The Medieval Review 11.06.09

Solomon, Michael. Fictions of Well-Being: Sickly Readers and Vernacular Medical Writing in Late Medieval and Early Modern Spain. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. Pp. 188. 978-0-8122-4255-3. .

Reviewed by:

Encarnación Juárez-Almendros
Notre Dame

Professor Solomon's book is a remarkable contribution to the knowledge of neglected Iberian late medieval and early modern vernacular medical discourses. The nature, purposes, and scope of Fictions of Well- Being are expressed in the preface. The book is an examination of over three hundred primary texts written from 1305 to 1650 in the Iberian Peninsula in order to convey "an informal inventory of vernacular medical writing while attempting to set forth a theory of reader response to this body of writing" (xii-xiii). The text is divided into a preface, an introduction, three chapters, a conclusion, notes, a lengthy bibliography, and an index. It also includes seven illustrations.

In the introduction, entitled "Physicians, Sickly Readers, and Vernacular Medical Writing," the author defines the main concepts used, explains the historical background, and presents the content of the three chapters. For Solomon, "sickly reading" envisions that certain written information would remedy present or future illnesses. Viewed from this perspective, vernacular medical treatises served as instruments that encouraged the reader's imagination. In relation to the scholarship that has been done on this body of texts, the author contends that even though vernacular medical writings have been compiled in bibliographies "there have been no rigorous attempts to categorize these works and to identify their common and diverging features" (4). Solomon's work remedies this gap by classifying these texts into health guides and plague treatises; treatises designed for professionals or paraprofessionals; and collections of recipes. He also identifies their shared traits: accessibility and a concern for the common good and charitable obligation. He focuses his study on the expectations of the readers prior to the using of the written medical advice and on the rhetorical devices that these texts employ to capture the imagination of the readers. "Sickly reading emerges as such when the afflicted either invents or accepts the text's explicit claims that the work in hand will serve his or her immediate medical needs" (8).

The first chapter, "Fictions of Utility," examines the diverse rhetorical tropes used by authors that "encouraged the sickly reader to believe that their treatises were accessible, succinct, focused, ordered, indexed, and, above all, easy to use" (17). The discussion of two vernacular treatises, translated from original Latin works, frames this chapter. According to Solomon, Speculum al foderi, a compilation of several sources on the health benefits and dangers of sexual intercourse, and published in Catalan/Valencian at the end of the fourteenth century, shows the trend followed by subsequent authors on the utility of vernacular medical treatises. The chapter ends with an examination of Nicolás Monardes's Sevillana medicina published in 1545. Monardes's book is an edition and translation of Juan de Aviñón's treatise of the same title written in Latin two centuries earlier, and it presents a model of how learned medical discourses were converted in the sixteenth century into popular health guides. In between the publication dates of these exemplary treatises the author analyses diverse vernacular medical works in order to denote the recurring tropes of utility, simplicity, brevity, conciseness, completeness, accessibility of information (indexes, rubrics, chapter headings), portability and autonomous use, and instrumentality in promoting good health.

The objective of the second chapter is to examine how vernacular medical works created the fictions of the physician. In Solomon's words, "medical writers presented themselves as unwavering, solitary heroes, and dauntless warriors in the fight against their patients' biological disorders" (41). In this way they generated a fictive clinical encounter between the doctor and the patient. The techniques used to gain the trust of patients/readers consisted in introducing in the text their personal credentials such as university degrees, examinations, licensing, and professional positions. Medical authors also pointed out their extensive experience and expertise. They underlined their knowledge of Latin, their familiarity with ancient and modern medical authorities, such as Galen, Hippocrates, and Avicenna, their extensive practice, and the attested efficacy of their therapies. Some of the authors present themselves as heroic healers and defenders of public health. With these rhetorical strategies the vernacular medical writers attained the sickly reader's trust and created what Solomon terms a "physician's place," a way "to stabilize their professional identity" through their writings (69).

The third chapter, "Fictions of Pharmaceuticals," discusses an important aspect of many vernacular medical treatises, the inclusion of numerous recipes or concoctions to restore health. Solomon observes that recipes are organized around the benefits of particular substances or around specific body problems. He also explains with detail and with illustrative works how medical recipes "captured the imagination of sickly readers" by acknowledging the patient's experience of sicknesses; promoting the efficacy of the medicines; revealing the hidden powers of common materials; providing better accessibility to information about new medicines and drugs with ample curing capabilities and responding to people's need "to possess tangible forms of medicine" (76-77).

In the conclusions, Solomon considers the general effects of these treatises on readers: they helped them envision their well-being, but at the same time the description of ailments and medical malpractices probably produced anxieties and fears. What can be attested is that the growth of vernacular medical writings contributed to defining pathological terminology and postulated new ways of envisioning the body and its maladies. By the sixteenth century the use of medical terminology decreased somewhat the theological explanations and moral judgments of body's disorders. The author ends the book by acknowledging the need for future studies on vernacular medical works in relation to issues of authoritarian power and control and the creation of the binary social divisions identified by Foucault. Finally, the book supplies very complete and useful bibliographical information on the numerous primary sources used.

Professor Michael Solomon's examination of more than three hundred vernacular sources and his attempt to classify their common rhetorical devices, and to envision their practical use and effects is very commendable. Fictions of Well-Being is, without question, a "must read" for any scholar interested in further exploring the overlooked late medieval and early modern vernacular medical writings in the Iberian Peninsula. In addition to Solomon's suggestion of exploring the contribution of these texts to the formation of social inequalities, other important questions implied in this book should be explored further. How, for instance, do these writings maintain or depart from traditional conceptions of bodies and gender divisions? How do they create normality versus disability? How do they contribute to the construction or elimination of social stigma and segregation? In what sense do medical recipes and concoctions differ or conform to other current healing practices? How did vernacular medical discourses influence artistic depictions of sickness and body impairments? In the examination of these texts it can be very useful to use recent body and disability theories to answer some of these questions. Fictions of Well-Being opens the field of early modern vernacular medical writings for these types of explorations.