The Pursuit of Medical Knowledge: What’s Old and What’s New?

by Kafka on Octobre 25, 2016 - 9:25pm

Empirical Observations:

    Our book, titled Mercurius Compitalitius: or, a Guide to the Practical Physician” was written by Theoph Bonet and was published in 1684.  The rough dimensions are eight by thirteen inches and it has an estimated weight of five pounds. The binding is original and it is plain. It is made of wood, which has become worn out over the last three hundred years, as can be seen by the spotted, peeling cover. The pages are a brown-yellow color, are covered in water stains (although they are not watermarked) and smell like a mixture of smoke and herbal medicine. The content of the book is written in a font that is very similar to Times New Roman. There are neither illustrations nor any hand written notes, but footnotes citing the information presented in the book are present.  The physical state of the book can lead us to believe it has been used quite a lot, probably by physicians (as stated in the title). It resembles a modern research-based book in terms of the structure, which even includes an index.  However, it does not resemble any modern medical book, firstly because of its size, and secondly because it does not contain any diagrams or illustrations. In addition, there is a connection to God in the preface of the book, which is not something that modern western medicine would associate itself with.



    As mentioned before, this book was meant for and used by physicians – that is, medically trained individuals who actually interacted with sick people and human bodies. They were distinct from doctors, such as the author of the book, who were intellectuals uninvolved with the actual practice of medicine. This is a major difference from the production of medical knowledge today, as the modern doctor is an individual who is involved in both the theoretical and practical elements of medicine and who uses both of these components to build medical knowledge. In addition, the reference to God is evidently a difference from modern medical knowledge.  In fact, at the time, members of the clergy could be practical physicians, whereas now, religion and science are separate institutions. That being said, this book demonstrates a couple of similarities between medical knowledge in the early modern period and now.  For instance, the text is written in the vernacular (English) rather than in Latin, which makes it much more accessible to readers instead of being reserved for the elite. However, even though it was written in the spoken language, only a small amount of people were literate.  As mentioned in Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Revolution in the Early Modern Period, “given the large peasant population in early modern Europe and the persistence of local dialects which imposed an additional language barrier between spoken and written words, it is probable that only a very small portion of the entire population was affected by the initial shift” (Eisenstein 25). Thus, although it was more accessible to those who could read, comprehensibility provided by the translation into the vernacular only affected a small percentage of the population.  In comparison, today, literacy levels are much higher, so translating something into English would have a far greater impact in the dissemination of medical knowledge. Moreover, the fact that this book was printed means that it was “subject to repeatability” (27); there were probably many copies of the same book owned by multiple physicians at the time. In other words, every physician who followed this book cured a certain disease with the same remedy.  Thus, this allowed medical knowledge to become standardized to a certain extent.  In addition, even though the content of the book is was written according to a different paradigm, the organization of the book resembles a modern medical book since it is structured as a manual or practical reference book, each chapter dealing with a different disease or medical issue and there is even index at the very end. It also includes printed notes in the margin citing information in the text, which is comparable to citations found in medical books today.  Furthermore, the book is a compilation of what can be considered to be the best medical knowledge of the time, as stated by the subtitle “From the most Approved Authors, both Ancient and Modern, The truest and safest way of Curing all DISEASES” (Bonet).  This kind of amassment of knowledge is similar to that of modern textbooks, which are often co-authored and include information from a variety of sources in order to provide the reader with the most holistic and comprehensive material.  This phenomenon was definitely facilitated through print, since information could be more easily recorded, collected and then reproduced.

Works Cited:

Bonet, Théophile. A Guide to the Practical Physician: Shewing, from the Most Approved Authors, Both Ancient and Modern, the Truest and Latest Way of Curing All Diseases, Internal and External, Whether by Medicine, Surgery, or Diet. Lately Published in Latin. London: Printed for Thomas Flesher, 1684. Print.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth. "Defining the Initial Shift." The Printing Revolution in the Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. 13-45. Print.