Skip to main content

Contracting a Cure: Patients, Healers, and the Law in Early Modern Bologna

Contracting a Cure: Patients, Healers, and the Law in Early Modern Bologna

In Contracting a Cure, Gianna Pomata tells the hitherto unknown story of a fundamental shift in the relationship between healers and patients in the early modern Europe. Using a wide array of sources — including the rich archives of Bologna’s College of Medicine and legal records from several European countries — Pomata explores the tradition of the “agreement for a cure” whereby the practitioner was contractually bound to heal the sick person within a specified period and for a stipulated sum. If the patient was not cured, he or she had a legal right to reclaim from the practitioner any money advanced for the cure. The author argues that such contracts implied a “horizontal model” of healing that gave considerable power to patients and that, in consequence, was a serious hindrance to the growing power of the medical profession. The book shows how the “agreement for a cure” disappeared by the end of the early modern period precisely because of the determined opposition of physicians and jurists, who realized that payment by results was incompatible with the professionalization of medicine.

More than a simple history of professionalization, however, Contracting a Cure recreates the vanished world of meanings that patients and healers gave to their encounters in hte past and recaptures the usually neglected voices of ordinary patients. With Contracting a Cure, Gianna Pomata brings us a compelling account of the erosion of patients’ rights that was a basic precondition for the dominance of doctors that characterizes present-day medicine. In recountingthe history of the “agreement for a cure” she reveals a notion of justice profoundly different from the one that regulates medical practice today. The history of the cure agreement, she concludes, is but a fragment in a wider history of the notions of justice we have lost.