There Are No Scientific Authorities

by SmoothJuggler on October 26, 2017 - 4:05pm

The Order of the Hospitals is a rare book that was published in 1557 by the mayor and citizens of London. It is a relatively tiny book, roughly 12 centimeters by 7 centimeters and has an estimated weight of 80 grams. The majority of the book is written in the font known as Dutch Black Letter, and it smells like an old church. The cover is brown and bears an elegant gold diamond surrounded by four sword-like symbols that resemble the Fleurdelisé of the Quebec flag. The book is in remarkably good condition relative to its near five century age and there are no hand written notes in the margins, which gives the impression that it was not frequently used. Dutch Black Letter is difficult to read for those accustomed to today’s fonts, but it is likely that the contents of the book are laws written by government officials who oversaw hospitals. This essay will analyze what this book reveals about how medical knowledge was distributed in the mid sixteenth century through the lens of a secondary source: Medicine by Harold J. Cook, and will show how medicine and science in general revolved largely around authority unlike it does today.

         While today science and religion are typically thought to belong to two opposing ends of a spectrum, it was nothing of the sort during the time of this book’s publication. In fact for many physicians medicine was a means of getting closer to god (Presentation, Osler Library), since it would stand to reason that understanding god’s creation would allow one to better understand his own nature as well. Harold J. Cook refers to Physic, the study of nature in the sixteenth century, as “a godly art” of the time (Cook, 408). Thus the natural world was for the most part seen through the lens of scripture, which is founded on the premise of divine command by a divine authority. It’s also interesting to note that the three highest doctorate-awarding university faculties were the doctorate of law, doctorate of theology and doctorate of medicine (Cook, 407) – interesting because law and theology are schools of thought that are again founded under the premise of authority: one being scripture and the other being a judicial system, senate, or government. Considering the relationship between this trinity it’s not unlikely that medicine was a discipline seen to operate along the same principles.

         Another link to authority can be argued about a certain level of subjective reasoning found in sixteenth century medicine – physic especially, as it was easily associated with philosophical foundations (Cook, 408). One instance that portrays particularly unscientific reasoning can be seen in the efforts of Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) – a physician who sought to delve into secrets of the spiritual realm and control natural magic (Cook, 412). This individual was not an outlier, according to Harold Cook “Ficino and others struggled to recover a preclassical knowledge of astrology, amulets, talismans, rituals and music in order heal the soul and body as well as interpret the orphic characters in which true knowledge of the universe was contained” (Cook, 412). Respectfully, this reflects on an unscientific paradigm of nature that fosters subjectivity, which is significant because subjectivity invites a greater emphasis on opinion as opposed to empirical data. Harold Cook alludes to this when explaining the sixteenth century notions of theory and practice “[…] physic’s theoria offers certainty because it is based on fully accepted general principles, whereas practica, which deals with particulars, offers only opinion or judgement. […] The practice of physic, then, concerned the ability to move intellectually from knowledge rooted in certainty to opinion based upon that certainty […]” (Cook, 409). It stands to reason that those with the most influence and authority were those whose opinions were taken the most seriously within the scientific community, thus a link between authority and sixteenth century medicine can once again be made.

         In conclusion, the indications are plenty that the distribution of medical knowledge throughout sixteenth century London was, whether deliberately or not, predominantly regimented by authority be it in the form of plain political power & status or in the form of religious faith and the unassailability of scripture.


Works Cited

Harold J. Cook,  “Medicine,” in Katherine Park and Lorraine Daston (eds.) The Cambridge History of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003): 407-434.

                Mayor and Citizens of London, “The Order of the Hospitals” London, 1557.