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Medicine in 14th Century Venice

Updated Thursday, 1st September 2005

Treatments were made from a variety of ingredients, both herbal and mineral. John Henderson has found evidence that treatment of the soul was as important as that of the body.

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Picture of Bienvieni

Old lady being blessed Treatment aimed at getting the body's humours back in balance.

Because disease was seen to be a blockage of the humours, evacuation and purgation were a major method of healing - urination, excretion, bleeding, vomiting, sweating, salivation - all of which can happen spontaneously or be provoked by doctors using cupping or cautery.

We see these principles in the treatments for migraine detailed in Santa Maria Nuova's medical recipe book.

One remedy is a liquid made from a mixture of rosemary, sage, figs and grapes. "Both rosemary and sage had healing properties, which they shared with figs which also were purgative." A less clearly helpful remedy involved poplar and pig fat which were to be "mixed together on a low heat to create a thick mixture which was then spread on the head".

If surgery had to be undertaken, pain might be a little dulled by wine and opium.

The body however was only the temporary housing for the soul. Patients, carers and benefactors were all acutely aware of their own mortality. Altarpieces and religious frescoes were commissioned to emphasise the importance of saving the souls of the patients - and of those who provided for them.

Evidence A selection of medicine bottles

Treatments were made up by pharmacies from a variety of ingredients, mostly herbal but with some minerals.

The account books list leeches, cloth for bandages, common herbal ingredients as well as more exotic and expensive items such as preserved ginger from Venice, gold leaf, precious stones, water imported from distant springs and exorbitantly priced opium.

John Henderson's research shows that despite the medical curiosity displayed by Benivieni, religion still motivated his enquiries, so that he catalogued cure by prayer and laying on of hands.

He saw disease as a combination of natural causes and God's will; physicians' cures and miraculous healing were seen as compatible and he describes the curing of his kinswoman through prayer.

In the hospital there were chapels in the wards and payments to chaplains were listed in the hospital account books. The wards themselves were built in the shape of a cross. John Henderson concludes that saving the soul was as important as treating the body in a Renaissance hospital.

Thinking History

Bienviieni receiving medicine As Santa Maria Nuova demonstrates, the history of medicine, far from being a subject of narrow specialist interest, is part of social, cultural and religious history.

In fact, attitudes to the history of science have changed radically over the last thirty years.

Science can no longer be seen as a march of progress towards truth, with historians of science ignoring all those aspects of the subject which appear to be uncomfortably backward looking and irrational.

All science is inevitably influenced by the events of the external world, and the history of science only makes sense if we consider the context in which scientists worked - and for the Renaissance hospital this means grappling with the way that religion shaped the way in which medicine was practiced. If you are interested in the way in which the history of science has changed, you will find the debate pursued in the Open University courses A103 The Arts Foundation Course and in AS208 The Rise of Scientific Europe.

The historian needs to use a variety of texts, but also needs to know how to read those texts.

Nothing can be taken at face value, but in order to 'unpack' the meaning of a work of art, or the historical importance of a work of literature, we need to know something of its form, of how it has been constructed. The methodology of history is introduced in A220 Princes and Peoples: France and the British Isles 1620-1714 and A221 State, Economy and Nation in Nineteenth Century Europe.





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