Tuesday 19 February 2013

16th Century Medical Student Blog – Beloved son, Felix: Theresa Breslin

In 1552 a fifteen year old boy, Felix Platter, left his home in Basle to go and study medicine in the south of France. He wrote an account of his journey to Montpelier, kept a diary during his five years of study there, and also an account of his travels as he returned home via Paris. His journal was published in various forms but my copy was translated from the original German by Séan Jennett and published in English in 1961. It is one of the most fascinating books in my library.

Felix was a student at a time of huge social change. As in The Nostradamus Prophecy medicine was still practised using charms and spells. Creams and salves were prepared and applied according to ritual, with astrological interpretation used as a key component to judge whether the movement of the planets would ensure greater potency. Barbers performed surgery and tooth extraction, and in the absence of effective anaesthetic patients were frequently strapped to the operating table. Surgery was brutal. Life was hard and sometimes painfully short.  Herb gardens supplied natural remedies with some success, but the main enemy for effective cure for ailments was infection. People lived in close proximity to raw sewage with effluence of all types just piled at the side of the road to make a passage for horses and carts as opposed to proper disposal.

The system of student exchange operating at the time meant that the son of one family could swap places with the son of another in order to attend a particular course at a certain university. It meant that the expenses for each family were kept down as, by negotiation, no payment need be made by either party for food and lodging.  Felix begins his journal by taking us with him as he sets out for Montpelier. And right away we are engaged. For in addition to being crammed with historical detail his writing in intensely personal and utterly engaging.   

Away from home for the first time Felix stops over at an inn and becomes separated from his companions. Low in spirits he’s concerned that he might be robbed and murdered and goes to the stables where he leans on his horse’s neck and bursts into tears. He reaches his destination and has all the usual anxieties of a modern day student: the newness of the place, the strange food and customs, his relationship with his landlord, fellow students, and professors. 

His description of his lectures and practical work is absorbing. We watch the gruesome spectacle of dissections taking place and wonder a t the fact that people other than students could attend, including ladies, even thought the corpse might be male.  Then… moments of anxiety as he joins up with a grave-robbing group of students, and I’m as worried for him as I might be for one of my own children away at University. Whew! He scrapes through that episode unscathed.

I laugh out loud at his antics to impress girls when he buys himself new red breeches, slashed, and lined with taffeta and:  ‘…so tight that I could scarcely bend.’ And then later, when he is wearing spurs and tries to dance with a young lady but only succeeds in tripping and tearing her dress.

I shudder at the public executions he witnesses, including the gruesome description of the burning of a man found guilty of heresy.  Then I smile as Felix is caught out eating eggs cooked in butter during Lent - despite trying to hide the eggshells in his room.

This is such a readable book. You are drawn into his life and are able to see how and why his opinions are formed.  I felt I’d sharing Felix’s life and his youth and his rite of passage to adulthood as he slowly matures during the time of his university course.  

Felix survived his studies and his various escapades to make the long return journey where with enormous joy he meets up with and marries Magdalena, the girl who’d waited for him at home.
I’m glad to know that he went on to become a respected physician, greatly honoured by his own students and peers. His letters and his herbal are kept in the University of Basle.

Twitter: @theresabreslin1 
Spy for the Queen of Scots is nominated for the Carnegie Medal and an Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales  illustrated by Kate Leiper is nominated for the Greenaway Medal.
The Divided City music theatre show will be performed the Millennium Theatre as part of the Derry-Londonderry City of Culture 2013.    


Joan Lennon said...

"Low in spirits he’s concerned that he might be robbed and murdered and goes to the stables where he leans on his horse’s neck and bursts into tears." This made my eyes fill up - thank you so much for posting about this book! I must get hold of a copy!

Theresa Breslin said...

It's a terrific book Joan. I read it for research when writing The Medici Seal but I reread it constantly. It gives a flavour of the thoughts of a sensitive, intelligent teenager and his student tricks chime with young people today. It's slim and readable and of interest to a modern young person too. Thanks for the comment.

Jane Borodale said...

One of the (real) characters in my book The Knot (Thomas Moffat) mentions that he hopes to lodge with Felix Platter in Basel, Theresa!

I agree with you that there was much quackery and misunderstanding in 16th century medicine especially at practice level, but there was also a remarkable understanding of the properties of plants; the scholarly herbals are extraordinary...

Theresa Breslin said...

That's so interesting Jane! Definitely going to read the Knot. As you say the herbals are fascinating. I have it on good authority some recipes are still used.

Marjorie said...

That sounds fascinating. I've never heard of him, or the book, but I think I shall have to find a copy, now.

Theresa Breslin said...

Neither had I Marjorie. It was one of those serendipity moments when I came across the book.

Theresa Breslin said...

Thanks Leslie - I think what impressed me most was that he was only 15 when he began the journal.

Healthopinion said...
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Stitcher1 said...

I bought this book from a charity shop: it had been a library copy, withdrawn from stock, and first sold at the library itself presumably. I loved it and would never part with it. Felix reminds us that no matter which period of history a person lived in, he is, first and foremost, human, experiencing all of the same hopes, dreams and fears which we experience today, albeit in an entirely different environment. It was the passage about the burning of the heretic which has always stayed with me - an unimaginable horror to have witnessed.