Key Features of the Renaissance 1500-1700
The word ‘renaissance’ means ‘rebirth’ in French. The period 1500-1700 was
called the Renaissance because during that period there was a rebirth of interest
in the ideas of the classical period. Once more the ideas of Hippocrates and
Galen were studied. The Four Humours became the focus for medical treatments
and bloodletting was very popular.
Modern science as we know it began in this period and
began to replace superstition in medicine. The Royal
Society, a body of leading scientists, was founded in 1660
in England with King Charles II as its patron. During this
period it was seen as important for well-educated people to
be knowledgeable in both science and art.
Leonardo da Vinci is best known for his works of art
like the Mona Lisa, but he was also a scientist and
regularly attended dissections. The picture on the left is
an anatomical drawing made by Leonardo da Vinci.
In 1445, a Swedish man, Thomas Gutenberg,
invented the printing press. Before printing, books
had to be copied by hand. This meant that there
were few copies of books. Printing encouraged the
spread of new ideas, and books were more widely
available and were also much cheaper.
The Reformation happened during the Renaissance period, largely because
people were thinking about the things around them and were not content just to
accept what had always been.
In 1517, Martin Luther nailed a list of things that he thought
was wrong with the church to the door of a church in
Wittenberg in Germany. Many people liked his ideas. They
became known as Protestants because they protested
against the Catholic church. There was much debate which led
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to new ideas being formed and spoken about. The domination of the Catholic
church was threatened for the first time.
The Catholic church persecuted many renaissance
thinkers. Galileo Galilei was imprisoned for life for saying
that the sun was the centre of the universe not the
Earth and Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake for
suggesting that there was more than one universe.
Paracelsus was a German
physician and chemist. In 1527,
he began a lecture to students by burning one of
Galen’s books and calling Avicenna a kitchen master.
He disagreed with the four humours theory. Paracelsus
believed that disease attacks the body from the outside
and that cures should help the body to defend itself
against attack from disease, His criticisms of Galen
encouraged medical thinking towards scientific thought
by people such as Vesalius.
Vesalius (1510-1590) conducting
a dissection with students at
Despite the efforts of the Church to preserve the existing order, new ideas,
inventions and discoveries did take place in what we now call the Renaissance.
Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564)
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In 1500 the most important books used in the training of doctors were still those
written by Claudius Galen. Galen’s ideas had been dominant for hundreds of
years, but were only proved wrong for the first time by Andreas Vesalius.
Who was Andreas Vesalius?
Vesalius was born in Brussels and completed his medical training
in Paris. He went on to become Professor of Anatomy at Padua
University in Italy. During the Renaissance Padua was a famous
centre for medical training. Vesalius believed that the dissection
of human bodies was necessary if doctors were to find out how
bodies worked. However, the dissection of human bodies was
restricted by the Church. Vesalius therefore had to resort to taking
bones from graves and even stealing a body from the gallows so
that he could explore the anatomy of the human body.
How did he become well known?
In 1543 Vesalius wrote the first major book about anatomy.
It was called ‘de Humani Corporis Fabrica’ (The Fabric of the
Human Body). Vesalius worked closely with the famous artist
Titian who produced 277 anatomical illustrations for his book. He pioneered the
use of highly illustrated medical text, where the drawings showed the human body
in greater detail then ever before.
How did he change medical ideas?
Vesalius’s work brought about an important change in medical thinking. He was
able to prove that some of Galen’s theories were wrong. Galen, who was only able
to dissect animals, assumed that humans had the same anatomy. Vesalius by
performing dissections on humans revealed anatomical structures previously
How important was Vesalius?
Vesalius helped establish surgery as a separate medical
profession. At the time, though he was criticised, as many
people refused to believe that Galen’s work could be wrong.
The popularity of Vesalius’s book, however, meant that his
views gradually gained acceptance and greater emphasis
began to be placed upon the study of anatomy in medical
A picture of Vesalius, carrying out a
dissection at Padua University,
surrounded by medical students.
Did advances in scientific knowledge improve
the understanding of human anatomy?
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From the late I5th century, a ‘Renaissance’, or re-birth,
of interest in the sciences spread from Italy through
Europe. A re-discovery of the ancient Greek and Roman
texts was combined with a new, more rigorous approach
to the study of science. The emphasis now was on
explaining the natural world through observation and
Artists like Leonardo da Vinci and
Titian in Italy began for the first
time to accurately record their
observations. With the invention of
printing, their detailed anatomical
drawings could be faithfully
reproduced and published widely.
The writings of Galen attracted
renewed his books on anatomy
were published in Paris, translated
directly from Greek into Latin. A
medical student in Paris, Andreas
Vesalius, read Galen’s text when
it was published.
Later, as Professor of Anatomy at Padua university, Vesalius
published a number of anatomical texts, most famously ‘The Fabric
of the Human Body’ in 1543, based on his own human
dissections. He discovered that some of Galen’s observations were
incorrect; Galen’s description of the liver, for example, was based
on an animal’s liver, not one from a human. The discoveries of
Vesalius, and other scientists like Ambroise Pare and William
Harvey, encouraged other doctors to question their long-held
assumptions about the anatomy of the human body.
A picture of Vesalius from ‘The Fabric of the
Human Body published in Latin in 1543.
Think about this:
• The difference printing made to the dissemination of information
• How the availability of bodies for dissection during the Renaissance helped
improve anatomical knowledge
• The benefits of a scientific method in the study of medicine.
Ambroise Pare (1510-1590)
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At the beginning of the 16th century many surgical and medical treatments had not
changed for hundreds of years. The main method of stopping a wound bleeding,
for example, was to cauterise or seal it with a hot iron. Muslim doctors had
developed this technique 500 years earlier. The man
who stumbled upon a better method was Ambroise
Who was Ambroise Pare?
Pare originally trained as a barber-surgeon and later
joined the French army as a surgeon. The French were
involved in many wars during the 16th century so Pare
gained a great deal of practical experience.
How did he make his breakthrough? Ambroise Pare
It was by chance that Pare made his important
discovery about the treatment of soldiers’ wounds. In
an attempt to stop soldiers bleeding to death, wounds
were usually scorched with burning oil or a hot iron to
seal them. Pare had run out of oil in the battlefield so had to try an alternative
method. He made a dressing of egg whites, oil of roses and turpentine, which
he applied to a wound. A similar method of treatment had originally been used by
The dressing successfully sealed the wound and provided relief from pain. Pare
also developed the use of a ligature to stop bleeding after an amputation. He
realised that by tightening a belt around an artery the blood supply could be
stemmed. After an amputation, Pare recommended that silk thread ligatures be
used to tie off the individual blood vessels before the ointment was applied.
Was he accepted by the medical establishment of his day?
Few surgeons adopted Pare’s ideas. He had no formal university medical training
and this meant that many other physicians did not take his ideas seriously.
However, Pare did enjoy a long medical career, during which he made other
advances to help wounded soldiers, including the design of artificial limbs. Pare
was also interested in obstetrics; he wrote a book on midwifery and founded a
school for midwives in Paris.
How important was Pare?
Pare’s ideas were important as he developed an alternative to cauterization which
was a major breakthrough in wound treatment. However wounds could still
become infected. Despite opposition from the medical establishment, his case
studies were published with the support of the French King. He was the official
royal surgeon to four French Kings (serving Henry II, Francis II, Charles IX, and
Henry III). He is considered one of the fathers of surgery.
A Scientific experiment in the service of the king:
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In 1565, Ambroise Paré described an experiment to test the properties of the Bezoar Stone. At
the time, the bezoar stone was commonly believed to be able to cure the effects of any poison,
but Paré believed this to be impossible. It happened that a cook at the king's court was caught
stealing fine silver cutlery, and was condemned to be hanged. The cook agreed to be poisoned,
on the conditions that he would be given some bezoar straight after the poison and go free in
case he survived. The stone did not cure him, and he died in agony seven hours after being
poisoned. Thus Paré had proved that the bezoar stone could not cure all poisons.
An end to cauterisation
Wars produced terrible wounds and the invention of
firearms added gunshot wounds to the horrors of the
battlefield. When soldiers became badly injured they
often preferred their companions to cut their throats than
to suffer an agonising death.
Even if the wounded soldier reached the operating table
he had only a slim chance of survival. Amputations were
carried out without anaesthetic, so the patient had to
endure an enormous amount of pain. The main methods
used to stop the flow of blood were a red-hot iron (called
a cautery iron), or hot oil.
Ambroise Pare a barber-surgeon serving in the French
army developed an
alternative to cauterising
when he ran out of oil while treating soldiers on the
battlefield. He used a mixture of egg white, turpentine
and rose oil and found it was more effective and less
painful in treating wounds than cauterisation.
However, although Pare practised as a successful
barber-surgeon for 20 years and served four
successive kings he was not accepted by the medical
Pare treating wounded soldiers establishment and many opposed his ground-
• Only 450 years ago wounds and amputated limbs were sealed with either a red
hot iron or boiling oil
• In 1545 Pare published his new method of treatment, using a mixture of eggs,
rose oil and turpentine
• Pare was a barber-surgeon and his new methods, although around-breaking,
met with opposition from more qualified surgeons.
William Harvey (1578-1657)
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Until the early 17th century Claudius Galen’s books were still being used in some
medical schools. Although Andreas Vesalius had proved some of his ideas to be
incorrect, Galen’s explanation of the heart was still preferred by most doctors. It
was William Harvey who proved that Galen was wrong and so made one of the
most famous of medical discoveries.
Who was William Harvey?
Harvey was a doctor at St.Bartholomew’s hospital in London and a
Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. He was also the
physician to James I and Charles I. Harvey studied at Cambridge
and in Italy at the University of Padua where he became interested William Harvey
in anatomy and in particular, the work of Vesalius.
What were his important discoveries?
In 161 5 Harvey began to work on the idea that
blood circulated around the body. By
experimenting on live animals and dissecting the
bodies of executed criminals, Harvey was able to
prove that the heart was a pump which forced
blood around the body through arteries. Veins then
returned the blood to the heart where it was
recycled. Harvey’s work was helped by the
discovery that veins contained valves. Harvey
realised that these valves stopped the blood from
travelling back the wrong way to the heart. Galen’s
theory (that the body made new blood as its
supplies were used up) was proved wrong. In
1628, Harvey published details of his work in his
book entitled ‘An Anatomical Disquisition on the Movement of the Heart and
Why did Harvey face opposition?
After his work was published, Harvey actually lost patients, as his ideas were
considered eccentric. It was not until after his death that others became convinced
that he was right. Marcello Malpighi (1628-1694), an Italian physician, used better
quality microscopes to prove that Harvey’s ideas were correct.
How important was Harvey?
Harvey’s work made little difference to general medical practice at the time. Blood
letting continued to be a popular practice and it was not until the 20th century that
doctors realised the importance of checking a patient’s blood flow by taking a
pulse. Harvey’s work did encourage others to investigate blood circulation, e.g. the
blood’s role in carrying air from the lungs. His discovery of blood circulation was
central to a proper understanding of the workings of the body.
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Circulation of blood
William Harvey announced his discovery that blood
circulated around the body in 1616. He had successfully
challenged Galen’s view, popular for 1400 years, that
blood was continually being made and used up.
Instead, Harvey proved that there was a fixed amount
of blood which was pumped around the body by the
heart. He also showed that blood flowed in one direction
only. By the use of experiments and demonstrations
using ligatures, Harvey set about proving his theory.
In 1628 Harvey published his
book, ‘An Anatomical Exercise
Concerning the Motion of the
Heart and Blood in Animals,
which explained these findings.
This book made him famous
throughout Europe and also
generated much criticism from
those who were unwilling to accept
This is an illustration in Harvey’s book on the circulation. It shows
one of his experiments in which he ‘milks the vein downward’ to
demonstrate the one-way action of the veins. While the heart
pumped blood around the body via the arteries, the veins returned
the blood to the heart. The valves in the veins proved that only a
closed, one-way system of circulation could work.
However, Harvey was not the first to believe in the
circulation of blood. Ibn an-Nafis, an Arab doctor in the 12th century, had
disagreed with Galen, but his ideas had not been followed up. In fact, nobody
realised what he had said until his book was he had said until his book was
rediscovered in 1924. The Egyptians had also believed that blood flowed through
the body and had used leeches and bleeding to unblock the passages carrying
blood.Harvey’s theory on the heart and circulation of the blood met with much
resistance as by implication it threw doubt on the value of blood
letting. Given it was now known that, there could not be too much
blood in the system the practice of bleeding seemed unnecessary.
• William Harvey discovered that blood circulated around the body in
• Galen’s view, that blood was continually being made and used up,
had been popular for 1400 years
• In 1628 Harvey published his book, ‘An Anatomical Exercise Concerning the
Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals’, which explained these findings.
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The Medical Renaissance Key Personalities
Andreas Ambroise William
Vesalius Pare Harvey
Who was he?
What did he
Why is he
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Leading figures of the Medical Renaissance
Aspect Andreas Vesalius Ambroise Pare Sir William Harvey
(1514-1564) (1510-1590) (1578-1657)
Belgian doctor. Studied in French army surgeon. English doctor. Educated in
Paris. Professor of Surgery Apprenticed to his brother. Cambridge and Padua. Worked at
Background and Anatomy in Padua (Italy). Later trained in Paris. Served St Bartholomew’s Hospital,
Influenced by artists who with the French army in various London.
dissected bodies. wars. Became royal surgeon to
4 French kings.
Dissected human bodies and Discovered a new way of Carried out experiments to prove
used artists to draw them for treating wounds when he ran that the heart acts as a pump,
Major work use by medical students. out of boiling oil to ‘cauterise’ or which controls the circulation of
Realised that Galen was wrong seal them. Instead he used a the blood. Valves in the veins
in important respects such as lotion of natural substances. prevent blood from moving the
the anatomy of the heart, liver Stopped bleeding by typing silk wrong way.
and the jaw. ligatures around arteries.
The Fabric of the Human Works on Surgery (1575) On the Movement of the Heart
Book Body (1543) and the Blood in Animals (1628)
His work seriously undermined Another challenge to traditional Harvey finally disproved Galen’s
Galen’s authority and opened ideas. Pare’s methods reduced idea that new blood is made in the
Importance up medicine to modern medical pain from wounds. The use of liver. Harvey did not have an
research based on scientific non-sterile ligatures could cause effective microscope to prove the
dissection of the human body. further infection until Lister’s existence of capillaries.
development of antiseptic
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How effective was Renaissance Medicine? Case Study: The death
of Charles II
Feb 2 At 8 in the morning the King collapses as he is being shaved. He lets out a terrible shriek
then falls unconscious. His physicians (doctors) are called for.
The King’s doctors open a vein in the King’s arm and bleed 16 ounces of blood.
This did not lead to an improvement in his condition but the doctors repeated the
treatment an hour later.
Three hours after this the King’s servants started to complain that the doctors were
not doing enough to cure him, so they gave him some pills that PURGED him
(made him empty his stomach)
Other treatments considered:
Place pigeons against the soles of the King’s feet;
Shave the King’s head and put burning tongs against his skin.
Feb 3 Briefly the King starts talking again; but then he shrieks again and falls unconscious
The King is bled again: this time 2 veins are opened.
Other treatments considered:
Call Mistress Holder and ask her to give the King a herbal remedy.
Give the King some SACRED TINCTURE which will keep his bowels empty.
Feb 4 The King seems to be better in the morning: in the afternoon though he has another attack
The doctors continued purging the King.
Other treatments considered:
Give the King a Medicine composed of: spirit of human skull mixed with an ounce
and a half of cordial julep.
Just giving up
Feb 6 The King is declining rapidly
The doctors consider giving the King the following remedy:
2 and a half grams of BEZOAR STONE. This is a green stone found on the
stomach of goats, which is a famous remedy for illness. Before they get the chance
to administer the Bezoar stone the king dies. The doctors send their bill to James
II, the new King.
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How would you treat Charles II?
Use this worksheet to record the way you treated Charles II. You can choose as
many of the options for each decision as you like. After you have made your
choices work out your score from page 110 in the SHP white book.
Decisions – tick Reasons for your choices Score
1a) open a vein
b) Mistress Holder
b) shout at servants
d) shave head
4a) Mistress Holder
d) run away
c) use medicine
d) abandon treatments
7a) send your bill
b) see James II
c) run away
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Which Statements do you agree with and which do you disagree
Which statements do you agree with?
Which don’t you agree with?
The King’s Doctors
The King’s Doctors
did more harm than
The King’s Doctors
believed in the ideas
The King’s Doctors
were scientific in
their approach, and
did not believe that
illness was caused
by magic or the
The King’s Doctors
didn’t really have a
clue what was going
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Renaissance Common Assessment Task and Mark
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