Medicine and Exercise
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Medicine and Exercise book
The notions concerning the structure and functioning of the human body that were current at the beginning of the century were still classical in their origins and medieval in their colourings of folk-lore and superstition. Astrology was still, in one of its functions, a department of medicine, and the professional
surgeon faced an endless rivalry from charlatans of every type. Such quackery was encouraged by the irrational ignorance of even the best contemporary theory and practice. The doctrine of humours was still very much alive and all otherwise inexplicable human energy was accounted for by 'vital spirits'. Robert Burton's `Anatomy of Melancholy', that peculiar encyclopaedia and bibliography of the traditional medicine,' provides a standard account of the basic physiology. According to Burton,
Spirit is a most subtle vapour, which is expressed from the blood, and the instrument of the soul, to perform all his actions; a common tie or medium between the body and the soul. The liver is the source of both blood and `spirits'. The 'natural spirits' within the blood give rise to 'vital spirits' ('made in the heart of the natural') and these form 'animal spirits', which are taken up to the brain and then 'diffused by the nerves to the subordinate members, give sense and motion to them all'. The heart remains mystical, a subject for creative lyricism rather than objective description. the seat and fountain of life, of heat, of spirits, of pulse and respiration, the sun of our body, the kind and soul commander of it, the seat and organ of all passions and affections. The heart is cooled by the breath, the lungs acting as bellows to keep the air circulating, and physical movement is thought of in the language of Aristotelian teleology, by reference to 'the object which is desired or eschewed.' It is contemplated in terms of its end, rather than in terms of its mechanism. It belongs to a blurred area between physiology and philosophy, where physical motion cannot be ascribed to anything more precise than 'an admirable league of nature, and by mediation of the spirit.' 2
With such an aura of the inexplicable surrounding the fundamental physical processes, it was little wonder that magic, mystery and superstition entered into much treatment of illness, and no less wonder that many ills and infections went their fatal way beyond all reach of medicine. Life hung by a tenuous thread.
Almost half the children born died in infancy and often parents would produce a dozen or more children and yet only have one or two survive them. Plague was a regular and usually fatal visitor; smallpox was regarded as a scourge which would come to almost everyone sooner or later; consumption was rife and terminal gangrene the common consequence of even successful attempts at surgery. Jacobean drama revealed the early seventeenth century's special awareness of physical frailty in face of numerous ills and inadequate medicine. Even the enthusiastic Mulcaster had noted the body's perpetual tendency to waste away, its regression from moisture to dryness, its `continual rebating'.'