The Anatomical Renaissance: The Resurrection of the Anatomical Projects of the Ancients. English Historical Review, Feb, 1999, by Peregrine Horden


English Historical Review, Feb, 1999, by Peregrine Horden

`I read Galen's book On the bones to the students at least three times before I dared perceive any mistake on Galen's part, although now I can't be sufficiently astonished at my own stupidity ...': Vesalius's report of his turning from the book of Galen to `the non-lying book of the body' seems so congenially modern and intelligible. Yet anatomy remains in fact the hard nut of Renaissance medical historiography. In recent years that historiography has done much to illuminate the ways in which many sixteenth-century developments arose from a creative engagement with ancient texts. The challenge is to extend the analysis to a branch of medicine which, in the hands of a Vesalius or a Harvey, seems so decisively to shatter its intellectual mould.

The Anatomical Renaissance: The Resurrection of the Anatomical Projects of the Ancients (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1997; pp. xiv+ 283. 45 [pounds sterling]) is Andrew Cunningham's compelling response, exemplified in his discussion of the paradoxes of Vesalius's Fabrica. Here is the work of one who claimed to have found 300 errors in Galen but who none the less organized his own magnum opus on thoroughly Galenic lines. `What [Vesalius] was criticizing was not Galen, nor Galen's project, but the points at which Galen himself had not fulfilled it properly' (p. 116). Galen had dissected only apes. Vesalius, as Galen's avatar, would now do what had not been possible in the second century. Far from repudiating the master's anatomy, he was, in a sense `humanizing' it. One means to that end was to draw inspiration from yet earlier anatomists, those of Hellenistic Alexandria who had actually dissected human beings. So they too played a small role in Vesalius's intellectual evolution. Elsewhere in Cunningham's book they loom larger.

Declining to allow Vesalius to stand for the whole of Renaissance anatomizing, he considers a range of figures. And he shows, in Part I of his book, how the whole anatomical Renaissance can be taken as a decidedly un-Whiggish story in which the real `progress' is that by which each generation revives ever more ancient guides, from the medieval Mondino in the early 1500s to Aristotle at the century's close. Part II turns to explanation. Cunningham is reluctant to account for this recourse to antiquity simply in terms of wider humanist trends. Prompted by his anatomists' emphasis on the body as the instrument of the soul, he looks to a concurrent return ad fontes and examines how far the anatomical theories surveyed can be assigned to Reformation -- or at least anti-papal- milieux. Success here is more variable.

The spiritualized, very un-Greek, anatomies of Paracelsus and Servetus clearly owed much to their respective radical Protestantisms. But Cunningham's introduction of them into the discussion confuses the question of why there was an anatomical Renaissance with that of where and why anatomy became so popular. Determining the appropriate religious niche for unrepentant humanists proves much harder. Fabricius's avoiding of theological parti pris in his reading of Aristotle accords well with the Venetian religio-political scene. But Vesalius, who studied medicine in Paris, became physician to Charles V, and died returning from pilgrimage, is the `Luther of anatomy' only by analogy: if a Protestant, then a deeply cryptic one -- unless religion as well as typographical perfectionism determined his having the Fabrica printed in Basel. The second half of Cunningham's book is therefore less satisfying than the first. Both halves will, however, undoubtedly provoke much further research.

Those producing it might avoid Cunningham's doctrinaire epistemological relativism (each anatomist sees literally a different body) but will do well if they match his vigour in argument, lucidity of exposition, and familiarity with the primary texts.