In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Medicine

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Collections of Essays
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Healers and Medical Practice
  • Patients
  • Gender and Medicine
  • Women Healers
  • Childbirth and Midwifery
  • Body and Medicine
  • Religion
  • Poor Relief and Public Health
  • Texts and Images
  • Secrets and Recipes
  • Sites of Knowledge and Practice
  • Commerce and Global Encounters

Renaissance and Reformation Medicine
Alisha Rankin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0186


Medicine in Renaissance and Reformation Europe was a study in both continuity and change. Overall, the medical landscape was a complex web that incorporated both elite university medicine and a wide-ranging array of vernacular healing traditions, all of which competed with and influenced each other. By the early 16th century, broader trends in Renaissance culture, particularly humanism, had begun to affect university-based medical learning. The humanist scrutiny of classical texts helped lead to a number of changes, including some attempts to amend the knowledge of the ancients; a gradual increase in the perceived value of empirical investigations of the natural world; and the founding of new faculties of anatomy and botany at many universities. At the same time, classical authors such as Galen, Hippocrates, and Aristotle as well as medieval Arabic writers such as Avicenna remained important authorities through the 17th century. This environment produced the likes of Andreas Vesalius, Conrad Gessner, and William Harvey, all of whom combined a mixture of old ideas and new advancements. Meanwhile, an entirely new medical theory based on alchemical principles, led most prominently by the Swiss doctor Paracelsus, presented a challenge to Galenic learned medicine from outside the universities and became particularly popular at the princely courts of Europe. Throughout the period, however, university-trained physicians represented only a small proportion of healers. Far more populous were surgeons, barbers, apothecaries, midwives, and a wide variety of unlicensed healers. Although physicians increasingly attempted to bring the licensing of other practitioners under their control, the broader healing landscape remained essentially unchanged. Patients had a wide variety of healers to choose from, and healers had diverse approaches. Religious and magical forms of healing remained inexorably intertwined with naturalistic remedies, and this balance remained unchanged after the Protestant Reformation, despite changing ideas toward appropriate forms of religious healing. In many cases, the household remained the first recourse in times of illness, and women healers provided important functions in many areas of medicine. At the same time, the rapid urbanization that took place in the Renaissance led to an increased need for public health measures as well as poor relief. Individuals and towns struggled with recurrent bouts of epidemic disease throughout the time period, both acute diseases such as plague and chronic ailments like the French Disease. The latter was believed to come from the New World and represented one of the many effects that the discovery of the new continent had on medicine. An interest in finding new medicinal plants meant that medicine played an active role in commerce, global trade, and colonialism, while a rise in literacy and the invention of the printing press helped increase access to texts, both printed and manuscript. This combination of dynamic change and traditional healing structures makes the Renaissance and Reformation a complex and fascinating epoch in the history of medicine.

General Overviews

Siraisi 1990 provides a nuanced overview of early Renaissance medicine and is particularly useful for learned medicine. The more recent overviews Lindemann 2010 and Elmer 2004 examine broader questions of medicine, health, and illness in society. All three works can be used as introductory textbooks at the undergraduate and graduate level, and the last can be paired with the source book Elmer and Grell 2004. The essays in Conrad, et al. 1995 are extensive studies, while Park 1997 and Cook 2006 give shorter overviews. Porter 1997 is a general overview of the entire history of medicine for the nonspecialist. Brockliss and Jones 1997 focuses specifically on France, but it is a comprehensive and in-depth study useful to anyone interested in Renaissance medicine.

  • Brockliss, Lawrence, and Colin Jones. The Medical World of Early Modern France. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997.

    An extensive study of French medicine from the 16th through the 18th centuries. Examines cultural and intellectual trends and their place within the wider social arena. Discourages thinking of popular and learned medicine as separate entities.

  • Conrad, Lawrence I., Michael Neve, Vivian Nutton, Roy Porter, and Andrew Wear. The Western Medical Tradition, 800 BC to AD 1800. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    Contains introductory essays spanning the period covered by the book. Of particular note are the essays by Vivian Nutton, “Medicine in Medieval Western Europe, 1000–1500” (pp. 139–206) and Andrew Wear, “Medicine in Early Modern Europe, 1500–1700” (pp. 215–362).

  • Cook, Harold J. “Medicine.” In The Cambridge History of Science, Vol. 3, Early Modern Science. Edited by Katharine Park and Lorraine Daston, 407–434. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521572446

    Overview of learned medicine in the 16th and 17th centuries.

  • Elmer, Peter, ed. The Healing Arts: Health, Disease, and Society in Europe, 1500–1800. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2004.

    A collection of topical essays that provides a cumulative overview of the history of medicine in this time period. Examines both intellectual and cultural trends as well as social context. Intended to be used as a textbook, it can be paired with Elmer and Grell 2004.

  • Elmer, Peter, and Ole Peter Grell, eds. Health, Disease, and Society in Europe, 1500–1800: A Source Book. Manchester, UK: University of Manchester Press, 2004.

    Contains excerpts from both primary and secondary sources covering a broad range of medical topics. Can be used alongside Elmer 2004.

  • Lindemann, Mary. Medicine and Society in Early Modern Europe. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    A survey of medicine that can be used very effectively as a textbook. Organized topically rather than chronologically, it examines medicine and its place in the broader intellectual, social, and cultural arena. Originally published in 1999.

  • Park, Katharine. “Medicine and the Renaissance.” In Western Medicine: An Illustrated History. Edited by Irvine Loudon, 66–79. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

    A brief but excellent overview of medical learning and practice. Focuses particularly on the early Renaissance.

  • Porter, Roy. The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present. London: HarperCollins, 1997.

    A broad survey of the overall history of medicine aimed at a popular audience. Chapters 8 and 9 cover the Renaissance and the New Science.

  • Siraisi, Nancy. Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine: An Introduction to Knowledge and Practice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

    A detailed survey of medical learning in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Can be used effectively as a textbook.

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