The study of human anatomy is longstanding and dates back to the Greco-Roman period. Anatomical dissections were performed with increased frequency during the late medieval and early modern periods and became a key area of study within university medical faculties. Anatomy was also increasingly seen as essential for surgeons, not least as the wars that ravaged the Continent pushed developments in military surgery. Anatomy was thus an applied topic for surgeons, but was also an academic subject in its own right. As various forms of illustration technologies developed, anatomical works became much more heavily illustrated.
Animals as a topic appear in multiple genres. Some general medical guides oriented to households include what we would call veterinary medicine and offer advice on the care of domestic animals. Other works focus on diet, that is on animal as meat. There are also a few words of comparative anatomy. Animal parts were also commonly used in medicine production and so many dispensatories, recipe books and books of secrets offer recipes using animal parts. These have not been tagged.
As in the Middle Ages, astrology was often a part of medicine, both for understanding and predicting the course of an individual illness, and for guiding therapeutics. Herbals, for example, might indicate what in what phase of the moon a particular plant should be gathered, or what planet ruled what herb. Many general medical guides also offer information on “critical days” – days when particular astrological signs are in ascendant and when one should avoid medical treatment.
beauty and cosmetic
Cosmetics had been a part of medieval medicine, and the topic was carried over in the transition to print. Cosmetics could also be a topic for criticism, seen as dishonest or promoting vanity. The processes by which cosmetics were made were the same as for making medicines, so cosmetics are also included in some recipe books.
Chemical remedies became increasingly popular over the course the early modern period, augmenting older preparations made from plants and animal parts. Often associated with the sixteenth-century healer Paracelsus, chemical remedies were often controversial for physicians, but popular with patients.
There was no separate branch of medicine devoted to the health of children, as pediatrics is today. Most midwifery manuals addressed the care of the newborn, and sometimes infant care as well. In the early modern period we begin to see the first books specifically devoted to health care for children.
Disability is a modern category; early moderns eschewed euphemism here, employing a rich language of bodily defect, such as blear-eyed, lame, cripple, etc. Many surgical works address the kinds of injury or bodily abnormality we would consider disability.
disease, causes of
In the largely humoral model of medicine predominant in the early modern period, disease causation was very different to what it is today. There was no germ theory; the causes of ill-health were usually described in relation to an individual’s humoral balance, although a very small set of diseases, such as the so-called French pox and the plague were seen as contagious.
A number of works focused on a single disease; plague was far and away the most common topic for such a work. Scurvy, gout, and “fevers” were other topics of specific works. For us, ‘fever’ is a symptom, but it was understood as more of a multiform disease.
Disease control was a topic almost exclusively about the control of the plague. Early moderns proclaimed quarantines, burned smelly substances to fumigate rooms, and wire any number of charms and herbs on their persons to protect them from the plague.
As a part of the advent of chemical medicine distillation (developed in the Islamic world in the early middle ages) became a much more common practice, even a household one. Manuals offered instruction and pictures of the relevant glassware and furnaces needed. A good example is John French’s The Art of Distillation (1651).
As one of the key non-naturals, food had been critical to the management of ill-health since antiquity. The management of diet was a frequent medicine concern, while food preparation was similar to the making of medicines.
The very oldest early moderns probably reached ages not so very different to the oldest in our own times but there were very many fewer of them relative to the general population. Nevertheless, a range of books instructed readers on how to manage themselves and their environment so as to ensure living to a ripe old age.
Mental health was not yet largely or completely a medical concern; some of what we might think of as counseling happened in a religious context. Madness and melancholy were widely understood categories, and a range of works addressed the care and diagnosis of both.
Midwifery manuals were usually addressed to the midwife and to her patients — all married women. They described conception, pregnancy, labor and delivery, as well as care of the newborn.
The plague was probably the single most feared disease in the early modern period, and a host of publications addressed its signs, treatment, and prevention.
Most remedies were made from plant materials, and so this topic encompasses much of therapeutics, specifically herbals and other works about plants.
Poison was widely feared but extremely difficult to diagnose in the early modern period; a range of works addressed the topic, from venomous snakes to chemical and plant poisons.
In most places, medicine was regulated but only very incompletely. There was considerable friction amongst different kinds of practitioners, such as apothecaries and physicians, and a small literature that addressed such controversies.
Many an advertisement was for a practitioner, not a specific remedy. Itinerant healers in particular would print up a bunch of handbooks when they arrived in town, advising of their arrival, while established healers might also advertise in broadsides, or, more subtly in the prefaces to their books.
Regimen refers to the management of the six non-naturals, namely, eating; sleep; emotions; evacuations (ie, urination, defecation); air; and exercise. It had been a cornerstone of health maintenance from antiquity and continued to be central to health care in our period.
many works addressed themselves to just a single remedy. Some were advertisements for a specific pill, often made only by a single provider, but others examined new remedies from the New World or Asia.
Many many works offer readers advice on multiple remedies, telling them how to prepare and use a wide range of medicines, from simple herbal preparations to more elaborate chemical ones.
Reproduction is a modern category; early moderns would probably have used “generation” to describe many aspects of reproduction. The topic is most often addressed in midwifery manuals, a recognizable genre in the period.
Secrets 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.
Pulses and urines were two medical genres that transitioned into print; each was used to diagnose an individual patient’s ill-health. Other more general works also address the bodily signs of illness, to provide suggestions for therapeutics.
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.
Venereal disease came to Europeans’ attention in a new way in the late fifteenth century, when what the English were to call the French Pox first appeared in Europe during a siege of Naples. This ailment, which bears some relation to our modern diagnosis of syphilis, ravaged Europe, killing people quickly and fearsomely. Other disease spread by sexual relations were also known, although they do not always map well onto modern categories.
Early moderns were enthusiastic users of water for therapy. Whether they traveled to a specific spa, or late in the period, bought bottled spring waters, they saw real healing potential in such waters.
The modern specialty of obstetrics and gynecology did not exist as such in the early modern period. Physicians might deal with women’s reproductive health, but the more common reproductive healer was the midwife.