The renaissance was an intellectual and cultural movement that began in Italy in the 1300s and spread throughout Northern Europe. It signified a revival of classical learning, art, and architecture - and the concept of the dignity of man. While religion remained a powerful influence, people became less consumed with spiritual matters and more interested in the arts and sciences, leading to advancements in health care and to a better understanding of disability.
"The Herbalist" Photo courtesy of Adam McLean from his website The Alchemy Web Site http://www.levity.com/alchemy/index.html
Disability becomes a medical issue requiring the services of trained professionals. Persons with disabilities assumed the on-going role of patient, needing to be cured. This concept of the disabled as sick and weak, dehumanized the individual to a class of citizen that had no rights - legal or moral. The disabled became objects of pity and curiosity. However, in most villages, almshouses, or poorhouses, were present to take care of those who did not have family, or members of the family were unable to care for them. A surprising number of these almshouses had few physically disabled people.
Alms House, Buildings, Blackwell's Island, New York
In peasant life, being disabled was thought of as a natural outcome of being poor. Families rarely expelled physically disabled members, but found ways for them to contribute to the family. Menial tasks were often done by those who could not work in the fields or as servants, and neighbors often pitched in when a member became sick. Those who were permanently disabled didn't live long due to the weakened physical state and general poverty overall, but by no means where they a burden to the family unless they were completely incapacitated. In these situations some families turned the care of the "invalid" over to a hospital or monastery, but this too was rare.4 But the mentally ill where treated quite differently. Mental illness had the aura of evil in those times, and hospitals and asylums built for the mentally ill weren't always a better home for these individuals.
In 1492, St. Mary of Bethlem, an asylum popularly known as "Bedlam", opened to receive mental patients in England. The institution itself was founded in 1247 as a priory.The institution became famous for it's horrible treatment of the mentally ill, illustrated by William Hogarh's 1735 painting.2
"The Rakes Progress", William Hogarh circa 1735
Bethlem is the world's oldest institution caring for people with mental disorders. It has been a part of London since 1247 and many people, rich and poor, have played a part in its history. Bethlem's patients have included many creative people. Most famous was the painter Richard Dadd, who was committed to Bethlem in 1844, after being tried for the murder of his father. Dadd was to spend 20 years at the hospital and then a further 22 years in Broadmoor hospital, to where he was transferred in 1864.2
Detail of Crazy Jane
which Dadd painted whilst at Bethlem. It illustrates a popular ballad of the day which
told the story of a woman driven mad by the desertion of her lover.
The physicians of the Renaissance period had no
formal education, taught themselves, and were unskilled compared to today's physicians.
Most of the surgeons actually end up harming more of their patients than not. In the
Renaissance, there was a much lower rate of survival; the average person lived almost 30
years less than those in the 20th century. If a person became ill or suffered a major
injury, they had much less of a chance to make a complete recovery, if any recovery at
all. Once someone became injured or sick, they were limited to few options, most of which
were controlled by social status and wealth.
Their first option, which was usually the best, was to contact a physician. Physicians were thought to be learned men who had gone through schooling and had studied standard educational programs followed by a deep study of philosophy. Their diagnoses were usually based on a thorough examination of the body and the urine. ( However, not much will be done with the significance of urinalysis until the invention of the microscope around 1590.) This study of the urine was called uroscopy.
A second option was to find a surgeon. In most cases, the surgeon, the dentist, and the barber were all one in the same person. Most of the barbers (surgeons or dentists) were self-trained and really didn't know too much about medicine. There were no pain killers except alcohol, if one could afford it. They also used equipment that was flimsy and unsterile which caused infections the surgeons didn't know much about.
A final choice was to try one of the "physicians cookes". These came in two varieties: an apothecary or a herbalist. The herbalist used interesting homemade concoctions to try to relieve anything from pain to fighting diseases. Included in these concoctions were the parts of many plants and animals. One concoction included newts' tongues or worms' livers. What the herbalist didn't know was most of his concoctions contained very few substances that had a real medical value, although some did. An apothecary could only give out medications that had been prescribed by a physician or surgeon.
One army surgeon, Ambroise Pare, became famous for
discovering that hot irons should be used to cauterize bullet or metal-tipped arrow
wounds. Until his discovery, nearly anyone who was shot in battle died from loss of blood,
infection, or internal bleeding. Pare also discovered ways of "tying off" the
arteries when he amputated a limb. Pare also recognized the necessity of keeping wounds
clean. He devised appliances such as artificial limbs and trusses. Pare made this modest
statement about his success with his patients: "I treated them, God cured them."
Following Pares' discoveries, many physicians had begun to make new and more significant discoveries involving body systems and anatomy. Groups of physicians, barbers, and anyone else interested, would gather for public dissections of criminals. (Some were alive, others were already dead. It depended on what the punishment was for.) These dissections provided an opportunity to gain knowledge in the field of medicine. In the long run, this barbaric type of learning helped to save lives, by gaining a much better understanding of the human anatomy. Another well-known Renaissance gentlemen who helped society's advancement in medical technology is Leonardo da Vinci, who was one of the first to realize to successfully treat most diseases, physicians must learn about and study the human body. He was a strong supporter of "human dissections".3
Leonardo da Vinci. Although suffering from a paralysis of the right hand, Leonardo was still able to draw and teach. He produced studies for the Virgin Mary from "The Virgin and Child with St. Anne", studies of cats, horses, dragons, St. George, anatomical studies, studies on the nature of water, drawings of the Deluge, and of various machines. Leonardo died on May 2, 1519 in Cloux, France. Legend has it that King Francis was at his side when he died, cradling Leonardo's head in his arms.
"The Asylum For The Deaf And Dumb" 1856
Needless to say, the disabled didn't have much of a lifespan, even if they did have wealth and power. Mercy killings of infants born deformed were common and kept quiet, even though prosecution was rare.
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© 2003 Barbara J. McKee