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16th-Century Medical Text Illuminates Humanity's Bizarre Journey To Understanding The Body


An illustration of a doctor attending to a patient with the black plague, from the 1495 edition of the Fasciculus medicinae. Courtesy of the New York Academy of Medicine Library.

There are many things that we still don’t understand about human physiology and disease, but looking back at our past knowledge shows us how incredibly far we’ve come. For example, we now know with certainty that drawing blood has nothing to do with what zodiac sign is currently rising.

Five hundred years ago, however, astrology, superstition, and folk wisdom were very much a part of the medical practice in Europe; though thanks to the burgeoning Renaissance, new insights gained from scientific experimentation were beginning to be discovered and subsequently disseminated through printed texts called treatises.


The Fasciculus medicinae, meaning “little bundle of medicine” in Latin, was a popular collection of such treatises that circulated from 1491 to 1522 in various editions, updated each time to include the most helpful and pertinent information for doctors. Five beautifully preserved copies maintained by the New York Academy of Medicine allow us to look back on this fascinating period, when scientific rationality was blossoming yet people still believed that God’s smite or possibly Jews caused the Black Death and that the body was balanced by the four “humors”.

The original edition was published in Venice in 1491, and features six illustrations accompanied by Latin text. Each of these sections were reprints of already well-established independent treatises – the Fasciculus merely served to present them all together in one convenient package.

The first section of the collection is a diagram of multicolored vials of urine with advice on how to diagnose various diseases based on the shade, smell, and even taste of a patient’s pee. Next up are a guide on the anatomy of veins and arteries for bloodletting, the aforementioned Zodiac manual that correlated each astrological sign to a body part, and a diagram of a pregnant woman with a section on gynecology, obstetrics, sexuality, and reproductive disorders.

A hand-colored illustration of the "Zodiac Man", from the year 1500 print edition. Courtesy of the New York Academy of Medicine Library

Fifth in the lineup is a macabre illustration of a man’s body that has been stabbed, clubbed, and gashed in many places by many weapons, unsubtly called the “Wound Man”. As its title suggests, this section focuses on how to heal serious injuries. The last treatise is a description of disorders and illnesses, plus how to treat them, offered alongside a labeled male figure known as the “Disease Man”.

The "Wound Man", 1509 edition. Courtesy of the New York Academy of Medicine Library

Likely brought back due to popular demand, the Venetian publishers released a new Fasciculus in 1493 that was translated into vernacular Italian. This edition added a famous treatise – by this time a century old – on how to attend to plague patients, as well as a copy of the seminal “Anatomy of Mondino”: An anatomy guide that is regarded to be the first new reference since antiquity that was built upon findings from actual human dissections, rather than those of pigs or apes. According to historians at the New York Academy of Medicine, the illustration that goes with this section is the earliest known printed scene of a human dissection.

The year 1500 edition of the first-ever print illustration of a human dissection, hand-colored. Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library

Later editions of the Fasciculus, then translated into numerous European languages, incorporated more treatises and were frequently re-illustrated to reflect changing aesthetics. After about 20 years, the text finally lost its best-seller status due to the availability of exciting, emerging, slightly more accurate medical knowledge.


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