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Useful books: reading vernacular regimens in 16th-century England

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The ‘useful books’ of my title constitute a distinctive genre of medical writing which flourished in the sixteenth century, advising on the preservation of health, and often also providing an overview of and introduction to Galenic physiology. They were useful, most obviously, because they dispensed advice at a time when few people had access to a learned physician and when most medical books were in Latin. This was the starting point of the seminal study of the ‘uses of vernacular medical literature’ by the social historian Paul Slack in 1979.

When Slack wrote about vernacular health literature in the late seventies, the history of reading was in its infancy. No doubt, if he were revising his essay now then this would be the field to which he would turn to support many of his claims. Indeed, one of the innovations of work in this field is the recognition that books were used in a variety of ways, and often not closely read but quickly consulted. Regimens surely were useful books in this way: their print layout and marginal annotation supports this argument. Yet, I would not want the obviousness of this to discourage us from thinking about other ways in which they might have been read. It is not just that much of the advice they give is not always immediately applicable. Often the compilers of regimens – very few of whom were physicians after all – invite and explore other kinds of reading; this is sometimes meditative, sometimes sceptical, requiring a reader who is open to conflicting explanations. In this paper I will explore the different kinds of evidence we might use to recover the use of regimens – including their close relationship to another kind of health book, the table philosophy. More broadly, I will be considering how regimens challenge some more familiar ideas that have emerged from the history of reading about book-use, especially the emphasis on reading as ‘digestion’.

This talk is part of the History of Medicine Seminars series.

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