Medical Practices and Discoveries of the Renaissance
Renaissance means “rebirth or
reawakening” and marks the spirit of learning “beginning in the 14th
century and extending to the 17th century” (Dictionary).
It is often deemed the period of transition between the Middle Ages and
modernity. It was a period of transition and scientific discovery. Humanists
revised classical texts” subjecting them to cross-examination and scrutiny” (Greengrass 1). As people questioned
accepted truths, scientific experimentation was used to find new solutions to
Medieval medicine was dominated by Galen’s
humourism, or the belief “that human health is driven by four different bodily
fluids” (Medical News Today Editorial Team).
These were black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. Diseases and disorders were believed to stem
from an imbalance of humors, which could be created by exposure to vapors,
improper diet, and personal activities. Aside from the attempts to balance
humors, the Middle Ages was an era of medical stagnation. In true Christendom
fashion, “the Church…encouraged people to turn to their saints when seeking
treatment and cures for diseases and ailments” (Medical
News Today Editorial Team).
Illnesses were seen as punishments from god and it was believed that repentance
could attract God’s mercy. Some even believed that “medicine was not a
profession a faithful person should go into” because it would go against God to
fight the punishment of disease (Medical News Today Editorial Team).
Furthermore, those who did practice medicine were expected to discard Greek,
Roman, and Islamic methods along with incantations. The Church mandated that “magical rituals be
replaced with prayers and devotions (Medical News Today Editorial Team).
Fortunately, medical developments were emerging
elsewhere. During the Crusades, “many Christians travelled to the Middle East
and learned about scientific medicine” (Medical News Today Editorial Team).
Europeans admired “advanced techniques used by doctors to treat injuries and
lessen the impact of disease” (Blakstad, Renaissance Medicine).
Eleventh-century theory of the Persian physician Avicenna was utilized in
European universities well into the sixteenth century. Another Persian physician,
Rhazes, was also popular in higher education. Humanist scholars greatly
benefitted from revision of Greek and Roman medical records, however in
Christendom, they all but disappeared. Their saving grace was that “Muslim cities in the Middle East had translated
most of them and kept them in their centers of learning” (Medical News Today Editorial Team).
first century of the Renaissance brought new medical mysteries. The
manifestation of globalism brought new diseases, the most tragic of which was
the Black Death. Later renamed
the bubonic plague, it was a bacterial infection carried by rodent fleas on
ships. The most characterizing symptom of this disease are buboes, or swollen
lymph nodes that can grow to the size of a chicken egg (Mayo Clinic).The Plague
began and Asia, “hitting Western and Mediterranean Europe in 1346” (Medical News Today Editorial Team).
Within six years, it killed 25 million people. Resurgences of this disease
emerged in various regions until the 17th century. Immediate cures
were varied and heavily relied on superstition. “Cooked onions, ten-year-old
treacle, arsenic, crushed emerald, sitting in sewers, sitting between two
enormous fires, fumigating a house with herbs, flagellation, and bursting
buboes” were deemed potential treatments (BBC 1).
In some cases, a poultice with human excrement was applied to open sores. However, by modern logic some solutions were
logical. Sanitary measures were taken to clean streets of human and animal
waste and burn potentially contaminated materials. People were bathed in a
mixture of vinegar and water which would have helped to kill bacteria (Clark).
Examiners and searchers were assigned to “establish whether members of a
household had contracted the plague” (BBC 2).
If their concerns were confirmed, they would quarantine the house for a month.
People within the household were then expected to collect their waste to be
disposed of properly. “Stray pig, dogs,
rabbits, and cats were killed” in an effort to prevent any possibility of
the plague was the most serious epidemic, “new diseases like syphilis required
new approaches” (Regents of the University of Michigan).
It began in February 1495 when French soldiers invaded Naples in the fist
Italian Wars. It was less deadly than the plague, but “its symptoms were painful
and repulsive” (Frith 2).
Woodcutting drawings show that it was a more severe form of modern syphilis,
which likely stems from a lack of immunity against the disease. When they
returned home, they took syphilis with them. By the end of the year, it had
spread to Switzerland and Germany. By the end of the decade, syphilis spread as
far as Scandinavian countries, Hungary, Russia, and Poland. It was
international by 1520, permeating into Africa, China, and Japan. Pope appointed
surgeon, Giovanni de Vigo, documented the sexual source of the disease in De Morbo Gallicus. This name was later
rejected by Jacques de Bettencourt who dubbed it “the malady of Venus or
venereal disease” because it was a product of “illicit love” (Frith 4).
Like many European leaders, Henry VIII closed brothels and bathhouses in
London. Some religious physicians believed that syphilis was a punishment for
carnal sin “and as such only harsh treatments would cure it” if it should be
treated at all (Frith 6).
In 1673, British physician Thomas Sydenham condemned this mentality and
declared that physicians “should treat all people without judgement” (Frith 6).
Through trial and error, mercury was determined to be an effective treatment. The
ingestion of mercury resulted in side effects such as mood swings, insomnia,
headaches, tremors, decreased cognitive functions, and even death. While these side effects were undesirable,
infected patients took the risk to avoid the easily identifiable painful and
odorous sores that covered the body. These sores could progress into ulcers
that eroded bones and flesh (Frith 2).
As seen with the treatment of syphilis, Renaissance treatment often required
compromise and had the potential to harm.
Early Renaissance diagnoses and treatments
were experimental at best. At one point, King Charles II was asked to touch
sick people to cure them of scrofula, possibly a form of tuberculosis. “Physicians had no idea how to cure
infectious disease” and were left with Medieval ideals (Medical News Today Editorial Team).
Through later scientific experiments, theories of how to prevent the spread of
disease and effective treatments were discovered. Girolamo Fracastoro
(1478-1553) deduced that epidemics were caused by “pathogens from outside the
body that may be passed on from human-to- human by direct or indirect contact” (Medical News Today Editorial Team).
Paracelsus (1439-1541) suggested that “illnesses could be treated and cured
with chemical remedies” (Medical News Today Editorial Team).
Academics turned to herbology to treat illnesses. “Medicinal cures stimulated
the foundation of botanic gardens” that included foreign plant species (Greengrass 187). Globalization increased
the potential for finding useful cures. “Quinine, from the bark of the Quina
tree, a preparation still used in the treatment of malaria and its symptoms”
came from the New World (Blakstad). This was only the beginning of Renaissance
medical theory. Laudanum, derived from Asian opium, was a widely used
These widespread scientific
discoveries were aided by the emergence of the scientific method. Francis Bacon
was the first person to formalize this procedure, but he was influenced by
other scholars. Nicholaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei revolutionized the
systematic nature of study. The scientific method enabled scientists to
validate their work through empirical data. It demanded that some proof of
effectiveness be provided for new remedies. There were three main steps to this
method. The first required a description of facts to be tested. The second
required the classification of facts into three categories” instances of
the presence of the characteristic under investigation, instances of its
absence, or instances of its presence in varying degrees” (Encyclopedia
third step included rejecting truths that didn’t correspond with facts. Unfortunately,
scientific rigor was only used by those who attended universities. Traveling
medicine men, people who couldn’t afford formal medical care, and town witches
were left to rely on tradition, superstition, and trial and error.
Many innovations in medicine were
not immediately accepted. Paracelsus (Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast
von Hohenheim) significantly improved the field of medicine. He differentiated
treatment of specific ailments and discarded the standardized use of bloodletting.
Instead, he turned to the use of herbs and animal substances as a means of
reducing toxicity of poisonous compounds This diversion from widely accepted
practice “met with resistance from the established medical establishment” (Blakstad)..
Due to his controversial approach to medicine, he had difficulty maintaining
work in educational institutions. “He earned a reputation as argumentative and
stubborn” and turned to wandering among the general public where he gained the
reputation of possessing miracle cures (Blakstad,
Renaissance Medicine). In 1527, he cured a leg
infection without amputation in Basle and gained notoriety among
laypeople. His unwillingness to conform
and his insistence on improvement earned him “a place in history as one of the
great Renaissance men who set the foundations of the Enlightenment” (Blakstad, Renaissance Medicine). Medical change was
on the horizon.
the most significant change in medical practice from the Middle Ages to the
Renaissance was anatomical understanding. The Catholic Church previously
prevented corpses from being dissected for fear of desecration of the soul.
“The easing of the legal and cultural restrictions” allowed for discovery of
human anatomy (Blakstad, Renaissance Medicine).
Galen had only dissected animals which resulted in many inaccuracies in his
theoretical human composition. The transition to accepting human dissection as
a means of learning was gradual. “Human dissection began to be performed as a
legal autopsy” at the Universities of Bologna and Montpellier (Regents
of the University of Michigan).
When human dissections were first allowed, they were limited to “criminals and
blasphemers. These criminals were sometimes still alive” during their public
dissections (Blakstad). Over time, they became more common practice,
particularly as a teaching tool in public forums and literature.
Andreas Vesalius (1514-1654) and Leonardo da Vinci
(1452-1591) were pioneers in anatomy. Vesalius used dissections to detail the
structure of the human body, which he published in On the Structure of the Human Body in 1543. Da Vinci used
dissection to gain an understanding of biomechanics. He created “over 200 pages
of detailed illustrations with notes about the human anatomy” and compiled them
but publishing was delayed because it was so extensive (Medical
News Today Editorial Team).
Many artists were commissioned to illustrate these works in atomically accurate
detail. Muscle groups had to show perfect muscle groups and circulatory
systems. These works greatly influenced the artists of the Renaissance. They
were published post-mortem in France in 1632. In 1626, William Harvey
discovered how the heart pumped blood through the circulatory system which
ended the practice of bloodletting (Blakstad, Renaissance Medicine).
Human dissection not only increased the understanding of anatomy, but also
improved the outcomes of surgery.
the Renaissance, many surgical duties were assigned to barbers. Public
dissections were used as teaching tools because it was not a “discipline
formally taught at universities and most of its practitioners did not know
Latin” (Regents of the University of Michigan).
Guides were often written in vernacular vocabulary and distributed as a means
of training. The most detailed compilation was written by Giovanni Andrea dalla
Croce. Ambriose Pare revolutionized surgical practice with the use of ligatures
to stop bleeding, “rather than inflict the shock of cauterization upon
He also discovered turpentine to be an effective healing agent when he ran out
of elderberry oil and saw drastic improvement in his patients. (Medical News Today Editorial Team).
These discoveries minimized the fatality of injury and infection for European
As the human body was explored, some academics suggested
using human corpses for more than research purposes. Medicinal cannibalism
peaked in the 16th and 17th centuries. “Many Europeans,
including royalty, priests, and scientists, routinely ingested remedies
containing human bones, blood and fat as medicine” (Dolan 1).
This was incompatible of European perception of American Indian cannibalism
which was deemed “a perversion of the law of nature” (Greengrass 196). In a European context,
it was a powerful cure because the human body was believed to contain the soul.
Da Vinci even claimed than consumption of certain body parts could revive the
lifeless soul. The market for these remedies centered on thefts of mummies from
Egyptian tombs, skulls for Irish burials, and body parts retrieved by grave
diggers. Thomas Willis advocated powdered human skull and chocolate as a
treatment for excessive bleeding. Fat was used by German physicians to treat
wounds and gout. Paracelsus believed that blood should be consumed for
vitality. “The poor, who couldn’t always afford the processed compounds sold in
apothecaries, could gain the benefits…by at executions, paying a small amount
for a cup of the still-warm blood of the condemned” (Dolan 2).
This practice demonstrates the desperation of common people to treat their
illnesses by any means necessary.
quality and access to medical care were dependent on wealth. Qualified
physicians had high fees but had the benefit of formal education and training.
In the beginning of the Renaissance, these doctors had limited success due to
limited knowledge. However, these physicians took a much more scientific
approach. There were limited options for ordinary people. County doctors were
cheaper to hire but they lacked training. Barbers could be payed to perform
small operations. Apothecaries made medicines, however had no medical training.
Traveling “quacks” sold cure-alls, pulled teeth, and offered discount barber
services. When all else failed they turned to “wise women, neighbors, and local
witches” (BBC 1).
search for cure-all remedies was extensive. The most notable of which was the
pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone. This mystical figment was believed to “cure
all diseases and make a person live forever” (Mullins
29). However, the secrecy surrounding their work
created community mistrust. “Most alchemists kept their experiments hidden from
others, and wrote down their observations in secret languages and pictures so
that no one else would be able to discover their secrets” (Mullins 29).
A more realistic solution came in the form of tobacco. Smoking it was thought
to be useful in treating memory problems, cataracts, headaches, and asthma. Oil
was used to treat pimples and deafness. Tobacco salt was used to whiten teeth
and tobacco syrup treated colds (Remedies and Recipies).
Although it did not have the magical ability to facilitate eternal life, it was
believed to treat more than most other medical treatments.
Renaissance ended on a high note in terms of medical development. The model of
medical treatment evolved to include prevention through vaccination. Edward
Anthony Jenner, a child of the Renaissance, created the smallpox vaccine. His
research began when he noticed that milkmaids appeared to have an immunity to
smallpox. He hypothesized that exposure to the milder cowpox offered protection
to the stronger strain. In 1796, he “inserted pus taken from a cowpox pustule
into the arm of James Phipps, an eight-year-old boy” (Medical
News Today Editorial Team).
When he submitted his work, he was told that his theory was overly radical and
largely unproven. The church saw it as ungodly to utilized sick animal matter
to inoculate people. He continued his trials, including his child, and was
finally published in 1798. The term vaccine stems from Jenner’s discovery and
was derived from the Latin word for cow. The development of inoculations
allowed humans to prevent illness and minimize suffering and continues to do
Renaissance was a period of vast scientific discovery. Globalization created access
to new botanical species and foreign methods. The emergence of the scientific
method allowed physicians to systematically test potential solutions for
emerging problems. Widespread disease prompted the need for effective
treatment. Ethical perspectives teetered between accepting God’s will and
active intervention. Some treatments originating from this period are still in
use today Although many approaches taken during the Renaissance were misguided,
the drive of discovery was a catalyst for medical advancements.
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Frith, John. “Syphilis-Its Early History and Treatment
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