The period from the fifteenth century through the eighteenth century witnessed important developments in the field of medicine. During this time medicine established itself as a profession, innovative procedures and techniques were introduced, and standard practices for physicians were instituted. As much of the population of Europe was illiterate, and personal accounts and other records are scarce, much of what is known about the evolution of medical knowledge in the period has been gleaned from surviving medical texts. These works, with their descriptions of surgical procedures, case studies, and elaborations of theories of disease and the working of the human body, disclose at the same time changes in philosophy and cosmology from the medieval period to the Renaissance and beyond, into the Age of Enlightenment.
For centuries European medical texts were written exclusively in Latin or French, the languages of the educated classes. Beginning in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century texts began appearing in English and other vernacular languages, making them accessible to a larger portion of the population. Initially such works were simply translations of earlier scientific and philosophical volumes; in time, however, as the medical profession began to establish itself, these publications included accounts of new treatments and new conceptions of disease. By the late seventeenth century physicians had, by means of such texts, access to the latest scientific thinking from across Europe. In 1660 English physicians formed the Royal Society of London, and their publication, Philosophical Transactions, provided a forum for discussion, debate, and the dissemination of scholarly research and thought. Colonial American physicians, including Cotton Mather, gained much of their medical knowledge from this journal. For his part, Mather published his own findings—including the results of a successful 1721 experiment in smallpox inoculation—in British medical journals. While knowledge spread among scientists and physicians, and medicine established itself as a discipline, the vast majority of the population of Europe and America remained unaffected by such developments. The poor relied on herbal remedies, knowledge of which had been passed on for generations. These mixtures could be made at home, purchased at markets or obtained from lay practitioners. In time recipes for such cures began appearing in published texts.
One subject that figured prominently in medical writings—and concerned all members of society—was the treatment of venereal disease. Medical publications offered treatments, possible cures, and methods of protection. At the same time they provided arenas for discussing changing images of the body and sexuality. Significantly, erotic works—known as “anatomies”—were written to resemble medical literature and thus escape the eye of the censors. Both legitimate medical texts and erotica reflected changing social mores and new concepts of sex and sexually transmitted diseases.
Present-day scholars are divided on the question of who constituted the readership of medical texts in the early modern period. While all concur that, given meager incomes and low literacy levels among the general populace, the audience for these works could not have been as large as their authors seem to claim, they do not all agree that only the elite and well-educated members of society had access to them. Some critics, including C. H. Talbert, have argued that women comprised a portion of the readership of medical volumes. Researchers have also examined medical texts for what they tell about changing social beliefs and worldviews of the writers. For instance, scholars note that the wealth of knowledge that Cotton Mather's writings demonstrate reflects not only the then-current understanding of medicine in the American colonies, but the emerging views of the Enlightenment.