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Intro From Old Age and Disease in Early Modern Medicine

Intro From Old Age and Disease in Early Modern Medicine

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Published by: Pickering and Chatto on Dec 15, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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– 1 –
‘Old age is not an academic subject’ – thus the Italian legal philosopher and polit-ical scientist Norberto Bobbio, then eighty-ve, began a brutally honest portrayalo his own experience o ageing. In this 1994 essay he speaks out vehementlyagainst the rhetorical glorication o lie’s nal phase that has been commonamong scholars, especially under the inuence o Cicero.
Tere is no doubt thatthe personal experience o ageing on which Bobbio insists cannot be replacedby scholarly discourse. Nevertheless, universities have devoted a wide range o research and teaching to the topic, and their contribution to the discourse o age-ing is such that modern society can no longer be imagined without it.Early Western universities also treated the subject o ageing. Te study o Aristotle and Galen was o especial importance. What it indicates, paradigmati-cally, is1. an almost exclusively theoretical approach based on the scholarly reading,discussion and organization o accumulated knowledge. In contrast, prac-tical observation (
) possessed almost no independent heuristicsignicance, generally serving instead to conrm theory. Teories weredeveloped2. predominantly through the reception and adaptation o a canon o vener-able writings endowed with the highest authority. Finally, the naturalist and philosopher Aristotle also represents3. the starting point or the interdisciplinary academic study o old age, as he was an authority not only or medieval philosophy and theology, but also orthe emerging university discipline o medicine.Te modern university, it is true, is still undamentally characterized by the pri-macy o theory, the ruitul incorporation o available knowledge in teaching and research, and interdisciplinarity. Medicine, however, as an empirical liescience, has distanced itsel rom these basic principles; instead, practical rele- vance, innovation in knowledge and skills, and progressive specialization are at a
Old Age and Disease in Early Modern Medicine
 premium. Tese dierences between early and modern universities are in them-selves banal, but they must be recognized and seen as the reason or a central premise o this study: the oreign character o bygone scientic culture. Teseare essential but di cult presuppositions or the investigation o conceptions o old age in early modern medicine. Modern interests and questions, or exampleabout progress and discoveries, or about the perspective o the patient or client(justly emphasized rom today’s standpoint by Norberto Bobbio), are subordi-nate to these considerations. Ultimately, they can only be taken up secondarily– afer an understanding has been reached o the basic theoretical principles that were so decisive or the worldview and sel-expression o early modern Europe.
1. Methodological Considerations
Tese preliminary considerations also determine the methodological approacho the ollowing study. Concepts o old age in early modern medicine can onlybe soundly comprehended by reconstructing a representative range o the con-comitant processes o developing, portraying, and communicating theoreticalknowledge. Tis requires o historians o medicine, and o readers as well, anarduous process o adaptation: whilst we are accustomed to the search or thenovel and the spectacular as an intellectual norm o our time, now we mustappreciate the repetition and variation o centuries-old traditional knowledgeas science. Te impartial and comprehensive analysis (to the extent such is possible) o extant text corpora might be much less spectacular than, say, theidentication and verication o modern science’s theoretical oundations in anarrow selection o sources; still, such ideas’ representativeness or their timeremains unclear, and out o context the sources can only be evaluated partiallyand in extracts. In contrast, the comprehensiveness aimed at in the study o agiven body o texts yields quantitative evidence (e.g., how ofen certain hypothe-ses are made in comparison to others), and this aords above all a valid portrayalo ‘mainstream’ medical concepts o old age. Te power o a study grounded inthis way goes ar beyond the desultory evaluation o works by certain more-or-less amous contemporaries. In act, it takes the next step, tting the apparent peculiarities o these putatively ‘orward-looking’ individuals into the historicalcontext under consideration. Ultimately, the object o a representative portrayalo medical conceptions also includes recognizing and singling out actual devia-tions rom the norm; they arouse our interest, o course, on account o their progressiveness or curiosity, but they remain grounded in their historical contextand can be characterized accordingly.In its search or broadly diused medical views o old age, the present studythus considers a much larger range o written sources rom the sphere o earlymodern medicine than ever beore. In order to give the source-base a certain
unity, it has been limited or the most part to so-called normative specialist lit-erature written by physicians. Other sources, considerably more ruitul romthe point o view o social history, will have to be disregarded. Letters, tax listsor hospital records could complement traditional medical conceptions o oldage with the essential counterparts o subjective experience and objective prac-tical relevance, but they would go beyond the scope o this book. Tus, only acertain point o view suraces in this study, that presented by the highly-stylizedspecialist literature o the medical proession. Te ormative inuence that thesetheoretical conceptions had on the everyday lie o the time, however, shouldnot be underestimated.Te decision to ocus on the specialist literature o learned medicine bringsits institutional context equally to the ore: the university, with its above-men-tioned structures o treating and communicating knowledge. Te university,however, will only become the setting or the presentation o knowledge in thesecond hal o the period under consideration. Nevertheless, even beore thistime nearly all the authors treated here underwent a ormative medical educa-tion. Our study must thereore pay particular attention to the typical academicstructures o organizing knowledge that were mentioned at the outset: on theone hand the reception o traditional knowledge, medical and otherwise, aboutold age, on the other interdisciplinary integration with other areas o expertise.In this way it will be possible at the same time to do justice to the polyhistoricideal o the period.Considerations on the quantitave oundation o concepts o old age andtheir place in the broader context o learned medicine have also determinedthe temporal span o this study: it is essentially identical with the period o theearly modern university (rom ca. 1300) until the French Revolution. exts rombeore the era o printing will only play a marginal role, as only a ew o themdiscretely treated the topic o old age and also made a noteworthy impact. Tesubsequent three centuries, despite dramatic conceptual and heuristic changes,are marked by a continuous intellectual tradition. Teir intellectual ounda-tion was the reception o antiquity, their common medium the lingua rancao learned Europe, Latin. Both come to an end around 1800, thus providing aterminus to the period o study. Limiting the study to a shorter span o time,and thereore to one historically much simpler to dene, would be easy to jus-tiy; the quantitative distribution o the sources (see below), however, makes itunwise. Speaking against such a oreshortening is also the goal o the method wehave adopted: to provide an overview o the medical discourse o old age, andto reconstruct the currents o reception or proto-geriatric medicine in the earlymodern period.

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