Oliva Sabuco de Nantes Barerra
1562-circa 1626
Philosophy of Medicine, Metaphysics,
Social & Political Philosophy 

Kate Lindemann's 

Women Philosophers


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Oliva Sabuco was a 16th century Spanish philosopher of medicine. I want to express my gratitude to Maria Vintro who provided the information on this page. She has given the larger historical background so that you can understand the life and work of Oliva Sabuco better.


1492 Under the Spanish flag and the auspices of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, Christopher Columbus discovers America, launching Spain into a career of discovery and conquest that will spread to Europe, Africa and Asia. Spain will become an Empire where -as it was claimed- the Sun would never set. In Spain, the Inquisition -the bulwark against the spread of the Reformation- becomes quite active for the Roman Church demands orthodoxy. In 1492, the expulsion decree of the Jews from Castile and Aragon is finally and suddenly enforced. The Jews have the choice of leaving the country or converting to Christianism. A hugh exodus of more than half million Jews decide to leave; the rest, -a minority, perhaps- stays, and are from now on known as the "conversos" or "marranos."

The Muslims, who had till now been guaranteed by the Christian Monarch full religious freedom, have to endure an about-face after the Granada capitulation, and confront the choice between exile and conversion. The Arab occupation of Spain that lasted more than 700 years is in its closure, but Christian Spain has still a final and craftier battle to fight, i.e: that of dogma. The Arabs -or more properly: the Moslems- leave behind a very rich and profound heritage in most of the Arts, Humanities and Science of the land. The Jews’ legacy is an immense contribution to the economical, the scientific and the administrative structure of the country, unprecedented since onset of the Visgoth dynasty. This tri-partite culture (Christian, Muslim and Jew), and the incessant traveling of armies, explorers, missionaries and adventurers, is the source of what is to be known as the Golden Age of Spain, when Arts, Literature, and Sciences flourished at a level unheard of since Roman times, the infamous Spanish Inquisition notwithstanding .

1525 -1530 Alcaraz - a small town in the Province of Alabacete, Spain- had become an important military post and cultural enclave. Its geographical position, the tradition as a troop outpost not far from the former Muslim’s border and the Mediterranean sea, helped in maintaining an unusual amount of transit, and a remarkable exposure to new ideas and information. It is during this time (no exact date available) that Miguel Sabuco y Alvarez, father of Oliva Sabuco is born. He will eventually marry Francisca Cozar, become a pharmacist (boticario), and -apparently- attend a course in Canon Law at the University of Alcala de Henares, near Madrid.

1527 Philip II, the son of Charles I of Spain (also known as Charles V of Germany) is born. His cosmopolitan background will allow him a broader perspective of his role as king of the vast new Kingdom of Spain. In addition -fortunately for the Sabuco’s work- he was to become a patron-benefactor of the Arts and the Sciences.

1546 The Inquisition take under its control the religious orders of the kingdom, and in the the same year, issue the first of their "Indices Expurgatorios" (Forbidden Books), all in the effort to stem the spread of the ideas of the Protestant Reformation.

1550 Alonso Sabuco, first son of Miguel Sabuco and Francisca de Cozar, brother of Oliva Sabuco is born, and is baptized in the Church of Holy Trinity Church in Alcaraz. He would also become a boticario.

1556 Phillip II inherits the throne of Spain. The Spanish "Empire" encompasses at that time such vast and diverse countries that in order to control them, the Army has to grow to unthinkable numbers. Overseas Civil and Military Posts become of great importance. Phillip II has to face huge challenges in order to maintain his power and his vast empire together

1559 As a reaction to the rapid growth of the Reformation in Europe, an "Auto de Fe"-of considerable repercussions- is staged in Valladolid (Spain) as a deterrent against any attempt into the kingdom. The raison-d’etre of the Inquisition is to stop the spreading of views of the Reformation that could undermine the theological position, and the authority of the Church.

1562 Oliva Sabuco is born in Alcaraz and baptized on Dec. 2, of the same year. She is the daughter of Bachiller Miguel Sabuco y Alvarez and Francisca de Cozar, and is baptised in the Church of the Holy Trinity of the same town, and given the name of Luisa Oliva Sabuco. Her two godmothers'  surnames are Nantes and Barrera. Later on, Oliva Sabuco will add those two surnames to hers.

1564 Shakespeare is born. Holland has become the cultural center of Europe; many search refuge there; Spinoza’s family- the exiled sephardim of Spain- move there escaping harassment in Portugal. The Renaissance allows creeping, new, challenging perspectives of the world such as the ones advanced by Copernicus in the Sciences, and the return to classicism at the urge of the Italian artists.

1562- 1580 We find Oliva Sabuco living with her family in Alcaraz, but we do not know much for sure about her education. In fact, in those days, women were not welcomed at universities. There are cues that she is acquiring a suitable education through her father and brother -both pharmacists-, her godfather -a physician- and some family acquitances ( e.g.: Pedro Simon-Abril and Juan de Sotomayor) of reputation in the Humanities. Physicians in these days have to keep in contact with pharmacists because prescriptions are compounded under doctors’ recipies. Oliva Sabuco's home is a den of medical debate. Her father’s and brother’s many books are most probably there for her to read and peruse. Convents also provide with private tuition for the elite of which she is part; the Dominicans lived just next door to Oliva Sabuco. In fact, later on, Oliva bestows a part of her house upon them. They are eight large convents in Alcaraz at the time. So all around, Oliva Sabuco has many an opportunity to learn Latin, Medicine, Sciences, Pharmacy and Philosophy, as well as to read the Latin classics.

May 1580- Marriage Banns of Bachiller Miguel Sabuco - by now a widower- and Ana Navarro Garcia are proclaimed. This second marriage of Oliva’s father is to have a strong impact on her private and professional life.

December 1580 Marriage Banns of Oliva Sabuco and Acacio de Buedo are proclaimed. The fact that name of Oliva’s mother is not mentioned is an additional indication that she is deceased. Acacio uses his mother’s surname instead of his father’s, a more the common tradition. Some years later, Oliva Sabuco and Acacio have to sue her father, Miguel Sabuco, for failing to pay the dowry that had been contracted by the families.

1578 to 1583 Around the same time that Oliva Sabuco is writing the "New Philosophy." the Principal of the School of Alcaraz is Don Simon Abril -the Spanish Humanist, native of Alcaraz, and famous for his works on the rules for Grammar, and on Logic, Mathematics, Human Nature and Law. Oliva’s work is to eventually share with Abril structures of presentation, style and even content (Abril's  rules for Laws vs. Sabuco’s treaty about how to improve the Republics. Their books will be printed by the same publisher in Madrid (Pedro Madrigal 1587) and many believe that he was her mentor if not tutor. Oliva Sabuco's opus deals however in Medicine--a subject that Abril finds in not much need of change.

Simon-Abril had written in "Apuntamientos de Como se Deben Reformar las Doctrinas y la Manera de Ensenarlas. -Obras Escogidas de Filosofos-Biblioteca de Autores Espanoles," Madrid 1953, p. 293"

"Medicine needs the least reforming of any other science, it having always followed the lesson and doctrine of Hippocrates and Galen, who are ancient writers, who gave it methodology and rational order: if only the other sciences had safeguarded and preserved the good and wholesome doctrine of old, [and] had not fallen from their former dignity and perfection ... "

So although Simon-Abril did not believe that medical theory was in need of revision, Oliva Sabuco considered medicine to have failed as an academic discipline. The evidence of that failure was the recurring bouts of plague.  The reason for that failure, she asserted, was that Aristotle and Hippocrates --amongst many other medical theorists she accuses-- tried to make human nature fit medical theory, rather than trying to make medicine responsive to what human nature truly was.

December 1585 Distribution of the estate of Francisca de Cozar, mother of Oliva Sabuco, deceased at least by 1580, when Bachiller Sabuco marries again. Francisca de Cozar is not mentioned in Oliva’s December 1580 Marriage Banns hence she was not alive. Oliva inherits from her mother significant money and real estate properties--in fact, the only private residences on the Plaza Mayor--main square--that also was home to the town's famous two towers and City Hall. Juan de Sotomayor, a lawyer and a cleric of the Church of the Holy Trinity signs the document. This cleric’s name figures as author of the two poems at the prologue of Oliva’s book "New Philosophy of Human Nature, unknown and not reached by the ancients which improves human health and life". Those poems contitute a prominent praise of Oliva‘s virtues and intelligence from somebody who knew her well.

February 1586 Oliva Sabuco applies in Madrid for permission to publish her work and travels from the printing press of Pedro Madrigal in Madrid to the royal residence at the Palace of El Escorial (80 miles) to deliver her petition to the King. Oliva writes a letter where she dedicates her book to Phillip II, and asks for His Highness’ protection for she fears that because of her female condition her work is in danger. She is quite explicit about it and mentions that there are people who have known about her work and are trying to steal it from her. She also assures the King that though is true that His Highness has received many dedications of books -most of them by male authors- hers is not only written by a female, but is also "...of higher quality than those others...". Oliva’s letter dedicating her work to the King prefaces the book, "New Philosophy of Human Nature...".

Receiving the royal "privilege" in response to an application for permission to publish in such a case, is an arduous process. First comes the authorization from the Royal Council, then from the President of Castile before the work may be mass produced by the publisher. The Royal Council -for example- usually appoints two or three "learned" members who are to read and comment on the two or three printed copies of the work, and bring them back to the Council for eventual discussion; authors are often summoned for inquiry.

Oliva Sabuco also writes a Letter to the President of Castile, Francisco Zapata, asking for help and protection; in her request Oliva goes further, and calls upon the President for his help in organizing a forum of the wisest medical figures in Castile with whom she would like to debate her theories. She sounds there as definitely ready to do so. (This letter is published in the book, just before the treatise  on the "True Medicine")

Although there is no evidence that the Inquisition deleted or otherwise changed material in the first edition, later Committees of the Inquisition in dioceses outside Madrid unquestionably did expurgate some of the subsequently printed copies. This is a delicate process with an outcome not easy to forecast. A thorough and careful examination of the author as well as the subject of the book is performed in the pursuit of signs of heterodoxy. The subject of her work (mind/body relations) can raise embarrasing questions. She risks being taken as an infidel or -worst of it all- as a witch ,who often at the time burn at the stake in the square.

July 1586 Oliva Sabuco is finally granted by Philip II, the sought "Privilege" for "Nueva Filosofia de la Naturaleza del Hombre, no conocida ni alcanzada por los filosofos antiguos la qual mejora la vida y salud humana" ("New Philosophy of Human Nature, unknown and not reached to the ancient philosophers, which improves human health and life") . The facsimile of the "Privilege" prefaces the book. It is granted and valid over all the Kingdom of Spain, including Portugal and all of Spain's continental (think Portugal) and overseas provinces and colonies from The Philippines to Peru.

February 1587 Oliva Sabuco pays the taxes due for publication, and Pedro Madrigal puts out the first edition of "Nueva Filosofia de la Naturaleza del Hombre...". The book embodies seven treatises, five in Spanish and two in Latin. It is a comprehensive opus where the problems facing Medicine in the 16th century are exposed and discussed. In it, Oliva argues that the main trouble with Medicine, is its detachment from Philosophy, and its ignorance of the disposition of human nature . She presents a scientific explanation of the human psychological and biological systems, all of it based on her theory of the close communication between the mind/soul and the body. She proposes a philosophico-ethical solution that "improves health and avoids violent death".

Sept/1587 and Feb/1588 Bachiller Sabuco, her father, challenges -disavows- her authorship, stating that he is the author . He grants a Power of attorney to his son Alonso in order to publish in Portugal; this did no take place. And in a Will (Feb 1588), Sabuco's father claims that he "... put the authorship to my daughter Luisa de Oliva, only in order to give her the name and the honor but I reserve all the profits resulting from the mentioned book...". In fact he goes as far as to curse her ( so pena de mi maldicion...) in case she persists in claiming to be the book's author. But in his Will, he does not even appear to know the correct title of the book he authored.  The will remains a private document, at least until Miguel's death, which did not occur until after 1600.

One wonders -though- how can a father put his daughter through so much risk, at a time when the scrutiny over new ideas is so thorough when dealing with issues related to mind/soul and body, and when authors are put to death at the stake for threatening the prevailing beliefs, particularly after having made false claims to the King?

1588 A second Edition of "Nueva Filosofia" appears with expurgations by the Inquisition. The Spanish Armada succumbs to the mighty weather and is defeated by the English.

1602 14 years after writing his Will, Bachiller Sabuco is still alive at the wedding of his youngest son . (Document recently found by M.E.Waithe and M.Vintro)

1604 Cervantes publishes "Don Quijote de la Mancha" for all posterity.

1622 Philip II dies. A third edition of the book "Nueva Filosofia de la Naturaleza del Hombre..." appears duly expurgated by the Inquisition- in Portugal where the editor Bastos claims that his publication does not carry the authorization of the author, because "... Oliva Sabuco is not alive..." (sic).

August 1629 Marriage Banns of Luisa de Buedo -daughter of Acacio Buedo and Oliva Sabuco- with Miguel de Pareja -son of a prominent family of Alcaraz- are recorded. Oliva Sabuco is mentioned in the Banns, hence she is -according with tradition- still alive (Document discovered by M.E. Waithe and M.Vintro)

1903 Marco E. Hidalgo, Registrar of the City of Alcaraz who has written a biography of Oliva Sabuco, uncovers some Bachiller’s documents notarized in Alcaraz i.e.: [1] the will (mentioned above), [2] a power-of-attorney to his son Alonso, and [3] a promissory-note from Alonso to him . In the first two documents Miguel Sabuco claims authorship of a book "Nueva Filolsofia y Norma"(sic) as well as other books...". Mr Hidalgo publishes his findings in an article at the Spanish journal "Archivos, Bibliotecas y Museos" (Ed. VII-1903) where he adduces that these are evidence of Miguel Sabuco’s authorship of "Nueva Filosofia". Mr Hidalgo admits however, to needing some more time in order to find sounder support for this claim. That support has never been found. Hidalgo’s claims were not immediately taken up but -by the end of the century- some cataloguers and later some librarians decided to reassign authorship from Oliva to Miguel ("...antes Oliva..."). First comes this change in the "La Biblioteca Nacional de Espana" (Madrid)", then other libraries in Spain follow , and -recently and a bit ambiguous way of dual authorship- the Library of the National Institute of Health has decided to follow the lead. This is because international librarianship agreements allow the nation where the author lived to "officially" decide who the author is, and Hidalgo and supporters in Spain who have published about "Miguel's" book have influence with the Biblioteca Nacional de Espana.

2001 Comprehensive studies, and vigorous debate about this change of authorship are at the present time going on along with the first ever translation -to English- of Sabuco’s " Nueva Filosofia..." by Prof. M.E.Waithe and Maria Vintro CSU-Ohio). Other scholars in this country like Prof. Damaris Torres (Rutgers University) have debated this case, as well as in Spain (Prof. Biedma) and Mexico (Prof. Pascual Buxo. University of Mexico) and others.

Note: The first 1587 edition of this book is available at the National Institute of Health Library-Bethesda-Maryland, at the University of Barcelona Library and at the Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid -Spain. Later editions are available in Spain and at some university libraries in the US . The author is today identified as " Miguel Sabuco (antes Oliva)" .

Find books now Oliva Sabuco - books on Amazon

Oliva Sabuco is one of more than 100 women featured in A Pictorial History of Women Philosophers photo album, and is amongst the more than 40 women featured in

Busted!! A Pictorial History of Women Philosophers DVD Volume 2.

This page was last updated 12/14/14.

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