Hostname: page-component-f7d5f74f5-5d7d4 Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-10-04T23:15:11.091Z Has data issue: false Feature Flags: { "corePageComponentGetUserInfoFromSharedSession": true, "coreDisableEcommerce": false, "coreDisableSocialShare": false, "coreDisableEcommerceForArticlePurchase": false, "coreDisableEcommerceForBookPurchase": false, "coreDisableEcommerceForElementPurchase": false, "coreUseNewShare": true, "useRatesEcommerce": true } hasContentIssue false

Descartes and the Bologna affair

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 February 2013

California Institute of Technology, 1200 East California Blvd, MC 101-40, Pasadena, CA 91125, USA. Email:


Descartes is well known as a mathematician and natural philosopher. However, none of Descartes's biographers has described the invitation he received in 1633 to fill a chair in theoretical medicine at the University of Bologna, or the fact that he was already sufficiently known and respected for his medical knowledge that the invitation came four years before his first publication. In this note I authenticate and contextualize this event, which I refer to as the ‘Bologna affair’. I transcribe the letter written to the Bolognese Senate announcing efforts to bring Descartes to the university and explain the events that led to Descartes receiving the invitation. While many questions about the Bologna affair cannot be answered because of the paucity of the historical record, I conclude that the event invites us to consider again the larger historiographical issue of how best to integrate the history of medicine with the history of science and philosophy during the early modern period.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 2013 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 The most significant recent biographies in English are Shea, William, The Magic of Numbers and Motion, Canton: Science Publishing International, 1991Google Scholar; Lewis, Geneviève Rodis, Descartes: His Life and Thought (tr. Todd, Jane Marie), Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995Google Scholar; Gaukroger, Stephen, Descartes: An Intellectual Biography, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995Google Scholar; and Clarke, Desmond, Descartes: A Biography, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 The earliest references to the Bologna affair of which I am aware occur in Simeoni, Luigi, Storia Della Universita di Bologna, 2 vols., Bologna: Fori, 1940–1948, vol. 2, p. 130Google Scholar; and Calcaterra, Carlo, Alma Mater Studiorum: L'Università di Bologna Nella Storia Della Cultura e Della Civiltà, Bologna: Nicola Zanichelli, 1948Google Scholar, p. 227. Calcaterra mistakenly claims that Descartes was the first choice for the position when, in fact, he was the second choice. The only other references occur in Busacchi, Vincenzo, ‘La chiamata di Cartesio alla cattedra eminente di teorica della medicine nello studio di Bologna nel 1633’, Pagine di Storia Della Medicina (1967) 11, pp. 913Google Scholar; Rothschuh, Karl, ‘Henricus Regius und Descartes: Neue Einblicke in die frühe Physiologie (1640–1641) des Regius’, Archives internationales d'histoire des sciences (1968) 21, pp. 3966Google Scholar, 52 n. 58 (Rothschuh mistakenly refers to the University of Padua and not the University of Bologna in his account); Sloan, Philip, ‘Descartes, the skeptics, and the rejection of vitalism in seventeenth-century physiology’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science (1977) 8, pp. 128CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 10 n. 26 (Sloan acknowledges relying on Rothschuh's article and repeats the mistake of claiming the University of Padua showed interest in Descartes); Sepper, Dennis, Descartes's Imagination: Proportion, Images, and the Activity of Thinking, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996Google Scholar, p. 109 n. 32; and Sepper, ‘Ingenium, memory art, and the unity of imaginative knowing’, in Voss, Stephen (ed.), Essays on the Philosophy and Science of René Descartes, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 142161Google Scholar, 160 n. 23.

3 The Bologna affair is only one example of what can be added to Descartes's biography beyond what is included in the works cited in note 1 above. For a sample of what we are likely to gain just from the ongoing work of Theo Verbeek and his colleagues in the Netherlands, see Descartes, René, The Correspondence of René Descartes: 1643 (ed. Verbeek, Theo et al. ), Utrecht: Zeno, 2003Google Scholar.

4 Descartes, René, Oeuvres de Descartes (ed. Adam, Charles and Tannery, Paul), 11 vols., Paris: J. Vrin, 1996, vol. 1, p. 102Google Scholar.

5 Descartes, René, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes (tr. and ed. Cottingham, John et al. ), 3 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985–1991, vol. 3, p. 17Google Scholar.

6 Descartes, op. cit. (5), vol. 3, p. 21.

7 In a letter to Mersenne from 13 November 1639 Descartes reconfirmed his medical activities during the 1630s. Descartes, op. cit. (4), vol. 2, p. 621. Both Charles Adam and Etienne Gilson believe that Descartes may have formally studied medicine at Poitiers in 1616. Adam, Charles, Vie & oeuvres de Descartes: Etude historique, Paris: Léopold Cerf, 1910, p. 40Google Scholar; Gilson, Etienne, Commentaire au Discours de la méthode, Paris: Vrin, 1987, p. 119Google Scholar. Although there was a thriving apothecary community in Poitiers at the time, there was no medical school there, not even a library, so Adam's and Gilson's suggestion cannot be accepted. There is, however, a passage mentioning ‘la Médecine pratique’ in Descartes's Studium Bonae Mentis preserved by Adrien Baillet and reproduced in Descartes, op. cit. (4), vol. 10, pp. 191–203. This reference to medicine likely dates from the early to mid-1620s. In Vincent Aucante's judgement the Studium Bonae Mentis indicates that Descartes included the rehabilitation of practical medicine – i.e. hygiene and therapeutics – among his ambitions prior to the 1630s. Aucante, Vincent, La philosophie médicale de Descartes, Paris: PUF, 2006, pp. 80 ffGoogle Scholar. Aucante's conclusion is consistent with the 1626 date Pierre Costabel assigns to a portion of Descartes's medical fragments which, collectively, take up more than a hundred pages in Descartes, op. cit. (4), vol. 9. Descartes, René, Règles utiles et claires pour la direction de l'esprit en la recherche de la vérité (tr. Marion, Jean-Luc, mathematical notes by Pierre Costabel), La Haye: Nijhoff, 1977Google Scholar, p. 212 n. 10.

8 These two parts were published together only in 1677. Descartes, René, L'Homme de René Descartes, et la Formation du Foetus, avec les Remarques de Louis de la Forge. A quoy l'on a Ajouté Le Monde, ou Traité de la Lumiere, du Mesme Autheur, Paris: T. Girard, 1677Google Scholar. They appeared separately in their original French in 1664. The first edition of the Traité de l'Homme was a Latin translation published in 1662.

9 The notes in Thomas Hall's edition of the Traité de l'Homme emphasize the medical provenance of Descartes's views. See also Cunningham, Andrew, ‘The pen and the sword: recovering the disciplinary identity of physiology and anatomy before 1800 I: old physiology – the pen’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (2002) 13, pp. 631665CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Descartes, op. cit. (5), vol. 3, p. 6.

11 Descartes, op. cit. (5), vol. 3, p. 7.

12 Descartes's Principia Philosophiae covers a similar range of topics. For discussion see Gabbey, Alan, ‘The Principia Philosophiae as a treatise in natural philosophy’, in Armogathe, Jean-Robert and Belgioioso, Giulia (eds.), Descartes: Principia Philosophiae (1644–1994), Naples: Vivarium, 1996, pp. 517529Google Scholar. The traditional understanding of the disciplines expressed in the tree analogy in the letter preface to the French edition of the Principia is explained in Ariew, Roger, ‘Descartes and the tree of knowledge’, Synthèse (1992) 92, pp. 101116CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Descartes, op. cit. (5), vol. 3, p. 21

14 Descartes, op. cit. (5), vol. 3, p. 26.

15 Descartes, op. cit. (5), vol. 3, p. 32.

16 Descartes, op. cit. (5), vol. 3, p. 39.

17 In their surviving forms, the Traité de la Lumière contains fifteen chapters and the Traité de l'Homme begins with Chapter 18. It seems reasonable to assume that at one stage the intervening chapters included or would have included an account of plants and of animal generation. This assumption is supported by the summary of Le Monde's content from the Discours, which refers to an account of plants and animals. Descartes, op. cit. (4), vol. 6, p. 45. For more on Descartes's views on generation see Descartes, Rene, Ecrits physiologiques et médicaux (tr. and ed. Aucante, Vincent), Paris: Vrin, 2002Google Scholar; and Descartes, op. cit. (4), vol. 11, pp. 252–286.

18 Descartes, op. cit. (5), vol. 3, p. 40.

19 Although Fernel did not introduce the term physiologia, he gave the word its modern signification. See the introduction to Fernel, Jean, The Physiologia of Jean Fernel (1567) (tr. Forrester, John M., intro. Henry, John and Forrester, John M.), Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2003Google Scholar. Descartes himself never uses the term physiologia except when referring to the work of Henricus Regius.

20 For discussion see Edwards, Michael, ‘Digressing with Aristotle: Hieronymus Dandinus’ De corpore animato (1610) and the expansion of late Aristotelian philosophy’, Early Science and Medicine (2008) 13, pp. 127170CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 The shared subject matter of medicine and physics is discussed in Siraisi, Nancy, Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine: An Introduction to Knowledge and Practice, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990, pp. 79 ffCrossRefGoogle Scholar. By the seventeenth century, one might argue, appeals to anatomical study or even first-hand experience could no longer be used to differentiate physicians from physicists (for discussion see the reference in note 20 above). Nevertheless, given that Descartes had previously linked anatomy with medicine, the claim that medicine more than physics was informing his physiological practice in 1632 remains plausible.

22 In a 20 February 1639 letter Descartes boasted to Mersenne about the breadth of his anatomical knowledge, claiming even to have discovered ‘many details unmentioned by [anatomists] … I doubt whether there is any doctor who has made such detailed observations as I’. Descartes, op. cit. (5), vol. 3, p. 134.

23 Descartes's connection to Harvey is discussed in Bitbol-Hespéiès, Annie, ‘Descartes, Harvey et la médecine de la renaissance’, in Faye, Emmanuel (ed.), Descartes et la Renaissance, Paris: H. Champion, 1999, pp. 323347Google Scholar; and French, Roger, William Harvey's Natural Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed, Chapter 7.

24 Most significant here is the correspondence with Henricus Regius, who consulted with Descartes over the content of medical disputations and the motion of the heart and blood. See e.g. Descartes, op. cit. (4), vol. 3, pp. 440–441, 443–446.

25 Descartes, op. cit. (5), vol. 1, p. 151.

26 A transcription of the letter that modifies the original and adds text without comment can be found in Busacchi, op. cit. (2).

27 This must be an abbreviation for ‘lettere’.

28 This may be an abbreviation for ‘presenza’.

29 The text is illegible here. In his transcription Busacchi, op. cit. (2), p. 11, has ‘recar costi’.

30 ‘The most Christian king’ is a reference to the king of France, Louis XIII.

31 ‘Non mancava’ is written in superscript but it appears to be in the same hand as the rest of the letter.

32 ‘[S]crivendoli’ is added in the margin but it appears to be in the same hand as the rest of the letter.

33 The final word of the sentence is illegible in the text.

34 The word is illegible in the text but may be ‘altro’.

35 ‘[T]utti cattolici’ is an emendation written in superscript but it appears to be in the same hand as the rest of the letter.

36 As indicated above, this sentence is not wholly legible. My translation relies on the suggestions in notes 27–29 above.

37 The references are respectively from Medici, Michele, Memorie Storiche Intorno le Accademie Acientifiche e Letterarie Della Città di Bologna, Bologna: Tipografia Sassi Nelle Spadrie, 1852Google Scholar, p. 75; Orlandi, Pellegrino Antonio, Notizie Degli Scrittori Bolognesi e’ Dell'Opere Loro Stampate e Manoscritte, Bologna: Constantino Pisarri, 1714Google Scholar, p. 51; and Simeoni, op. cit. (2), pp. 94, 118.

38 For Costeo's achievements see Siraisi, Nancy, ‘The changing fortunes of a traditional text: goals and strategies in sixteenth-century Latin editions of the Canon of Avicenna’, in Wear, Andrew, French, Roger K. and Lonie, I.M. (eds.), The Medical Renaissance of the Sixteenth Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985, pp. 1641Google Scholar; and Hübotter, Franz et al. , Biographisches Lexikon der Hervorragenden Ärzte alle Zeiten und Völker, 2nd edn, 3 vols., Berlin: Wien Leipzig Urban & Schwarzenberg, 1930, vol. 2, pp. 122123Google Scholar.

39 Bologna's effort to avoid provincialism among its faculty began in 1513 when the government decreed that the university must have at least four non-Bolognese professors. In practice these four positions became professorships in civil law, natural philosophy, theoretical medicine and humanistic studies. According to Grendler, Paul, The Universities of the Italian Renaissance, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002, pp. 498499Google Scholar, ‘outsiders became increasing [sic] rare in the seventeenth century’, with all the foreign posts disappearing by 1655.

40 This is confirmed by all the sources cited above in note 37 and by Loredano, Giovani Francesco and Brusoni, Girolamo, Le Glorie de Gli Incogniti, Venice: Appresso Francesco Valuasense, 1647, p. 33Google Scholar.

41 The state of medicine and medical faculties in early modern France is surveyed in Brockliss, Lawrence and Jones, Colin, The Medical World in Early Modern France, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997Google Scholar, Part I.

42 For Scharpe's biography see Eloy, F.J., Dictionnaire Historique de la Médecine Ancienne et Moderne, 4 vols., Hoyois, Mons: H., 1778, vol. 4, pp. 201202Google Scholar; and Hughes, J.T., ‘George Scharpe, c.1581–1637: a Scots doctor at Montpellier’, Scottish Medical Journal (2002) 47, pp. 4051CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

43 I am here drawing on Ghisalberti, Alberto, Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, Rome: Instituto dell'Enciclopedia Italiana, 1960, vol. 24, pp. 310314Google Scholar. Ceva's role in the history of the Church is almost entirely limited to his time in the court of Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, who later became Pope Urban VIII. He remained with Barberini from 1604 to 1632 and returned to his service again in 1634.

44 One specific candidate stands out as the possible link between Ceva and Descartes: Mersenne. As the evidence cited in first part of this paper shows, Mersenne was aware of Descartes's medical interests and was also in Paris at the time of Ceva's visit. But there is no mention of Ceva in Mersenne, Marin, Correspondance du P. Marin Mersenne, religieux minime (ed. Tannery, Paul, de Waard, Cornelis, and Beaulieu, Armand), 17 vols., Paris: BeauchesneGoogle Scholar (vol. 1), Presses Universitaires de France (vols. 2–4), CNRS (vols. 5–17), 1932–1988, vol. 2, p. 182). Pierre Gassendi may have also played a part in the Bologna affair. Gassendi posted a letter from Paris on 1 October 1632 and then four from Lyon between 1 and 13 November 1632. Gassendi, Pierre, Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655): Lettres Latines (tr. and ed. Taussig, Sylvie), 2 vols., Turnhout: Brepols, 2004, vol. 1, pp. 9097Google Scholar.

45 This fact raises significant questions about what was required to gain institutional recognition in the seventeenth century. I do not pursue these questions here. However, it is curious, as I have already pointed out, that Descartes had yet to publish in 1633. For his part, Scharpe had only published his medical thesis from 1607. Hughes, op. cit. (42), p. 51 n. 36.

46 It is still not often enough remarked that ‘physic’ was used to refer to theoretical medicine in the early modern period. For discussion, see Bylebyl, Jerome, ‘The medical meaning of physica’, Osiris (1990) 6, pp. 1641CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed. The historiographical implications of this fact are explored in Cook, Harold, ‘The new philosophy and medicine in seventeenth-century England’, in Lindberg, David C. and Westman, Robert S. (eds.), Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 397436Google Scholar. Harold Cook has persuasively made the case for adding Descartes to the Dutch medical tradition in Matters of Exchange, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007, pp. 226–266.