Paul Zacchia – A Medico legal Jurist

Born: 1584, Rome, Italy

Died: 1659, Rome, Italy

Paul Zaccheus (1584-1659), also known as Paolo Zacchia, was an Italian physician, forensic medicine teacher, medical-legal jurist, philosopher, and poet. He is supposed to have been Pope Innocentius X’s and Pope Alexander VII’s physician. Zaccheus was also the head of the Papal States’ medical system and a legal counsel to the Rota Romana, the highest Papal court of appeals. Quaestiones medico-legal (1621-1651), his most well-known three-volume work, established legal medicine as a field of study.

Zacchia’s work also features popular superstitious beliefs about magic, witches, and demons at the time. To distinguish normal occurrences of sickness from supernatural reasons that would demand the Catholic church’s attention at the time, both theological and medical understanding was required. Zaccheus was noted for his skepticism, attempting to rule out natural causes before labeling events as witchcraft. Medical practitioners were also available at the time to identify and differentiate between miracles and natural causes.

He is known to have claimed that minors are suitable to test subjects for torture. Despite these opinions, Zaccheus is thought to have made significant contributions to medical jurisprudence at the time.


Paul Zaccheus was born in 1584 in Rome and died in 1659 in the same city. During his lifetime, Zaccheus served as the director of the Papal States’ health system and as a legal counsel to the Rota Romana, the highest Papal court of appeals. Legal medicine was introduced to the court system via the penal code under Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire in 1532. Zacchia’s work, on the other hand, contributed to the scientific foundation of legal practice and the judicial system.

There are three parts to Quaestiones medico-legal. The first segment is made up of decisions made by Rota Romana during his time on it. The last two sections deal with human physiology. He looks at issues including the creation of hermaphrodites, as well as the animation of the fetus and superfoetation. Many of Zacchias’ findings on mental illness are included in the second and third volumes. Zaccheus was also familiar with hypochondriac conditions and individuals who were not ill in the first place. Quaestiones medico-legal was translated from Latin into various other languages and utilized by doctors until the 18th century.


Paolo Zacchia (1584-1659) was born into a family of lawyers and attended the Collegio Romano, where he was schooled by Jesuits before studying medicine and law at the Sapienza. He served as personal physician to two popes, Innocent X (1644-55) and Alexander VII (1644-55), after becoming a chief doctor (“archiatro”) of the Papal States (1655-67). He may have been an artist as well, as he was gifted in poetry, music, and literature. Zacchia died in 1659 at his residence in Rome’s Via del Gesù and was buried in the Chiesa Nuova. He gave bequests to servants, friends, and family after his wife Terrentia Coscia (or Cascia) died and he died “without legitimate issue,” while his papers went to two of his five nephews: Thomas and Lanfranco. Zacchia was the author of three works.

Two of the works were short Italian works. Il vitto quaresimale (1637) was a disquisition on Lenten living, meant to keep people healthy during the 40-day fast; it was most likely based on the Quaestiones (Liber 5, Titulus 1, first printed in 1630). Cardinal Lelio Bisci, a lawyer, was the first person to whom Il vitto was dedicated (1575-1638). Following Bisci’s death, Zacchia dedicated two more editions to the “most famous and good” Maria Isabella Gaetana, a nun in Torre di Specchi, “for her purity of blood, the beauty of soul, rectitude of intellect, religious fervor, and incomparable finesse of her manners, equal to none,” 7 De’ mali hypochondriac (1639), Zacchia’s second work, dealt with “hypochondria,” a physical rather than mental disorder characterized by symptoms ranging from vomiting and weight loss to headache, dizziness, and hemorrhoids.

The majority of the suggestions were dietary, such as “brood de Gallo” (chicken soup). It was reissued at least three times over the course of 30 years. The Latin Quaestiones were widely published in Holland, France, Germany, and Italy until the late 18th century. The posthumous versions comprised all 85 consilia, as well as 100 rulings from the Roman Rota. A frontispiece depicting the author is included in several versions, and many copies may be found in libraries across Europe and North America.

The Quaestiones of Zacchia reflect cutting-edge mid-seventeenth-century medicine as applied to court proceedings in Counter-Reformation Rome. Each topic is treated with a focus on proof and skepticism, which was a lawyerly trait that distinguished science and religion at the time. Subject indexes are included in all editions. A few copies, particularly 1657 and 1688, provide incomplete lists of over 1000 mentioned authors (alas, without page numbers), including ancients, near predecessors and contemporaries, legal specialists, and literary or historical writers like Ovid, Lucretius, Juvenal, Virgil, and Plutarch. In a word, the erudition is astonishing. The Quaestiones began in 1651 with glowing “encomia” from notable persons from several countries, such as Antonio Nardi, Zacutus Lusitanos, Thomas Bartholin, and J. J. Wepfer.

In the same year, Leone Allacci (1586-1669) wrote a two-page preface about Zacchia’s life, publications, and essays (since lost) on beer, soul passions, laughing, sobbing. It also referred to his 1608 translation of “La Fenice,” allegorical poetry attributed to Lactantius Firmianus, a fourth-century North African convert. Alliance, a Greek by birth, was the guardian of the Palatine and, later, the Vatican libraries; he, too, had studied medicine. He authored the bio-bibliographical Apes Urbana (1633), a compilation of intellectuals, including Zacchia, industrious “bees” buzzing around the Barberini pontiff, and was a compiler of 13th and 14th-century Italian poetry.

His most famous work was the Quaestiones medico-legal, a lengthy Latin dissertation. From 1621 onwards, it was published in installments, with the first complete editions appearing after his death in 1661.

More information on Zacchia’s life may be found in various pieces written by Silvia de Renzi between 1999 and 2010, as well as the volume edited by Alessandro Pastore and Giovanni Rossi and edited by Paolo Zacchia. 1584-1659: The Beginnings of Legal Medicine. FrancoAngeli, Milan, 2008. Isabelle Poutrin’s essay on the evidence that he was born Jewish as Avram Betarbo (2018).

What are Zacchia’s Consilia?

Zacchia began including a separate part of his Quaestiones in 1651 that contained up to 85 sample Consilia (or consultations) to illustrate the main arguments of the rest of his treatise. They address a wide range of medical and legal issues, including murder, rape, death dates and causes, personal identification, paternity, childbirth, physical and mental disability, sexuality, healthy living, and the potential of miraculous healings.

Each consultation begins with a brief description of the clinical issue, followed by a numerical summary of the argument with cross-references in the margins. The debate itself is organized into numbered hypotheses and arguments that give evidence for and against each side.

“Most of the problems that Zacchia addressed in the 17th century would return in Beck’s major work two hundred years later,” James Mohr observed. We might say the same thing if we added another two centuries. The Consilia of Zacchia deal with issues that still concern us today: determining death dates and reasons, precise diagnosis, exact paternity, and personal identification. These harrowing situations demonstrate the legal motivations that led later scientists to produce seemingly objective technological solutions like truth serum, tissue analysis, bacteriology, dental Xrays, fingerprinting, and DNA. But it’s crucial to note that, just as we do now, religious officials in Zacchia’s time looked to scientific authority to solve difficulties.

Even for people who have trouble with Latin, these stories are excellent and useful reading. An online effort to translate the Consilia was established in 2008 to sustain and widen their utility and accessibility; several are still available for adoption at the time of writing. They’re short—most are only a page or two long—and can be modified to your preferences for topic or cited authors. It would be stimulating to bright Latinists, opening up the entire treatise, demonstrating applications of hundreds of writers both ancient and new and constituting a boon to scholarship on early modern medical history because the effort is finite and hence achievable. If it is translated, the Quaestiones is a magnificent work of knowledge, clinical description, and analysis.

It mapped wisdom from three different spheres—medicine, law, and religion—onto real-world issues. The Consilia exhibit the dance of observation and reasoning in practical applications of medical, theological, and legal expertise, just as the decisions of the Roman Rota show how the law was read and used. They describe the original motivations for today’s forensic techniques, as well as challenges that still trouble us: the power of imagination over health, handicapped people’s entitlements, the likelihood of malingering, and the risk of medical injury. Returning to Zacchia may allow us to use his knowledge to answer some of our questions.

What is this project?

We initiated a collaborative online project to translate all 85 Consilia in April 2008 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the History of Medicine. Our staff has grown organically since then. Our objectives are to enhance awareness of this great medical author, to make his work more accessible in English, and to have a good time. Latinists and their pupils “adopt” one or more conciliar based on their interests and preferences.

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