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The Health of the North in a Renaissance Encyclopaedia

The Health of the North in a Renaissance Encyclopaedia

By P.E.H. Hair

Medical Historian: The Bulletin of the Liverpool Medical History Society, Number 11 (1999-2000)

Introduction: In 1555 a private press in Rome issued a volume in Latin with some 400 woodcut illustrations, most of the specifically commissioned by the author, these being in the form of vignettes at head of a majority of about 600 short chapters of the work. The author was patently a man of substance – yet he was a foreigner in Rome. Known as Olaus Magnus, the author was the exiled Archbishop of Uppsala, exiled in consequence of the adoption of Lutheran practices by the state and church in Sweden. Olaus shared the earlier part of his exile with his brother, his predecessor as archbishop. Although Rome was their spiritual and domestic home, the minds of the brothers were elsewhere – on the ‘North’, that is on Scandinavia and especially on Sweden, a kingdom of wider political and cultural power than today. Each brother wrote on the history of ‘the North’ and not least about the ‘Goths’, the mystical ancestors of the Northern peoples. The Renaissance mindset among the scholars in Rome reflected and glorified the culture of the classical world, the Graeco-Roman culture of the Mediterranean. The brothers reacted by making claims for Gothic north of Europe, implying that anything that the south had achieved, the north could (somehow) equal. Olaus’ book was therefore devoted to showing that the the northerners were not, as Rome thought, uncivilised barbarians, even though the circumstances of the terrain and climate had shaped aspects of their behaviour, such as their forms of warfare, their territorial and domestic economy, and even their health and medicine. The vignettes – albeit often crude, often bizarre (like part of the text), and sometimes just wrong in detail – tell the same story. Thus, for instance, ice and snow frequently occur in both text and illustrations. In the text, Olaus, with his earlier personal experience of the North, passes on what he had observed while there, ether with his own eyes or at least heard about.

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