The Concept of Heredity in the Later Middle Ages and the Early modern Period. A Cultural History

This book studies the cultural history of the concept of heredity during the later Middle Ages and the Early modern period. Interdisciplinary in approach, it combines the history of medicine, of science, theology, law, political theory and historiography. To be true, during the period under study, there was no general theory of heredity. Even though the functioning of medieval society was largely founded on kinship and hereditary transmission, there was no coherent ideology to justify this sociological rule. Moreover, learned discourse was often hostile to heredity. Medicine and physiognomy placed emphasis on the individual and often downplayed parental determinism. Theories of nobility exalted personal virtue, while depreciating ancestry. Christian theology insisted on the unity of humankind, a tendency that was still reinforced by Aristotelian philosophy. However, as this book also shows, the Middle Ages invented several concepts and terms that later played a crucial role in the development of the paradigm of heredity. The interpretation of the legal term ‘consanguinity’ in the sense of biological kinship, and the term ‘race’ are medieval creations. The same is true of the distinction between noble and non-noble animals (for hawks and birds), and of the idea of noble blood. Some medieval scholars theorized the idea that social discrimination, such as the discrimination of the Jews, was, in part, rooted in a specific physical constitution. Moreover, medieval physicians started to qualify certain diseases as hereditary. The divide between the Middle Ages and the Early modern period has often been presupposed rather than really examined. The chronology of this book allows to be sensitive to both continuity and change and to qualify the importance of the discovery of the Americas for the history of heredity.