‘Medical Cultures of the Early Modern Spanish Empire’ reviewed by Dr Elena Burgos-Martínez

‘Medical Cultures of the Early Modern Spanish Empire’ edited by John Slater, Maríaluz López-Terrada, and José Pardo-Tomás (Ashgate, 2014).

9781472428134This ambitious and overdue monograph comes to life after years of conversations and correspondence amongst academics. Through collaboration, they have seized the so-called derivative aspects of the development of Spanish medicine and depictions of Spain’s startling variety of medical identities as eerie and inquisitional in order to provide more accurate accounts of Spanish medical history. Additionally, this compilation strives to stress the contributions of Spanish medical cultures to the production of scientific knowledge around Europe during the Early Modern period.

This is a book that goes beyond popular depictions of Spanish medical practice as insular and parasitic and which rightfully extends Spanish manifold identities to territories beyond the Iberian Peninsula. Although appearing hastily put together at times, its chapters often challenge borders and offer extensive literary, textual and historic analysis of the contact, conflict and mutually defining intersections of the medical systems and cultures of the early modern Spanish empire during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The role of Spain in Early Modern Europe’s conceptualisations of science, scientific method and scientific thought goes beyond Iberian values and rationales to include the medical cultures of those colonised and the transformation that the medical practices of the colonisers underwent. These defining intersections and relations have often being underestimated and ignored throughout European history of the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, often focusing on Northbound countries as precursors and regulators of such developments.

The book is divided in three parts. Part one begins with an analytical chapter which explores the records of the Spanish Inquisition produced to register the use of herbs (namely Peyote) for healing purposes amongst the indigenous population of colonial New Spain and the trials held subsequently. It strategically switches between consumption and symbolism in the interplay of diverse healing cultures, to then focus on the agency of indigenous women in challenging structural violence, indigenous identity and change.

Chapter two follows a particular confluence of discourses and misunderstandings through looking at RGs (Relaciones Geograficas), colonial documents containing up to 50 questions which were designed by the ‘monopolis’ for administration purposes abroad. Focusing on the Consejo de Indias’ territories and discussing the manifold of voices registered throughout the different answers, the author explores issues revolving around the diverse understandings of illness and health. This synthesis situates local Corregidores, scribes and indigenous elite at the crossroads when defining healthy and unhealthy habits and practices and negotiating power. A discussion that goes beyond the physical to integrate the socio-political and religious aspects of being at that place in a particular time of confluxes.

Part one finishes with a compelling chapter three, an interesting review of Monarde’s Historia Medicinal and his interest in Medieval Christian Alchemy. This brings the reader to sixteenth century’s integrative concept of science that wasn’t limited to academic scientific cultures, healing practices and empirical discoveries. It often included various intersecting themes such as those of Alchemic, Astrological and Chymical knowledge and practice. The interpretation of discoveries relied heavily not only on textual tradition but also on Renaissance’s obsession with combined subjects such as natural history.

Part two opens with a compilation of some excerpts from letters exchanged between colonisers, newly relocated to New Spain (Mexico), and family members respectively, left behind in the ‘Old World’ (Spain). These fragments unveil a dance of narratives of fear, illness, scarcity and epidemics, which shed light on the transformations of understandings of the colonial physical body, at a time of novelty when approaching new local medical practices in colonial territories.

Chapter five feeds on a reflective geographical vertigo when following identity shifts and itineraries of hypertrichosis sufferers through the literature of the sixteenth century. It convincingly highlights blurry boundaries when categorising the human and the non-human, in the era of Baroque’s most popular hybridising concept: ‘monstrosity’. A few cases of ‘wilderness’ are approached interchangeably throughout illustrations, mainstream publications and Royal letters in order to offer a comparison of how the bodies of those chronically ill were perceived, depicted and understood by upper classes.

In chapter six, the influential intersections between Spanish elite intellectuals during Spain’s Golden Ages (usually Historians and ‘men of letters’) and Italian intellectuals, who became acquainted during their stays in Trent and Rome for the purpose of sharing libraries and textual knowledge, are brought to the frontline. By focusing on letters exchanged between one of these historians and his friend, who was a directive of the Inquisition, this interesting piece scrutinises processes through which intellectual thought and interests shifted from the purely Aristotelian to integrate alchemy (minerals, metals and their healing properties), botany and anatomy. The Academy these intellectuals founded as a result of their intersections was a precursor in the combination of theory with observation and practice.

A concluding part three introduces the reader into a reflection of representations of the body and theoretical focus on its transitional aspects (pregnancy, delivery, rotting and deceased bodies) during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Chapter seven is not apt for those who ascribe to light narratives and begins by discussing the role of midwives as a body of practice between medical rationales, to then explore Francisco Santos’s written work, often utilising pregnancy and the delivery of babies as an allegory of Madrid’s suffering, decadence, overcrowded streets and exuberance. Similarly to chapter five, Baroque narratives of the body as transcending categories and boundaries linger through this piece.

The dramatism and theatrical depictions of transitional bodies continue to transpire throughout chapter eight with a review of how comedies and interludes have heavily relied on the different aspects of the medical cultures at hand and have regulated the construction of shared medical knowledge. Whereas comedias widely focused on Galenic texts and positioned illnesses, their diagnoses and treatment as main plots, entremeses looked at prognosis, using its diverse applications as allegories of sexual intend. Theatre in Early Modern Spain was not only deeply influenced by converging medical cultures but shaped shared knowledge of such through incorporating academic texts and daily practices.

The convergence between astrology and medicine becomes the theme of chapter nine. The author strategically approaches interdisciplinary diatribes through playwrights’ representations of astrology as an influential aspect of medicine. Astrology was conceived differently by theologists (as opposed to Physicians) who considered it as a body of knowledge entirely detached and independent from medicine and medicinal practices. Scholarly/non-scholarly feuds were often represented in plays, where definitions of what qualified as ‘good science’ and what didn’t were widely used in the dramatization of astrological medicine. This dramatic culture of medicine helps understand how certain disciplines developed throughout Spain and beyond.

A final chapter lays down a clear summary of the alliances stablished between theologians, preachers, alchemists and physicians, who adopted similar rhetoric in order to connect the words of science and divinity. Chymical medicine offered the perfect bridge between the diagnosis and healing practices of physicians and astrologists, alchemists and apothecaries. The Catholic Church’s depiction of alchemy as connecting the practicalities of science and divinity was defining when legitimising science at the end of the Renaissance and this was made public through the expansion of theatre plays featuring chymical medicine as a middle ground to accommodate daily practices.

Undoubtedly devised to fill in lacunae in the field of Spanish Early Modern history, especially regarding the implications of Southern Europe’s agency in shaping the Scientific Revolution of the eighteen through the defining intersections of its medical cultures, this monograph can certainly be of interest for historians, literary and medical anthropologists, and professionals with an interest in pre-enlightenment scientific paradigms and developmental shifts. Its anthropological insights feel fitfully gathered and are usually at odds with the diachronic aspects of the studies offered. Nonetheless this treatise provides a challenging alternative to historical criticism and classicism.


Reviewed by Dr Elena Burgos-Martínez, a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Durham University. With a background in socio-linguistics, chemistry, geology, education and sociocultural anthropology, Burgos-Martínez is an avid reader and researcher of cultural intersections that challenge disciplinary expertise, dichotomies and categories in benefit of a more holistic exploration of the matrix of intersecting and conflicting practices, locally defining much of what we equivocally assume as ‘universal’. Last but far from least, she feels the necessity to work on future projects exploring coastal Spanish conceptualisations of being and transitional bodies in the frame of the euro-crisis and migration policies.

Correspondence to Dr Elena Burgos-Martínez.

One thought on “‘Medical Cultures of the Early Modern Spanish Empire’ reviewed by Dr Elena Burgos-Martínez

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.