Adam S. Komorowski,
Sang Ik Song
It is difficult to remember that in medieval and early modern Europe the church was often the locus of medical practice and that medicine and religion had a symbiotic co-existence.1 Many of the early Christian Church Fathers, some given the title Doctors of the Church, saw their roles to include that of “physicians of the soul,” emulating Christ’s role as the “Great Physician.”2 Indeed, Christ was referred to as “the true Physician, the only Physician, Himself both the Physician and the medicine,” in many of the Church Fathers’ texts.3 Origen, the early Christian theologian and scholar, went one step further, referring to the Apostles as ἰατροί – physicians – placing them as successors of the Christian ministry from the “Great Physician” himself.4 This medical successorship was often extended to the presbytery through the apostolic succession: the λόγος, the “Word,” as the Great Physician was made manifest to Christians through their preachers.5,6Thus, being intertwined as the two disciplines were, it was only logical that Catholic churches allowed their clerics to practice medicine. This remained in place until a succession of councils issued decrees condemning the practice of medicine (and jurisprudence) by monks and canons regular for temporal gain in the twelfth century.7,8 While the practice of medicine was not outright forbidden to all clerics in the Catholic Church, its practice began to disappear slowly over the next two hundred years, helped along by further conciliar pronouncements. In contrast, the Church of England, formed as a consequence of Pope Clement VII’s refusal to grant an annulment of King Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon in 1534, continued to allow clerics to practice medicine concomitantly with their priestly duties for quite some time. Thus, there are few places where the intersectional role of physician and cleric thrives more than in the Diocese of Bath and Wells, in Somerset, England.
It is no coincidence that both priests and bishops who practiced medicine seemed drawn to the Diocese of Bath and Wells. The city of Bath, famous for its Roman Baths complex originating ca. 65-75, was long held to be an ideal location for patients to convalesce owing due to its supposedly curative waters.9 Evidence for how deeply this conviction affected the topography of Bath can still be seen in the present day: the Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases in Bath is housed in a building gilded with its former name, “the Royal Mineral Water Hospital.”10 In 1091 John de Villula, a Catholic Anglo-Norman physician-turned-bishop, bought the city of Bath from King William II (Rufus) in exchange for alms. He established cathedral priory mere steps from the Roman Baths, coinciding with the present location of Bath Abbey.11,12 As is all too common given the epoch in which he lived, not much is known of John de Villula; however, it has been proposed that he was the “Johannes medicus” listed as having attended at the deathbed of William the Conqueror in 1087, and at the time of his elevation to the episcopate, was chaplain in King William II’s court.12 The twelfth century English historian William of Malmesbury muses that John de Villula’s speech was “guileless enough to invite the derision of children;” however, he was duly praised for replacing the idle monastics of the diocese with erudite ones.12 While we may not have much of an historical record in terms of primary documents, John de Villula’s actions imply that his ministry was predicated on scholarship and the choice of location for the construction of his cathedral in Bath is no coincidence: any patients “taking the waters” at the Roman Baths would have required close observation.
The Diocese of Bath and Wells also lays claim to the father of English botany, William Turner. After having fled England in the early 1540s for breaking his diaconate vow of chastity by marrying his wife, Turner qualified as a medic in either Bologna or Ferrara, where he also studied botany. Later that decade he served as physician to the Duke of Emden in Germany, and on returning to England became physician and auxiliary chaplain to the Lord Protector, the Duke of Somerset. Turner was appointed Dean of Wells Cathedral from 1551 to 1554 and again from 1561 to 1568, then fled England upon the accession of Queen Mary I and her subsequent reintroduction of Roman Catholicism as the religion of the English Crown.13 Returning to Germany, he traveled extensively while writing many botanical and medical texts. Turner wrote part of his seminal botanical text, Names of Herbes, in Wiessenberg. His dual nature as a physician and botanist shines through in Names of Herbes, notable insofar as its primary purpose was to classify herbs for their use as medicinal remedies –botany was subservient to its medical purpose for him.13,14 Turner wrote other medical tomes including, A new boke of the natures and properties of all wine and the Booke of the Natures and Vertues of Triacles, which described the use of Rhine Delta wines as lithotriptic agents and warned against excessive use of ointments.15 Like his predecessor John de Villula, Turner seemed fascinated by the role of bath waters in healing: he wrote a text16 on the topic, perhaps inspired by the topography of the diocese he temporarily abandoned. Turner’s vast corpus of writings offers a glimpse into his ability to navigate his dual role as physician and preacher. He was equally comfortable writing a scathing rebuke of the “doctrinal innovations” of the Catholic Church in The Huntynge & Fyndyng out of the Romishe Fox as he was cataloging the curative uses of herbs throughout the European continent.
Well before the time of Turner, however, there were changes appearing in the way medicine as a profession interacted with faith. It can be argued that the development of the medical profession as one separate from the ecclesiastical hierarchy partially had its genesis – at least in England – as a result of the work of three canons of Wells Cathedral.17 The canons made up half of the founding members of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), the most notable among them being Thomas Linacre, a fifteenth century native of Canterbury who is among the most important English physicians in history. A scholar of Greek at All Souls’ College, Oxford, he received his medical training in Padua in 1496, then returned to lecture at Oxford where Erasmus studied under him in 1499. Linacre’s preoccupations were those of a Rinascimento humanist physician: he advocated a return to the Greek foundations of medicine. Linacre gained esteem for his translations of the works of Galen into Latin18 directly from Greek manuscripts – including works hitherto unpublished – allowing a new generation of physicians access to the foundational literature of the discipline. His respected work and reputation was perhaps the reason he was summoned to the court of Henry VII in 1499 to become teacher and physician to Prince Arthur.19 He attended medical cases of Erasmus, Sir Thomas More, and Cardinal Wolsey – the latter procuring him the post of precentor at Wells Cathedral.19 He was made court physician to Henry VIII in 1509, playing a key role in drafting the Medical Act of 1512, setting out licensing for surgeons and devising a compulsory examination scheme for those wishing to practice medicine in London without an Oxford or Cambridge MD degree. In 1518, Linacre and five others – with the backing of Cardinal Wolsey – successfully petitioned the King to create the RCP as a means to oversee the implementation of the Medical Act of 1512 in London.20,21 This control later broadened to include all of England in 152320 and set in motion the 498-year history of the RCP.
John de Villula, William Turner, and Thomas Linacre are only three examples among a wealth of historical medical clerics from the Diocese of Bath and Wells. Each offers a glimpse into the various intersectional facets of medicine and religion. Turner’s navigation of doctrinal preaching and the medicinal uses of herbs in his writings or Linacre’s founding role in the RCP both offer extensive insights into the historical symbiosis of both disciplines.
The authors would like to acknowledge the gracious assistance of Mr. Kevin Spears, Librarian of Wells Cathedral, for his invaluable guidance in researching this topic.
- This view has sometimes been contested in modern times.
- Amundsen, D.W. “Medicine and Faith in Early Christianity”, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 56, no. 3 (1982):326-350.
- Christ was referred to as verus medicus,solus medicus, ipse et medicus et medicamentum (translation given above) in many of the Church Fathers’ texts. See Pierce, A.S. “Medical Allusions in the Work of St. Jerome”, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 25 (1914):73-86; and Schipperges, H., “Zur Tradition des ‘Christus Medicus’ im frühen Christentum und in der älteren Heilkunde”, Arzt Christ 11 (1965):12-20.
- ἰατροί– physicians. The Apostles being the early followers of Christ. Cf. Origen in Exodum, p. 114 (Migne, J.P. Patrologia Graeca, XII, 269): ἰατρός ἐστι ψυχῆς ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ͵ κτλ – ‘the physician of the soul is the Word of God’.
- λόγος – while in translations, this is often rendered as ‘Word’, a title of Christ (cf. John 1), it is often left untranslated in theological discussion, as translation fails to capture the numinous quality of its connotation in the Christian context.
- Getz, F.M. “Charity, Translation, and the Language of Medical Learning in Mediaeval England”, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 64, no.1 (1990):1-17.
- Contrary to a commonly-held belief, the Church took issue only with the practice of medicine for temporal gain by those in holy orders – i.e. clerics who had taken a vow to withdraw from secular life, and take up a monastic life. Priests and canons regular living outside a monastery were still allowed to practice medicine for quite some time after the relevant decrees were pronounced by the Council of Clermont (1130), the Council of Rheims (1131), and the Second Lateran Council (1139). For the original decrees in Latin, see Alberigo, J. et al., eds. Conciliorum oecomenicorum decreta, 3rd ed. Bologna: Istituto per le Scienze Religiose, 1973, p. 198f. For an English translation, see Schroeder, R.J. Disciplinary Decrees of the General Councils. St. Louis: Herder, 1957, p. 201f.
- For a more complete discussion of this topic, see Amundsen, D.W. “Mediaeval Canon Law on Medical and Surgical Practice by the Clergy”, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 52, no.1 (1978):22-44.
- “City of Bath World Heritage Site Management Plan, Appendix 3 – Inventory of Selected Key Elements of the World Heritage Site”. Bath and North East Somerset Council. 2004. Accessed July 25, 2016. https://web.archive.org/web/20070804014112/http://www.bathnes.gov.uk/worldheritage/3Append.htm
- “Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases and Royal Mineral Water Hospital, with Railings (Grade II*) (1395448).” Historic England. October 15, 2010. Accessed July 25, 2016. https://www.historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1395448.
- John de Villula is also commonly known as John of Tours.
- Ramsey, F. “Tours, John of (d. 1122)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press. 2004, Accessed 28 May 2016. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/14846.
- Jones, W.R.D. “Turner, William (1509/10–1568)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008.Accessed 20 July 2016. http://www.oxforddnb.com.proxy.lib.ul.ie/view/article/27874.
- William Turner’s dual role as a physician and botanist reminds one of the great 18th century Swedish polymath Carl Linnaeus, also a physician and botanist. Both inhabited the dual role, but somewhat differently: Turner’s texts always had a strong medical bent to them, whereas Linnaeus is best known for his eponymous taxonomy.
- Turner, W. A new boke of the natures and properties of all wines … whereunto is annexed the booke of the natures and vertues of triacles, 1568; repr. as Larkey, S.V. ed. A book of wines … together with a modern English version of the text, 1941.
- Turner, W. The natures and properties as well as of the bathes in England as of other bathes in Germany and Italy, 1562.
- Thomas Linacre, Nicholas Halswell, and John Chambre.
- The irony of a figure whose intellectual vision was situated in a reinvigoration of the medicine of ages past helping to carve out the body which has governed medicine in England ever since is worth consideration.
- Furdell, E.J. “The Royal Doctors, 1485-1714: Medical Personnel at the Tudor and Stuart Courts”. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 2001. p. 22-24.
- Nutton, V. “Linacre, Thomas (c.1460–1524)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2008. Accessed 21 July 2016. http://www.oxforddnb.com.proxy.lib.ul.ie/view/article/16667.
- While an early history of the Royal College of Physicians is beyond the scope of this article, it bears mentioning that Thomas Linacre served as its first President until his death in 1524.
Alberigo, J. et al., eds. Conciliorum oecomenicorum decreta, 3rd ed. Bologna: Istituto per le Scienze Religiose, 1973, p. 198f.
Amundsen, D.W. “Mediaeval Canon Law on Medical and Surgical Practice by the Clergy,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 52, no.1 (1978):22-44.
Amundsen, D.W. “Medicine and Faith in Early Christianity,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 56, no. 3 (1982):326-350.
“City of Bath World Heritage Site Management Plan, Appendix 3 – Inventory of Selected Key Elements of the World Heritage Site.. Bath and North East Somerset Council. 2004. Accessed July 25, 2016. https://web.archive.org/web/20070804014112/http://www.bathnes.gov.uk/worldheritage/3Append.htm
Furdell, E.J. “The Royal Doctors, 1485-1714: Medical Personnel at the Tudor and Stuart Courts.” Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 2001. p. 22-24.
Getz, F.M. “Charity, Translation, and the Language of Medical Learning in Mediaeval England,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 64, no.1 (1990):1-17.
Jones, W.R.D. “Turner, William (1509/10–1568),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008.Accessed 20 July 2016. http://www.oxforddnb.com.proxy.lib.ul.ie/view/article/27874.
Migne, J.P. Patrologia Graeca. Vol. XII, p. 269.
Nutton, V. “Linacre, Thomas (c.1460–1524)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2008.Accessed 21 July 2016. http://www.oxforddnb.com.proxy.lib.ul.ie/view/article/16667.
Pierce, A.S. “Medical Allusions in the Work of St. Jerome,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 25 (1914):73-86.
Ramsey, F. “Tours, John of (d. 1122),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press. 2004, Accessed 28 May 2016. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/14846.
“Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases and Royal Mineral Water Hospital, with Railings (Grade II*) (1395448).” Historic England. October 15, 2010. Accessed July 25, 2016. https://www.historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1395448.
Schipperges, H. “Zur Tradition des ‘Christus Medicus’ im frühen Christentum und in der älteren Heilkunde” Arzt Christ 11 (1965):12-20.
Schroeder, R.J. Disciplinary Decrees of the General Councils. St. Louis: Herder, 1957, p. 201f.
Turner, W. A new boke of the natures and properties of all wines … where unto is annexed the booke of the natures and vertues of triacles, 1568.
Turner, W. The natures and properties as well as of the bathes in England as of other bathes in Germany and Italy, 1562.
ADAM S. KOMOROWSKI is a second year medical student at the University of Limerick (Ireland). He is currently a research trainee in the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital (Toronto, Canada), investigating postpartum blood loss. His current interests in medical humanities lie in interrogating the intersection of medicine and the ecclesiastical ministry.
SANG IK SONG is a third year medical student at the University of Limerick (Ireland). He studied history and East Asian studies at the University of Toronto. His current research interests lie in the multiplicity of bereavement, semi-structured narrative interventions in oncology, anthropological manifestations of suffering, and the persisting political nuances of representation involving colonial legacies.