Old Books Won't Tell You Much, Unless...

by fwbfaici1084104810 on October 26, 2017 - 5:16pm


Practise and theory are both essential in teaching any subject, be it history, medicine, …or the history of medicine. In this spirit, we went to the Osler Library of Medical History to analyze hands-on an artifact from the period we are studying: a book about medical knowledge from the Early Modern Period. Our book is titled The Order of the Hospitalls (of K. Henry the Viith and K. Edward the Vith), and it’s authors are, according to British History Online, the “Maior, Cominaltie, and Citizens of London, Governours of the Possessions, Revenues and Goods of the said Hospitalls” (Noorthouck). It is a small book measuring about 8cm by 12cm and weighing from 50g to 100g. It’s in very good condition: its pages are yellow and stained, but none are torn, and it smells like old paper. The book is bound in a leather cover bearing a golden diamond shape and lily flowers and it is printed in Dutch Black Letter font. It has very few inscriptions on the margins, but has a few descriptive pieces of paper and newspaper cut-outs from which we learned that the book belonged to Sir William Osler. This is a law book containing the decisions of a city meeting in 1557: it states how hospitals must be ran and what are the responsibilities of each person working at the hospital, and it says that hospitals must start keeping a record of their patients, workers, and resources. Since the original book is very difficult to read, we found and used for analysis a transcription of the book online. Such written artifacts as books from the past are extremely useful in studying the history of medicine. In our case, by telling us about the way hospitals were administered in the 16th century, it can tell us about the way sick people were treated at that time.

First, The Order of the Hospitalls provides a lot of descriptions of the procedures and workings of a hospital, which gives us an idea of what kind of places were called “hospitals” in 1557. Those “hospitals” were not only for treating sick people, they also served as “houses of the poore” (Noorthouck), which were like asylums for poor people. These buildings, as well as some land, were provided by the king of England to help poor people, especially women and children, survive. From this, we can infer that medical knowledge was very general and unspecialized in the 16th century since the same people who cared for the poor and the children cared for the sick. Indeed, it is very different from nowadays, where each person plays a very specialized role in a hospital. The book also tells us about the people that staff the hospitals: governors, nurses, matrons, cooks, stewards, officers, guards, etc. From this, we can see that the staff of a hospital in 1557 is quite like that of today, with one striking difference: there is no description in the book of any trained person whose role is to treat patients with medical knowledge. In other words, there seemed to be no physician at hospitals! There is only one single mention of the role of “chirurgian”. However, we should not conclude anything over-precipitately from this very limited clue in the main artifact. This is where consulting different sources comes in handy in a historical research. From a separate reading about medical knowledge in the period in question, “Medicine” by contemporary historian Harold J. Cook, we learned that at the beginning of the 16th century, physicians (elite university scholars) studied the human body mostly through philosophy (the theory of the four humors), discussion, and reading ancient Greek texts. They prescribed individualized treatments based on a person’s characteristics in order to balance the humours in the body. In addition, “The physician could ‘practise’ his science even if he never treated patients” (Cook 408). This would explain their absence in the hospitals described in The Order of the Hospitalls. Nonetheless, the mid-sixteenth century was a turning point where people started experimenting with various kinds of cures (medical chemistry, alchemy, etc.) for new diseases and where physicians started to move away from a purely theoretical study of medicine. In sum, as we can see, by comparing what a primary source relates about its period and more modern research (Mr. Cook’s), we can make links between our observations and information already recorded by other historians. This allows us to confirm our hypotheses and produce historical knowledge.

Something else we should pay attention to is the chronology of this book. This book is a first edition, printed in 1557. According to the scholarly source used, Harold J. Cook’s paper, a book about medical knowledge written by an educated author from this period should be about humoral theory, but physicians were starting to study anatomy by dissecting human bodies. However, there were also itinerant practitioners and apothecaries selling remedies, as well as much folk healing. Since this book was written by city officials and city councils (middle ranked to elite people), we would expect it to contain a mix of humoral theory treatments, balms and drugs, and some peasant beliefs. Unfortunately, since this is a book about laws, it does not contain much information about medical knowledge, but what it tells us about the composition of a hospital’s staff does coincide with our prior knowledge of that period: university-educated physicians had very little contact with actual patients.

In conclusion, The Order of the Hospitalls can tell us about the way hospitals were run in 16th-century England, from which we can deduce information about the way sicknesses were treated. These deductions are in turn linked to what other scholarly sources have to say. Our research has significance in that it demonstrates how we can draw links between two seemingly unrelated aspects (governance and medical knowledge), to create a portrait the knowledge of that time and how it reflected on social practices. Therefore, historical knowledge is produced by matching various sources.


Works Cited

Noorthouck, John. Addenda: The Order of the Hospitalls of [Henry VIII and Edward VI, 1557]. A New History of London Including Westminster and Southwark (London, 1773), pp. 874-886. British History Online, www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/new-history-london/pp874-886. Accessed 26 October 2017.

Cook, Harold J. “Medicine,” in Katherine Park and Lorraine Daston (eds.) The Cambridge History of Science. Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 407-434