John Slater, Maríaluz López-Terrada and José Pardo-Tomás (eds), Medical Cultures of the Early Modern Spanish (Farnham: Ashgate 2014) 326 pp. £70.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781472428134
The Spanish Empire had one of the longest colonial legacies, which spans from the fourteenth through the twentieth centuries.1 Medical Cultures of the Early Modern Spanish Empire is a multifaceted inquiry and a profound contribution into the study of how writers, playwrights, ordinary men and women, medical and scientific practitioners alike attempted to systematize and engage with discourses of medical cultures – collective epistemologies of illness, treatment and the body – during the early modern period, namely the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This book appears at a time when medical humanities scholarship is just beginning to develop histories of medicine and scientific engagement within and between colonies and their colonisers, particularly through the framework of writing and narrative representation.
The book’s primary significance lies in its positioning of early modern Spanish medical culture within the context of the Renaissance but also as an important precursor to the Enlightenment ideologies that would lead to contemporary medical and scientific advancements. In an anglophone context, consideration of the role of Elizabethan medicine as a nexus between political agency and the rise of the British Empire pales in comparison to the heavy historical emphasis placed upon Victorian medicine. This book essentially bridges a similar gap within the context of Spanish medical history. It embodies what Martin Elsky identifies as the current scholarly interest in investigating the interacting relationships between Spanish, colonialists and New World/American cultures and peoples through historical inquiry into the Renaissance and Early Modern period.2
In the epilogue of the book, the authors justify the exclusive focus on the Spanish Empire noting that it was the first European colony to grapple with the novelty of expeditions and explorations, which included new ecological, biological and medical cultures in addition to the humanitarian conflict that arose from the colonisation, exploitation and genocide of the first peoples of the Americas (233). For this reason, the book maintains an intense focus on writings on and about the Iberian Peninsula and its subsequent expansion into new territories, while avoiding framing the discourse within the reductive dichotomies of ‘indigenous’ versus ‘European’; rather, the collection demonstrates an amalgamation of medical cultures through a negotiation of beliefs and practices brought about by shared colonial lineages. This is of particular importance due to the ways in which the development of science in practice helped to justify colonial power through constructing the racialiization of the African, mestizo, mulatto, mixed-race, indigenous populations and the various cultural identities which were defined and redefined over time. The essays offer engaging historical reflection on various aspects of medical practice and its representation within a variety of geographical spaces, both local and regional. But within these spaces, they examine knowledge about medical cultures produced by confluences of practices and beliefs concerning local understandings of the human body (7-8). The book's introduction emphasises the important role played by medicine in making global rule possible throughout the Spanish Empire, thus justifying its medical lens (3). The introduction also confirms the book's multifunctional role; first it seeks to establish why medicine matters in Empire studies and secondly, it outlines the methodological, theoretical, and structural organisation of this collection of essays.
This ambitious interdisciplinary endeavour is comprised of twelve cohesive chapters (an introduction, ten core chapters and a conclusion) which draw upon ‘a variety of sources ranging from drama, poetry, sermons, broadsheets, travel accounts, chronicles, and Inquisitorial documents’ (abstract). This structure demonstrates the sheer breadth of discourses and the variety of epistemological approaches used to analyse the various medical cultures within the early modern Spanish Empire.
Accordingly, the book organises the ten chapters into three parts. In Part 1: Spain and the New World of Medical Cultures, Angélica Morale Sarabia starts the discussion with a strategic essay that explores medical pluralism and cultural hybridity in the context of medical spaces in both the physical and metaphysical consideration of the body and illness. This is followed by a chapter by José Pardo-Tomás which examines the Relaciones Geográficas de Indias corpus of texts to examine a diverse array of questionnaires that offer a wide-variety of beliefs about diseases and their transmission in New Spain, or Mexico (41).3 Lastly, Ralph Bauer’s contribution examines how Renaissance natural histories converged with New World medicinal therapies through an analysis of Nicholás Mondardes’s writings on botany and alchemy. Part 2: Itineraries of Spanish Medicine focuses on the transmission of knowledge and medical exchange practices across the Spanish empire. In the introductory chapter ‘From Where They Are Now to Whence They Came From’, Mauricio Sánchez-Menchero explores early modern medical cultures through letters from private individuals as they relate to healing, particularly in regards to the medical cultures encountered in the Americas (92-93) The following two chapters by M.A. Katritzky and Elisa Andretta explore literary cultures, manuscripts and other scientific narratives that emanated from writers in the Canary Islands and Italy, respectively. The last section, Part 3: Textual Cultures in Conflict, Competition and Circulation, contains four distinct essays offering a variety of theoretical frameworks to investigate early modern medical cultures and their intersections with literature, theatre, culture and theological drama respectively. Enrique García Santo-Tomás’s essay on childbirth explores representations of ‘the body in crisis’ and the social context of birthing in early modern literature from the Iberian Peninsula (149). The last three chapters by Maríaluz López-Terrada, Tayra M.C. Lanuza-Navarro and John Slater conclude by looking at representations of medical cultures through an examination of illness and treatment, astrological medicine and 'chymical' medicine through theatrical representation.
The book's core accomplishment is to bring forward a diverse array of medical representations offered through an eclectic consideration of narrative texts ranging from the imagined to the scientific. It promotes a kind of critical reflection that is unfortunately still lacking in much historical consideration of early medical cultures, particularly those belonging to Empires and their colonized lands. The book's only omission stems from its comparative lack of a religious perspective. Its bringing together of various aspects of early modern Spanish Empirical studies would have benefited from a deeper reflection on Catholic and Jesuit missions, not just in terms of their political forces and spiritual influences but rather as social enterprises, particularly in the field of medicine. Several of the authors, however, highlight this omission as a necessary one given the enormousness of the topic. Otherwise, the chapters are unified by a coherent awareness of the need for deep interdisciplinary engagement with the formation of discourses about medicine within the early modern Spanish Empire. Overall, the book is a fine contribution to scholarship which could profitably be emulated in other fields of cultural, Empire and medical humanities in order to close the gaps in our understanding of the perspectives, stories and experiences of colonized peoples and their various medical cultures.
1 Jorge Cañizares‐Esguerra, ‘Iberian Colonial Science’ Isis. 96.1. (2005) 64-70 (67)
2 Elsky, Martin. “Introduction” in Spain and Spanish America in the Early Modern Atlantic World: Current Trends in Scholarship’ Renaissance Quarterly, 62.1 (Spring 2009), 1-60 (1)
3 Jorge Cañizares‐Esguerra explains ‘scholars have studied with some detail the campaigns known as “Relaciones geograficas,” in which thousands of local authorities answered detailed questionnaires sent by the crown about the nature of the local resources.’ See Cañizares‐Esguerra, (67).
Chisomo Kalinga, University of Edinburgh