The Old & The New: Snooping Through Medical Archives

by PrimaDonna on October 26, 2016 - 4:58pm

Empirical Observations

The dense and earthy sensation that was triggered while glancing through “Mercurius Compilalitius” or more simply “The Guide to The Practical Physician”, pieced together in 1682, was somewhat unfamiliar, and yet strangely fascinating. There was a patent foxed effect on the pages that seemed to obviously be due to nothing else but its old age; almost 400 years. Its pages were wrinkled, speckled, and what appeared to be considerably  overused. The frayed, rough edges were round and the woody binding of it made it seem as if it were meant to be well-kept, acknowledged, and cherished in some way. The spine of the book was thick and hard, although the texture was surprisingly smooth for something so timeworn. There was also a slightly musty scented fragrance that was quite difficult to avoid while thumbing through its chapters. With nearly 500 pages of text on larger-than-average pieces of paper, featuring different fonts and character sizes, it is definitely peculiar that there were no visuals illustrating how to perform the treatments mentioned. Only explanations that were sometimes, but not always elaborated clearly enough for the task to be properly executed.  


This particular piece of history that's hundreds of years old differs from most modern medical books not only in terms of content, ways of treatment, and how to identify the ailments but also in terms of printing and the action of putting it together, as well whom it was meant to be used by. It is apparent that there was a lot of effort put into the translation of this book from not only one but a fair number of medical books from other languages, such as Latin or Greek so that it could be partially available to the literate and slightly more educated members of society. It is unclear whether it was owned solely by physicians that traveled from one house to another or if it may have also been accessible by individuals from other professions, contemplating that it was written in the vernacular and that not everything required special skills and techniques. "The Guide to The Practical Physician" was meant to be used as a sort of like a "How-to" book on curing diseases and illnesses. This type of practical knowledge is still searched for and utilized although it is not always printed in our day. Taking into consideration the fact that book was put together pre-paradigm-shift, it is very reasonable to see the simple logic of it and how to follow it. As mentioned in the article “Defining The Initial Shift.” (Eisenstein,63-79) This book is an example of the slow transition of the printing revolution that is very distinguishable, predominantly around the popularization of the presses. An example of a comparison between modern and early modern printing, such as this particular book, would be, instead of each page being printed and numbered individually, then being put together, the parallel pages (e.g., first and last, second and second to last) are printed side by side on one page, then alphabetized and stacked on top of each other so that they could be folded in half and later sewn in the middle. The production and distribution of medical knowledge during that period of time was far more difficult than it is today. Luckily, the book communicates with the reader informing them about the content of the book as well as instructing them on where, why and how to use it in any of the cases listed in it. The guide also includes a general table of contents, where the headers are merely the title of the disease or the area affected.


Works cited

Bonet, Théophile. A Guide to the Practical Physician: Shewing, from the Most Approved Authors, Both Ancient and Modern, the Truest and Latest Way of Curing All Diseases, Internal and External, Whether by Medicine, Surgery, or Diet. Lately Published in Latin. London: Printed for Thomas Flesher, 1684. Print

Eisenstein, Elizabeth “Defining The Initial Shift.” 345-101-MQ: Early Modern Knowledge, edited by Sarah Waurechen, Eastman, 2016, pp. 63-79.



I enjoyed reading the analysis section as it really took an in depth look at all the information we can learn from printing in the early modern period. If I was to make any suggestions it would be towards the formation of paragraphs since it can be hard to follow when reading one big blurb. I noticed the inclusion of "pre-paradigm shift", which is an extremely important aspect that allows us to learn a lot when analyzing the information in a given book from the early modern period. I also had not realized how the book were alphabetized in order to keep track of each page when in the assembly phase. That is a major difference that we can see in the evolution of the printing press and I applaud you on that identified contrast. I really enjoyed your text.