That this same liberal patronage of distinguished physicians was continued in the next century may be realized from the fact that Malpighi, the great founder of comparative anatomy, became one of the Papal Physicians. His intimate friend, Borelli, to whom we owe the introduction of physics into medicine, had spent some years in Rome, where, having been robbed by his servants, with the consent of the Pope he took up his abode with the Society of the Pious Schools of San Pantaleone. Here he finished his important work De Motu Animalium, in which the principles of mechanics were first definitely introduced into anatomy and physiology. The preface to this book was written by an ecclesiastic, who praises the piety of Borelli during his stay in Rome and chronicles his encouragement by the Popes in his medical work. Malpighi was succeeded as Papal Physician by Tozzi, who is famous for his commentaries on the ancients rather than for original observation, but who was looked upon in his time as one of the most prominent physicians in Italy, and at this period that meant one of the most prominent physicians in the world. At the beginning of the next century, the eighteenth, Lancisi, by many considered the Father of Modern Clinical Medicine, became the Papal Physician.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

At this time, during the first half of the sixteenth century, the Papal Medical School begins to assume an importance in the history of medicine which it was to continue to hold for the next two centuries. After the refoundation of the Sapienza by Pope Alexander VI., and its development under Pope Leo X., special care was taken and no expense spared by their successors, to secure the greatest teachers in anatomy in the world for the medical department of the Papal University. At this time all the great physicians were distinguished for their attainments in anatomy, somewhat as in the nineteenth century great physicians obtained their prestige by original work in pathology.

The situations in the two centuries had much more in common than the casual reader of history or even the ordinary student of medicine would appreciate. The list of Papal Physicians, then, becomes to a great extent the roll of the professors of anatomy at the Papal University Medical School. The Popes of this period were wise enough in their generation to realize that the men who devoted themselves to original research in increasing the knowledge of the human body, were also those likely to know most about the diseases of the body and their treatment. These scientific anatomists, with the chastening knowledge of the complexity of the human body before them, probably made less claims to power to cure diseases than many an enthusiastic therapeutist of the time, who thought, as have representatives of this specialty in every generation, that he has many infallible remedies for the cure of disease, though subsequent generations have not agreed with him.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

The custom of having for medical attendant one of the leading physicians of the day, if not actually the most prominent medical scientist of the time, which had obtained at Rome during the thirteenth century, was maintained at Avignon during the three-quarters of a century in which the Papal See had its seat there…The distinct tendency of the Popes to keep in touch with the best men in medicine and surgery in their time is well illustrated by the case of Guy de Chauliac. This great French surgeon and professor at the University of Montpelier is hailed by the modern medical world as the Father of Modern Surgery. There is no doubt at all of his intensely modern character as a teacher, nor of his enterprise as a progressive surgeon. Few men have done more for advance in medicine, and his name is stamped on a number of original ideas that have never been eclipsed in surgery. After studying anatomy very faithfully, especially by means of dissections, in Italy, where he tells us that his master at Bologna, Bertrucci, made a larger number of dissections scarcely more than thirty years after the supposed Papal decree of prohibition, he returned to Montpelier to become the professor of surgery there, and introduced the Italian methods of investigation into the famous old university.

At this time the Popes were at Avignon, not far distant from Montpelier. From them Guy received every encouragement in his scientific work. He insisted that no one could practice surgery with any hope of success unless he devoted himself to careful dissection of the human body. If we were to believe some of the things that have been said with regard to the Popes forbidding dissection, this should have been enough to keep the French surgeon from the favor of the Popes, but it did not. On the contrary, he was the intimate friend and consultant medical attendant of two of the Avignon Popes, and was the chamberlain to one of them. The good influence of Chauliac on the minds of the Popes is reflected in their interest in the medical department of the University of Montpelier. About this time Pope Urban VI. founded the College of Twelve Physicians at Montpelier. He was an alumnus of the university, and had been appealed to to enlarge the opportunities of his Alma Mater.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

A curiously interesting episode that deserves a place in the history of Papal Physicians occurred during Alderotti’s life. One of the Popes elected to fill the Papal chair had been earlier in life a physician. This was the famous Peter of Spain, though he was really a Portuguese, who, under the name of John XXI., occupied the Papal throne during the years 1276-1277. Peter of Spain had been one of the most distinguished natural scientists of this interesting century. Dr. J. B. Petella, in an article published in Janus about ten years ago, entitled A Critical and Historical Study of the Knowledge of Ophthalmology of a Philosopher Physician who became Pope, gives an excellent account of the life of Pope John XXI. 

Petella does not hesitate to say of him that he was “one of the most renowned personages of Europe during the thirteenth century, from the point of view of the triple evolution of his extraordinary mind, which caused him to make his mark in the physical sciences, in the metaphysical sciences, and in the religious world. In him there was an incarnation of the savant of the time, and he must be considered the most perfect encyclopedist of the Middle Ages in their first renascence.”

Anyone who reads Dr. Petella’s account of this book by Pope John XXI. will be surprised at how much was known about diseases of the eye at the middle of the thirteenth century. For instance, hardening of the eye is spoken of as a very serious affection, so that there seems to be no doubt that the condition now known as glaucoma was recognized and its bad prognosis appreciated. His account of the external anatomy of the eye, eight coats of which he describes, beginning with the conjunctiva and ending with the retina, is quite complete. The eye is said to have eight muscles, the levator of the upper eyelid and the sphincter muscle of the eye being counted among them. The other muscles are picturesquely described as reins, that is, guiding ribbons for the eye. Cataract is described as water descending into the eye, and two forms of it are distinguished–one traumatic, due to external causes, and the other due to internal causes. Lachrimal fistula is described and its causes discussed. Various forms of blepharitis are touched upon. Many suggestions are made for the treatment of trichiasis. That a man who was as distinguished in medicine as Peter of Spain should have been elected Pope, is the best possible proof that there was no opposition between science and religion during the thirteenth century.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

Most of what historical writers generally, who follow the old traditions of the medieval eclipse of medicine, have to say with regard to the supposed Papal opposition to the development of medical science, is founded on the assumption that men who believed in miracles and in the efficacy of prayer for the relief of disease could not possibly be interested to any serious degree in scientific medicine…Once more, as in the case of the supposed failure of surgery to develop during the Middle Ages, it is a deduction that has been made from certain supposed principles, and not an induction from the actual facts as we know them. Such historians would be the first to emphasize the narrowness of the schoolmen for their supposed dependence on deduction, but what they have to say on medical history is entirely deductive, and unfortunately from premises that will not stand in the presence of the story of the wonderful rise and development of medical science and medical education, mainly under the patronage of ecclesiastics, in the Middle Ages.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

Another striking evidence of the deep interest of these generations in science of all kinds and in details of information with regard to which they are generally said to have been quite incurious, was the publication of the famous encyclopedia, the first work of its kind ever issued, which was written about the middle of the thirteenth century by Vincent of Beauvais. It is only when a generation actually calls for it, and when the want of it has been for a good while felt, that such a work is likely to be undertaken. This immense literary undertaking was completed under the patronage of King Louis IX. by Vincent, a Dominican friar, who died at the beginning of the last quarter of the thirteenth century. His Majus Speculum is not the first book of general information, but it is the first deserving the name of Encyclopedia in the full sense of the word that we have. It is divided into three parts–the Speculum Naturale, Doctrinale, and Historiale. The only one which interests us here is the Speculum Naturale, which fills a huge folio volume of nearly a thousand pages, closely printed in double columns. It is divided into 32 books and some 4,000 chapters. The Encyclopaedia Brittanica says of it:–

“It was, as it were, the great temple of medieval science, whose floor and walls are inlaid with an enormous mosaic of skilfully arranged passages from Latin, Greek, Arabic, and even Hebrew authors. To each quotation, as he borrows it, Vincent prefixes the name of the book and the author from which it is taken, distinguishing, however, his own remarks by the word ‘actor.'”

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

Further reading/viewing: – a website dedicated to Vincent of Beauvais

The characteristic medieval theory about women, thus laid down and debated, was the creation of two forces, the Church and the Aristocracy, and it was extremely inconsistent. The Church and the Aristocracy were not only often at loggerheads with each other, but each was at loggerheads with itself, and both taught the most contradictory doctrines, so that women found themselves perpetually oscillating between a pit and a pedestal. […]

But the theory about women, inconsistent and the work of a small articulate minority as it was, was only one factor in determining their position and it was the least important factor. The fact that it received a voluminous and often striking literary expression has given it a somewhat disproportionate weight, and to arrive at the real position of women it is necessary constantly to equate it with daily life, as revealed in more homely records. The result is very much what common sense would indicate, for in daily life the position occupied by woman was one neither of inferiority nor of superiority, but of a certain rough-and-ready equality. This equality was as marked in the feudal as in the working classes; indeed it allowed the lady of the upper classes considerably more scope than she sometimes enjoyed at a much later period, for example, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

C. G. Crump & E.F. Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages (1951)