Uneven progress: Renaissance understanding of medicine and anatomy

Renaissance medicine
William Harvey demonstrating his theory of circulation of the blood before Charles I. Source: Ernest Board, c. 1912. The Wellcome Collection via Europeana

This article is the first of a series by EUROCLIO and Europeana providing teachers with ideas and practical resources for teaching a range of topics in their classrooms. You can find a wealth of additional resources including units, source collections and eLearning activities on the Historiana website and you can read the other articles in the series on labs.historiana.eu

Education about the Renaissance period often focuses heavily or, indeed, solely on the intellectual, scientific and creative advances of the era. While the importance of the impressive and remarkable achievements that characterised the period should not be downplayed, such teaching approaches can fail to convey to students the nuance and complexity of ‘progress’ and ‘advancement’. In the field of medicine and anatomy, for instance, significant discoveries that continue to inform our understanding of the field were made during the Renaissances but these were developed alongside continuing superstitious beliefs about injury and disease and unscientific methods for their treatment. A study of Renaissance Medicine and Anatomy using the Historiana source collection can support students to explore continuity and change and to appreciate that ‘progress’ is rarely simple and straightforward.

Engraving of King Charles II touching sufferers of scrofula
This engraving shows King Charles II (1630-1685) touching sufferers of scrofula, a disease known as the ‘King’s Evil’, as doctors believed contact with a monarch could heal this ailment. Source: Charles II touching a patient for the king’s evil (scrofula) surrounded by courtiers, clergy and general public. Engraving by R. White, date unknown. Wellcome Collection via Europeana

Ideas to explore when teaching Renaissance Medicine and Anatomy

The source collection provides a range of relevant materials to help students explore the historical thinking concepts of continuity and change as well as what Levesque labels the ‘complementary concepts’ of progress and decline.[1] Students should be encouraged to consider contradictions, inconsistencies and peculiarities in amongst the advances made in the Renaissance period.

In particular, students can investigate:

  • The impact of ancient thinkers, particularly from Greece and the Near East, on Renaissance understandings and beliefs about medicine and anatomy
  • The rise of the scientific method
  • The nature and continuation of non-scientific beliefs about health and illness
  • The different approaches and beliefs held by different sections of society and even members of the medical field
  • The contributions of Renaissance discoveries and innovations to present-day medical practice

Teaching Renaissance Medicine and Anatomy

The eLearning Activity entitled Continuity and Change in Renaissance Medicine provides one approach to the teaching of this topic. In this activity, students sort the sources from the collection in two different ways. First, they identify whether sources represent scientific approaches, non-scientific approaches or a mix of the two. This supports their understanding of the coexistence of different understandings of the human body and its function. Next, students sort the sources according to the time that they represent to observe whether or not scientific approaches replaced non-scientific approaches over time (spoiler: they did not). Finally, students complete a scaffolded written task in which they must formulate and justify an argument in response to the question: To what extent did European ideas about medicine and anatomy change during the Renaissance period?

With a free Historiana account it is possible to adapt ready-made eLearning Activities like this one to your needs. For instance, you may wish to change the text that accompanies the sources so that it is more accessible for your students (e.g. you may wish to edit the text to make it simpler or change it to your native language). You might also add or remove steps in the activities to better suit the timeframe of your lessons. The activities are designed to promote historical thinking and use of the sources but they will always be most effective when adapted to suit your context.


Historiana would not be possible without the efforts and generous contributions of historians and educators from Europe and beyond, and the support of the Connecting Europe Facility of the European Union.

[1] Lévesque, Stéphane. Thinking Historically: Educating Students for the Twenty-First Century. Toronto Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 2008, 37.

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