. This indicates that the book remained popular and relevant for a long period of time. This is a strange phenomenon because medicine evolved significantly during that era. The book brings up ideas such as the four humours, which date back to Classical Antiquity. This goes against the new discoveries made by scientists, like Harvey (16th - 17th centuries) and Vesalius (16th century). It incorporates none of their progressive ideas and it focuses instead on the traditionalistic approach to medicine.
    There are two possible explanations to this. One is that this book was intended for women, who were being excluded from the field of medicine during the latter part of the 18th century, including the practice of midwifery and tending to women’s diseases. Men (physicians, apothecaries and surgeons) were monopolizing the field and attempting to professionalize it (Spray 85). Thus, the individual who wrote this book would have considered it useless to provide women with the latest information. This theory is improbable however because this book was originally published prior to the 18th century. Thus, the overwhelming popularity of the book and the impressively long period of time during which it was popular must be due to the fact that those for whom the book was intended either refused to accept change or had no access to resources that would suggest that their beliefs may be flawed.

    Perhaps it’s a combination of the two that really explains why traditionalist beliefs remained so popular, long after new discoveries were made in the field of medicine. Spray states, “Only some medical practitioners had access to learned and print culture” (Spray 83). This means that Vesalius’s and Harvey’s texts were not easy to come by and therefore unknown to  unlicensed practitioners. The only licensed practitioners at the time were physicians, apothecaries and surgeons. Spray also makes the assumption that “these three licensed groupings of medical practitioners probably represented a numerical minority of healers in Europe as a whole […]” (Spray 84). This means that the majority were “tooth-pullers, wise women, patent remedy vendors, herbalists, pedlars, diviners, astrologers and faith healers” (Spray 84). All these groups represent the popular medicine people have developed over the ages. Often, this form of healing is based on superstition and culture, so it has very little to do with science. Curiously, the groups that practiced these methods of healing represented a majority of European medical practitioners.     

   One may conclude that the unavailability of the texts and the refusal of a large number of the population to accept new ideas caused traditionalist  methods of healing to remain prominent throughout the 18th century, despite the efforts to institutionalize and professionalize the field of medicine. Linking all this back to the book, the educated middle rank (for whom the book was written) was very hesitant to accept the new discoveries in the field of medicine and therefore preferred to read books such as this one, with a more traditionalist approach to the field. Since the middle rank had difficulty accepting or recognizing modern ideas, one may also safely conclude that the lower rank did too.

    In Conclusion, the “Aristotle’s Master-Pieces or Every Woman’s Book! Displaying all the Secrets of Nature as Exhibited in the Creation of Man” demonstrates that traditionalist views on medicine remained strong as long as the 18th century. This was due to the restriction of the circulation of medical texts and the overall unwillingness of the population to accept change. It is clear from the condition of the book that it was very popular with the middle rank, for whom it was written. This is very significant for the understanding of texts such as this one, recognizing their importance for those that read them and analyzing how our understanding of medicine as a society has developed since the Early Modern Period.

                                                                                                   Works Cited

E.C. Spray, “Health and Medicine in the Enlightenment,” in Mark Jason (ed.) The Oxford History of the History of Medicine.       (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011): 82-99