Dr. Alun Withey on the tangible effects of history and why he finds it so interesting.
I was talking to a colleague recently about what first got us fired up about history. I’ve loved history since childhood, and it was probably inevitable that it would end up as a career. As an undergraduate, though, I vividly remember a turning point – a brilliant lecture I attended on life in the South Wales coalfields, which began with an image of a miners’ protest in the early 20th century. The lecturer began with a simple question: ‘what was it like to be there?’ He went on to talk about the men, the town and environment, the sights and smells and the conditions they lived in, bringing it all vividly to life.
But why does history matter? What is the ‘point’ of history? What is the value of humanities in a modern society? Depressingly, these are questions that historians increasingly have to face, and face them we do. A recent post by Laura Sangha gives a great response to just these sorts of questions.
Despite abundant evidence of the public appetite for ‘popular’ history, academic historians are under constant pressure to defend our discipline in the face of threats to funding, the need to recruit students and bring in research income. Sometimes it is easy not only to lose touch with why history matters, but what it was that got us enthused about it in the first place. For me, though, a chance encounter in an antiquarian bookshop in London last week has gone a long way towards bringing back the excitement I first felt when I first became interested in the past, and the people who inhabited it.
I wasn’t even to go in to the shop. But, with a little time to kill before lunch, I wandered in, and asked the owner if he had a section on health and medicine. He looked apologetic and said he had a few on some shelves at the back of the shop, but “mostly vintage stuff’”. What he actually had were two bookcases full of treasures; all manner of 17th and 18th-century medical and surgical treatises, histories of the body, anatomical works, medical lectures, books of remedies and pharmacopoeia…for a historian of medicine, a little shop of dreams!
One, in particular, caught my eye – an original 1667 copy of John Tanner’s Hidden Treasures of the Art of Physick. I pondered for a little while about whether to buy it…I’ve long worried about buying these old books (especially from places like Ebay) and whether it is right to own something that should ideally be in a museum. But, before long, it was coming home with me!
Unwrapping the book from its packaging at home gave me time to look at it in detail, but also to reflect on the incredible journey that it’s had. More than that it reminded me of exactly why I fell in love with history in the first place. Here, on my desk, next to me now in fact, is a tangible artefact – a survivor from another world.
(Thomas Wyck – ‘Old St Paul in Ruins’, Image from Wikimedia Commons)
It rolled off the press in Clerkenwell, London one day in 1667, in a city still in shock after the dual calamities of the plague and the Great Fire of the previous year. What would an imaginary visitor to London that year have seen? Everywhere were burnt-out buildings, piles of rubble and devastated streets still in the process of being cleared. In January that year Samuel Pepys noted that there were still ‘smoking remains of the late fire’ with ‘the ways mighty bad and dirty’. Even as late as the 28th of February Pepys was still having trouble sleeping because of ‘great terrors about the fire’, and observed ‘smoke still remaining of the late fire’ in the City. On the skyline was the devastated, but still recognisable, symbol of old London – the first St Paul’s Cathedral, whilst the once noted sea of church spires across London was diminished. Clerkenwell itself, however, largely escaped the fire. It was a fairly upmarket area, containing some affluent houses and businesses. Clerkenwell green was a fashionable area, home to some of the nobility.
What, then, of the book’s author and publishers? John Tanner who, according to the blurb, was a ‘student of physick and astrology’ wrote it. In fact, Tanner was a practising physician who resided in Kings Street, Westminster. In other sources he was referred to as a ‘dr in physic’ and a ‘medicus’, possibly even a member of the Royal College of Physicians in February 1675. When he died in 1711, Tanner had done pretty well for himself, leaving gold, silver and money, together with valuable goods, to his children. In his house, according to his inventory, were a ‘Physick room, Chirurgery room and still house’, the last used to distil waters for medicinal use. Tanner was the author of ‘my’ book, but he likely never touched it.
Someone who potentially had more to do with the physical book, however, was its publisher John Streater, a prolific producer of medical texts and brother of Aaron Streater, a noted physician and ‘divine’. Streater often worked in tandem with the bookseller George Sawbridge ‘at his House on clerken-well-Green’. Sawbridge was an eminent bookseller and publisher of medical books by luminaries such as Nicholas Culpeper. According to Elias Ashmole, Sawbridge had been a friend of the ‘English Merlin’ (or the ‘Juggling Wizard and Imposter’, depending on your source!) William Lilly. When he died, Sawbridge was worth around £40,000 – a colossal amount of money in the seventeenth century. It’s not too much of a leap of imagination to picture Sawbridge in his shop, surrounded by shelves and shelves of leather and calf-bound volumes, handing the book over to its first owner.
Who owned it? It’s impossible to say, but let’s speculate. A book like Tanner’sTreasury was meant for a general readership. It’s aim was to help the ‘diligent reader’ attain a good understanding of physick and the body, synthesising a range of different authors. Its medical content might have made it appealing as an easy reference work for a medical practitioner, but far more likely is that it found its way into the library of a local gentleman…perhaps even one of the Clerkenwell nobility who lived hard by. Medical texts were common inclusions amongst the libraries of gentlemen; medicine was one of the accepted intellectual pursuits of elite men. In fact there is only one signature inside the book, which is now, sadly illegible. Only the word ‘boak’ (book) and the date 1726 are now discernible, but show that it was still being used, or at least referred to, at that date. There is also only one slightly unclear annotation, which appears to say ‘used above [unclear] but are fare’. I’ve included the image below.
This copy of Tanner’s Treasury has had a long journey to this point. It has been passed down – perhaps gifted, bequeathed, sold, resold, lent, scores of times. At some point it ended up in a Birmingham library, and was potentially read by countless scholars, before its journey took it back to where it began – a London bookseller, where an interested party (me!) couldn’t leave it on the shelf. Rest assured that it’s found a good home, and will be carefully looked after.
To me, things like this little book are the reasons I love doing what I do. To be sure, the contents are important, giving us a window into the medical worldview of the time, and the sorts of individuals practising, writing and publishing medicine. The remedies are fascinating (and indeed one of my academic research interests). But there’s more to it than that. The book itself lets us literally touchthe past and make contact with an object that was actually there. The people who wrote, sold, bought and passed it on have long gone, but we can still hold and appreciate something that was once important to them. It’s a line of direct contact back through the centuries. For all the academic theorising about grand narratives, discourses, theories and the rest, it’s nice to be reminded now and again of the simple, visceral thrill of letting a source fire up your imagination of what it was like in the past.
And that is why I think history is important.
This article originally appeared on Dr. Alun Withey
Photo credit: Getty Images