Medical Ideas In English Poetry To The End Of The Seventeenth Century

Riddington Young, John (2000). Medical Ideas In English Poetry To The End Of The Seventeenth Century. MPhil thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000f97b

Abstract

Conventional historical research by the study of prose medical texts (often in Latin) will provide an index of the depth of the professional knowledge available to the contemporary physician, but examination of lyrical and dramatic poetry provides a measure of the diffusion of this knowledge into the laity.

Absolute certainty in Galenic humoral theory comes through in the verses of Chaucer and poets of the later mediaeval period: as poetry is traced through to the seventeenth century, however, scepticism grows and gives way to disbelief, culminating in the Comedy of Humours genre which actively ridicules it. A similar trend can be traced with respect to astrological medicine: the science of iatromathematica (astrological , medicine) was a cornerstone of mediaeval medicine. Seventeenth century astronomical discoveries mentioned in poetry intended for the educated layman underline the current uncertain status of astrology.

The concept of moral retribution as a cause for disease was suggested in fifteenth and sixteenth century poetry. Even by the end of the seventeenth century, the abundant poetical references to syphilis and smallpox indicate that the literate layman was very slow to accept the germ theory advanced by Fracastorius in the mid 1.6th century. Although by the late 1600s, the concept of the circulation of blood had found its way into English poetry, the study of these verses give evidence of the initial chill response to Harvey's ideas in the years immediately after 1628.

Certain medical topics are mentioned in the contemporary poetry and meanings can be drawn from this, both pragmatic and allegorical: poetry gives us a clear view of current ideas about the human body and in particular its important relationship to the rest of the universe.

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