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Q: History of Medicine ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   0 Comments )
Subject: History of Medicine
Category: Reference, Education and News > Education
Asked by: padua-ga
List Price: $10.00
Posted: 02 Nov 2002 23:09 PST
Expires: 02 Dec 2002 23:09 PST
Question ID: 97115
I am an amateur historian of Medical education. My Question is:
"Competence (defined as at least a reading knowledge) of what
languages was required of students in order to study medicine at the
famous Italian Medical School of the University of Padua during the
period 1500-1550?"
Thank you.

Request for Question Clarification by tehuti-ga on 03 Nov 2002 05:44 PST
Hello padua-ga,

This is a fascinating question.  I’ve not been able to find chapter
and verse confirmation of what languages were absolutely required by
medical students at Padua.  However, I have got indications of what
languages were considered important to medicine at the time, and of
what languages were taught at Padua.  If you consider this will be
adequate, I can submit it as an answer.

Clarification of Question by padua-ga on 05 Nov 2002 11:01 PST
Dear Tehuti-ga,
Thank you for your progress report.
YES I will accept that information as an answer provided it pertains
to the study of Medicine at University of Padua 1500-1550.

yours truly,
Subject: Re: History of Medicine
Answered By: tehuti-ga on 06 Nov 2002 16:00 PST
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Hello padua-ga,

As I said in my CR, I haven’t got an absolute statement of language
requirements for studying medicine in Padua, 1500-1550.  However, I
did find some pieces of information, some more, some less specific to
Padua, which help to piece together a picture.  It was actually a
turbulent period of transition with respect to languages.  I have
synthesized what I found into a narrative, and below I give the
sources I used together with selected citations.

The absolute requirement, of course, was a knowledge of Latin.  At
that time, all teaching was still done in Latin and the major medical
texts were written in or translated into Latin.  However, Vesalius,
who was the most important medical teacher at Padua during this
period, had studied Greek as well as Latin, and later also thought it
necessary to learn Hebrew and Arabic to maximise his potential for
learning.  Many of his students would presumably have looked to him as
a model of what they should be aiming to achieve.  Before coming to
Padua, Vesalius had studied at the University of Louvain where Arab
medicine was dominant.  It is likely that this would  have influenced
him at least at the start of his tenure at Padua.  However, Vesalius
was also a fervent classicist.  In his great work, De Humanis Corporis
Fabrica, Vesalius rejected the Latin style of the day and went back to
the style of the ancients, even though that made his writing difficult
to understand by his contemporaries.

The medical texts of the Arabs had been extremely important.  Not only
had the Arabs preserved in translation the works of some of the
scholars of antiquity, which were destroyed by the Christians, they
had also made important contributions of their own to medicine.  Padua
was heavily influenced by Arabic medicine, which was heavily weighted
to the theories of Galen.  At the time of the Renaissance there was a
movement to ditch the older medieval Latin translations of these works
and to go back to the originals. Arabic words were so widely used in
medicine, that sometimes no Latin equivalents were available, which
caused Vesalius to despair when he published his first book in 1537,
shortly after receiving his doctorate in Padua. This was a paraphrase
of a work by the 10th century Arab physician Rhazes. Arabic was a
taught course at Padua in your period of interest.

Greek was also important to medicine, but relatively few people knew
it at the start of the 16th century. However, this was the beginning
of a great Greek revival in all areas of study.  Therefore, there
began to be great activity not only in translating ancient Greek works
into Latin, but also in promoting learning of Greek.  Greek was one of
the subjects taught at Padua.  Copernicus (1474-1543) learned Greek
alongside his medical studies at Padua. The Greek revival led some to
attack the use of Arabic medical texts, claiming that the Arabic texts
were dangerously confusing because they did not use Greek terminology
for anatomical structures, herbs, etc.  Nicolo Leoniceno (1480-1524),
a graduate of Padua, was one of the main proponents of this idea and a
strong upholder of the Greek revival.  I imagine there would have been
many arguments at that time between those who favoured Greek and those
who still kept to the Arabic texts. By the end of this period,
however, the Arabic texts had fallen out of favour, especially when
translations of the original texts of Galen appeared in 1541-42.

It is my guess that there would have been a shift from encouraging
medical students to learn Arabic to encouraging them to learn Greek. 
Latin would have been essential throughout.

Here are some quotations from sources which I used to back up what I

“The study of Greek among the Italians appears, if we take the year
1500 as our standard, to have been pursued with extraordinary zeal.
Many of those who then learned the language could still speak it half
a century later, in their old age, like the Popes Paul III and Paul
IV. But this sort of mastery of the study presupposes intercourse with
native Greeks. Besides Florence, Rome and Padua nearly always
maintained paid teachers of Greek…                    …The science of
medicine, no longer satisfied with the older Latin translations of the
great Arab physicians, had constant recourse to the originals, to
which an easy access was offered by the Venetian consulates in the
East, where Italian doctors were regularly kept. Hieronimo Ramusio, a
Venetian physician, translated a great part of Avicenna from the
Arabic and died at Damascus in 1486. Andrea Mongaio of Belluno lived
long at Damascus for the purpose of studying Avicenna, learnt Arabic,
and emended the author's text. The Venetian government afterwards
appointed him professor of this subject at Padua.”

“…the constant use of Latin and often of Greek, the frequent changes
of lecturers and the scarcity of books, gave the studies of that time
a color which we cannot represent to ourselves without effort.
There were Latin schools in every town of the least importance, not by
any means merely as preparatory to higher education, but because, next
to reading, writing, and arithmetic, the knowledge of Latin was a

From The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy
by Jacob Burckhardt
translated by S.G.C. Middlemore, 1878
Part 3, The Revivial of Antiquity

“Andreas Vesalius was a native of Brussels and was born into a medical
family. He was trained in Greek and Latin but also learned Hebrew and
Arabic so as to extend his potential for learning. In 1537, he was
appointed professor of Surgery and Anatomy at Padua. It was during his
three years at Padua that he produced his greatest works.” A History
of Western Medicine and Surgery by E.J. Mayeaux, Louisiana State
University Medical Center

“Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) is today heralded as the father of
anatomy.  He
attended medical school at the University of Paris, and later studied
at the
University of Louvain, where the influence of Arab medicine was still
He received his MD degree at the University of Padua.”

“In 1537, Vesalius published his first book, A Paraphrase of the Ninth
Book of Rhazes. He despaired for the lack of Latin translation for the
arabic terms used in medicine at that time.”
Andreas Vesalius, a biography

A biography of Copernicus (1473-1543) mentions that he attended the
Medical School in Padua, where he studied both medicine and Greek.

A guide to an exhibition of  medical texts from the Renaissance at 
the University of Oklahoma shows material mainly in Latin, in the case
of some works as a parallel text with the original Greek.  There are
also works in German.  Arabic works are shown as their Latin
translations.  The exhibition, entitled “Before Vesalius” focuses on
works that would have been known to Vesalius, who published his
anatomical treatise De humani corpora fabrica in Padua in 1543.

“Since a knowledge of Greek was still confined to a small body of
scholars, and a still smaller proportion of physicians, the first task
was to translate the Greek classics into Latin. To this work several
learned physicians, chiefly Italians, applied themselves with great
ardour. Among the earliest were Nicolaus Leonicenus of Vicenza
(1428—1524), Giovanni de Monte or Montanus (1498—1552), and many
others in Italy.”
Encyclopedia Britannica of 1911

“By the 1490s physicians themselves began to attack scholastic
medicine as they claimed that Arabic physicians and their Italian
followers had dragged the medical heritage of the ancient Greek down
into “darkness and barbarity.” By this stage a better understanding of
Greek and the spread of the humanistic movement to other subjects such
as natural philosophy and mathematics meant that humanistic methods
could be a tool for the medical profession and its teaching. Nicolo
Leoniceno (1480-1524 wrote of the importance of a physician to have
the ability to communicate therefore avoiding errors made by Arabic
and medieval authorities who had failed to give diseases, herbs and
anatomical structures their Greek names… …Erasmus agreed with
Leoniceno’s view and stated, “In hardly any other art is error more
dangerous, whence…I think that in the future medicine will be
considered reprehensible without this [foundation in Greek letters].”
By the mid fifteenth [Nb I think he means 16th!] century the “rebirth
of medicine” had been achieved with Leoniceno cited as a saviour of
medicine from “the lower regions.” By now, not only had Arabic and
other scholastics been denounced but also the whole range ancient
medical texts of antiquity had been translated including the
publication of the complete works of Galen in 1541-1542.”
“Was there a scientific renaissance? (Nb. This web page is barely
legible. I copied and pasted it into a document to read it more

Arabian medicine reached its culmination with the Persian Abu Ali
el-Hosein ben Abdallah Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 980-1037), who based his
system entirely upon the teaching of Galen and tried in various ways
to supplement the latter. His chief work, "El-Kann" (Canon
Medicinae), written in a brilliant style and treating all branches of
medical science, soon supplanted in the West the works of the Greeks
and, until the time of the Humanists, served as the most important
textbook for physicians
“History of Medicine, Catholic Encyclopedia”

“The great anatomist was a classicist by education. He knew Greek and
Latin to perfection. He zealously studied the ancient authors and
extolled them. In this sense, Vesalius was a humanist. The De Fabrica
is composed in Latin. Hardly any scientist of the sixteenth century
would have presented his findings in the vernacular. But Vesalius
renounced the Latin that was spoken and written by scholars of his
time…   reintroduced the terminology of a time long past. He adopted a
stately rhythmical style, a rhetorical word order, in short, he
imitated the periodic Latin, the Kunstprosa or “artistic prose” of
Cicero, and he was the first anatomist to do so. The Classical Latin
style in which Vesalius ventured to formulate his findings made it
rather difficult for the average physician of his day to understand
the content of the De Fabrica.”
“Vesalius the Humanist”

I found a reference to the following book chapter, which might be of
relevance to you:
Bylebyl, Jerome. 1979. "The School of Padua: Humanistic Medicine in
the Sixteenth Century," in Health, Medicine, and Mortality in the
Sixteenth Century, ed. Charles Webster. Cambridge, England: Cambridge
University Press, pp. 335—370.

Search strategies: Varying combinations of: Padua, Padova, university,
medicine, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Vesalius, Leoniceno

I hope you will find this useful.  If you wish to ask for
clarification, please note that I am away from home until Sunday night
and am not sure whether I will have access to the Internet over this
padua-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars and gave an additional tip of: $5.00
Dear Google Answers
I consider this to be excellent work and commend TEHUTI-GA for such a
prompt, far-ranging reply. It is a thorough, nuanced and well
referenced effort.
Thank you. I have already begun to commend this service to family,
friends and colleagues.
Padua-ga Ph.D.(Harvard)

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