A Cultural History of Medical Vitalism in Enlightenment Montpellier: 1st Edition (Hardback) book cover

A Cultural History of Medical Vitalism in Enlightenment Montpellier

1st Edition

By Elizabeth A. Williams


384 pages

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One of the key themes of the Enlightenment was the search for universal laws and truths that would help illuminate the workings of the universe. It is in such attitudes that we trace the origins of modern science and medicine. However, not all eighteenth century scientists and physicians believed that such universal laws could be found, particularly in relation to the differences between living and inanimate matter. From the 1740s physicians working in the University of Medicine of Montpellier began to contest Descartes's dualist concept of the body-machine that was being championed by leading Parisian medical 'mechanists'. In place of the body-machine perspective that sought laws universally valid for all phenomena, the vitalists postulated a distinction being living and other matter, offering a holistic understanding of the physical-moral relation in place of mind-body dualism. Their medicine was not based on mathematics and the unity of the sciences, but on observation of the individual patient and the harmonious activities of the 'body-economy'. Vitalists believed that Illness was a result of disharmony in this 'body-economy' which could only be remedied on an individual level depending on the patient's own 'natural' limitations. The limitations were established by a myriad of factors such as sex, class, age, temperament, region, and race, which negated the use of a single universal treatment for a particular ailment. Ultimately Montpelier medicine was eclipsed by that of Paris, a development linked to the dynamics of the Enlightenment as a movement bent on cultural centralisation, acquiring a reputation as a kind of anti-science of the exotic and the mad. Given the long-standing Paris-centrism of French cultural history, Montpellier vitalism has never been accorded the attention it deserves by historians. This study repairs that neglect.


'Williams's book promises to remain the standard account of the subject for some time to come.' Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 'This very informative and thought-provoking book should be a must read for eighteenth-century scholars…' New Perspectives on the Eighteenth Century 'A Cultural History of Medical Vitalism in Enlightenment Montpellier is, in short, a triumph: it is enormously informative, intensely researched, and written with considerable style and wit.' Metascience 'This is, quite simply, an admirable book…' Early Science and Medicine

Table of Contents

Contents: Introduction; A medical town: Montpellier in the 18th century; A university in the Enlightenment: the University of Medicine of Montpellier; Boissier de Sauvages and the emergence of vitalism in Montpellier; The ascent to Paris: Montpellier physicians in the capital of enlightenment; Vitalism and the encyclopedist movement; Time of troubles: the university-court connection in the late Ancien Régime; Semiotics, smallpox, sex: from the practical to the philosophical in vitalist medicine; Barthez and the "Science of Man"; Vitalism in the late Enlightenment; Conclusion: the end of the Enlightenment and the eclipse of Montpellier; Bibliography; Index.

About the Series

The History of Medicine in Context

An interest in medicine is one of the constants that re-occurs throughout history. From the earliest times, man has sought ways to combat the myriad of diseases and ailments that afflict the human body, resulting in a number of evolving and often competing philosophies and practices whose repercussions spread far beyond the strictly medical sphere.

For more than a decade The History of Medicine in Context series has provided a unique platform for the publication of research pertaining to the study of medicine from broad social, cultural, political, religious and intellectual perspectives. Offering cutting-edge scholarship on a range of medical subjects that cross chronological, geographical and disciplinary boundaries, the series consistently challenges received views about medical history and shows how medicine has had a much more pronounced effect on western society than is often acknowledged. As medical knowledge progresses, throwing up new challenges and moral dilemmas, The History of Medicine in Context series offers the opportunity to evaluate the shifting role and practice of medicine from the long perspective, not only providing a better understanding of the past, but often an intriguing perspective on the present.

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Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
HISTORY / General