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The Mother of All Things: Reshaping Medical Knowledge in Translation

Julia Martins | King's College London

If you lived in the sixteenth century and you fell ill, who would you call to treat you? Maybe an expensive university-trained physician, if you had the means to pay them, or a reliable surgeon if you were less wealthy? How would you feel about calling your local herb woman, who was probably illiterate? Perhaps surprisingly, that’s exactly what the Bolognese surgeon Leonardo Fioravanti (1517-1588) would advise. Yet when his texts were translated, these women were written out of the books, illustrating the erasure of women from the historical record.

A woodcut of Leonardo Fioravanti.
A woodcut of Leonardo Fioravanti (c. 1570). Public Domain.

In the early modern period, most people would be nursed back to health at home, often by the women of the house, regardless of social status. If the illness persisted, however, a paid practitioner could be consulted, and a person’s wealth would determine what kind of professional they would have access to. Still, physicians might prove to be less helpful than the local wise woman.

As the controversial Fioravanti wrote, medical professionals often offered limited help and were left puzzled by a patient’s condition:

‘…and then some experienced old woman will appear, and with the rules of life and an enema will make the fever stop, and with an unction will make the pain disappear, or with some fomentation will make [the patient] sleep. In so doing, the old woman will know more than the physician.’

- Leonardo Fioravanti, Capricci Medicinali (Venice: Ludovico Avanzi, 1561).

Fioravanti was an itinerant surgeon who became as famous for his ‘miraculous’ cures as for his talents of self-promotion as a writer. Yet, for someone so clearly vain and image-conscious, it is remarkable how much Fioravanti was willing to share his authority and expertise. Like many medical writers of his day, he published recipes for medicines he had learned from different sources: old or contemporary books, other medical practitioners, and people he met in his travels. Fioravanti openly acknowledged the collective authorship over his formulas:

‘I have always looked for precious experiments, whether from learned physicians or simple empirics, from all kinds of people, peasants, shepherds, soldiers, clerics, simple women, and people of all sorts.’ (My emphasis)

- Leonardo Fioravanti, Il Tesoro della vita humana (Venice: Melchior Sessa, 1582).

In his books, Fioravanti also hinted at the many changes the medical marketplace was going through in the sixteenth century, which were not confined to his local Bologna. It is no coincidence that this was also the time in which charlatans, mountebanks, and other popular healers dominated the piazzas, selling their wonders and novel cures to those left disappointed by traditional humoral medicine. Physicians’ treatments had proved ineffective against many epidemics and outbreaks, especially syphilis. Furthermore, the centuries-old humoral theory, that postulated that the imbalance of the humours (blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm) that caused illness, was starting to be questioned. At the same time, the printing press had transformed the way people could access information: literacy was spreading, and medical books written in the vernacular were becoming increasingly available. Midwifery manuals, surgery treatises, herbals, and recipe books were some of the genres to flood the market, with Fioravanti himself achieving fame thanks to the recipes published in his books. Fioravanti advocated in favour of wise women in his books. Why would he steer patients their way instead of advising them to seek professionals like himself?

A painting of an old woman.
Old Woman, attributed to Bolognese artist Annibale Carracci (ca. 1590). Public Domain.

Fioravanti’s remedies often came from anonymous ‘simple old women’. They were often described as illiterate and elderly (vecchiarelle), having gathered their knowledge through lived experience, especially raising children. By appropriating their formulas Fioravanti constructed his persona as someone who recovered a lost kind of knowledge, largely a forgotten female knowledge. There was a marketing aspect to Fioravanti’s inclusion of the anecdotes of his adventures in procuring the remedies, too. Not only did they make the book more enjoyable to read, but they validated readers’ own knowledge, appealing perhaps, especially to female readers.

Fioravanti saw himself as a medical reformer, who prized experience above theory and empiricism above book learning. He denounced the humoral theory as ‘the great lie of physicians’ and believed in what he called a ‘primitive’ kind of medicine, which could be found among people living in the countryside, illiterate peasants who had not been ‘corrupted’ by the humoral theory. This idealised medicine had survived in no small measure thanks to what Fioravanti often condescendingly referred to as ‘little old women’.

In many of his books, Fioravanti lauded experience as ‘the mother of all things’.This is probably why he introduced the recipes for his remedies with anecdotes, such as how a vecchiarellahe had met in his travels left medical men baffled. For Fioravanti, reforming medicine and challenging university-trained physicians meant reclaiming this lost knowledge, which he repackaged in his books for urban, middling sort readers. He meant to change medical practice by looking to the past for inspiration – and he achieved fame in the process.

Yet, if you were reading his recipes in English, you would not get this impression. That is because Fioravanti’s books were deeply altered when they were translated: the text was changed, but so was his persona.It is vital to keep in mind that translation in the early modern period was very different from what we call ‘translation’ today. It was a creative act, translators actively reshaped the texts they worked on; they added and suppressed content, ‘corrected’ mistakes, changed the structure of the book, and altered the text. In medical recipes, they might replace a foreign ingredient with a local alternative. These translators became almost ‘co-authors’ of the books they translated. What did that mean for Fioravanti?

Enter John Hester (d. 1593), an English apothecary, who was interested in distillation and chemical medicine. He greatly admired Paracelsus, the Swiss physician whose controversial cures involved many dangerous treatments, including formulas based on toxic metals. Hester was Fioravanti’s English translator and editor, and it is easy to see that he felt a deep admiration for the Bolognese empiric, as he was also interested in medical reform. Yet there was a crucial difference between the two men: Fioravanti looked to the past for inspiration, while Hester saw himself as a forward-looking man, as did his fellow Paracelsians. So, when he undertook the project of translating Fioravanti’s writings, he went beyond linguistic transformation. Besides cultural translation, such as adapting ingredients to their new context and offering alternatives (think of replacing Moscato wine with mead), Hester decided to ‘rebrand’ the books – and Fioravanti himself.

In Hester’s version, Fioravanti was presented as a Paracelsian, a respected physician (although he did not receive a university degree until well into his fifties), and an expert on distillation and alchemy. In Hester’s reimagining of Fioravanti, there was little room for the ‘people of all sorts’, since he aimed to present Fioravanti as an exceptional doctor, someone who could open the way in England for Paracelsianism. Significantly, Hester expected his translations to be read by members of the College of Physicians – whereas Fioravanti’s Italian texts had been addressed to a general readership. In his refashioning of Fioravanti, Hester decided to omit the ‘simple old women’, the ‘wise mothers’ from whom Fioravanti had learned so many remedies. In English, expertise and authority were Fioravanti’s alone.

Historians of gender are regularly confronted with the problem of sources. There are (much) fewer sources about the women of the past than about men, and most of these were written by men rather than women. We must often look for women between the lines and read primary sources ‘against the grain’ to find them. Women sometimes peek at us from the margins. Even though he admired their knowledge, Fioravanti mostly left these ‘wise women’ unnamed in his books. There is the problem of wealth and social status: there are more documents about noblewomen than about Fioravanti’s ‘poor little women’.

As Hester’s translation illustrates, the erasure of women is nothing new, especially in fields such as medicine. In advocating for Paracelsianism in England, Hester wrote women out of Fioravanti’s books. Hester probably believed that the readers he was aiming to reach – mostly medical men – would not welcome anecdotes about how ‘simple old women’ could know more than physicians. This was likely a strategy to avoid alienating potential readers and to enhance the marketability of the books.

A painting of Paracelsus.
A 16th-century portrait of Paracelsus, after Quinten Metsys. Public Domain.

Hester had a pivotal role in changing the medical landscape. In the end, Fioravanti became one of the most famous (albeit controversial) medical practitioners and writers of his day. But this did not happen in the way he intended. For Fioravanti, the ‘wise mothers’ in his books embodied a forgotten knowledge which he aimed to recover to reform the medicine of his day. However, this collaborative and eclectic way of understanding medicine was replaced in translation by the narrative of cures developed by a single exceptional man: Fioravanti. The cost of this reform was to lose the collective authority that had defined Fioravanti’s Italian texts. Expertise became Fioravanti’s alone, and the vecchiarelle were nowhere to be seen.

*Note: All translations are my own.


Further Reading:

  • Amanda Capern, The Historical Study of Women: England, 1500-1700 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

  • William Eamon, The Professor of Secrets: Mystery, Medicine, and Alchemy in Renaissance Italy (Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2010).

  • William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

  • Deborah Harkness, The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

  • Walter Pagel, Paracelsus: An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance (Basel/New York: Karger, 1982).

Julia Martins (she/her) just finished her PhD at King’s College London. Her thesis was about the translation of “secrets of women” from Italian into French and English in the 16th and 17th centuries, and how the circulation of knowledge about sex and reproduction shaped the way the body was understood. Her general research interests are gender history, the history of medicine, and feminism.

Twitter @Julia_GMartins

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