This woodcut of a zodiac man comes from Georg Bartisch's work Opthalmodouleia, das ist, Augendienst, which was published in 1583. This work is significant for its status as being the first written work to provide an in-depth treatment of eye diseases and their cures. This illustration, however, points to early modern medicine's continued belief in the significance of celestial bodies and their influence on human health.
Woodcut from Paracelsus' book of prognostications
The early modern period of European history, generally considered to be the 15th through 18th centuries, was in many ways a vortex of new ideas and intellectual breakthroughs. This was the period that witnessed Gutenberg’s printing press, Luther’s Reformation, and the European discovery of the North American continent. Machiavelli wrote The Prince, and Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium was published. It was a period full of innovation and chaos, hosting events as wildly different as the witch crazes of the Holy Roman Empire and performances of William Shakespeare’s plays.
Medicine also made tremendous strides during this period. William Harvey published his work on the circulatory system, and Andreas Vesalius challenged Galen’s work on the human body. Early modern doctors who based their practices on direct observation rather than relying on written works from the classical period were highly influential in modernizing the field.
Contrary to current practice, however, medicine in the early modern period maintained a close relationship with some of the more arcane fields of knowledge including alchemy, astrology, and magic. For example, when Georg Bartisch wrote Opthalmadouleia, his work on diagnosing and treating various eye diseases, he included a section on how evil magic can affect the eye. Paracelsus, a doctor who was sometimes called the “Luther of Medicine” for his attempts to reform the way medicine was being taught, is perhaps just as famous for being an alchemist and occultist. Planets, stars, and unseen forces were still believed to influence the human body, and medical doctors were often familiar with what we would now consider to be “New Age” and not particularly effective.
This guide is meant to help researchers who are interested in where the history of medicine intersects with the study of disciplines such as alchemy and astrology, both at the Becker and elsewhere.
The Becker Medical Library holds nine rare book collections comprising some 23,000 books.