Book Review: The Germ of an Idea

BookReviewLogoReview by Sandra G. Weems

A remarkable feat of textual synthesis, The Germ of an Idea: Contagionism, Religion, and Society in Britain, 1660-1730 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) traces the complex narrative of emerging medical theories of disease and their relationship to physicians’ fractured, fractious religious and social alliances in this period. Margaret DeLacy, a Harvard- and Princeton-trained independent scholar who has written extensively about medical history and contagionism, acknowledges drawing on “a reference base of thousands of books and articles” (xix) over decades of research to answer a single question: Why were medical thinkers “diverted” from pursuing “the germ-theory of disease” in the early-eighteenth century, when clearly several had earlier amassed evidence that “should have made possible the formulation” (iv) of germ-theory developed only much later, in the nineteenth century? The answer is neither simple nor straightforward, but DeLacy tells the story in nine meticulously annotated chapters, each helpfully structured with clearly-marked introductions and conclusions.

25993547Grounding the reader, as well as showing what may have precipitated this perceived lull in scientific progress, Chapter 1 features a historical survey of contagionism prior to 1660. The belief that disease spreads through some contagion reaches back to classical times, although the notion that these contagions might be living agents remained uncommon in the mid-seventeenth century. In England during the mid-seventeenth century (Chapter 2) major religious and social changes during the Restoration caused abruptions in medical education and professions. As part of the Clarendon Code (1661), religious Nonconformists were denied degrees from Cambridge and Oxford. Only MDs from these universities were permitted to become Fellows of the London College of Physicians—the Galenic institution that held the legal authority to regulate physicians in and around London. Thus, Dissenters were forced to seek medical degrees abroad and were prevented (in theory) from reaching the top of their profession in Britain. Continue reading “Book Review: The Germ of an Idea”


Book Review: Medieval Robots

BookReviewLogoReview by Julia Brown

From golden trees alive with mechanical birds to automated servants forged by the gods, Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature and Art (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015) by E.R. Truitt is an enlightening monograph detailing the history of automatons between the ninth and fifteenth centuries. An Associate Professor of History at Bryn Mawr College, Truitt “explores the multiple kinds and functions of automata in the Latin Middle Ages, and demonstrates that these objects have long been used to embody complex ideas about the natural world” (1-2). This well-researched book is the first to provide comprehensive scholarship on the topic of medieval automata.

24183046Medieval Robots is split into six chapters, each highlighting one kind of automaton, and moving both chronologically and thematically through analysis of how these automata functioned within the societies that experienced them. Among these automaton are devices that “symbolize the movement of knowledge across cultures” (9), mechanical automaton in clockwork, and more.

In the first chapter, Truitt explains how the earliest automaton in the Latin Middle Ages were gifts from foreign rulers. The wonders of such automatons were explained through the Natural belief that, geographically, more wondrous phenomena occurred at the margins of the maps rather than the center (the Latin West). Furthermore, descriptions of automata in narratives, such as Aymeri de Narbonne, acted as a means of suggesting that foreign empires had access to magical knowledge and Natural knowledge that was still unknown to the Latin West and were thereby threateningly powerful. Automata then became both something to study and understand, and inextricably associated with foreignness. As Truitt packs tons of information and examples into each chapter, I suggest tackling this book a chapter at a time. Continue reading “Book Review: Medieval Robots”