- The Medical World of Early Modern France
Laurence Brockliss and Colin Jones are to be congratulated on the scope and range of their study, which seems designed to redress in one fell swoop the lack of breadth and synthesis in the study of French medicine. While synthetic study characterizes works on the history of English medicine, it is almost entirely foreign to the Annales school, which has been particularly reluctant to integrate the history of ideas into the history of medicine and inclined to foster narrow, quantitative studies. Applying an English model to a French topic, Brockliss and Jones have produced an impressive integration of medical ideas and practice that places medicine in the context of demography, epidemiology, and social and [End Page 495] intellectual history. It treats the full range of medical practitioners and provides a thorough discussion of the evolution of the medical profession and its relationship to its rivals—surgeons, apothecaries, and folk healers. Even a study as broad as this inevitably gives short shrift to some aspects of the topic. In general, the most educated and most established groups practicing medicine receive the most extensive treatment, in part, no doubt, because the literary record is richest for those groups. The authors have also focused almost exclusively on Montpellier and Paris, the preeminent medical centers of early modern France. Brockliss and Jones acknowledge the lacunae that even their tome has left unfilled, such as the history of pharmacies and apothecaries, and military and commercial medicine.
But it is not simply its comprehensive character that makes this book appealing. Effectively evoking the experience of the patient and the practitioners, the authors demonstrate great sensitivity to the social dynamic of medical practice. The narrative is both enmeshed in the social history of the period and richly nuanced by historiographic interpretation. Enhanced by its indebtedness to the history of ideas and the “new cultural history,” it offers both an elegant presentation of intellectual issues and a vivid depiction of the social dimensions of disease and its treatment.
The book is divided into two parts. The first treats the rise of the “corporate medical community,” which the authors define as “a complex tripartite ensemble of physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries grouped into various legally recognized collectivities” (p. 8). The second part documents the attacks on this community, and its decline in the eighteenth century. The authors distinguish two periods: one in which the plague was the predominant medical preoccupation, and the other after that threat had abated. This rather arbitrary designation allows them to capture the tenor of medical discussions and to discuss in vivid terms the impact of diseases on their sufferers. The era of the plague also provides a well-focused perspective from which to connect a great array of topics—including the demographic patterns of early modern France, the course of common diseases, the social meanings attached to disease, the approach to disease of both well-educated and less-well-educated practitioners, and the relationship of the patient to the practitioner. Once these broad themes have been laid out, Brockliss and Jones follow them through the eighteenth century.
Even without the note in the preface, it is quite easy to determine who has written each section, for each clearly reflects the interests of its author (in the case of Brockliss, the theoretical and the institutional; in the case of Jones, the practice of medicine and the peripheral practitioner). Their individual styles are distinctive and discernible. This collaboration is felicitous: each author not only brings his expertise to bear on areas of his particular interest, but also makes concessions to the interests of the other. The differences in style and approach forge an engaging narrative.
This volume will be of great use to historians of medicine because it synthesizes a wealth of information gleaned from both the archives and the extensive body of more specialized studies of early modern medicine. For historians of [End Page 496] France, the work makes medicine central to the intellectual, social, and cultural history of early modern France.