Disputations and lectures were the twin pillars of academic teaching in the early modern period. In sixteenth-century Europe students and professors of all subjects defended their theses in public disputations. These academic events were usually chaired by a praeses who sat at a lectern slightly higher than the others. In the German university system, the dean of the candidate’s faculty as well as two professors joined the praeses, and together the scholars challenged the candidate by asking him questions. In addition, professors and students in the audience were permitted to contradict the candidate.
In Basel, medical disputations had to follow a tight protocol which defined the
respondent’s behaviour in great detail. At the start of the disputation the candidate had to welcome the audience and briefly present his theses. He then had to listen to the contra arguments and refute them respectfully. At the end of the disputation, usually no later than eleven o’clock in the morning, the respondent had to thank the audience. If the candidate failed to obey any of these rules, it was the duty of the dean to intervene.
In his journal, Felix Platter, the renowned sixteenth-century physician, offers us a more personal recollection of a mid-sixteenth-century disputation in Basel. During the debate the candidate faced several professors who contradicted his statements. Among them were the dean of the medical faculty, Oswald Baer, and the professors of practical and theoretical medicine respectively, Johann Huber and Isaak Keller. They were joined by Heinrich Pantaleon, Philipp Bech and Johann Jacob Huggelin who also challenged Platter’s theses.
To invite scholars like Huber, Keller and Huggelin to such events, documents - also called disputations - were produced prior to the event. These documents were given to potential visitors as well as pasted on doors and walls to announce the event. Towards the end of the century, such printed disputations were increasingly used as advertisement to praise the medical education in Basel. Produced in dozens of copies, the documents could easily be sent to friends, family members but also to scholars outside the university town. This additional function of printed medical disputation becomes obvious in their design. It changes significantly over the course of the sixteenth century. The survival of over five hundred medical disputations from the sixteenth century indicates just how important a role they played in the corporate life of the university.
Despite their abundance, however, these numerous medical disputations have received almost no attention from scholars, in particular from historians. Previous studies, carried out by doctoral students of medicine, primarily focussed on the topics of disputations. These studies were also essentially limited to those disputations in which a student defended his theses to obtain a degree. This was not, however, the only motivation for scholars to dispute in public. Debates were often undertaken as practice – students could improve their rhetorical skills before they moved on to obtaining their degree. Professors who had obtained their doctoral degree at a foreign institution and wanted to work or teach in Basel also had to defend theses in public.
The seemingly dry documents reveal much more information than just the topics discussed in the sixteenth century. A close study of these disputations reveals details about the methods of teaching, the organisation, and the reasons why professors attended medical disputations. Some visitors even used the broadsheets for their own academic purposes – either to take notes or to prepare their arguments.