Holy Medicine and Diseases of the Soul: Henry of Lancaster and Le Livre de Seyntz Medicines

Henry of Grosmont, from the Bruges Garter Book (1430) by William BrugesHoly Medicine and Diseases of the Soul: Henry of Lancaster and Le Livre de Seyntz Medicines

By Naoë Kukita Yoshikawa

Medical History, Vol.53:3 (2009)

Introduction: Henry of Grosmont (c.1310-61) was one of the most outstanding English aristocrats of the mid-fourteenth century. A second cousin of Edward III, and duke of Lancaster from 1351, he served the king as military commander, diplomat, and political adviser. As a member of the social elite, Henry would have enjoyed a high standard of education. In fact, during his lifetime he composed two treatises: the first, a work on the laws of war; the second, a devotional book entitled Le livre de seyntz medicines (The book of holy medicines).

Le livre de seyntz medicines (hereafter Livre) is essentially an allegorical and autobiographical account of Henry’s sins and penance. Henry, in his forties, was probably reflecting on his own actions as a youth and turning his mind to more religious matters. The impetus for the work came from his friends, possibly including his confessor, who urged him to compose a devotional book. Henry set to work on the Livre during the Lenten weeks of 1354 leading up to Good Friday and Easter, a liturgical period that arouses penitential feelings and hope of salvation. He then seems to have continued to write daily during the following months. As a result, the book consists of a series of moral self-analyses in a confessional style, meditations on the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary, and prayers, all of which reveal his insightful sensibility and devotional feelings. Although Henry’s primary purpose for writing the Livre was penance for his sins and spiritual healing, he must have been aware of the potential readership his book might enjoy. It would have found an audience that could share in his need for penance, and understand its message. Since the first arrival of the Black Death in England in 1348, people were focused on their own mortality, and there was an increasing awareness of the need for penance in individuals in all walks of life. The events of 1348 had special resonance for these rich individuals, who, unlike the poor, were not guaranteed entrance to heaven. That Henry wrote in Anglo-Norman, the dialect of French used in England among the upper classes, certainly indicates his wish to edify his readers and contribute to their spiritual salvation.

Noticeably, throughout the book Henry uses medical metaphors, demonstrating his knowledge of both contemporary theory and practice. Employing wounds as a dominant metaphor, Henry envisions himself as mortally wounded by sin and pleads for urgent medical help. The subsequent meditations show how his wounds are healed by Christ the physician and the Virgin, who acts as a nurse in the service of her Son. His use of medical metaphors and understanding of the symbiotic relationship between medicine and religion illuminate the extent to which medical concepts had permeated the discourse of well-educated aristocrats. As a wealthy nobleman, Henry could have access to the best medical care. It is known that Pascal of Bologna, a surgeon or medicus, served Henry, who, in turn, “obtained several ecclesiastical benefices in England for Pascal from the pope”. Henry’s connections with medical professionals suggest that he might have had the opportunity to acquire medical knowledge through them. Nevertheless, he is not unique in possessing knowledge of medical theory and practice. Rather, his comprehension of medical matters reflects the increasing interest in health among the ruling class and, more generally, in late medieval English society.

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