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Let the Horse Pull the Cart...

Poster: John Strauss <jstrauss@gmu.edu>

... even though you have a perfectly good engine.

Annara said:

>When advising people who are interested in learning a medieval skill from
>the ground up on their own, without a teacher, I often advise starting
>with the modern side of the skill.  
>The reason for this is to learn the 20th century techniques and science
>behind what they're doing.  Then when they read those primary and
>secondary sources, they understand what part is important and what part
>might be medieval misunderstandings or superstition, and what part is
>just downright dangerous. 

It depends.

Perhaps my most rewarding adventure in SCA research, so far, was when I
researched for a class on the Black Death for U of Atlantia. I am pretty
much a total innocent when it comes to modern medicine. I didn't even take
biology in high school. I decided to make this ignorance an advantage.

And so I began gathering information about medicine during the Black Death
without a modern anchor. I accepted the information from period sources at
face value, slowly building a world picture appropriate to a physician's
apprentice. After a bit of work, things started to fall into a pattern.
Galenic medicine began to make sense to me. It was clean, orderly,
elegant, even beautiful. The astrological causes, the prophylaxes, the
treatments all fell into place. I was able to generalize from what I had
learned and answer questions ad lib. I had the big picture of pre-1350
medicine in my hands.

Only when that pattern was fully set in my mind and I had written up an
in-persona presentation did I investigate modern sources. I did it the
easy way: I found a biology professor and got him interested in my
project. His observations threw my work into a whole new light. My
beautiful, elegant, theoretically sound Galenic approach to the pestilence
was not merely flawed, but flawed in ways so substantial as to be Ironic. 
My idealistic physician's apprentice had become a tragic figure, a walking
dead man and a dealer of hope and death in the same hand. 

And so I got a closeup look at the conflict between a pretty philosophical
theory and the pragmatic approach of modern medicine. The Galenic theory
feels good. It ought to work. But it doesn't and so we toss it aside in
favor of whatever does. I now see the Black Death as a ton of bricks,
dropped on our heads repeatedly until we got the message. Out of all that
death, I see the early beginnings of the scientific method. 

I think that, if I had started with the modern information, I would have
dismissed all the bizarre treatments and such, never trying to find the
pattern justifying their existance. I would have paraded the various
actions taken in period for their freak show value, never seeing what lay
behind it all. And I would surely be the poorer.


       John Strauss             |    Dr. Henry Best, OP       
       Lexington, KY            |    Dragonsmark, Midrealm      
       jstrauss@gmu.edu         |    "Jugate Potentum Gaudii"

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