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De Galeni Corporis Fabrica: Vesalius' use of Galen and Galenism in the Preface of his Fabrica

Luis Salas

Washington University

The publication of Vesalius' De humani corporis fabrica in 1543 is often marked as a dramatic shift, not only in anatomical knowledge but also in anatomical method. Just over two centuries earlier in 1315, Mondino de Luzzi had famously conducted the public dissection of a human cadaver in Bologna. In his demonstration, Mondino lectured on select anatomical passages, often Galenic, while an assistant performed the manual dissection under direction of a second assistant. Far removed from the learned physician the body's subordination to the book was brought into sharp relief by the physician's title, lector. Ultimately Mondino's demonstration provided the model for the introduction of human dissection as a part of medical education in European universities. In the letter to Charles V prefacing the Fabrica, Vesalius frames his work as a necessary corrective to contemporary anatomical practice, the practice of Galenists, with its infrequent and ritualized anatomical performances. Vesalius characterizes this break as a return to and advancement of ancient Greek medical practice, exemplified by Hippocrates and Galen.

Historians of medicine have traditionally focused on how and how much Vesalius differs as an anatomical practitioner in the Fabrica. However, the close parallels between Vesalius' self-presentation and Galen's own in agonistic contexts, as figures of both rupture and continuity, have not received sufficient scholarly attention. This paper examines the reception of Galen's polemical strategies in Vesalius' Fabrica, focusing on the prefatory letter to Charles V. It argues that Vesalius' presentation of his work as a rupture with contemporary Galenists that looks backwards to a morally and intellectually purer Hellenic medical tradition is the foundation for a sophisticated appropriation of Galen's own argumentative methods.

As Galen had done in the antiquarian intellectual culture of the High Roman Empire, Vesalius capitalized on the social cachet of ancient Greece for the Hellenizing elite of 15-16th century Western Europe. Galen had used intellectual and philological acumen to align himself with the past while distancing his rivals from its authority. While elaborating the thought and work of Aristotle and Erasistratus, Galen might accuse contemporary Peripatetics and Erasistrateans of misreading and misunderstanding their intellectual forebears. So Vesalius positioned himself to Charles V as an authority on Galen's thought and work while showing that contemporary Galenists neither understood Galen's method nor carefully read his texts. This two-stage maneuver lessened the authority of rival intellectuals as it elevated their own. Vesalius' rejection of anatomical practice that centered around a text recalls Galen's own invectives against logiatroi, word-doctors who practice medicine as competently as navigators sailing by book. His insistence on the primacy of anatomical observation and a direct hand in anatomical demonstrations echo Galen's polemics against ersatz anatomists. 

Scholars have often considered the Fabrica as it looks to later anatomical practice. However, an integral feature of Vesalius' self-presentation looked to the past for intellectual authority. Galen and control over his reception were a locus of medical authority Vesalius sought and ultimately succeeded in taking from the Galenists of his day, a lesson taught by Galen himself.

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Afterlives of Ancient Medicine

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