Interpretation and Analysis of Medieval and Renaissance Human Anatomy

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The Renaissance Humanism program was the age of recovery and emulation. This course examined the shift toward the interpretation and analysis of Medieval and Renaissance anatomy. In this essay, I will demonstrate Andreas Vesalius and William Harvey presented the goals and ideals of the Renaissance Humanist program. Furthermore, due to a shift towards a more humanist approach, aided by the anatomical expertise of Renaissance artists, knowledge of medicine improved as physicians gradually corrected the mistakes of the ancient authors Celsus and Galen and improved surgical methods and practices. These goals and ideals ushered in an era of development and enlightenment in medicine.

In ancient times, as in the Middle Ages, there were theological concerns for human dissections, believing in the doctrine of resurrection for an individual, who should be buried and restored as a whole. The shift to Renaissance medicine can be accounted to the increase in anatomical knowledge, supported by an easing of the restrictions placed on human dissections. To further emphasize the change to allow doctors to gain a better understanding of the human body, in the final paragraph of On Medicine, Celsus discloses, “that of the dead is a necessity for learners, who should know positions and relations, which the dead body exhibits better than does a living and wounded man. As for the remainder, which can only be learned from the living, actual practice will demonstrate it in the course of treating the wounded in a somewhat slower yet much milder way” (Celsus, 2).

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According to Celsus, direct observation of the human body allows the examiner to see, touch and explore the various organs. Seeing the organs and understanding how they work within a single body would strengthen their comprehension of biological systems. When applied to their own bodies, this may then translate to a better understanding of human anatomy.

For this reason, during the Middle Ages, anatomical understanding in medicine derived mostly from the works of physician and medical researcher, Galen. He performed countless animal dissections and vivisections in order to enhance his surgical skills and to learn more about the human body. An excerpt from his On Anatomical Procedure mentions, “if you do not have the luck to see anything like this, still you can dissect an ape, and learn each of the bones from it” (21). Considered one of the most influential figures in the world of medicine, Galen’s vivisection and dissection of animals, led to centuries of misunderstandings about human anatomy and physiology. Though he dissected some human bodies, many of his ideas on the human anatomy were based on dissections of various animals. His writings on the functions of the body consequently contained many misconceptions and did not take into account the nuances of human anatomy.

Medical practitioner William Harvey focused much of his research on the mechanics of blood flow in the human body. In past studies from the ancients, most physicians of the time believed the heart were responsible for moving blood throughout the human body. Harvey relied on experimentation, comparative anatomy and calculation to provide accurate and precise knowledge of the body. This concept is further demonstrated in the Circulation of Blood, where Harvey, “declares the blood to course and revolve by a new route, very different from the ancient and beaten pathway trodden for so many ages, and illustrated by such a host of learned and distinguished men, I was greatly afraid lest I might be charged with presumption...unless I had first...confirmed its conclusions by ocular demonstrations in your presence... My dear colleagues...I profess both to learn and to teach anatomy, not from books but from dissections; not from the positions of philosophers but from the fabric of nature; and then because I do not think it right or proper to strive to take from the ancients any honor that is their due…” (Harvey, pg. 1)

His theory supported the accepted beliefs of the time, which were based on the teachings of Galen. An examination of Harvey’s motives reveals that many ideals agreed with his theory largely because of the logic of his argument and his use of experimentation and quantitative methods. Prior to his findings, the medical view of blood in the body came from Galen. Galen explained the flow of blood as a to-and-fro movement being pumped by the veins and arteries themselves. Galen also believed that blood was made and then used up in the body (Galen 86). This made Harvey’s work more accurate because he performed specific experiments and calculations. Harvey combined his experimental findings with Galen’s view of the circulation of blood flow through the arteries and veins. From these notions, Harvey created the theory of a constant circulation of blood throughout the body by the pumping of the heart. Beyond the immediate issues and arguments, however, the discovery is important because it combined the philosophical work of ancient authors like Galen, and medical practitioners of the Renaissance that accurately explained not just the structure of the human body, but how the body worked.

The ideology that arises when one learns from the ancients while also gradually correcting the mistakes helps medical physicians to have a better understanding of the body. For example, while uncovering that blood circulated around the body, Harvey discovered that a number of the ancient teachings were incorrect. This was because the ancients, such as Galen had taken his evidence from animal bodies and not human bodies. By delving into the workings of the human body, Harvey showed that the body contained specialized systems with different functions, all of which worked together to allow life, a discovery that would help to shape the Renaissance Humanism period. Excerpts from Soul Searcher references, “To be a good philosopher according to Harvey, one must learn from the Ancients… the Humanists‟ ability to combine old and new in a heady mix of respect for authority and desire to supersede (or at least equal) those authorities” (Goldberg 1,3). Essentially, when relating ancient practices to dissections and reasoning it helps physicians to better understand human anatomy and physiology. By understanding and acknowledging the progression, it will improve their understanding of the body. Errors formed from the ancients provide insight into why and how the human body has unfolded and become as it is from their perspective.

As a result of Galen’s discovery and its reasoning, medical practitioners during the Middle Ages generally believed that this meant that there was a reason for human dissections, given that everything had already been outlined in Galen’s texts. Thus, they had been trained to accept, rather than challenge, traditional beliefs. For that reason, physician and anatomist Andreas Vesalius's work brought a number of groundbreaking changes to the traditional beliefs of anatomy. Most importantly, his critique of experiential and practical practices to seeking new anatomical knowledge stemmed from his respect for venerable ancient authors like Galen. From an excerpt from his De Fabrica, Vesalius stated that “Galen often corrects himself” (2) more than once after he learns more about his mistake, leading to many contradictions. Throughout the time period of the early renaissance, the practice of anatomy had been regulated to debates about earlier practices. Ancient practitioners, like Galen prized themselves through first-hand observation (autopsia) of the natural world. Vesalius challenged the theories of Galen and carried out dissections to closely observe the inner structure and construction of the human body. His demonstration that authorities had made errors in their claims about human anatomy can be seen as groundbreaking. He discovered, recorded, and published his findings of Renaissance anatomy. Vesalius’s doctrine marked the beginning of scientific research and observation with the challenging of ideas deriving from ancient authors and laid the foundation for Renaissance humanistic anatomy.

To conclude, the Renaissance Humanism program was the age of recovery and emulation. It is important to examine the shift toward the interpretation and analysis of Medieval and Renaissance anatomy. In this essay, I will demonstrate Andreas Vesalius and William Harvey presented the goals and ideals of the Renaissance Humanist program. Furthermore, the shift to Renaissance medicine can be accounted to the increase in anatomical knowledge, supported by an easing of theological concerns placed on human dissections. Aided by the revived anatomical expertise of Renaissance artists, knowledge of medicine improved as physicians gradually corrected the mistakes of the ancient authors Celsus and Galen and improved surgical methods and practices. These goals and ideals ushered in an era of development and enlightenment in medicine.

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Interpretation and Analysis of Medieval and Renaissance Human Anatomy. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/interpretation-and-analysis-of-medieval-and-renaissance-human-anatomy/
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