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English medical texts from the period 1500–1700 are a large and heterogeneous group of writings, including texts circulating in print and manuscript forms on a range of medical topics, representing a variety of genres, written by authors with varying educational and professional backgrounds for different types of target audiences. The 200 years in focus here were a period of important changes from the medieval world view to the first stages of empirical science. In this chapter, we shall first discuss the background and the transmission of medical knowledge with different modes, oral and written, and media, printed books and manuscripts. Sections 2.2 and 2.3 give an overview of medical literature throughout the two-century period. Section 2.4 introduces the Early Modern English Medical Texts (EMEMT), a computer-readable text collection designed to facilitate research on printed medical texts of the period and used as primary material in the studies in this book.
Printing and manuscript circulation
Dissemination of medical knowledge underwent major changes in the early modern period. The advent of printing introduced a new technology that enabled the production of multiple copies of a text more quickly and more cheaply than had been possible with copying by hand. This affected both the more prestigious kinds of text, those produced by learned men, and those texts that were meant to provide basic medical information to laypeople, for instance almanacs that might sell for 2d.
Pamphlets were a new genre of ephemeral texts that started to proliferate from the mid sixteenth century onwards. They were cheap and easy to print and distribute, and thus their prices were much lower than those of books. This made them potentially available to people of all social classes, and the practice of reading pamphlets aloud in coffee shops or even on street corners gave even the illiterate access to news, politics and advertisements (Shepard 1973: 13–14). The breakdown of censorship in 1641 caused an explosion in the numbers of printed titles, which can largely be explained by a shift from long folio and octavo works towards shorter quartos and broadsides in pamphlets and other forms of cheap print such as newsbooks (Raymond 2003: 168). Medical topics also multiplied, and while recipe books and general guides to medicine continued to be the most frequently published medical genres, a new genre of pamphlets advertising proprietary medicines became the third-most popular kind of medical publication in the second half of the seventeenth century (Fissell 2007: 114, Table 6.2). Pamphlets participating in medical as well as other controversies were another new genre, developing from the late sixteenth century onwards. These two kinds of medical pamphlets had different audiences: literate controversies had a limited readership of educated medical professionals, whereas advertisements had the widest readership possible and were probably read aloud like news pamphlets.
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