The Irregulars; or, an Adventure in Prosopography

The book I mentioned at the end of my last post, Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab by Christine Montross (2007), did prove an enjoyable read. As a grad student in English lit, I do a lot of reading, but far too little of it is honestly “enjoyable.” (Note: I am not complaining about reading, nor am I saying I dislike scholarly reading; I’m simply identifying a different type of reading.) This particular book did not mention Crooke, or, indeed, have much to say about the specific areas my own research currently focuses on. Still, it helped remind me why I’m interested in these areas; it was, in a very literal way, refreshing. I was sad when I reached the end and could no longer savor my little bits of “fun” reading each day. I need to look for something to follow it, something equally interesting and insightful but still light.

However, the Montross book did lead me back to Crooke in a new and exciting way by a rather unusual route. I had a break one Friday that was perfect for a bit of reading, and just as I was mentally bemoaning the fact that I’d finished Body of Work, I realized I was walking past the university library. Usually when I go into the library for a book, I have a call number ready in my hand, but this time, looking for something “fun,” I was determined to just walk into the stacks and find something that looked good; if it didn’t pan out, I’d simply bring it back.

I am a huge promoter of browsing the stacks at the library to find sources; this is why I go in with a list of three books to pull off the shelves and walk out with a stack of eleven. There is, of course, a method to the call number madness. (I think closed stacks are an absolute tragedy.) However, I have more than once discovered a section of great value to me when something simply caught my eye as I walked by. This time, just looking for anything, I happened across the history of medicine section. How had I not been there before?

As a narrative of my browsing is probably not of particular interest to anyone, I’ll cut to the chase. I found a fabulous book: Medical Conflicts in Early Modern London: Patronage, Physicians, and Irregular Practitioners, 1550-1641 by Margaret Pelling, published in 2003. Pelling is at the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine at Oxford, where she formerly worked with Charles Webster (he of From Paracelsus to Newton fame, for those of you familiar). As you might guess, Crooke falls handily into the category of “irregular practitioners,” and not only does Pelling mention him specifically multiple times (and provide some new information on him), but this book provides me with a new way of thinking about Crooke and his cohort and, I think, possibly . . . a dissertation idea.

Pelling explains that the College of Physicians of London was fairly new in Crooke’s time, having been founded only in 1518, and, simply put, it had control issues.

[T]he College had from the outset the task and intention of controlling all practitioners of physic in the capital, as well as the supervision of what it regarded as the subordinate institutions regulating the medical art. The College’s forms of control were primarily exclusionary and punitive: any practitioner of physic active inside a 7-mile radius in London was defined as illicit unless he (women were not eligible) had been licensed by the College, and illicit practice was punishable by fines and imprisonment. (Pelling 1)

The reality, of course, was that this prohibition meant that a sizeable group of various sorts of medical practitioners were left on the “periphery.” Many of those individuals are, unfortunately but inevitably, lost to history. While we know a good deal about the properly licensed physicians documented by the College’s official records, we know less about the rule-breakers; however, those same College records do provide some information on the rule-breakers they caught, punished, and/or attempted to thwart. Pelling describes the fringe group on which she focuses as “the 714 different medical practitioners—the ‘irregulars’—to whom the Annals or minutes of the College give us access during the ninety years between October 1550 and September 1640” (3-4). Crooke, interestingly, falls into both groups; while he did eventually become a “proper” member of the College, he also frequently found himself at odds with them.

In her study of the London physicians, Pelling employs prosopography, a term that was new to me; according to the OED, it refers to “A study or description of an individual’s life, career, etc.; esp. a collection of such studies focusing on the public careers and relationships of a group in a particular place and period; a collective biography.” Interestingly, one of the conclusions Pelling makes after studying “the irregulars” as a group is that they construe a “middling sort” of class in their society.

As is plain to see, the strength of the medical hegemony in modern western society has had the predictable effect of breeding its polar opposite; extremes of faith and cynicism flourish accordingly, and require histories to match. In these histories we have physicians and quacks, quacks and physicians, with variants which see pre-modern physicians and quacks as one and the same. Regrettably, some forms of cultural history may inadvertently reinforce this vicious circle, by denying medicine a material existence, and defining it instead as primarily performance, either in person or in print. However great their value, interpretations which avoid materiality are likely to do little to restore the ‘excluded middle’ which has been created by medicine’s largely successful attempt to separate itself from other crafts and trades, primarily but not exclusively at the artisanal level. As well as affecting our impressions of medicine itself, as strictly defined, this separation has also involved areas such as art, music gastronomy, and theatre. These activities were later brought back into the self-image of the accomplished, polymathic practitioner, once they were purged of their connection with the artisanal crafts and could be made to look cultivated (cultural) or artistic. (Pelling 12-13)

Pelling even ponders whether the physicians may form a sort of middle class in early modern London:

Were the collegiate physicians—with their dependency on decorum, their stress on what was later called the meritocratic intellect, their sensitivity about social privilege, their faith in rational negotiation, their appeal to legislation, and, above all, their definitive emphasis on (but not involvement in) education—providing a template for middle-class values in many respects ahead of their time? (Pelling 15)

After merely reading Pelling’s introduction (and the sections about Crooke, of course), I was really excited. This is not only a whole new way of thinking about Crooke; it’s a whole new way in which he matters. And, although I have to do more research, I think I may have a way here to turn my love of Crooke into a feasible dissertation project. Pelling, as a historian, bases her research solely on official historical records. As a student of literature, I can incorporate creative representations of physicians into the equation; I can consider what Pelling’s hypotheses can tell us about the plays, poems, and stories of early modern London, and what that literature can tell us about Pelling’s hypotheses.

BUT—now for the good stuff. Here’s a list of the intriguing new (to me, anyway) information Pelling offers on Crooke:

1) He “had first-hand experience of plague in London” (54).

2) The instance in which Jaggard’s wife was called before the College to defend her husband’s decision to print Crooke’s book in its entirety (remember, the Bishop of London and the College of Physicians tried to suppress the portions on the female reproductive system) was not unique, or simply a result of Jaggard’s syphilitic blindness; “Culturally, it might have been thought that the most effective complainant on behalf of a husband was his wife, just as clemency could be gained for irregulars by the pleadings of their wives” (Pelling 124).

3) Helkiah name has variously been recorded Elias, Helkiach, Hilkiah, and Hilkias; variants of his last name include Crook, Croke, Cruyck, and the latinate Crocus.

4) “In the 1610s he [Crooke] appears to have had a shop in which he employed Thomas Lord, first as his servant and then as his ‘private apothecary'” (Pelling 127 n.).

5) Crooke claimed, in a letter to James I, “that they [the College of Physicians] themselves in public dissections exhibited the human body of either sex to be seen and touched and that they cut up indecent parts and explained each separately in the vernacular” (Pelling 222).

6) Pelling finds Crooke’s mastery of Latin impressive; she notes an instance in which “Crooke abased himself by letter (in Latin) [in an attempt to appease the College after an offense] even more successfully [than another irregular], being able to put his own criticisms across at the same time”; in a note, she follows, “Crooke’s letter is an excellent (calculated) example of humanist Latin as ‘adulation’s language'” (278).

I am particularly excited about Crooke’s shop and “private apothecary”—this is something I’ll definitely be pursuing with further research.

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2 Comments on “The Irregulars; or, an Adventure in Prosopography”

  1. Sounds awesome! Both of these books just made my list as well. Glad to see you figuring out a way to write about Crooke for your dissertation.


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