The Sex Guide that Fought the Professionalization of Medicine

by Saturn on October 26, 2017 - 3:08pm

At the Osler Library in McGill, one can find many important books on the history of medicine used and written by influential physicians of the early modern period or earlier. However, knowledge of medicine is not limited to university-trained physicians, it was practiced (and still is) by people of lower social ranks as well. Among the selection of books, there is Aristotle’s Master-Piece which is manual for women on midwifery and sex. Contrary to its title, the book was written by an unknown author under the pseudonym of Aristotle. It was first published in English in London around the 1680s and reprinted through the 18th century in England and the United States. Its dimensions (12 cm by 10 cm) make it a very portable and useful book for everyday use for women. From this book, one can learn that the even with the professionalization of medical knowledge, the people in the lower social ranks still had to find other sources of knowledge given its uneven distribution.

Throughout the 18th century, there was a movement of medicalization of early modern society. It was driven by medical practitioners who wanted to monopolize medical knowledge for profit. The article “Health and Medicine in the Enlightenment” by E. C. Spray discusses the attempts to formalize the distribution of treatments. “…licensed medical practitioners tended to pursue a common strategy: they appropriated certain useful skills or treatments controlled by other practitioners while diminishing their claim to expertise and medical knowledge…” (Spray 85).This ended up being highly ineffective in rural areas where there was a small quantity of licensed practitioners available to provide services. Furthermore, the increased flow of printed works, such as this manual, was a practical source of knowledge that granted people autonomy from this new institutional authority. “…organized associations of physicians courted certain legal and social rights over midwifery and hospital nurse… to eradicate female healers and wise women from medical practice in many areas, though with limited success”(Spray 85). Aristotle’s Master-piece shows the opposite of the objective of professionalization, it emphasizes the importance of midwifery among the common people as an everyday practice. The book is written in a very simple language to be used by women who lower down in the social rank and don’t have much education but can read. It represents the necessity for circulation of knowledge for the people in the lower class and the struggle of women to retain the power of their medical practices.

The professionalization of medicine boosted the medical market place which ended up giving people a focus on self-knowledge, a growth in autonomy to counteract the uneven distribution of knowledge in the rural areas and the lower rank people. A way in which the market grew was by the increased publications of guides on preventive medicine. In places were a physician was always available, it doesn’t seem necessary, but in rural areas, it becomes very vital. “Self-knowledge was central to the corporeal self-construction of most people with at least some access to print culture and took priority over the authority of medical practitioners”(Spray 86). Aristotle’s masterpiece attempts to give knowledge to become a physician at home with detailed explanations of sicknesses and cures for them. The book also includes descriptions of the female body for each reader to understand their own body. This book was very popular so that many different editions have been found which shows the eagerness for people to learn about medicine and themselves.

The increasing professionalization of medicine in the modern period had little effect in distributing knowledge evenly for women and people of the lower ranks of society. Aristotle’s Master-Piece is the embodiment of the struggle for the lack equality in the supply medical services by licensed practitioners. In today’s society, this still applies to people in the lower class who can’t have access to health care. The modern version of this manual is cellphones: you have all the information in the palm your hands and do not depend on the formal medical institutions. However, by doing this, you’re risking your health for not having professional assistance. The same applies to that time, the cures offered in the manual could be more damaging than helpful, but people still use them because it was a better option than nothing at all.



Works Cited

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