X. Stone disease

One disease is presented as exceptionally painful in the 16th-18th centuries: “stone disease” or “gravel”, i.e. kidney stones. These can lead to acute attacks requiring surgical intervention. Calculi are a predominantly masculine affliction but can affect women as well. There are many texts and illustrations from this period on the subject of kidney stones.

Extreme pain

Patients with kidney or bladder stones “want to die more than liveAmbroise Paré, Les Œuvres, Paris, Gabriel Buon, 1585, 17th book, chap. XXXVI, p. 730. because of the stabbing pain they endure, according to surgeon Ambroise Paré.

Ambroise Paré - To Die Rather than Suffer from Stones

In the hope of being freed from this suffering, patients sometimes resign themselves to a risky surgical extraction, “the Bladder-stone operation”. Composer Marin Marais wrote an original musical setting of this operation (1725).

Marin Marais (1656-1728) / Les Nouveaux Caractères - Scene of a bladder stone operation

A painful journey

The moment at which patients spontaneously expel calculi through the urethra is sometimes described as male childbirth. The gradual passage of the stone makes them feel pain in organs that are usually silent.

Michel de Montaigne - The Expulsion of Calculi, Between Pain and Sweet Relief

Here is how Montaigne, affected by the “stone disease”, describes passing a kidney stone: “It is some great stone that wasteth and consumeth the substance of my kidneis and my life, which I avoyde by little and littleThe Essayes of Michel de Montaigne, trans. John Florio, London, printed by M. Flesher, 3rd ed., 1632, Book III, chap. 13, p. 618..

Surgical inventiveness

New ways of operating and new instruments were subject to conflicting evaluations. While surgeons do describe the procedure in detail, they remain very discreet about the pain it causes. In the mid-16th century, Pierre Franco performed a kidney stone removal on a two-year-old child by passing over the pubis – but he recommends against this dangerous operation, which he carried out at the urgent insistence of the child's parents.

Pierre Franco - A Risky Operation on a Young Child

“With the patient thus bound, four strong men, neither fearful nor timid, are needed”Ambroise Paré, Les Œuvres, Paris, Gabriel Buon, 1585, 17th book, chap. XLIV, p. 738. to hold him (Ambroise Paré, 1564).