Anatomy: a manual art

Anatomy: a manual art

The basic dividing line which separated subjects suitable and unsuitable for study and practice in a university was the line between liberal disciplines and those deemed illiberal, vulgar, or mechanical. In essence, this came down to the distinction between disciplines which required manual labour and those which did not. For most of the disciplines of the established university curriculum, this distinction was unproblematic. The trivium was linguistic; the quadrivium, mathematical; metaphysics and theology were theoretical; moral philosophy and law involved no manual work. Natural philosophy was protected from any form of direct, manual engagement with the natural world by the Aristotelian concept of 'scientia' as causal knowledge deduced from first principles. Of all the disciplines of the established university curriculum, the one most difficult to dissociate from manual work was therefore medicine. And of all the branches of medicine, the one least possible without manual intervention was anatomy, which could only be studied effectively by dissecting human and animal bodies.

Image 1. Throughout the medieval period and into the sixteenth century, this dilemma was resolved through the division of labour illustrated by these images. The first is from the title page of an early printed edition of Mondino di Luzzi's Anatomia, a work around 1316 which became the standard anatomical textbook throughout European universities for two centuries. Mondino is depicted leading the dissection ex cathedra, that is from his professorial chair situated on a podium. More specifically, he offers a 'lecture' or reading of Galen, the foremost medical authority handed down from antiquity. The actual dissection is performed by one or more typically two assistants: a 'demonstrator', who dissected the cadaver, and an 'ostensor', who pointed out the relevant anatomical details with a wand. When the dissection revealed structures different from those described by Galen, this divergence was interpreted as morphological change in the human body, rather than errors on Galen's part. 

Image details.Anathomia Mudini Emedata p doctore Melerstat (Leipzig, 1493): M. Pollich von Mellerstadt's edition of Mondino dei Luzzi's Anatomy, published in Leipzig by Martin Landsberg (?) c. 1493. Woodblock print, 14.4 x 8.9 cm. Credit: Wellcome Collection, no. 24132iAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Further reading. Alexandra Mavrodi and George Paraskevas, 'Mondino de Luzzi: a luminous figure in the darkness of the Middle Ages', Croatian Medical Journal, 55.1 (Feb. 2014), 50-53, available here.

Image 2. Whether Mondino actually performed dissections himself is disputed. What is clear is that the relationship depicted on this title page was the standard one in the early age of print. A very similar relationship is depicted in the Fasciculus medicinae, first published in Venice in 1491. In this case, the 'ostensor' can be seen, pointing to an organ, as well as the 'demonstrator', making an incision. Generally regarded as the first illustrated medical work to appear in print, the Fasciculus was regularly reprinted during the following quarter century, including this Italian translation published in Venice in 1495..

Further resources. Selected pages from the Italian translation, Fasiculo de medicina (Venice, 1495) are available in Historical Anatomies on the Web, provided by the  US National Library of Medicine. Images from the Latin Fasciculus Medicinae (Milan, 1516) are provided by The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Digital Library.

Commentary. Howard Hotson (April 2021)