I’ve just returned from a great conference at the University of Exeter – the Landscape of Occupations – organised by the project on early-modern medical practice of which I’m a part. There were a great variety of papers and many different aspects of occupation, occupational titles and identities and a range of other factors relating to ‘work’ in early-modern Europe.
One of the papers I was struck by was given by Professor Laurinda Abreu of the Unviersity of Evora, Portugal. Her paper explored something of the power struggles between the Portuguese crown and medical faculty for the assumption of medical authority and control over medical licensing. While the topic of conflict will be a familiar one to anyone studying early modern medical practice in Britain, it was really interesting to explore the same themes in a different context.
The relationship between different types of medical practitioner in the past has often been fraught. I’m oversimplifying here but, in general, physicians did not like surgeons as they saw them as low-status butchers who got their hands dirty. For their part, surgeons did not like physicians, whom they viewed as arrogantly adopting a position of superiority, often without basis. Apothecaries were not popular with either group since they often dabbled in physic and surgery – something they were not supposed to do. Quacks, cunning folk, ‘old women’ who healed and other types of ‘irregular’ practitioner, were pretty much attacked by all other practitioners!
This apparent antipathy worked on a macro level, with entire groups entering paper wars and public slanging matches. But it is also clear that individual practitioners were prepared to take each other on if they thought that their territories were being invaded. I was reminded of a particular dispute between Exeter practitioners that was so vociferous that it ended up becoming a libel case in the Star Chamber court.
On May 10th 1604, the Exeter physician Thomas Edwards accused one of his colleagues – and possibly former friend – John Woolton of libel. The two men came from different backgrounds. Woolton was an Oxford graduate, son of a former Bishop of Exeter, holder of a medical licence and, later, an MD. In this respect he was about as ‘orthodox’ a physician as it was possible to be and was a leading physician in the town. Edwards, by contrast, had come to practice through the more usual route of apprenticeship and learnt his trade by observing his master, Francis Pampergo. Although he briefly went to Oxford, Edwards returned and established an apothecary business in Exeter.
Problems began to arise when Edwards, the apothecary, began to practice medicine, as well as selling drugs in his shop. Apothecaries were nominally banned from practising medicine, so Edwards was effectively breaking the law. In so doing, though, he also brought himself into direct competition with the prominent Woolton – a competition that Woolton was not prepared to tolerate.
Some time late in 1603, Woolton wrote a letter to Edwards which, even by the libel standards of the day was couched in the bitterest terms. Woolton began by addressing Edwards as ‘Master Docturdo and Fartado’ – hardly endearing terms to begin with. He went on, though, to launch a series of attacks on Edwards’ credibility, character and reputation. Edwards was accused of everything from dishonest dealings with his suppliers to the excessive bleeding and purging of one of his patients – Sir William Courtenay. Interestingly, Courtenay had originally been one of Woolton’s patients, so was he bitter at losing this prominent member of the Devonshire gentry to a mere ‘empirical’?
The crux of the complaint, however, lay in Woolton’s objections to Edwards’ practice. “Your master taught you not to go beyond your mortar and pestle [and so] you aught not to minister so much as a clyster or open a vein’. Woolton backed up his objections by stating that Edwards was using dangerous substances in his ‘desperate practice’, including mercury, ratsbane, brimstone and aqua fortis, all of which were part of the chemical arsenal of Paracelsian physicians and which, argued Woolton, Edwards had insufficient knowledge of’.
Woolton made several copies of his letter, keeping one for himself, sending one to Edwards and passing on some to ‘divers others’ who published them, making the allegations widespread. The result of this was inevitable; Edwards was enraged. Reports suggest that tensions elevated and Edwards went looking for the doctor, with his rapier drawn. Woolton spotted him and shouted that he should ‘go back to his pestle and mortar’.
The battle lines were drawn and Edwards sued for libel. These were serious allegations the ‘publishing [of which] doth provoke malice and breach of the peace’. Edwards’ reputation was in the balance and everything hinged on whether the judges and court were sympathetic to the word of an apothecary against a prominent, university-educated physician.
The judgement was conclusive, and Woolton was censured…in fact severely! The Lord Coke ‘began a very sharp sentence, and the greatest number agreed. He would spare Woolton corporal punishment because of his degree (!), but he fined him £500’. This, at the time, was an immense sum. The other libellers and publishers were also fined £40 a piece and Edwards was awarded £200 damages.
But still Lord Coke had not finished. Speaking ‘very sharply of the sin of libel’ he decreed that Woolton should ‘at a public market at the next general assizes’ be made to stand and publicly confess his faults. For a man of such eminent background as Woolton, the shame of this punishment, not to mention the financial penalty, must have been enormous.
Conflict in medicine has been a constant factor across time, but it is interesting to see the level of acrimony that individual disputes about medical authority could engender. The ruinous outcome for one of the parties here demonstrates the intolerance of the courts for those who resorted to publicly defaming rivals, but this did not stop practitioner squabbles from continuing well into the eighteenth century.
(For more on this case see R.S. Roberts, ‘The Personnel and Practice of Medicine in Tudor and Stuart England: Part 1, the provinces’, Journal of Medical History, 6:4 (1962)