The 'Golden Age of Quackery' or 'Medical Enlightenment'? Licensed Charlatanism in Eighteenth-Century Italy

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The history of medicine during the enlightenment is full of paradoxes, and nowhere is this more evident than in the phenomenon of charlatanry. On the one hand, for the charlatans' numerical abundance and sheer audacity, historians have sometimes singled out the eighteenth century as the 'golden age of quackery'. At the same time, it was one of increasing control and severity by the medical elites.

In Italy, from the mid-sixteenth century, protomedicato tribunals, colleges of physicians, or health offices (jurisdiction varied from state to state) had required ciarlatani to submit their wares for inspection and, upon approval, pay a licence fee in order to set up a stage from which to perform and sell them. This procedure became an administrative routine, and the 'licensed charlatan' – not the paradox it might seem – became a common sight in Italian towns. The licensing regime gives the historian unparalleled opportunities when it comes to the investigation of suspect but generally tolerated categories such as charlatans. This article is partly based on a database compiled from the licences issued to some 1100 different charlatans by the various medical authorities in the states of Italy from 1550 to 1800.

During the eighteenth century we notice a downward trend in the number of licences issued (in places such as Siena, Mantua, and Turin), especially from the middle of the century onwards. This was not part of a policy to discontinue the licensing of charlatans, for various reasons (which the article examines), but it did reflect a stricter licensing regime. This is especially evident in the attitude of the authorities to oral (or internal) remedies. Moreover, as of the early 1760s, both the Venetian and Milanese authorities began to reject charlatans' petitions to sell remedies that were not original, resembled medicines already stocked by apothecaries, or were judged to be either harmful or ineffective. The similarity to established remedies that had once helped ensure a charlatan's acceptance and licensing now prevented it. Fewer licence applicants met these criteria; there also appear to have been fewer applicants. The harsh policy may have made charlatanry a less attractive career option or economic opportunity than in previous centuries, reducing the supply and marginalizing charlatanry, economically and geographically.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Reader in History, School of Historical Studies, University of Leicester, University Road, Leicester, LE1 7RH, UK

Publication date: September 1, 2006

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