Tuesday, 29 November 2011

'An end to good manners': The Royal College of Physicians and the English Civil War

The exhibition held at the Royal College of Physicians is small and limited but to its credit does offer a great insight into the attitude of the country’s leading medical profession to the English Civil War.

At the outbreak of war members of the RCP were like many in the country heavily split in their allegiance.  It is true that “In the 17th century the College of Physicians was led by a small group of powerful men who held widely differing religious and political opinions”. Certainly one of the most famous members of the college was the Royalist physician William Harvey who was described as "a man of lowest stature, round faced; his eyes small, round, very black and full of spirit; his hair as black as a raven and curling"

Harvey was not only responsible for looking after the Kings medical requirements but made a significant contribution to the development of medicine by showing how blood circulated around the body. He said of his discovery “I found the task so truly arduous... that I was almost tempted to think... that the movement of the heart was only to be comprehended by God. For I could neither rightly perceive at first when the systole and when the diastole took place by reason of the rapidity of the movement..." 

While Harvey took no time in declaring his allegiance to the crown it could be said that other RCP members took a longer term attitude in order to navigate “their way through the conflict, pragmatically switching sides”  some it would seem at the drop of a scalpel.
The exhibition has a well put together selection of audio readings concentrating on different parts of the civil war. One such reading comes from “a true copy of the high court of justice for the tryal of Charles published London `1684

According to the exhibition notes this was “Published after the restoration to the throne of Charles II, this pro-Royalist work includes a transcription of Charles I’s trial and execution. There is also an appendix which provides 'An alphabetical catalogue of the members of the execrable pretended high court of justice…' 

The exhibition notes describe the picture left as an “allegorical frontispiece is unambiguous in overall tone. Devil-like figures have commandeered a carriage, taking the crown and 'three nations' hostage, leaving liberty in the balance. Sheep and doves are attacked behind it, and the beheaded King Charles is crushed beneath its wheels. An accompanying explanatory verse was still deemed necessary, making reference to 'wounded justice' and a 'murder'd monarch'.
In one  memorable exchange the Clerk of the Court read “Charles Stuart, King of England, you have been accused on behalf of the people of England, of high treason, and other crimes, the court have determined that you ought to answer the same.To this the King replied “I will answer the same as soon as I know by what authority you do this”. Stubborn to the end the Kings last words  on the scaffold were “I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown, where no disturbances can be.”

Perhaps one of the major weaknesses of the exhibition is its failure to go into any detail as regards the significant dissension towards the monarchy after all it puts this quote as a sub heading of the exhibition ‘...when dissolution and idleness had put an end to good manners), some seditious ‘tribunes’ of the people and ill-conditioned scoundrels ... had defiled all things ... the Phoenix ... rose at last ...’ but fails to explain its meaning.

According to William Birken there was quite a tradition of dissension amongst men of medicine. According to Birken “In England, medicine has always been something of a refuge for individuals whose lives have been dislocated by religious and political strife. This was particularly true in the seventeenth century when changes in Church and State were occurring at a blinding speed. In his book The experience of defeat, Christopher Hill has described the erratic careers of a number of radical clergy and intellectuals who studied and practised medicine in times of dislocation. A list pulled together from Hill's book would include: John Pordage, Samuel Pordage, Henry Stubbe, John Webster, John Rogers, Abiezer Coppe, William Walwyn and Marchamont Nedham.1 Medicine as a practical option for a lost career, or to supplement and subsidize uncertain careers, can also be found among Royalists and Anglicans when their lives were similarly disrupted during the Interregnum.

He goes on “among these were the brilliant Vaughan twins, Thomas, the Hermetic philosopher, and Henry, the metaphysical poet and clergyman; the poet, Abraham Cowley; and the mercurial Nedham, who was dislocated both as a republican and as a royalist. The Anglicans Ralph Bathurst and Mathew Robinson were forced to abandon temporarily their clerical careers for medicine, only to return to the Church when times were more propitious”.

The exhibition is a rare glimpse into the treasure trove of material held by the RCP which in many cases have rarely been seen in public. So anyone finding themselves in London for a bit of Christmas shopping could do worse than going along along to see it.

The Exhibition is held at the RCP Mon-Fri 9am-5pm until 15th March 2012

 Notes & References

1.         William Harvey (1 April 1578 – 3 June 1657 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Harvey

2.         A True copy of the journal of the High Court of Justice for the tryal of K. Charles I as it was read in the House of Commons and attested under the hand of Phelps, clerk to that infamous court / taken by J. Nalson Jan. 4, 1683 : Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan, Digital Library Production Service

3.         The Dissenting Tradition in English Medicine of the 17th and 18th Century William Birken Medical History 1995

4.         The RCP of London and its Support of the Parliamentary Cause in the English civil War William Birken Journal of British Studies Vol 23 No 1 1983

Saturday, 19 November 2011

A Letter to Richard Cavendish

While I cannot say I follow your articles for History Today on a regular basis but when an article catches my eye I tend to read it. One such article was called Trotsky Offered Asylum. As the title of your column suggests you write about events from the near or distance past.

If this particular article was nothing more than a straight factual account of Leon Trotsky’s exile from the former Soviet Union I would have had nothing to complain about but it was not. I am sorry to say your article was a little dark and had a strong hint of a very conservative bias to it to say the least. 

My first complaint is that while you mention the struggle between Trotsky and Stalin for students and people coming to this subject for the first time you would not garner from your article that this was little more than just a personality clash that Trotsky lost.

The life and death struggle was deeply political and to no small extent decided the course of the 20th century and not for the better. In fact mankind paid a very heavy price for Trotsky’s “fall” from power and subsequent murder. 

What I am trying to say that your article does not mention a single political difference between Trotsky and Stalin. I admit you have a lack of space but your article would have been strengthened by at least a cursory examination over the controversy over Stalin’s theory of building socialism in a single country versus Trotsky’s insistence on global revolution. 

This aside there are other things in the article that I would like to address. One of your turn of phrase left me a little cold and to say the least was a little sinister. To describe Trotsky’s murderer as a “charming Spanish Communist painter “is a little ridiculous. 

He was a murderer who pursued Trotsky and under Stalin’s personal order caved his skull with an ice pick, perhaps you could explain what was charming about this.

While we are on the subject of Trotsky’s murder to describe the act of murder as a “stab” of an ice pick is just plain bizarre. Trotsky’s skull was caved in why you downplay this horrendous assassination.
My last point is that while it is difficult for a historian to come out of their comfort zone and write on a subject they know little about I must take exception to your description of Robert Service as “Trotsky’s biographer”, given Service’s very right wing biography which is strewn with major errors it is simply not true. If readers new to the subject of Trotsky's life would like to view a more balance view then they should look no further that Isaac Deutcher’s three volume trilogy. The compliment you pay Service is not deserved.


  1.            Trotsky offered asylum in Mexico by Richard Cavendish | Published in History Today Volume: 61 Issue: 12 2011 http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/trotsky-offered-asylum-mexico

2.            Trotsky: A Biography  by Robert Service; In Defence of Leon Trotsky  by David North Review by: By Bertrand M. Patenaude The American Historical Review   Vol. 116, No. 3, June 2011 URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/ahr.116.3.900

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Kevin Sharpe 1949-2011

I cannot claim any direct connection with Professor Sharpe but this does not stop me feeling somewhat sad that a historian of his calibre has passed from the historical scene at such a young age. Having already lost another significant historian of the 17th century Barry Coward this year, Early Modern historical study has been diminished by the loss of two historians of stature.

Sharpe never really subscribed to the great historical genres of Whig" and "Marxist" history studies. He was in fact from an early period in his career very much part of the revisionist group of historians who not only rejected both Whig and Marxist historiography but sought by counter argument to provide something different.

It must be said that Sharpe was not the first to concentrate on the “superstructure “of events of the English revolution. His concentration on politics to the detriment of “base” i.e.  Economics was developed to a fine art by Professor Conrad Russell. Russell has been attributed with being one of the few historians to link causes that were connected to actual effects. Whether this is true this is not really the place to argue.

Perhaps Sharpe’s most important book was The Personal Rule of Charles I. It is certainly a tour de force of about 980 pages. Sharpe in this book strikes me as being sympathetic to his subject of Charles 1st.   He shares this admiration of Charles with another historian John Adamson. Sharpe presents the period of Charles 1st rule as one of stability and that his rule did really accomplish a lot. Suffice to say he does not subscribe to the Marxist theory that this was a time of great crisis and the Civil war represented an important stage in the transformation of England from a feudal society into a capitalist one.

I must admit have not read all of Sharpe’s work so therefore I cannot comment yet on their merits. Of the work I have read Sharpe comes across as a historian who was passionate about his subject. He was methodical and according to one writer had a fierce work ethic. He paid great attention to accuracy. Whether you agreed with his conclusions he wrote in a manner which was able to explain in simplified terms complex problems. This appears to be a dying art these days.

It appears his attitude to life bore a remarkable resemblance to another historian who died recently Barry Coward. According to Joad Raymond “those fortunate enough to have been his friend will know him as a truly and remarkably caring and funny man, whose humour was deep, broad and frequently inappropriate. Many of the anecdotes will be unpublishable and have to be saved for the pubs across the world where he will be being remembered. He was an insightful and empathic commentator and adviser on affairs of the head and heart; he was the first person I would have called to express my grief at his absence”.

It will be to future historians to judge whether Sharpe’s contribution and other subscribers to revisionist history has transformed our understanding of early modern England. Unlike some writers I believe this debate to be on going and far from “sterile”. One of the most important aspect of Sharpe’s history writing was his attempt to cross the divide between history and politics. Again it is not within the remit of this appreciation of Sharpe’s life to judge whether this ‘cultural turn’ will “refigure our understanding of the history and politics of early modern England and the materials and methods of our study”.

His method can be found in my favourite book of his called Reading Revolutions-The Politics of Reading in Early Modern England Yale University Press 2000. It is a fascinating book.

It offers one of the very few comprehensive studies of reading and politics in early modern England. The book is based on the huge notes Sir William Drake. According to Michael Mendle Sharpe adopts “a meticulous treatment of the readership of Sir William Drake (1606-1669), a Buckinghamshire gentleman whose vociferous literary appetite is chronicled in his own notebooks, marginalia, and diaries. At the core are fifty-four volumes, mostly commonplace books, in the Ogden Mss. at University College, London. Sharpe also tracked down important Drake manuscripts at the Huntington and the Folger Shakespeare Libraries, and still others at the House of Lords Record Office and the Buckinghamshire Record Office. He identified printed books likely to have been owned by Drake amidst the books in University College, London, and another one, extensively annotated, in the Folger. It is a large body of material, written in Drake's hand or in that of an amanuensis, in English, Latin and Italian, the three tongues sometimes sharing the same page. As with the textual corpus, nothing in the presentation is done on a small scale; Sharpe, who is not known to favor compression, provisions his fourth chapter with 627 footnotes”.

To concentrate a whole book on the notes of one person is a very hazardous thing to do. However the book deservedly won the 2001 SHARP Award from the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing for the best new book in Book History.

The study of Drake who was an important figure during the English revolution shows how many people not just what was then the middle class but ordinary people managed to read or were relayed information which allowed them to formulate opinions and act on them. This process enabled many to adopt radical social value. This can be seen by the explosion of multifarious radical groups such as the Levellers, Diggers etc.

Not all shared this enthusiasm for knowledge the poet and playwright George Chapman said

“Away ungodly Vulgars, far away,
Fly ye profane, that dare not view the day,
Nor speak to men but shadows, nor would hear
Of any news, but what seditious were,
Hateful and harmful and ever to the best,
Whispering their scandals ... "

Sharpe highlights that very act of reading was in itself a political act. It is only really now that we are getting a clearer picture not only of peoples reading habits during the Civil War but how they managed to get hold of reading matter. The world of the secret printing presses is an area of research that has been woefully under researched.

Many diverse political figures took advantage of the relatively mobile printing presses. The beginning of the 17th Century saw a significant increase in the number of books printed each year, literacy rates also increased. With the onset of civil war England became the ideological battleground of competing social classes represented by Crown and Parliament.
How great a historian was Kevin Sharpe should be answered by his peers. But in my mind he was a good one. I do not agree with much of what he wrote but he wrote well and sought to reach and educate a wide audience.