A Doctor of the Plague Years

Tomb Effigy of Guillaume de Harcigny, ca. 1394. France.

It is a lovely rainy day in New York City, cool and quiet with the gentle sound of drops on the window and a stark reduction in the usual traffic sounds. The quiet is mostly due to the pandemic currently keeping people at home. I am seated at my desk, wrangling with history (a.k.a trying to write my dissertation. Operative word: trying). My research has taken on a sharp poignancy in this time because I am writing about tomb monuments created in Europe in the late 1300s and throughout the 1400s. It is a moment in history when society was undergoing drastic change, in large part due to the ravages of a pandemic that swept Europe in 1348, and returned in waves of roughly 10 years for a lengthy time afterwards. It is important not to overstate the role this plague played in the social shifts that followed — the culture in question was already primed for many of the changes that took place — but I think it is very interesting to see how my own interpretations as a historian are shifting as I watch my own society respond to a pandemic. I think it is helping me to understand my period of study better. One of my main goals as a researcher has always been to avoid looking at this period with derision, as so many modern people tend to do. Instead, I am trying to get as intimate as possible with the mindset of the people, specifically the people whose tombs I am researching. Because of the legacy of war in the parts of Europe I study (France, Switzerland, Belgium, England, and parts of Germany) many of the documents that would help me have been destroyed. This means that I must rely on the objects themselves to guide me. For the month of April (and probably the month of May, too, considering the pace at which I am proceeding) my energy has been focused on the tomb of one man, a doctor, who appears to be one of the fore-runners in commissioning the type of tomb I study. 

Tomb Effigy of Guillaume e Harcigny, ca. 1394. France

I was fortunate to make a visit to the tomb of Guillaume de Harcigny in January of 2019. It is only partially preserved now, in a wonderful little museum in Laon (http://www.ca-paysdelaon.fr/musee.html)  where the curator was kind enough to let me examine the sculpture minutely and to connect me to the town archives. From earlier records we know that the tomb was once a stone rectangular box with an inscription on it recording the name of the deceased, promising the return of the body to Nature (with a capital N). On top of the box there was an effigy, and it is this effigy that is now preserved in Laon. It is a strange, disturbing, but also deeply compelling representation of the dead man as his body begins its process of decay. In essence, it shows in detail what has been announced in the inscription. The body is returning to nature. 

A focused shot of the arms, hands, and ribcage.

Guillaume was a deeply pious person. He was trained as a doctor at the University of Paris, where he would have learned as much theology as he did medicine. The medical texts of the time were quite limited, and based on Ancient Greek ideas of balancing the body to ensure optimal health, by making sure that the ratios of blood, phlegm, black bile, and white bile were in correct proportion (this theory of “balance” is the reason that bloodletting was one of the most popular treatments for all kinds of ailments in the Middle Ages, and well into the Early Modern period). Lest you begin the all-to-common track of deriding the people of this time for believing such clearly inaccurate nonsense, ask yourself if you believe now that your body can achieve optimum health when it is “in balance.” Do you believe your body needs to be “cleansed” in order to return to “balance?” Then you, too, may be feeling the continuing effects of classical humoral concepts of medicine. It is not so easy to dismiss. The people of this era were not any more stupid, or attached to their ideology, than you or I. We modern humans like to believe we are vastly superior to the people of the past. We are just as capable of error as they were, and a number of the ideas they treasured are still embedded at the root of our culture, to ends both good and bad. 

Guillaume de Harcigny, detail. The head and shoulders.

Guillaume was unusual in that he found his theoretical education to be lacking, and embarked on a long journey through Italy, Egypt, and Syria in order to learn more about medicine by practicing it in parts of the world where there was more advanced medical training than in Paris. That kind of travel and research was no mean feat during the 1300s, especially for a man who was the son of farmers (though they had farmed so successfully they were able to retire and send their son to school. Still, he was not an aristocrat nor was he a famous scholar who was paid to lecture. He worked as a doctor everywhere he went). He would have been working as a doctor of medicine when the first plague hit Europe, would have watched it run rampant throughout his country, and would surely have felt powerless in the face of it. He wrote several books in an effort to contribute to the medical knowledge of his time, include a narrative of his travels, a book of anatomy, a book of herbal remedies, and a book about using urine to diagnose various diseases. Sadly, none of these survive. This was before the printing press, and he wrote each one by hand on vellum, first in Latin and then translated into French. Various world wars have ensured the destruction of all he wrote, as if time wasn’t risk enough.

The figure from below. Note the sharp visual contrast between the highly stylized legs and the exquisite hands.

His will gave all of his considerable fortune to the city of Laon, and also stipulated the way his tomb should look. I do not know what sculptor carried out the work, nor how detailed the instructions were. I do know that the resulting effigy is one of the most striking I have ever encountered. The lines of it, the heft of the ribcage and the head, the use of negative space. I love this period in art because of the way it balances between stylized use of the figure and an interest in naturalism (or realism if you must). There is clear knowledge of anatomy (perhaps from one of de Harcigny’s books!), but there is also an abstracted use of volume and line that added to the overall presence of the piece. The afternoon I spent in front of it was one of the best exercises in close looking of my life. I learned so much about negative space, tension of line, anatomy and feeling from standing before it. As I struggle put together a picture of this man, I find myself respecting him and his sculpture even more. He is long dead (he died in his late 80s), but through his effigy and the few traces of personality still recorded in history, I have come to honor him as one of the great physicians of his time. It was a time much like ours. 

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