Adam Blatner, M.D.

October, 11, 2010 Given as part of Senior University Georgetown's Fall 2010 program, Lesser-Known Aspects of the Early Renaissance. .
   See also: 1. The Early History of Printing        2. Neoplatonism, Humanism, Other New Philosophical Trends     4. Revolutions in Medicine (Paracelsus, Vesalius, Pare)
                  5. Witch-Hunts               6 Summary            

Medical history is an interesting “window” on the more general world of history, and in this case, the emergence of a new, previously unknown disease, adds to the ferment of thinking—and its instability—as the pre-scientific worldview discussed in the previous lecture began to reveal its vulnerabilities. But this all happened very gradually, and that theme will be explored more in the next talk about doctors who were slightly revolutionary.

The new disease of syphilis destabilized the medical hierarchy, opening the “market” to those practitioners whom academic physicians disdained—i.e., apothecaries, barber-surgeons, and other folk healers and mere entrepreneurs.

The mores around sexuality began to shift. For example, bath-houses began to close and Europe entered a several-century era of relative uncleanliness, masked by perfume. There was more moralistic response about venereal disease. As syphilis became less virulent, it became more widely thought of as mild disease. Its connection with later complications of the heart, the legs, insanity, and congenital problems in one’s children was not recognized.

The types of treatment took some interesting twists: Although in fact neither of major approaches (or any other at that time) really worked, rumor and blandishments abounded and for many the treatment was worse than the disease.

The impact of this disease on soldiers, battles, the outcome of wars, colonialism, the mental state of those who are absolute rulers, and so forth may have affected the course of history more than is generally recognized.

Precursors: Columbus

The Spanish had been fighting the Moors—the Muslim empire in Spain—for centuries, and had driven them back to the southern tip in Granada. In this effort, The most Catholic Queen Isabella of Castile married King Ferdinand of Aragon, uniting their kingdoms as well as their lives. The theme of unity mixed with their piety, and they resolved to remove foreigners from their kingdom—not only Muslims who had co-existed with the Spanish, but also the Jews, who had enjoyed a “golden age” under the Muslim rulers. All were evicted. This was a catastrophe for the Jews, some of whom migrated to the Netherlands; some as conversos—they were nominally Catholic—under pressure of the Spanish Inquisition, to the New World; some to Italy and the Turkish realms around the Mediterranean, enriching these countries with the Jews’ know-how.

Alas, the exiled Jews had their lands and money confiscated by the crown. (This had happened on a number of occasions over the previous centuries in different countries.) The not-insignificant influx of money allowed the rulers to fund Columbus’ expedition. Columbus’ own journal recorded that his trip was ordered only after the realm had been cleansed of Jews (Boorstin, 1983, p.232).


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