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The physician's Stammbuch: humanist cultures of medical networking

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By the term Stammbuch, German historiographical tradition mainly means album amicorum or ‘memory book’ – a genre that first became popular in the Protestant circles in mid-sixteenth century, where a piece of manu propria advice from Luther or Melanchthon could be viewed as a collectable rarity and a letter of recommendation. Stammbuch documents offer rich evidence on theological, literary, musical, and medical cultures of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, as well as the vitality of humanist scholarship in verbal and visual quotes. German Stammbücher depicted vividly the episodes of early Protestant polemics, but also captured the development of essential values of early-modern medical inquiry, as many of alba amicorum were kept by physicians travelling between celebrated academic communities. My paper will explore the heuristic role which the humanist cultures of collecting and transferring experience, as displayed in Stammbücher, played in promoting early-modern medical experimentalism.

For instance, Johann Georg Volckamer (1616–1693), a well-recognized physician and travelling writer, subsequently the President of Leopoldina, kept a Stammbuch where he collected notes from fellow scholars at numerous European universities. In 1645, his Stammbuch marked a significant point in an entry ‘Non verbis sed HERBIS ’ (capitals as in the original), which can be translated as ‘Not by words but by herbs!’ In the contemporary context, this mnemonic rhyme referred not to herbs as such but to the practice of paying more attention to physical symptoms, or more broadly, pointed out the experimental character of a qualified medical inquiry. This disposition translated the Melanchthon’s principle of experientia universalis into procedures of medical observation, and the message ‘Non verbis sed HERBIS ’ was essentially close to the later motto of the Royal Society of London: nullius in verba.

Travelling the Wanderstrassen across Europe, Stammbücher helped cultivating experienced collective perception by attracting attention to significant details in interpreting medical historiae, processing individual experiences into medical ontologies, and transforming the relations of intellectual trust into institutional links. My paper will trace the cross-disciplinary transfer of values between humanist scholarly networking and experimental medical discourse, also noting the amplifying cultural context of interactions, as Stammbücher featured sophisticated ‘paper technologies’, including folded portraits with witty verses, drawings of animals, plants and instruments, views and maps of cities.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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