To Prolong Life and Promote Health

Baconian Alchemy and Pharmacy in the English Learned Tradition
  • Faye Marie Getz


For Charles Singer, who years after his death remains one of the most influential historians of science, medicine in the Middle Ages represented nothing less than a “thousand years of scientific degradation”. In medieval England, the decay of Greek medical learning was, by Singer’s lights, especially acute. Medieval English medical texts were a nauseating heap of the vilest remedies, littered with magic, charms, and prayers. “Sometimes disgusting, usually debased, always irrational”, he called them, and this state of intellectual decay was not confined to texts in Old English, a language Singer himself never managed to master. Indeed, the rot, he claimed, extended to Latin as well. Learned medical texts in England were, in Singer’s words, “Latin, perfervidly Christian, deformed by a perverted learning, and exhibiting Irish elements”.1


Fifteenth Century Medical Writing Ontological Entity Irish Element Loeb Classical Library 
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  1. 2.
    Henry E. Sigerist, in The Great Doctors (New York 1958), which went through several editions and into paperback, found only two doctors in medieval Christendom, Constantine the African and Pietro d’Abano, worthy of mention, out of a total of sixty for all time periods. Constantine was important principally as an “intermediary”, Sigerist declared, while Pietro, notable only by comparison, dealt not in medical experience but only in “opinions” (pp. 71, 79).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
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    Advice on regimen was about the regulation of the so-called nonnaturals: food and drink, sleep and waking, motion and rest, evacuation and retention, condition of the air, and state of the emotions. See esp. L.J. Rather, “The ‘Six Things Non-Natural’: A Note on the Origins and Fate of a Doctrine and a Phrase”, Clio medica 3 (1968) 337–47. An extremely popular example of medical advice as a part of learned advice in general is the Secretum secretorum. The text, attributed to Aristotle but actually of Arabic origin, purported to be a series of letters from the Philosopher to Alexander the Great, giving him advice about a number of things a king should know, including how to control his regimen. A summary of the history of the Secretum is found in Secretum secretorum: Nine English Versions, ed. M.A. Manzalaoui, EETS o.s. 276 (London 1977). See also the essays in Pseudo-Aristotle: The Secret of Secrets. Sources and Influences, ed. W. F. Ryan and Charles B. Schmitt (London 1982).Google Scholar
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    Fourteenth-century surgeon John Arderne advised aspiring practitioners against rude jokes or overfamiliarity. Especially, he said, the surgeon should not “look too openly on the lady or the daughters or other fair women in great men’s houses, or kiss them, or touch their breasts, or their hands, or their private parts, lest he anger the lord of the house”: Treatises of Fistula in ano, ed. D’Arcy Power, EETS o.s. 139 (London 1910, repr. 1968), pp. 4–6 at p. 5. On the deportment of the learned physician in general, see Darrel W. Amundsen, “Medical Deontology and Pestilential Disease in the Late Middle Ages”, Journal of the History of Medicine 32 (1977) 403–21.Google Scholar
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© Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto 1992

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  • Faye Marie Getz

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