Empiricks

Astolfo Petrazzi, A Kitchen Maid, c. 1630-40, Oil on Canvas, 101 x 167 cm, Florence, Scala Archive

Natura Exenterata: Or Nature Unbowelled subtitle hooks potential readers with a multitude of keywords characteristic for the genre of the recipe collection. In addition to the secrets in the center in capital letters, the title page also promises no less than 1,720 recipes collected by people of high standing with a lot of experience. The subtitle also promises numerous rare, as of yet unknown inventions.

At the point where usually a long dedication to a high-ranking personality would be found, at least in the case of a less prestigious author, a foreword addresses the reader directly. This foreword takes a stand against questionable practices, condemning dogmatism as well as the untrustworthy loquacity of quacks and the use of chants and incantations in medical practice. The foreword vividly criticizes the practice of those who are distinguished solely by their rigid method, a beard and their uniform.

This offensive on male physicians can be placed in the context of a fundamental conflict between the tradition of female medical practice, the so-called kitchen physick, and an area of medicine regulated more and more by universities and academic societies, accessible solely to male practitioners, excluding and delegitimizing traditional women healers.

The conflict between the highly popular kitchen physick and academic male doctors has been shown in numerous studies, among them the very useful works by Andrew Wear (Knowledge and Practice in Early Modern English Medicine 2000) and Margaret Pelling (Compromised by Gender: The Role of the Male Practitioner in Early Modern England 1996)

Jan Comenius, Janua Linguarum, Frontispiece of the English Edition, London 1656

A statement in latin following this outright attack on academy trained male physicians stems from the Janua Linguarum: “Garrulus medicus est onerosior morbo”, a talkative doctor is more annoying than the disease itself. This side blow is then followed by a quick reference to the fact that Hippocrates’ abilities are certainly not attributable to his gender. The statements make the editors’ case on behalf of Lady Arundel exceedingly clear.

Against the theoretical, abstract method of male experts, the anonymous editors of Lady Arundel’s posthumously published recipes pose the accumulated knowledge of individual cases, hallmark of the concrete experience of female practitioners. The rigid scholastic systematism of academy theory and lofty words cannot be measured against the practical knowledge gained from constantly examining the fluid temperaments of the people trusted to the long-term care of women.

This decidedly polemical reference to empirical medicinal practice takes a stand in contemporary debates about the position of empiricism and direct sensory experience in relation to traditional book knowledge. The so-called empiricks, consisting mainly of experienced older women, are eloquently defended. On the contemporary controversy between empirical and traditional knowledge, Harold Cook writes about “Victories for Empiricism, Failures for Theory” (Medicine and Science in the Seventeenth Century 2010). Intimate knowledge of the changes in the unique humoral composition by long-term observation is presented as the basis for trustworthy medical judgements. Experience and observation form the basis of medical just as in art connoisseurship.


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