HHH column: Chinese medicine in early modern Western European print by Trude Dijkstra

The HHH column is a blog in which History, Health & Healing members share their thoughts: on research, current affairs, and anything to do with medical history. Each author will invite a new author to participate in the conversation. Last time, Hieke Huistra, assistant professor at Utrecht University, passed the pen on to Trude Dijkstra, visiting postdoctoral fellow at the Warburg Institute in London, researching the role of print in the introduction of Chinese medicine to early modern Western Europe.

Trude Dijkstra

While the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic underscores new media’s impact on shaping public knowledge of health issues, these dynamics are not new. Rather, they can be traced to the invention of printing with movable type in Europe, which ushered in an era of mass communication. My research considers how early modern print culture was as an engine of change, conveying and altering ideas of Chinese medicine during a period of exceptional transformation and increased global trade, travel, and proselytising, in which the producers of print played a fundamental role.

In the final decades of the seventeenth century, newly emerging learned journals made medical knowledge that had long been the prerogative of a small number of intellectuals public for the first time. Originating in the 1680s, its low cost, together with its accessible format, made the journal an agent of change, broadly disseminating the intellectual efforts of the Enlightenment. Before, news about scholarship, medicine, and science was primarily available either through personal correspondences or through expensive books. The new journals made the intellectual debate ‘public’ by publishing letters that described research results or new observations, while also providing summaries of the latest scholarly publications.

Engraving of a tea plan. From: Johan Nieuhof, Het gezantschap der Neerlandtsche Oost-Indische Compagnie (Amsterdam: Jacob van Meurs, 1665)

The first Dutch medical journal, entitled Collectanea Medico-Physica, was edited by chemist and physician Steven Blankaart. Published in Dutch, the journal covered the years between 1680 and 1688. In its pages, notices on health and medicine alternate letters that were sent to Blankaart and extracts from other journals and books, as well as recipes for medicine. An example is the anatomical history ‘of a child that stayed in his mother’s stomach for 25 years’, based on reports by Nicolas de Blégny, surgeon to Maria Theresa of Spain and Louis XIV of France. Another observation explains that if one was plagued by gout, a grain of white poppy together with some white wine should be squeezed through a cloth, after which nut-oil, juice from a species of Norway spruce, palm oil, and a number of other ingredients should be applied with a plaster. And if one was bitten by a tarantula, a certain song would cure the patient suffering from the resulting hysterical condition known as ‘tarantism’.

The primary function of most early modern journals was to summarize books and other publications. Blankaart thereby made them available to a readership of non-specialists, focusing on information that would be relevant and engaging to the relatively uneducated yet interested reader. For example, when Blankaart presents the debate on the benefits of drinking tea, he summarizes what six different authors – Nicolas Tulp, Pierre Borel, Athanasius Kircher, Martino Martini, Johann Schroderus, and Johan Nieuhof – had to say on the subject, explaining where tea comes from, how the Chinese and Japanese use it, what the primary benefits of its consumption are, and how it can be prepared by Europeans.

In doing so, Blankaart made these books available to a broad readership of non-specialists, first, by translating information from the inaccessible Latin into the vernacular Dutch, and second, by including information from expensive or hard-to-get books; and third, by boiling down and arranging the information in such an order as would be easier to digest for those without a scholarly background. Blankaart’s sources were often inaccessible to the non-specialized audience, to be sure. Yet, through learned journals such as Collectanea Medico-Physica, readers could still be at the forefront of early modern medical knowledge.