March 14, 2007

The Protestant Doctor: Sir Theodore de Mayerne


Hugh Trevor Roper's posthumously discovered biography of Sir Theodore de Mayerne, physician to a King of France and two Kings of England gives a fascinating insight into the world of seventeenth century medicine and politics. Mayerne's career intersected with two of the great controversies of the age- between chemical and Galenist medicine and that between Protestantism and Catholicism. It also illustrates some of the perils of standing too close to the court and also some of the advantages of standing so close to the courts of Europe.

Mayerne's career as a doctor was heavily influenced by the period of time that he spent within the court of Henri IV (r. 1589-1610). Mayerne served as one of the more junior of the King's physicians alongside two other physicians Sieur de Riviere and Joseph du Chesne. He was involved by their side in continual battles with the medical faculty of the University of Paris which possessed at the time the ability to award licenses to study in Paris. Mayerne was influenced by the two physicians above and by his own training at the University of Montpellier, to become what in the seventeenth century was called a Chemical physician. He was interested in the theories of the German alchemist and physician Paracelsus. What Mayerne did was work on the basis of chemical theories and empirical experience to provide his patients with chemical remedies. The phsycians of Paris objected, for they argued that the only true source of medicine was to be found in the texts of Galen- for them Paracelsus was a quack selling snake oil to credulous customers and Mayerne and his friends were aiding him. Mayerne's close relationship with the royal family and with many of the leading lords of France protected him from the Faculty's wrath- what he sought to do was to bring about a union between Galenist traditional understandings of medicine and Paracelsian chemistry and empirical concerns (Mayerne was contemptuous of physicians who prescribed from books). His method was incredibly empirical- he left behind him detailed records of his cases and his cures. Having said that, he was also deeply credulous beleiving in witchcraft and in the occult powers of various substances.

His association with the French Huguenot laws brings us to the second important facet of Mayerne's life. He was a Huguenot. His father was an advanced Huguenot, his godfather was the great divine Theodore Beza. Mayerne himself shared little of the spiritual interests of his father, though he maintained a strict attitude to his life characteristic in Trevor Roper's view of many of the leading Huguenot intellectuals of his age. What he did maintain was the political allegiance to International Protestantism which his father had left him. At the court of Henry IV Mayerne used his influence against the devot Catholic faction that wished to make France a purely Catholic country. At the court of James I he became an ambassador for the Swiss republics of Geneva and of Basle, representing their interests to James and the English Court. He was used by James as an agent to contact Protestants in both France and Switzerland. At one point he was expelled by the French government for his intelligence activities. Mayerne maintained throughout his life a personal allegiance to the French Huguenot leader the Duc de Rohan, even sending his son to fight with Rohan in the 1630s in Switzerland. Mayerne helped many Huguenots who fled France to England in the 1610s and 1620s- he maintained associations with men like Isaac Casaubon whose scholarly work contributed to the defences of the Puritan intellectual position. Mayerne's political influence dived under the reign of Charles I when the new King declared himself less interested in sustaining the Protestant international- after the defeat of Rohan's rising in France in the 1620s and Charles's prohibition on his Protestant physician travelling abroad, Mayerne was forced to watch European politics develop in disgruntled silence.

Mayerne the Chemical Physician and the Protestant Doctor was a key political actor upon the contemporary scene. His power though derived ultimately solely from the character of the monarch whom he treated. At several points both his chemistry and his protestantism were threatened by the desires of his princely masters. As Henry IV died in France in 1610, Mayerne almost submitted to pressure for him to convert to continue to tend the royal family. In the 1630s as we've seen his friends abroad were undermined by the monarch that he served. Mayerne's private ambition to build up an estate to leave to his children was made easier by the fact that he served monarchs, they protected his private practise and paid him well for his services. Mayerne by the end of his life was treating most of the English elite and was able to instruct them to write to him about their symptoms only in French- the doctor could afford to be arrogant. But serving monarchs brought pain as well as peace- his efforts to establish a hereditary estate in Aubonne in Switzerland for his sons in the future was jeapordised by his ban on travelling abroad from the 1630s. Mayerne was reduced to spluttering from the sidelines as his agents in Aubonne cheated him.

Mayerne's private life is more difficult to inquire into- Trevor Roper has done an exceptional job at trawling the archives to find letters from Mayerne. Those that he has found demonstrate Mayerne was a kindly man- interested in many aspects of the world, including not least his table. In his seventies indeed the great physician grew so fat that in addition to learning French, his patients had to come to him, to live by him as he cured them. His kindliness was manifested both in his dealings with his friends and in the care he took over his patients. There was though also a spine of self righteousness running through his life- Mayerne's relations with his children were very difficult, indeed despite his desire to establish a house almost none of them survived him and both his sons had turbulent relationships with their father.

Reading Trevor Roper's biography one gets the sense of what Europe looked like at the beggining of the seventeenth century, for a man like Mayerne the period was exceptionally exciting. Intellectually the development of chemistry, the development of Alchemy and of Hermetic 'magic' revolutionised medicine. Politically the early years of Mayerne's life became part of the great story of the wars of religion- Mayerne's place as a cog within the great machine of the Protestant International and the way that that place determined both his intellectual contacts and also his political orientation is key to understanding his life. But Mayerne also took the time to be an entrepreuner, investigating such matters as the possibility of exporting coal from England to France and setting up a company to exploit the oyster beds around England. The world that Mayerne knew both intellectually and politically was overthrown largely by the end of his life- the coming of the scientific revolution consigned hermetic medicine to the dustbing of history, by the 1620s it was evident that France would not be reconquered by the Huguenots. Perhaps Mayerne's most lasting contribution was his analysis of the chemistry that made some of the most vibrant colours in seventeenth century paintings.

This post may give some indication of the spread of Mayerne's life- filled with incident and with areas of interest, Mayerne lived on several different planes at once. From a spy to a physician, to an entrepreneur to an amateur artistic chemist, he was a polymath. Trevor Roper is one of the few historians who one could imagine grappling with the difficulties of a biography of a man who dabbled in so many fields, and who spoke French, Latin, English, German and even had interests as far afield as Russia. This is a wonderful biography- it is also a sympathetic portrait of an interesting man and his life. It is biography as it should be written by a biographer to whom the best tribute is to say that his interests and abilities are equal to that of the incredibly intelligent Protestant doctor who had an amazing Catholic taste in fields of interest.

5 comments:

edmund said...

sorry if this post is short- lost it due to the blasted internet
Good post-makes me want to read the book

a) I don't think it's quite fair to call him "credllous" for beleivn in something as mainstream as witchcraft and occult properties ( the former at least is also something that is more or less unfalsifiable)partiu as he was asuc ha scepcial piooner in his own field. We'll all be in trouble if hthis is aplies to us "Gracchi was credulous because he belived in X" ( relativity thoery?)

b) wha's the basis for saying he din' share his father's spiritual intests-he aperas to have taken terrible risks for them so wasn't he pious?

Gracchi said...

I'll answer both your points

a. I suppose by that I'm indicating really his difference from modern scientific method- he doesn't seem to have disbeleived in things that were reported to him so beleived all sorts of miracle cures and other things. Having said that I agree with you I was too harsh- point taken and credulous withdrawn.

b. As to his piety- I'm relying on Trevor Roper but according to him Mayerne doesn't seem to have been ever interested in theology at all. His diaries aren't particularly religiously focused nor are his letters- he doesn't seem to have gone in for the strict religious doctrinal reproofs that some people at the time could go in for. He seems according to TR to have had a sense rather that his religion was something that he adhered to- it was an unexamined affiliation. There was a point at which he almost did become a Catholic- at least his father thought that he mgiht but he didn't.

edmund said...

on a) it sounds like we're in agreement i would jsut add that even today there are scints who bleived in miracle cures ect though i'm sure genelay less extrem ones! The point that while a piooner of the scienctiifc method he wans' t a believer in it is I think an important one

one b) Do we know for sure we have all his papers? As I understand it (and you're know more than me) people sometimes wrote down religious things separately from more mundanes ones. And writing and interest while linked are not the same thing.

Partly I thhink my point underlines the degree to which it can be hard over centureis to interpet someone's interests/ beliefs!

Gracchi said...

Yes I agree on a. On B I think I agree- what I would say is that with guys I look at religion really enthuses about it all over the place- having said that you always face absense of evidence so you are right then.

edmund said...

b) i see what you're sa ying but I think there are a cerint type of religous fanatic who bangs on about relion incesantly and other people who can be only marginaly less religous but much much more quiet (a David Frum quote on the 92 republicn platform comes to mind "people who actually belive in god tend to talk about him either less or more")

De Gaulle also comes to mind- most biotgaphers tend to ignore reigon because he talked about it so little and yet the thing he called the most "tout a court" agains the grain was legalizing (!!!) contraception