The Eighth Cambridge Wellcome Lecture in the History of Medicine

Maaike van der Lugt (Université Paris Diderot – Paris 7 / Institut Universitaire de France)

“Generatio: medieval debates about procreation, heredity and ‘bioethics'”

Thursday 17 January 2013, 4.30pm
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Free School Lane, Cambridge CB2 3RH

In medieval debates, the idea that the mixture of substances provided by parents determines the appearance and sex of the child coexisted, without contradiction, with the conviction that environmental and behavioural factors also play an important part. Even though the scholastics invented the concept of hereditary disease, distinctions now common between heredity and development, between the acquired and the inherited, had only limited relevance. Generatio, not heredity, was the central concept. Generatio wasn’t just the stuff of scholastic speculation. As is the case today, debates about the mechanism of conception, the nature of the substances involved, and the development of the seed into a viable human being had larger moral, legal and practical significance. Several of these issues will be addressed in the lecture: whether abortion must be equated with murder, the treatment reserved for ‘monstrous’ births, and the extent to which there was room, within the medieval concept of generatio, for eugenics.

There will be tea before the lecture, at 4pm, and a drinks reception afterwards, at 6pm.

The same day at 11.30 Dr van der Lugt will lead a workshop discussion of precirculated texts on
“The invention of hereditary disease in medieval medicine”

The concept of hereditary disease – which would play a crucial role in modern debates about heredity – is a medieval creation. Taking their cue from Arabic medical treatises, scholastic physicians forged the concept of hereditary disease by transferring the traditional, legal sense of the adjective (related to the transmission of goods) to the biological realm. However, Western physicians went beyond their sources. They developed legal analogies, defined the types of illnesses that are passed on by heredity, and proposed various causal patterns to account for them. The most articulate medieval discussions, which explicitly distinguish between the hereditary and the congenital, date from around 1320. Hereditary disease remained, nevertheless, relatively marginal in later medieval medicine, especially compared to debates about plague; the latter not only challenged dominant theories of disease, like hereditary disease, but also constituted an urgent threat for whole populations.