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M.A. Katritzky, Healing, Performance and Ceremony in the Writings of Three Early Modern Physicians: Hippolytus Guarinonius and the Brothers Felix and Thomas Platter (Ashgate, 2012)

M.A. Katritzky, Healing, Performance and Ceremony in the Writings of Three Early Modern Physicians: Hippolytus Guarinonius and the Brothers Felix and Thomas Platter (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012). ISBN 978-0-7546-6707-0, 451 pp. £70.00.

Reviewed by Stuart Farley


[1] In keeping with the aim of the series, The History of Medicine in Context, M.A. Katritzky’s study of the print and manuscript writings of Felix (1536-1614) and Thomas Platter (1574-1628) and Hippolytus Guarinonius (1571-1654) contextualises the early modern practice of medicine within the history of theatre, thus establishing unwonted connections between spectacles of healing, performance and ceremony. Although a number of themes are covered in this lengthy volume, the scope of which is at times centrifugal, Katritzky consistently has in sight the figure of the physician who extends his diagnostic gaze to the various manifestations of theatricality in the early modern period, which include Carnival, fairground performances, court festivals, the commedia dell’arte in northern Europe, Shakespeare and the London stage, marketplace quackery, and the exhibition of ‘performing monsters’. The intersection between the discrete disciplines of medicine and theatre is an illuminating one, not least of all because the physician is seemingly at home in the contrasting spheres of the marketplace and the court: both in the theatre, rubbing shoulders with groundlings, as well as in a private audience with Queen Elizabeth, as was the case with Thomas Platter during his travels to England in 1599. This intermediary status allows for insightful recordings of what went on during festivities, quack routines, and other such performances as the physicians were unencumbered with the task of producing flattering chronicles of the nobility’s wedding celebrations, for example (see chs. 6 and 7), while their status as men of both letters and medicine serves to illuminate ‘some of the intense negotiations between science and showmanship’ (211; see esp. chs. 9-11). The appearance of ‘monsters’ both as a fairground spectacle and in the scientific literature, such as Guarinonius’s The Abominations of the Desolation of the Human Race (1610) and Felix Platter’s Obseruationum (1614), is a prime example of the latter.

[2] For Katritzky, then, the many observations made by these three physicians serve as valuable documentary evidence for the purposes of theatre-history, and so her principle task in Healing, Performance and Ceremony is to make that evidence more widely available (hitherto, critical studies of these works have been predominantly in German). Katritzky, however, avoids mining these sources solely for titbits and missing links, although this is done along the way, as in Ch. 12 where the quack troupe leader operating under the stage-name of ‘Zan Bragetta’ is identified as Giovanni Paulo Alfieri by reference to Thomas Platter’s journals; rather, Katritzky uses the material to reveal the complexities of Guarinonius and the Platter brothers, doing so by gauging their attitudes toward theatre and festivity, which the reader soon surmises is, in the author’s view, a lynchpin in our understanding of the early modern experience. In this respect, Katritzky’s choice of physicians is astute, not only because of the richness of their writings, but more precisely because they represent between them two contrasting approaches to festive and theatrical culture. While the more open-minded Felix and Thomas Platter go so far as participating in the Carnival celebrations and describe its ‘healing power to unite disparate communities and social strata’, Guarinonius offers an opposing diagnosis which stresses the ‘health-, even life-threatening, aspects of ‘carnal, bestial Carnival” (73). The former revel in its vibrancy, whereas the latter catalogues its ills so as to warn his readers against the bodily and spiritual perils of overindulgence and licentiousness. The originality of Katritzky’s approach here lies in its attentiveness to the physicians’ medicalization of performance culture: on the one hand, the festivities are said to be symptomatic and causes of spiritual maladies; on the other hand, theatre could serve as an antidotum melancholiae by virtue of the therapeutic effect of viewing plays, which is dubbed by Guarinonius as ‘the most powerful and effective means of raising the human spirits’ (235). For Guarinonius, theatre-going and the ensuing laughter is prescribed as a purgative against the kinds of folly exemplified by the comedic routines of Zanni and Pantalone. Theatre can be medicinal so long as the spectator refrains from participation and registers the moral lesson, as Guarinonius does by incorporating a number of commedia dell’arte lazzi (improvised sketches) into his moralistic and medical treatise.

[3] It is in the figure of the quack physician, however, that Katritzky’s medical and theatrical interests most felicitously converge. The quack, also known as a quacksalver, mountebank, charlatan, and sometimes empiric, was an itinerant peddler of remedies and cures who utilised the theatrics of marketplace performance as a means of advertising his wares – or indeed hers, as Katritzky has previously shown in Women, Medicine and Theatre, 1500-1750: Literary Mountebanks and Performing Quacks (Ashgate, 2007). While it is certainly the case that for many observers the quack’s role as entertainer overshadowed his or her medical capacity, and vice versa for others, Healing, Performance and Ceremony boldly argues that ‘itinerant theatrical and medical economies did not merely overlap, but were so interdependent that one cannot usefully be considered without the other’ (143); quacks signal ‘the profound interdependency of the itinerant theatrical and medical marketplaces’ (279). As Katritzky demonstrates, in what amounts to one of the most important contributions made by the book, the commedia dell’arte troupes resorted to quackery during outdoor performances as they were unable to charge an entrance fee upon such occasions. This means that there is a direct lineage between the commedia zany and the quack performer. Retailing medicine thus became a vital economic and performative strategy for itinerant troupes and shows the fruitful way in which medicine and theatre commingled in the early modern period to produce a novel kind of ‘healing performance’. The quack physician is a synthesis of the fairground performer and the medicine man, and even though he is frequently castigated for debasing the medical profession, the evidence culled by Katritzky in this book suggests that we ought to take them more seriously as individuals and troupes who ‘used performance itself as their most effective medicine, by harnessing the therapeutic power of music and laughter, to stage healing as performance’ (279).

[4] The book convincingly argues that the intertwinement of medicine, performance, and festivity is a fertile field of study that has the potential to act as a bridge between the burgeoning literature on theatre studies and the history of medicine. Katritzky demonstrates that original findings are to be made by focusing on the crossover between the two disciplines. Certainly, Healing, Performance and Ceremony will introduce many readers to the three physicians for the first time but it will do so in a way that makes a compelling case for their relevance to a wide readership.

University of St. Andrews, May 2013