Retrospective surveys are fun. We all like to look at old newspapers or magazines, or go through museums and note how profoundly different are the fashions and tastes of bygone days.
But how significant are the changes? When do they indicate something merely ephemeral, mere whim, and when do they indicate a basic alteration in the entire culture, its attitudes, philosophy, and mores? In the fine arts, for example, a change from representational to nonrepresentational art may indicate a massive cultural transformation in progress. Similarly, historians of literature may trace the evolution of cultural patterns in the changing literary style. In this essay I would like to indicate some of the changing fashions in medical writing in the past three centuries, changes which, I believe, reflect an underlying cultural transformation.
Seventeenth-century prose seems rather extravagant to our modern ears. Among the better prose writers of the century there were certain similarities of style.