Monthly Archives: August 2013

Bedside manners: surgeons and the wounded romance hero


The first part of Roger Boyle’s multi-volume romance Parthenissa, published in 1651, tells the interwoven tales of the Parthian nobleman Artabanes and his passion for Parthenissa, and the Armenian nobleman Artavasdes and his love for the princess Altezeera. It’s a romance that is full of battles, heroism and desire, and it would take me about a dozen blogposts to summarise the astoundingly complex plot, so I’m going to be coming back to Parthenissa a lot in the future. Suffice to say that when they’re not sighing and lovelorn, the heroes are invariably fighting; at tournaments, in duels, on the battlefield, with pirates, in ambushes, in sieges and on one occasion struggling with street assassins.  And they get wounded. A lot.

This isn’t entirely usual. Romance heroes tend to be almost impervious to assault. Amadis, the eponymous hero of Amadis de Gaule – a Continental best-seller translated into English by Anthony Munday in 1590 – is constantly battling with knights and the odd giant but is rarely knocked out by his opponents for long. In one incident he is fighting the Irish forces of King Abies outside the castle of Perion. The battle takes place outside the city walls with the Irish driving Perion and Amadis’s soldiers back into the city. Abies then challenges Amadis to combat with ten knights on each side. Just before the encounter, the queen sends for Amadis, at which point “she perceiued he was sore wounded, which she shewing to the King, he said, I meruaile Gentleman, seeing you are so hurt, that you tooke no longer time for your Combate. It had been needlesse, answered the Prince, for I haue no wound (I thanke God) that can keep me from the Combate”.

In Parthenissa, though, the heroes really are laid low. I want to explore the martyrological undercurrents of the wounded hero and the erotic undertow of the prone hero in later posts, but for the moment I want to focus on a hitherto undiscussed feature of injuries in Parthenissa. Constantly hovering, dressing the wounds and applying plaisters (not, as I first assumed, a sort of bandage but type of ointment) are surgeons.

The first hero, Artabanes, nearly dies within the first twenty pages of the romance when he defends Parthenissa’s honour in a tilt against a visiting knight Ambixules:  “[King] Arsaces did mee the honor to walke a foote by my Litter, and to see the first dressing of my wounds, where hee receiv’d an assurance from the Chyurgions, that I had none which were dangerous, that the losse of blood was the greatest harme I had sustained, and that rest was one of the best remedies they could prescribe.”

Artavasdes is almost left for dead defending the city of Artaxes against the rebel forces of Phanasder. Artavasdes recounts: “Some able Chyrurgions … having search’t my wounds and drest them, found they were very dangerous, yet to console my Mother, told her they were curable, & having given me some Cordialls which brought me to my selfe againe, they withdrew themselves.”

In the romance’s long Roman subplot, Perolla is grievously wounded after saving Blacius, the enemy of his father, from assassination: “Though the Chyrurgions came hastiy to binde [my wounds] up, yet they could not vndertake for my life, ’till they sawe what operation that dressing would have, and to free me from all noyse that I might take a litle sleepe.”

The wounds just keep on coming. Even when Artabanes flees west across the Mediterranean and his ship is captured by pirates, the outlaw vessel has a surgeon on board – handy, really, since Symander, Artabanes’s trusted companion, gets a javelin stuck in his back. He is prescribed strong cordials and eventually recovers.

What is striking here is that at all times these heroes are receiving a third-party diagnosis of their prospects. The fictional body is being authenticated by science. Not only does the surgeons’ determination of how long the hero should rest imposes specific time periods within the narrative, but in the case of Artavasdes’ brother Amidor, the doctors metaphorically don the black cap, pronouncing the situation hopeless:

“My poore Brother mortally wounded, carying unto his Lodging: so sad an object soone clouded all my Ioy, and made me retourne with him to knowe what I might expect of his fate. The ablest Chirurgeons being sent for, searched his wounds and found they were incurable for their Art.”

1651, the year of Parthenissa’s original publication, saw the printing of numerous medical books, from Robert Record’s treatise on urine The Urinal of Physick to Thomas Vicary’s The Surgeon’s Directorie. Ralph Williams’ Physical Rarities functions as user-friendly manual  with an alphabetised index that runs from A for ague to Y for yard. (That’s as in a ‘man’s yard’ and which includes a remedy for being “burnt by a harlot”.) Medical publications that year were already aiming at a variety of audiences; Richard Elkes’ Approved Medicines of Little Cost…For the Soldier’s Knapsack has military men as its target audience, while  the anonymously written A Closet for Ladies and Gentlewomen and A Book Of Fruits And Flowers both combine advice on conserving and candying with recipes for poultices and salves.

Alongside these was the increasing production of surgical textbooks. The granddaddy of this was Ambroise Paré’s Method of Curing Wounds Made By Gunshot, originally published in French the previous century. The frontispiece to the 1617 translation (see picture) displays a body variously attacked by lance, sword, hatchet, arrow, dagger, cannon ball and gun. This is not an erotic St Sebastian, for inside is the promise of recovery: within the following pages, and looking remarkably similar to the weapons on the front, is a parade of surgeons’ tools.

]ohn Woodall’s The Surgeons Mate (1639) takes the surgeon’s chest as an organising principle, detailing all the instruments necessary from knives to bandages before moving on to discuss actual conditions such as plague and gangrene. Like the textbook itself, the chest is designed to be portable and to be taken on board coach or ship. Meanwhile, Dr Alexander Read’s Tuesday lectures on surgery at the Barber-Surgeons’ Hall were collected and printed in 1650, which bespeaks  an appetite amongst the reading public for this medical knowledge. In turn, it can’t be altogether surprising that the seepage of this technical discourse into lay reading is having an effect on the way wounds are being represented in fiction. And this isn’t even taking into account the aftermath of the Civil War, a conflict so bloody and widespread that few families would not have known someone killed or wounded in siege or field battle.

Parthenissa is an intriguing evidence as to when the body starts to become medicalised. The hero is now a patient; no longer a vigorous subject, he becomes the object of treatment. Foucault explores this separation of the body from personal identity in The Birth of the Clinic, but he locates the birth of the ‘medical gaze’ to the eighteenth century. My reading of Parthenissa hints that this is happening a century earlier; in projecting the surgeon into the role of the gatekeeper and diagnostician romance is acknowledging that the body is not just the emblem of valour but an object of study, even a site of experimentation.  The hero has been handed over to the medics.


PS There’s an enormous amount to say about the rhetorical construction of medical knowledge: thanks to Mike Leahy, a doctoral student at Birkbeck, for his paper last year on the literary readings and reception of a medieval surgical manual.

I’ve also come across a couple of medical history blogs which make good reading:


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