Periodic themes

My two main topics of research for my soon-to-be commenced fantasy novel are baking and medicine, since they’re the activities on which my narrator spends her time. In both areas I’m very fortunate to be related to someone (Parent) who is a bona fide expert on the field, so I’ve obtained a useful reading list from her, but I’ve begun my dive into these illimitable chasms of knowledge with the slenderest and most introductory books I could find. In the case of baking I started with a Shire Album, and to begin my investigations into the history of medicine I’ve begun with one of Oxford University Press’s excellent Very Short Introduction series.

It’s almost impossible for me to assess the quality of a book in this series, as they are all written by established scholars in their respective fields, and subject to similar editorial standards, so if there is anything questionable about them it is likely to be in the order of one theory being favoured over another, or other matters that would require recourse to primary sources if I wanted to form an opinion on them. VSIs are tertiary sources, like dictionaries and encyclopaedias, which present a consensus or mainstream view of a topic, one that can be agreed on by the overwhelming majority of scholars working in that field, and which draw on the most established and accepted secondary sources to construct their narrative.

William Bynum, in The History of Medicine: A Very Short Introduction, orders his subject thematically, into five main areas of medical knowledge—medicine at the bedside, in the library, in the hospital, in the community, and in the laboratory. He also uses these categories to organise the periodicity of his account, offering the reader a historical journey from Hippocratic, patient-focused bedside medicine, through medieval practices that relied on the consultation of unimpeachable written authorities, to the birth of the clinic in the eighteenth century, the development of public health policy in the nineteenth, and the growing importance of lab-based medical science as that century and the one that followed it progressed. This neat alignment of medicine’s facets with its periods struck me as suspiciously convenient, but I’m clearly not qualified to call it into question—Bynum certainly makes it clear enough that medicine didn’t simply progress from one approach to another, but shows these areas of interest, all of which are important pillars of modern medicine, as the dominant feature of practice in each era.

Where I felt this book was very strong, and indeed where it will be particularly useful to my nefarious purposes, was in showing the development of medicine not as a succession of technical procedures, but as a gradual, historically determined evolution in ways of thinking about human bodies, health, and the world more widely. It tells a story about knowledge and its production that situates medicine firmly in the social, cultural and intellectual contexts of the times and places on which the account touches. Those times, and especially those places, reflect a traditional Western view of the development of civilisation, one which no longer has many willing apologists in the academy, but in the case of medicine it is fair enough to claim that what is practised today has descended along that line. While Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine represent traditions of equal antiquity and complexity, and very likely equal efficacy for much of their histories, modern medical science emerged from a Western tradition that regarded such systems with contempt, and their influence on later science and clinical practice is consequently marginal. For my purposes (the design of a fantasy world), I will need to look into those traditions, but as an introduction to the Western intellectual heritage, this is a concise yet comprehensive book, full of useful material.

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