In my historical work about early modern women and men I’ve frequently come across references to doctors: some famous like Paracelsus, some prominent in civic politics, like Gereon Sailer of Augsburg, others much less well-known. Apart from general references to humours and blood-letting we seldom, though, get more than a glimpse of their relations to their patients, of their beliefs and their clinical practices. Some issues, such as measures to combat the plague, are better researched, but we know little about individual doctors, individuals such as William Harvey being very much the exception.
All this is about to change, thanks to an ambitious project launched in 2009 by the Institute for Medicine at Würzburg University. Researchers have succeeded in tracing more than 50,000 letters, written between 1500 and 1700, to and from German doctors. The majority of this (unbelievably large) number of letters has already been digitalised, and most have been at least briefly annotated, their near illegible signatures identified, and dating and place of origin established. Quite an achievement, given that the letters were scattered in countless archives and libraries in and beyond Germany!
Thousands of the letters have also been summarised and indexed, time-consuming and painstaking work. As a result it is now possible to follow up not only the careers of these doctors, but to trace in considerable detail their observations, practices, queries and attitudes. It appears from their own statements that many doctors and scholars devoted hours every day to such letter-writing. As Michael Stolberg, professor of the history of medicine in Würzburg points out, the intensity with which information and experiences were exchanged in their correspondence is quite astonishing to us today.
Perhaps it should not surprise us too much. Cultural historians have long pointed out that this is the era in which so-called “ego-documents” burgeoned. People were becoming self-aware to a quite new degree, literacy was spreading, and couriers enabled crucial networks of communication to be maintained between merchants, diplomats, humanists, civic leaders and others. Jane Couchmann and Ann Crabb’s 2016 book, Women’s Letters Across Europe, 1400-1700, for example, draws attention to a treasury of women’s letters from this time. The remarkable speed with which news spread, about reform initiatives or peasant insurrections or threatened invasions, is largely attributable to such letters. This medical correspondence is part of this larger pattern.
Here is the English translation of a summary of one letter, written by Dr James Berckmüller to the Guardian and the City Council of Augsburg, dated 29 August 1628:
These are sad times for the Guardian given that two of the apothecaries, after visiting victims, have died of the plague, in exceedingly grim circumstances. Now that the position is vacant and another attendant doctor will soon be required, since the appropriate medication has to be prepared and replaced, he asks to be appointed to this position. He had previously taken over from Dr Raymond Minderer when he was absent or on his travels, and for twenty years now has provided the citizens of Augsburg with medical advice and assistance. He feels responsible as a doctor to make himself available for this urgent task so that due care is offered and no one has cause to complain. He looks forward to hearing from them and sends his best wishes.”
By the time the Würzburg project winds up in 2023 it is hoped that about half of the letters will have been summarised, providing access to issues such as the use of medications and the diagnostic tools for illnesses (as well as the writers’ reflections about the qualities desirable for a doctor’s wife, or hopes for their children’s careers). Topics covered range from nose-bleeds to syphilis, skin ailments to kidney stones, cancer to broken bones, mastectomy to snake-bites. Unfortunately it appears that there is nothing similar to this project in the English or French-speaking world. The data can be freely accessed here.
Peter Matheson is a Dunedin historian and theologian. His publications focus on early modern radicals and women. His forthcoming book, co-authored with his German partner, is Love and Terror in the Third Reich (Wipf & Stock: Eugene, OR. Summer 2018).