Thomas Linacre: catalyst for the Renaissance

Patrick Guinan, MD, MPH
University of Illinois, Chicago, United States

“Linacre led a life of devotion to learning, to medicine, and to the interests of humanity.”
-William Osler

Thomas Linacre

Thomas Linacre
(c.1460 – 1524)

Thomas Linacre, personal physician to King Henry VIII of England, was the founder and first president of the Royal College of Physicians of England. He is remarkable not so much for his own accomplishments, but rather for surrounding himself with some of the brightest intellectuals of his time. Nonetheless, he was in no small part responsible for the flowering of the Renaissance in England and the continent of Europe in the latter 15th and early 16th centuries. He is especially remembered as the friend and mentor of Desiderius Erasmus, one of the great humanists of his time.

Linacre was born in Brampton, Derbyshire, into a family whose name is recorded in the legendary Domesday Book. He attended Christ Church Monastery at Canterbury under the direction of the classicist William Selling, who inspired young Thomas to study Latin and Greek. Between 1467 and 1484, he attended the local church schools. He matriculated from Oxford in 1484 and was elected a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. Mentored by William Selling, perhaps the earliest humanist in England, he became proficient in the Latin and Greek, translated many of Galen’s medical treatises, and attracted a following of scholars that included John Colet, William Grocyn, and William Latimer.

In his early 20’s he accompanied William Selling, then King Henry VII’s envoy to the Italian papal court. He remained in Florence, studying under Angelo Polaziano with the sons of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the younger of whom became Pope Leo X. Between 1485 and 1501 he associated with Lorenzo de’ Medici, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and Pico della Mirandola.

 

Henry VIII

Henry VIII, 1540
Hans Holbein the Younger
Oil on canvas
29. x 34.65 in

While in Italy, he received his medical degree from Padua. In 1501 he was called to the Royal Court, where he became the tutor of King Henry VII’s son, Prince Arthur, and successively physician to Henry VII, and shortly thereafter, to king Henry VIII. His friends included Desiderius Erasmus, Bishop Latimer, Cardinal Wolsey, Pope Leo X, and Sir Thomas More. It would be an understatement to say that Linacre was connected.

Relatively little is known about his private life except that he never married and appeared to be modest and self-effacing. At age sixty, in 1520, he was ordained to the ministry. He was not active in the ministry but continued his academic pursuits. He died in 1524 at the age of 64 of complications of renal stone.

Because much of medicine in 1500 AD was taught by rote memorization of Hippocrates, Galen, and Rhazes, accurate revised translations of their texts were continually in demand, and these Linacre provided. He had a passion for Greek and was considered by many the preeminent Greek scholar in England. In 1517 his first translation of Galen was published, and Linacre

dedicated his book to Henry VIII. His influence is most recognized for his efforts in promoting the spirit of the Renaissance, particularly its Northern European Humanist Component. Desiderius Erasmus was the acknowledged leader of the Enlightenment, and Linacre greatly influenced Erasmus’ promotion of the classics.

 

Erasmus

Erasmus, 1523
Hans Holbein the Younger
Oil and tempera on wood
76 × 51 cm

Before the rise of the intellectuals of the Renaissance, the fall of Rome and the Moslem conquests of the Middle East, Spain, and North Africa had precipitated a long somnolence of intellectual and cultural life in Europe. What little memory of Greek and Roman antiquity remained was rekindled by Petrarch and the Italian City states, particularly after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, when many scholars fled to the West, leading to the emergence of “Renaissance.” Previously the spirit of Christianity, or the “other worldly,” had reigned, promoting the glorification of God and the perception of man as imperfect and sinful. The Renaissance took the opposite tack, recognizing and promoting the beauty of Greek and Roman art and culture and emphasizing man’s free will and his superiority over nature. Man now became the “measure of all things.” Petrarch promoted this idea, as did his successors.

Among these was Desiderius Erasmus (1466—1536) of Rotterdam, the “Prince of Humanists,” a student of Thomas Linacre. Arriving in London in 1497 and studying Greek with Linacre, Grocyn, and Latimer, he spent the years 1497-1514 in England. Six years younger than Linacre, he was his pupil and intellectual companion, greatly stimulated and inspired by him and his learned following of intellectuals and scholars.

Linacre did not contribute greatly to clinical medicine, but he was remarkably influential through his association with Henry VIII and his founding of the Royal College of Physicians. Physician, politician, and classicist, he was above all a humanist, noteworthy for his advancement of Latin and Greek learning and for his promotion of Erasmus. He was a catalyst for the Renaissance and the English Enlightenment, which is perhaps his greatest accomplishment.

 


PATRICK D. GUINAN, MD, MPH is a 1962 graduate of Marquette University Medical School. The author went on to obtain a graduate degree in Public Health from Columbia University in 1965. He is presently a Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of Urology in the College of Medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago and serves as Chairman of the Board of the Hektoen Institute of Medicine.