Hieronymus Mercurialis


Portrait of MercurialisHieronymus Mercurialis) was an Italian physician and Greek and Latin scholar. He was a professor of medicine at Padua, Bologna, and Pisa, and wrote medical books, including one on the ailments of children. In his book on the diseases of children he devoted three chapters to various aspects of speech and voice problems. One was on speech and voice, one on mutism, and the third on articulation and fluency. He is most famous for his work was De Arte Gymnastica (The art of gynmastics, 1659)

Mercurialis was born in the town of Forli, Italy and was educated in Bologna and Padua. He received his medical doctorate in 1555. Then went to Rome and begain studying the classics and the ancient philosophy and the medical practices of Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Galen. He also studied ancient attitudes toward diet, exercise, and hygiene and the use of natural methods for the cure of disease. These studies led to his writing in 1569 of De Arte Gymnastica. In this book he offered explanations and principles for physical therapy and exercise.

His scholarly work led to his being asked to assume an academic chair in Padua in 1569. It was in Padua where he completed many of his subsequent studies including a translation of the works of Hippocrates, a book on diseases of the skin (1572), one on the diseases of women (1583) and one on diseases of children (1583).

In 1573, Mercurialis went to Vienna to treat the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian II. The emperor, pleased with Mercurialis’s treatment made him Count Palatine.

Mercurialis remained in Padua until 1587, when he began teaching and serving as the chair of medicine at the University of Bologna. In 1589, he was offered a faculty position at the University of Pisa. He remained at Pisa until his seventy-fifth year when he retired to Forli in 1605. He died there a year later.

Mercurialis on speech disorders

Mercurialis devoted a chapter to speech disorders in his book on Treatises on the diseases of children (1583). He divided speech problems into three types, based on his reading of his medical predecessors, including Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen, and Avicenna. These three types differed in the degree of severity of the problem, ranging from muteness to moderate to mild problems.

Also among his important contributions were Mercurialis’s translations and updating of ancient medical writings for contemporary use. When discussing Aristotle’s treatment of stuttering he wrote:

…asking why the hesitant of tongue were melancholics, he [Aristotle] wrote that all melancholics have quick motions of the imagination, and that stutterers therefore, since they do have these quick motions, are melancholic as well. He says also, moreover, that stutterers have quick motions because, since the instruments of the tongue itself are weak, and cannot exactly follow the concepts of the mind, it happens that the mind’s motion always anticipate those of the tongue, and hence the impediment of tongue. (Rieber and Wollock 1977, p. 6).

Mercurialis subscribed to the classical theory of humors, using it to account for the causes and symptoms of speech problems. He felt that speech problems were caused and exacerbated by cold and moisture in the brain and the tongue. So, when treating or preventing speech problems such as stuttering he designed treatments to dry out and warm the body.

In order to avoid the body producing more moisture, Mercurialis recommend that adults with speech problems refrain from excessive love making (achieving moderate Venus) and that children not have their heads bathed. Mercurialis also prescribed regimens to make bowel movements smooth and regular and suggested that wine should be drunk in moderation. He advised eating aromatic, salty and sharp foods and not eating pastries, nuts and fish. And he recommended vocal exercise…

To treat stuttering, Mercurialis recommended developing self-confidence and fostering personal accomplishment, a method he called trepidation.

Writings by Mercurialis

Mercurialis, Hieronymus (1583/1977). Excerpts from : On the diseases of children. Translated by Johannes Chrosczieyoioskius and J Wollock, Journal of Communication Disorders, 10, 1-2, 127-140.

Mercurialis, Hieronymus (1659/1977). de Arte Gymnastica. Translated by Johannes Chrosczieyoioskius and J. Wollock, Journal of Communication Disorders, 10, 1-2, 127-140.

Writings about Mercurialis

Durling, Richard (1990). Girolamo Mercuriale’s De modo studendi. Osiris 2nd series, 6. Renaissance Medical Learning: Evolution of a Tradition, 6, 181-195.

Rieber, R. & Wollock, J. (1977). The historical roots of the theory and therapy of stuttering. Journal of Communication Disorders, 10, 1-2, 3-24.

Siraisi, Nancy (2003). History, antiquarianism, and medicine: The case of Girolamo Mercuriale. Journal of the History of Ideas, 64, 231-251.

Wollock, J. (1990). Communication disorder in Renaissance Italy: An unreported case analysis by Hieronymus Mercurialis. Journal of Communication Disorders, 23, 1, 1-30.

Wollock, J. (1997). The noblest animate motion: Speech, physiology and medicine in Pre-Cartesian linguistic thought. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Co.

Quotes translated by Wollock from De Morbis Puerorum (0n the diseases of children) ( ii8):

…the faculty is impeded from its function in ecstasy, and in melancholy. In ecstasy…because, distracted elsewhere by phantasms, it by no means controls the tongue as it should. In melancholy however it is impeded from three causes; one is fear, which is melancholy’s constant companion, whence Aristotle said Problems xi.36, that when in fear, people become balbi. And this is also what Hippocrates said in Epid, ii6.5.2, where he wrote that balbi become melancholic. The imagination, or the faculty, is impeded in a second way in melancholy: because it is moved very forcefully. This proposition is delivered by Aetius, from an opinion of Rufus and Posidonius, and certainly it does happen that from great motion the imagination wanders; and also, on account of this wandering, that it does not properly move the tongue. And this is what Hippocrates said in the book of Precepts, that the tongue often balbutes because the mind wanders. (Wollock, 1997, p. 140).

A third cause is multitude of phantasms and imaginations; for Aristotle, Prob xi 38, expounding the cause of hesitation of the tongue, seems among other things to place variety and multitude of imaginations, because as long as the faculty is pursuing this or that phantasm, the tongue cannot diligently follow the action of the faculty at all. Hence it wanders, and hesitance occurs (Mercuralis, 1584, 201-202). (Wollock, 1997, pp. 140-141).