Genre definitions




Medical advertising was ubiquitous in early modern England; due to the ephemeral nature of many advertisements, probably only a tiny percentage is still extant today. Practitioners of all kinds advertised their services, both consultations and a wide range of prepared medicines. Many medical advertisements included information about health and disease and, often, patient testimonials.  


anatomical treatise

Anatomical writings have been part of medicine since antiquity. This kind of work lays out the form and structure of the human body, and often includes details about function, which we would classify as physiology today.



Writing in cases dates back at least to the classic Hippocratic text Epidemics, but case writing became a more popular genre in the early modern period, with works including dozens and dozens of individual cases being published. Cases are descriptions of single instances of an ailment, usually describing the process of the illness, what therapeutic measures were taken, and the outcome.



Controversial writing includes specific attacks on, or rebuttals of, another writer’s work. It also includes critical writing about the occupational structures of medicine, such as attacks on the limits within which a particular group should practice.



A dictionary is much like today in format — an alphabetical list of words with definitions. The first medical dictionary, A Physical Dictionary, in English was published in 1657; though medical glossaries were included in a number of earlier publications such as Giovanni de Vigo’s The Most Excellent Workes of Chirurgerye (1543) and Thomas Brugis’ Marrowe of Physicke (1640).



A dispensatory is a list of medicines that sets out to be comprehensive or at least extensive; it is a guide to the range of therapeutics available. Dispensatories may describe how to make a particular remedy as well as reviewing its uses; they may also provide guidance on selecting the best raw materials for the process. A good example is The Expert Doctors Dispensatory (1657) which is a translation of the works of Pierre Morel and Jacob Brunn.  




general medical guide

Many such guides were produced in our period; they purport to offer a complete survey of healing, with definitions of diseases, symptoms, and therapeutics, often aimed at household use. Popular guides include the translation of German physician and apothecary Chrisoph Wirsung’s Artzneybuch as The General Practise of Physick (many editions, first edition 1598) and Philip Barrough’s Method of Phisicke (many editions, first edition published in1590).



A herbal is a listing of plants with therapeutic uses. Each item usually includes a description of the plant and where it can be found, as well as its therapeutic uses. Many herbals are illustrated, and often include paratextual apparatuses such as indexes to help a reader find a specific plant or remedy. One of the most popular herbals in the period is John Gerard’s The Herball (1597, expanded second edition 1633 and 1636).


midwifery manual

The first printed midwifery guide in English was published in 1540; like others that followed, it was addressed both to midwives and to married women. These works provided basic information on conception, pregnancy, labor and delivery, and care of the newborn. With the exception of Jane Sharp’s book (1671), they were all written by men. From 1540 onwards, printed midwifery manuals were popular in England. A typical format includes the signs of pregnancy; a description of bodily changes associated with it; remedies for common ailments; descriptions of labor and delivery; and care of the newborn. Some also include a guide to selecting a midwife and or a wet nurse.





A pharmacopoeia is very like a dispensatory; it is a list of medicines with brief discussions of preparation and uses. Unlike the dispensary, however, the pharmacopoeia is usually the product of an established body, such as the College of Physicians, and thus serves as an official guide to ‘acceptable’ drugs. The first European pharmacopeia was published in the German city of Nuremberg in 1542. In 1618, the College of Physicians issued the first Pharmacopoeia Londinensis in Latin. A second expanded edition was published in 1650. Nicholas Culpeper offered readers the first English translation in 1649 as A Physicall Directory. The translations of the second edition was published as Pharmacopoeia Londinensis, or The London Disapensatory in 1653.


plague tract

Plague tracts are among the most common forms of medical writing in the period. They describe signs of the disease; offer suggestions for therapeutics; and discuss larger-scale preventive measures such as quarantines.



Proclamations came from the ruler or a local authority, and usually in this collection they address restrictions imposed during an epidemic.



Recipe books are common in print and manuscript is our period. They offer how-to instructions on preparing a wide range of medicines. There is considerable overlap with cookery, with books offering recipes for individual dishes, for medicines, and for preserving; many of the preparation processes were the same. Popular titles include A Choice Manual, or Rare Secrets in Physick and Chirurgery (many editions, first edition 1653).



Regimen is an old genre, codified in the Middle Ages. It advises the reader how to preserve his or her health by managing lifestyle factors known as the “Six Non-Naturals”: eating; sleep; emotions; evacuations (ie, urination, defecation); air; and exercise. Such works focus on health maintenance rather than on curative medicine.



Secrets were a popular genre in the period. They were collections of short items, including stories (often of a wondrous or startling sort); recipes for remedies; and a wide range of other items designed to amuse and instruct. The items are often arranged in what seems to be a random order. Perhaps the most popular book in this genre is The Secrets of the Reverend Maister Alexis of Piemont (many editions, first edition 1595), a translation of the original by Girolamo Ruscelli. Other popular titled include Hugh Plat’s The Jewell House (many editions, first edition 1594) and Thomas Lupton’s A Thousand Notable Things (many editions, first edition 1579).


surgical guide

Surgery in the early modern period does not mean operative surgery, as it does today, but a wider range of practice focused on the exterior of the body. Surgeons dealt with wounds, swellings, discharges, broken bones, and dislocations. They were also the healers most often involved in the treatment of venereal diseases, in part due the external nature of the signs.



Urinoscopy, or the inspection of a sick person’s urine, was the badge of the learned medieval physicians, and gradually over the course of the early modern period, the practice lost its reputation and became instead a hallmark of quackery. Manuals that instructed on how to read a glass of urine transitioned from manuscript to print and remained popular into the seventeenth century.