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Dr Ted L L Bergman and Dr María Luisa Lobato report on their recently organised conference at the University of St Andrews.

On 3-5 July 2017 we held an ‘International Conference on Medicine, Literature and Culture in the Early Modern Hispanic World’ with the aim of bringing together experts in medicine, literature, history, and related or connected disciplines, including the visual arts, to share research and ideas with a focus on medicine and its role in the Spanish-speaking world in the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries.

What might seem like a rather specific topic resulted in attracting about fifty attendees, among them speakers from dozens of institutions, either in the USA, UK, Mexico, Spain, France, Italy, Germany or Belgium. Some of those attending were medical doctors, others were historians of medicine, yet others scholars of the visual arts, while the majority came from a literature background and had adopted multi-disciplinary approaches in their research on medical themes. More and more, historians have been acknowledging and promoting the role of Spain and its colonies in advancing medical knowledge and practice, working to dispel the myth —a vestige of the ‘leyenda negra’ or ‘black legend’— that early-modern Spain was somehow scientifically backwards in comparison to its European neighbours. As the awareness of a more accurate image of Spain and its colonies increases among historians, scholars in other disciplines, such as those gathered together at our conference, were able to join in painting a clearer picture of what it meant to be a healer or a patient in the Spanish Empire at the time.

Perhaps the principal conclusions to be drawn from the conference were that ‘medicine’ is often contemplated in terms of professional practice and book learning but it cannot be reduced to these. In fact, the professional and academic aspects of medicine may not even correspond to the majority of cases of practice or the principal means through which medical knowledge was transmitted during the early modern period. These conclusions reinforce those drawn by the editors and contributors of the 2014 book Medical Cultures of the Early Modern Spanish Empire, a work that was one of the main inspirations of our July 2017 conference in which ‘medical cultures’ were explored in talks on a very wide range of topics, often bound together by a common genre or theme. For example, one panel looked at both comic sketches and full-length serious plays from seventeenth century Spain, providing an opportunity for speakers and the gathered audience to discuss varied theatrical representations of physicians on stage, as well as the intricate intersections of life, art, and performance in the context of sickness, injury, and healing. Another panel featured three talks on the subject of syphilis in sixteenth and seventeenth century Spanish prose fiction and provided a fruitful opportunity to contrast, compare, and discuss different authors’ approaches to representing and thematising the disease. Other talks were related through geography, as in the case of a panel that looked at the relationship between the local and the global when new medicines were ‘discovered’ in the colonies and entered a wider Imperial context.

The invited plenary speakers also demonstrated the depth and breadth of ‘medical cultures.’ Dr Alexander Samson from University College London spoke of ‘Medical and Botanical Knowledge of the Early Modern Hispanic World,’ vindicating the role of Spain in advancing medical knowledge throughout Europe. Thanks to the Spanish Empire’s extensive communication networks and New-World discoveries, its botanists and physicians made major contributions that were readily acknowledged in England and elsewhere at the time, but seem to have been forgotten or ignored by many modern historians.

Dr María Luz López-Terrada from the INGENIO institute at CSIC and the Universitat Politècnica de València titled her talk ‘Between Empiricism and Magical Thinking: Female healers in Baroque Medical Culture.’ The presentation described an ongoing research project that aims to detail the work and lives of women members among the majority community of medical practitioners in early-modern Spain, those without a university degree who employed a variety of healing techniques, some of which brought them in conflict with legal and religious authorities.

Professor M. Pierre Civil (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3) spoke on the ‘Representations of Doctors in Paintings and Engravings of the Spanish Golden Age,’ looking at the relationship between written word and imagery in the self-fashioning of physicians who sought to influence public perception of themselves and their profession as they disseminated their ideas.

Professor Christoph Strosetzki from the Universität Münster presented on ‘Juan de Cabriada, Iatrochemistry and Quinine,’ exploring Cabriada’s defence of the discipline in the context of contemporary evaluations and reevaluations of Galenism and Paracelsism. The case of quinine, a drug derived from the New-World quino tree and new to Europe, was used by Professor Strosetzki to more accurately locate Cabriada’s place among different sides of a debate that pitted experimental medicine against the authority of classical authors.

The conference attendees welcomed the opportunity to share their research in an environment of collegiality and erudition, especially the opportunity to get in touch with the latest approaches on how to study medicine in literary, artistic and cultural expression. The success of the conference and the higher-than-expected turnout make the prospect of future conferences on a similar theme very promising, perhaps not on annual basis, but certainly with regularity given the proven widespread international interest in the subject matter. We the organisers warmly thank the IMLR for its significant support.

References: John Slater, ‎Maríaluz López-Terrada, ‎José Pardo-Tomás, eds, (2014) Medical Cultures of the Early Modern Spanish Empire (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate)


Dr Ted L L Bergman (St Andrews University) and Dr María Luisa Lobato (Universidad de Burgos)