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Geneeskunde en humanisme. Een intellectuele biografie van Theodoricus Ulsenius (c. 1460-1508).

Catrien Santing's work, originally a doctoral dissertation in history at the University of Groningen, is a careful and detailed study of the little-known Dutch physician and humanist Theodoricus Ulsenius, Dirk van Ulsen in his native Dutch. Born in Zwolle around 1460, he received a degree in medicine - perhaps from an Italian university, as the circumstantial evidence Santing has assembled suggests. His professional life was a restless one. After failing to establish himself anywhere for long in the Netherlands, he settled in Nuremberg from 1492 to 1501, serving in his last four years as municipal physician. Ulsenius then spent short periods of time in several German universities and cities, finally serving as court physician to the Duke of Mecklenburg. But he returned to his native Holland to die in obscurity at' s Hertogenbosch in 1508.

That Ulsenius can be studied so extensively is thanks to his fellow humanist in Nuremberg, Hartmann Schedel, who made manuscript copies of a number of Ulsenius' works which have been preserved in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich. A few of his works were published in his lifetime, notably his edition of the Aphorisms of Hippocrates. One poem, the Vaticinium in epidemicam scabiem was printed there in the same year as a broadsheet notable for its illustration, a woodcut by Albrecht Darer of a man suffering from syphilis. The poem describes a dream vision in which Apollo appears to the poet to explain the astrological origin of the disease, but breaks off before revealing to him what the cure is. (An annotated edition of this text, with a Dutch translation, is given as Appendix Three.) Other works of Ulsenius include a didactic poem in two books entitled Clinicum pharmacandi modus, and scattered letters and poems, which include treatments of the lives of Saint Jodocus and Saint Switbert, as well as the medical Christian martyrs Saints Cosmas and Damian.

Ulsenius is not then a figure of primary importance. He enjoyed a certain fame among German and Dutch humanists around the year 1500, and he was a friend and associate of the German archhumanist - as he styled himself - Conrad Celtis in Nuremberg and through him had access to court circles. He played a role in the early attempts to deal with the outbreak of syphilis which struck Nuremberg - as well as the rest of Europe - in the 1490s, although his most striking contribution was to suggest that the eruption of the disease was the consequence of the fateful conjuncture of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars in November of 1484. His Vaticinium also had the distinction of being the first printed work to deal with syphilis in Germany.

But Ulsenius' usefulness, as Santing argues, lies precisely in his representative quality, in the fact that in what we know of his life and work we can catch a glimpse of the knowledge and the mental horizon of a humanist of his time and place. He was a fairly competent but wholly uninspired versifier, and in no sense an original thinker, but his insistence on the close relationship between the physician's craft and the arts of literature and philosophy shows how Italian humanist ideas about this relationship were beginning to make themselves felt in Northern Europe. Ulsenius is a type of Dutch humanist neglected in the Netherlands partly because he spent the most important part of his career in Germany, but also - as Santing notes - because Dutch studies on the humanism of the period between Agricola and Erasmus have focused on the forerunners of the Reformation, the so-called "bible humanists," which Ulsenius, with his Italian intellectual orientation, was very far from being.

This study has been done with scrupulous care and is clearly the result of extensive and laborious research in archival materials in several countries. Although the author comments on the frequent obscurity of Ulsenius' Latin, she understands it well and the Dutch translations of it are accurate and as clear as the originals allow. Arranging the events of his life geographically has the odd consequence of putting Ulsenius' death towards the beginning, but otherwise the work is well organized. I would have gladly read more about the letters of Ulsenius to Celtis (which are available however in H. Rupprecht's edition of Der Briefwechsel des Konrad Celtis, Munich, 1934) but on balance Santing is right to put her primary emphasis on Ulsenius' medical work since that was clearly the focus of his activities. The study contains extensive quotation from Ulsenius' works (he is allowed, as it were, to speak for himself) and an extensive bibliography, as well as summaries in English and German.

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Author:Nichols, Fred J.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1995
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