Addressing the Language Gap: A Review of Marvels of Medicine: Literature and Scientific Enquiry in Early Colonial Spanish America
The year of reckoning with the twin pandemics of racism and COVID-19 increasingly reminds us to attend to the relationships between health status and narrative experiences – how, for example, art and artists can express and contextualize our understanding of health experiences and inequities. Yet current research shows us the linguistic and cultural gaps still present in so much of medical treatment and practice. Within the US context, for example, the numbers are staggering: patients with limited English proficiency had a 35% greater chance of death from COVID-19.
The connections between linguistic and cultural imperialism and health outcomes are at the heart of Yarí Pérez Marín’s new volume Marvels of Medicine: Literature and Scientific Enquiry in Early Colonial Spanish America. The book offers an interdisciplinary and innovative history of medical and scientific cultures in 16th– and 17th-century Latin America, featuring medical texts printed in Mexico primarily in Spanish and Latin, as well as 47 texts in indigenous languages including Nahualt, P’urhepecha, Huasteco, Mixtec, Zapotec languages, Otomi, Chocho, and Tzotzil. The book tells stories of doctors and surgeons who came to the Americas with a focus on interpersonal dynamics within a broader literary sector. These stories are mediated by “emerging notions on matters like identity and race within a process then still strongly conditioned by wealth, social, political or religious standing, patronage, gender, and, to a lesser degree, education,” questions as relevant for the 16th and 17th centuries as they are today.
One of the central concerns of the book is how to grapple with the fact that printed medical and surgical texts in 16th-century Mexico and the Caribbean were made by “a politically dominant yet demographically tiny community of the sum total of the region’s inhabitants.” That is to say: how and why medical practice, culture and understandings were created by an elite and predominantly white few for primarily indigenous and mixed-race people. In this context, Pérez Marín’s book locates “minority discourse” within and around medical culture, building on Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel’s work in postcolonial theory and power, including relationships between the categories of metropolitan and periphery as well as the geographies of Europe vs. non-European.
The book demonstrates how health and illness are central preoccupations of life in early colonial Mexico, describing how New Spain experienced at least fifteen serious epidemics during the sixteenth century, including smallpox and cocoliztli. The source material for the book is wide-ranging, with focus on printed medical textbooks, as well as travel accounts (including Spanish surgeon Pedro Arias de Benavides who travelled throughout Caribbean, Mexico and Central America), chronicles, personal correspondence and literary texts. The book brings to life animated discussion between medical providers as they engaged in processes of revision and specialization. Within the context of gender, for example, the updated 1579 edition of Agustín Farfán’s Tractado breve de anthomia y chirvgia, y de algvnas enfermeddes [Brief Treatise of anatomy and surgery and some illnesses] includes ample references to female patients, including lively descriptions of women’s chronic headaches attributed to the use of hair dye, as well as cosmetics used by men, noting that both men and women should also be concerned with appearance. Marvels of Medicine includes 17 figures, including reproduction of anatomical prints (from Alonso López de Hinojoso and Farfán) and surgical instruments (from Benavides), as well as engravings and portraits.
Pérez Marín’s epilogue provokes contemplation on the broader relationships between science, medicine, literature, and art and the relationship to the consolidation of New World criollo identity, both for the sixteenth century and beyond: “Listening more closely to the dialogue between science, medicine, print culture and artistic representation brings us a step closer to grasping the range of sensibilities and interests held by colonial subjects.” Marvels of Medicine demonstrates with clarity how key literary figures on both sides of the Atlantic shaped the perception and practice of medicine, including Inca Garcilaso, Lope de Vega, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Mateo Alemán, Miguel de Cervantes and Sor Juana Inés de la Crúz. This attention to expression via stories and language undergirds the movement of narrative medicine as well as the broader relationships between the humanities and medicine, attending to how humanistic thinking and narrative competencies – particularly within a patient’s home language – can improve terms of treatment and outcomes. Of interest in this context is the emerging awareness of multilingualism in the field, including for example Spanish-language narrative medicine sessions.
Marvels of Medicine provides a thorough and compelling read towards the histories of Hispanic health disparities and medical experiences, acknowledging the roles of language proficiencies as well as racial and ethnic biases. With its comprehensive context on some of the first printed medical texts in Mexico, Pérez Marín highlights the varied and sometimes competing linguistic and cultural competencies in relationship to medicine, and how they shape our own understandings of medical discourse, practice and experience. And, of course, how we might use these multilingual histories as a way to shape health equity in our present.
Margaret E. Boyle is Associate Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures at Bowdoin College. Her research focuses on the literary and cultural history of early modern Spanish women. She is the author of Unruly Women: Performance, Penitence and Punishment in Early Modern Spain (University of Toronto Press, 2014). She is currently co-editing a volume with Sarah E. Owens, tentatively titled, Health and Healing in the Early Modern Iberian World: A Gendered Perspective.