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Health Care Options in Renaissance Florence

Updated Thursday, 1st September 2005

For the Rennaissance Italian patient here was a vast array of health care options because the practice of medicine was not seen as an exclusively professional business - anyone could do it.

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Picture of Bienvieni

Barbers not only cut hair but extracted teeth. Cobblers mended shoes and removed cataracts.

 

Cobbler at work

Physicians with university degrees treated internal illnesses and surgeons, who learnt by apprenticeship, treated wounds, fractures and external illnesses. Apothecaries made and sold medicines, barber surgeons bled patients and pulled teeth. Herbal remedies were administered by those who had learned the tradition orally - often harnessing the powers of natural magic. Some were licensed to practise their skill, many were not.

Women were found amongst the licensed practitioners. They were not allowed to go to university, but a physician might teach his wife or daughter who could then practise on license. Large numbers of women were in fact involved in healing - making medicines, setting bones and treating small wounds - but nearly always without the status of men. 95% of unlicensed practitioners were women. Increasingly, unlicensed women found themselves on the edge of society and towards the end of the Renaissance more and more were put on trial for practising witchcraft.

Evidence

Medical document Physicians were at the top of the hierarchy of medical practitioners. Lower down the scale barbers cut hair but also extracted teeth. Cobblers mended shoes but also removed cataracts. Katherine Park discovered the case of the cobbler/eye surgeon in Florentine tax records.

For the wealthy medical care was as much preventative as treatment, through the regulation of diet, exercise, rest, environmental conditions and psychological well-being.

In A Regime of Health, a treatise written by Benivieni for his most prestigious private patient Lorenzo de Medici, Katherine found detailed instructions on what Lorenzo was to eat, what air he was to breathe and when and how often he was to indulge in the pleasures of the flesh!

Thinking History

Re-enactment of patient being examined Q. Did physicians and surgeons control the market in health care?

No - though they strove hard to do so and the Renaissance saw an increasing emphasis on their professionalism. They were certainly the most visible medical practitioners, but that is because they were professional men, their status often protected by being members of a guild. But records do not always represent reality; they record what was administratively significant. We need to look for other health providers, the unlicensed who dealt in folk and herbal remedies, the vast majority of whom were women.

Medicine began in the home, it was not regarded as the preserve of a professional elite but as part of everyday life, so we should not expect to find Renaissance healers falling into neatly defined categories. Beyond the resources of the housewife, the local wise woman or barber had the distinct advantages of being readily available, cheap and usually just as likely - or unlikely - to effect a cure as the expensive physician or surgeon.

 

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