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March 21, 2007

The seventeenth century world of Sir Theodore de Mayerne was not altogether unlike our own - David Womersley explains why: Europe's Physician: The Various Life of Sir Theodore de Mayerne - Hugh Trevor-Roper

Posted by David Womersley

Europe's Physician: The Various Life of Sir Theodore de Mayerne
by Hugh Trevor-Roper
Pp. xii + 438. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006
Hardback, 25

As more than one waggish reviewer has remarked, death has done wonders for Hugh Trevor-Roper's productivity. Last year Richard Davenport-Hines edited Trevor-Roper's correspondence with Bernard Berenson as Letters from Oxford [see my review: Hugh Trevor-Roper's harsh judgements are a refreshing contrast to today's prevailing atmosphere of public sentimentality]. Now Blair Worden, Trevor-Roper's literary executor, has delivered another posthumous offspring from the teeming womb of the historian's papers. Europe's Physician publishes a manuscript on which Trevor Roper began work in the early 1970s, and which he had substantially completed, we are told, by 1979: an intellectual biography of the early modern physician, theorist of art and, it seems, spy, Theodore de Mayerne.

Who was Mayerne? The son of a Huguenot family (his indomitable, Calvinist father Louis Tourquet has a fine cameo role in this book), he pursued a medical career by enlisting in the then heretical, "chemical" or Paracelsian school of medicine. This brought him into conflict with the privileged, Catholic and Galenist doctors of Paris (the sixteenth-century struggle between the Galenists and the Paracelsians is wonderfully described by Trevor-Roper as an indispensable initial piece of scene-setting for the book). But the Parisian sick "did not stand nicely upon sectarian positions", and Mayerne's diagnostic shrewdness soon won him a glittering list of patients: archbishops, princes, dukes and the lesser nobility of both reformed and unreformed persuasions found that they could agree at least in the source of their remedies.

Royal appointments in Paris and then later London quickly followed (one of the most fascinating documents Trevor-Roper discusses in this work is Mayerne's diagnosis of the health of James I); and naturally on the back of such eminent trust a vigorous and lucrative private practice was swiftly cultivated. When on his travels (he applied some of his wealth to purchasing a landed estate in Switzerland, but he resided there infrequently and seems to have made little in the way of money out of it) he was employed by James for purposes that shaded between the diplomatic and the clandestine. An enthusiasm, touched on towards the end of this study, was in the chemistry of painting. He survived the Stuart monarchy, dying only in 1655, seemingly a lonely and austere figure, estranged from what remained of his family (his sons had gone to the bad and died young), but respected and unpersecuted by Cromwell and his agents - health, and the reputation for being able to defend or restore it are clearly universal currencies, to which religious and political principles trade at a devastating discount.

What drew Trevor-Roper to this complex, human, engaging figure, who yet (it must be admitted) is of only the second or third rank in terms of sheer historical importance? Most obviously, there was an interest in medicine: Trevor-Roper's father and brother were both doctors, and (as Blair Worden's introduction explains) Trevor-Roper had become interested in the intersection of medicine and politics while he was investigating Hitler's court in the months following the end of the Second World War.

In the second place, Trevor-Roper had an established interest in the scientific (or what passed for scientific) history of the sixteenth century. Paracelsianism and Hermetism were already objects of study for him, and he had as well of course encouraged the work of Frances Yates and Walter Pagel.

Finally, there is the fact that Trevor-Roper was a connoisseur of human folly and, particularly, of human imposture. His biography of the extraordinary Sinologist, fantasiste and fraud, Sir Edmund Backhouse (The Hermit of Peking) is eloquent testimony to this disposition in the historian, and the life of Mayerne afforded Trevor-Roper many opportunities to explore the outlandish nonsense of early modern medicine: for instance, the "excrements of a ram" recommended as a tonic to the Marchioness of Newcastle by a rival doctor, or Mayerne's own nostrum for infertility prescribed for the Duchess of Lennox - a distilled ointment of green lizards to be applied to the soles of the feet and the big toes before retiring. Surely this would have worked on any patient, with the exception, perhaps, of one who (like the Duchess) was already over fifty before she entrusted herself to so capable a physician.

Trevor-Roper has a Gibbonian relish for these details, but his amusement at them never coarsens into mockery. He had the true historian's understanding of how the apparently retrograde might in fact be the motor of progress. Of nothing is this more true than of Renaissance Hermetism (pp. 353-54):

nineteenth-century historians, when they rediscovered the Renaissance, turned a blind, or sometimes a transforming eye on that aspect of its thought, which, however, until the mid-seventeenth century, was central to it. By and large they could ignore it, for their predecessors of the Enlightenment had already conveniently dismissed it as rubbish, and pushed it out of sight. . . . . Today we recognise that this separation is illegitimate: that the general 'world picture', the ideology, nourished the particular investigations, the ideas, and that 'the Hermetic core' (as Frances Yates has called it) of Renaissance philosophy may have been the necessary condition of scientific advance.
In other words, Mayerne's world, for all its superficial differences of colour and detail, was a world not altogether unlike our own: a world, that is, in the grip of frequently baseless ideas which is nevertheless struggling by its own best lights to emerge into rationality.

As I have said, this biography was worked on by Trevor-Roper for many years, and the fact of its remaining unpublished at his death can be interpreted only as a sign that, in his opinion, it was still not ready for the press. Perhaps some of the high polish of phrasing and felicity of juxtaposition which characterise those books that Trevor-Roper was content to publish are missing.

But there are nevertheless flashes of wit from his incomparably well-stocked historical intelligence which no one who relishes such compositions would wish to be without: the revelation from Mayerne's papers, for instance, that Charles I "like his eldest son, was a practised tree-climber", having caught a cold as a result of standing in a tree for a long time (p. 326), or the comment about David Kinloch's long Latin poem, De procreatione hominis, which is "perhaps the most elaborately obscene work ever to have been veiled in a learned language", but also (turning now to the footnote) one which happened to be "approved for faith and morals by the Archbishop of St. Andrew"s" (pp. 219 and 405).

Again, it would be to undervalue such touches to see in them only satire or mockery: they are rather expressions of the high spirits of a man who took keen pleasure in many aspects of life, but in nothing more than in historical research.

The book has been meticulously prepared for the press by Blair Worden, and produced beautifully by Yale University Press. I found only one slip: a portrait of Robert Cecil is said to be a portrait of Sir Thomas Overbury, and vice versa.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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