Academic journal article Explorations in Renaissance Culture

Henry Vaughan as Country Doctor

Academic journal article Explorations in Renaissance Culture

Henry Vaughan as Country Doctor

Article excerpt

One of the remaining puzzles in the life's story of the poet Henry Vaughan (1621-1695) concerns his medical career, in particular when he began to practice, what kind of training he may have received, and what sort of medicine he professed. Some time after the brief period of poetic activity (1642-1655) that produced his masterpiece Silex Scintillans (1650, 1655), Vaughan began to practice medicine as a country doctor. These questions assume even greater significance in understanding his life's work since his creative period was rather brief in comparison to his long medical career (probably from about 1655-1695). When Gwenllian E. F. Morgan and Louise Imogen Guiney began in the early part of the twentieth century to collect the materials that F. E. Hutchinson would turn into Henry Vaughan: A Life and Interpretation (1947), they could discover no evidence of formal training or any record of his matriculation at a medical school on the continent or in England. These two redoubtable ladies assumed, as did Hutchinson, that he must have studied medicine formally somewhere, since he practiced physick in Brecknockshire and was addressed as doctor. New evidence that has emerged since Morgan and Guiney's efforts--notably Vaughan's medical library--impels further investigation of this issue in view both of our better understanding of the general medical practice in early modern Britain and of Vaughan's own practice. Essentially, earlier biographers have framed the issue in the wrong way. A review of what is known about Vaughan's medical "credentials" and about his contemporary reputation as a medical practitioner, an examination of the status of the medical marketplace in early modern Britain as well as placing Vaughan more accurately in it, and an examination of what can be learned about his particular interests from the medical works he chose to translate and from the previously unexamined marginalia in his own medical library not only sheds light on his hermeticism but grants us a more accurate portrait of Henry Vaughan, the rural physician, whose medical practice was rather typical of the county doctor of his day.

I. Vaughan's Medical "Credentials"

In the northeast corner of the churchyard for the parish of Llansanffread lies Vaughan's rather elaborate, recumbent monument complete with coat of arms, which proclaims him to be a member of an ancient Welsh family as well as a humble sinner before God:


While the tombstone goes on to record "What he wished placed on his tomb" [QUOD IN SEPULCHRUM VOLUIT], we have no way of knowing if the use of the title M.D. was his. Clearly, Vaughan was regarded as a doctor in Brecknockshire and had been called so by his family and friends for at least the last fifteen years of his life. In the absence of any records for him at Oxford or Cambridge, (1) Morgan and Guiney began the search for his medical training at various universities on the continent. No stone has since been left unturned in the search for evidence of his formal training, though none has been found. The closest we have come is a notation in the Calendar of State Papers Domestic of a license granted 7 May 1656 to a "Mr. Vaughan" to go to Holland. But this is almost certainly the Thomas Vaughan of Gray's Inn who was given permission to travel to Holland and France (on 16 May 1656, 1 October, 1656, and 2 October 1656). (2) Likewise there is no evidence of an honorary degree or a special license from the bishop of St. David's in Wales; nor is there any mention of one on the rolls of the Clerk of the Dispensation & Faculties in Chancery, which provide the centralized records of the bishops' recommendations for doctorates and masters degrees granted by the archbishop of Canterbury. These records are simply wanting from 1638 to 1692, a time of great upheaval.

Secondly, we have Vaughan's own statements about practicing as a physician and his silence about any formal training. …

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