Coexistence of Traditional and Modern Medical Knowledge in Aristotle’s Master-Piece

by azazby on October 26, 2017 - 5:19pm


The creation and evolution of knowledge is a long and gradual process. Medical knowledge is no exception. Aristotle’s Master-Piece is a book about pregnancy and reproduction written by an anonymous author, who used Aristotle as a pseudonym. The first edition was published in 1684. However, the edition that is analyzed here was published in late 18th century in London. This book was mainly for married women and mid-wives. The language is simple and concise. This particular copy is 12cm by 10cm by 1cm and weighs approximately 30g. There are no marginalia. The cover and the binding of the book is a little worn off, but the book is well preserved in general. The font and the layout are similar to those used in modern books. There are a few drawings, including a drawing of a baby in the uterus on the front cover. In Aristotle’s Masterpiece, medical knowledge about reproduction was mainly justified with theology, astrology, and the humoral theory, but modern medical concepts and feminist ideologies are also present.

Firstly, theology, astrology and the humoral theory are the main justifications for medical knowledge. In the introduction, it is stated that the purpose of studying human was to know God as men were created in the image of God. The conception of a child was explained by the Hippocratic model. Terms like “seeds” and “womb” are used and the female reproductive organ is seen as inverted male genitals (Aristotle 44, 69). Although the will of God is seen as the major factor that determines the sex of the child, the author introduced methods to control the sex of the embryo using astrology and the humoral theory. “The best time to beget a female is, when the moon is in the wane, in Libra or Aquarius” (Aristotle 9). However, if a woman wants to have a male child, she should keep warm and sleep on her right side during pregnancy because that side has the greatest heat. Heat is important because male is generally hot and dry according to the humoral theory, which was still the central medical model in the 18th century. In the second part of the book, the causes and cures of various female diseases are discussed. Bleeding, “purging”, and “corrupt humors” were frequently mentioned (80, 85). The cure was usually a mixture of food and most explanations for the causes were based on the humoral theory, such as unbalanced humors and permeability of the body. All these examples demonstrate how theology, astrology and the humoral theory played a central role in the medical society in late 18th century.

Secondly, although some information in the book contradicts modern medical knowledge, certain feminist ideologies and modern medical concepts are present. For instance, when a child was born in the seventh month of pregnancy, the husband usually suspect that it is too soon and thus could not be his child. This led to domestic conflicts. However, the author argued in favor of women by justifying “why children born in the seventh or ninth month may live, and not in the eighth month” (99). Although the justification involved astrology and the humoral theory, the author did not accuse women of dishonesty even though women were viewed as subordinate by the general society in the 18th centuries. “Mole”, which refers to miscarriage in an early stage of pregnancy, is also discussed (94). The author stated that a mole is different from a true conception and carefully justified this statement with logic. “Difference holds good three ways; first, in the genus, in that a mole cannot be said to be an animal; secondly, in that species, because it hath no human figure […] thirdly, in the individual, for it hath no affinity with the parent […]” (94). Rationalism emerged as justification for medical knowledge. The author did not blame solely the woman for causing a miscarriage; instead, he/she thinks that “the true cause of this fleshy mole proceeds both from the man and the woman, from corrupt and barren seed in man, and from the menstruous blood in the woman” (94). The author had little prejudice toward woman. A gradual transition from the original humoral theory to the modern medical knowledge can also be observed. The cures for the same disease used to be different for different person because everyone supposedly has a different balance of humors. However, in this book, the cures are for all women. This is similar to the modern concept that each medication treats a specific disease, instead of a specific person. The idea that extreme emotions of the mother during pregnancy might affect the health of the embryo is also discussed. These examples demonstrate the emergence of modern ideologies and concepts.

            In conclusion, In Aristotle’s Masterpiece, although the author justified the medical knowledge about reproduction mostly with theology, astrology and the humoral theory, modern medical knowledge and feminist ideologies are also present. The presence of feminist ideas and little prejudice toward the female sex lead to the suspicion that the author was a woman herself. This book demonstrates the gradual transition from the traditional medical knowledge, including the humoral theory and the Hippocratic model, to the modern medical knowledge. It is the coexistence of the two that allowed the book to be widely accepted and popular for over two centuries and still be valuable today for the study of the evolution of medical knowledge.




Works Cited

Aristotle (Pseudonym). Aristotle’s Master-Piece; or, Every Woman’s Book! Displaying all the Secrets of Nature, as Exhibited in the Creation of Man!, London: printed for James Duncombe, late 18th century.

E. C. Spary. “Chapter 5 Health and Medicine in the Enlightenment”. The Oxford History of the History of Medicine, Mark Jackson(ed.), Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 82-99.