Reading Riviére in early modern England

By Elaine Leong

I recently started work on a case study for my second book project Reading for Cures in Early Modern England. We all encounter and obsess about particular historical curiosities. For a while now, I have been pondering on The Practice of Physick, the English translation of Lazare Riviére’s Praxis medica (Paris, 1640).

Portrait of Lazare Riviere. Taken from his Opera medica universa quibus continentur (Cellier, Patris & Filii: Lyons, 1672) © Wellcome Images

For those of you who might not know it, The Practice of Physick is the product of the Peter Cole/Nicholas Culpeper partnership which also brought to English readers translations of the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis and of the works of European medical writers such as Felix Platter, Daniel Sennert and Jean Fernel. It seems, after the phenomenal success of Culpeper’s translations, upon his death, Cole decided to continue going at it alone (with a little help from his friends Abdiah Cole and William Rowland).

The Practice of Physick was one of the most successful of Cole’s later medical translation projects.  Cole himself published several editions (though one or two of those might just be re-issue of old stock) and the title was taken over in 1668 by John Streater who continued to print new editions until his death in 1677. The work was not only popular in English but more than ten Latin editions were issued in various European printing centres and it was translated into French in 1682 where it contained to be re-printed and reissued well into the mid-18th century.[1]

For those who know me, it might not come as a surprise that my fascination with The Practice of Physick originated with a recipe collection.  Deep in the National Library of Medicine, is a manuscript dear to my heart. Anonymous but with the cryptical inscription: ‘this was my Cosin Greenwayes book he died in yre 86 yeare of his age ye 30 of January 1701’ (NLM MS B 261) the book repeatedly cites ‘River’ and River Ob’ (in various forms and with page numbers).  Some digging revealed that the recipe compiler copied information from the 1661 edition of The Practice of Physick which offered English translations of both Riviére’s Praxis medica and Observationes medicae (Paris and London, 1646).

The Practice of Physick, title page (London, 1661) http://www.byassrarebooks.co.uk/bookdescription.aspx?id=6279&paintmode=full&searchmode=live

Greenway read Riviére’s works alongside John Woodall’s The Surgeon’s Mate, William Langham’s The Garden of Health, most of Culpeper’s works (The English Physitian, The School of Physick, The London Dispensatory), William Salmon’s Polygraphice or the Art of Drawing, John Gerard’s herbal and more.[2] At first, I just thought that it was Greenwayes’ peculiar interests and deep purse which lead him to purchase Riviére’s hefty folio-sized tome. (I say purchased for why else note page numbers if you don’t intend to return to the book?)

But, as I began to systematically examine annotations in vernacular medical books, I discovered that copies of The Practice of Physick often contained ownership marks–including one written by a Mary Burbidge in 1721 in the Folger–and annotations.  The title also cropped up in other medical notebooks and it soon became clear that The Practice of Physick, once Riviére’s practica lectures at the University of Montpellier and read in Latin by physicians all around Europe, was eagerly devoured by English householders.

Peter Cole clearly knew his market much better than us modern historians.  From the start, the work was geared towards elite, wealthy audiences. (Witness the decision to issue in folio as opposed to the measly or um…portable octavo of the continental editions. ) Cole’s letter to the reader explicitly explains the utility of the work to ‘many of the Gentry’ and repeatedly sells the book to ‘Ladies and Gentlewoman’. From where I stand, Cole’s marketing strategy clearly worked.

A closer look at our readers’ annotation and note-taking strategies suggest that while they might peruse Riviére’s tome and presumably learn about the causes and signs of different diseases and ailments, what they marked and copied out were the cures: that is, recipes.  Therapeutics, of course, formed the core of the practica genre and, thus, it is perhaps not surprising that Riviére’s work received such a warm welcome from both learned and lay readers.  Can we, somewhat anachronistically, even consider it a ‘crossover’ sensation? It’s still early days for my reading Riviére project, which focuses on tracing and contextualizing the multiple instances of knowledge transfer, appropriation and codification that a text goes through as it makes it way from lecture halls to studies, closets and stillrooms. I hope to report more as it progresses, watch this space.


[1] Laurence Brockliss and Colin Jones, The Medical World of Early Modern France (Oxford: OUP, 1997), 152.

[2] I talk at length about this manuscript and the compiler’s reading practices in my D.Phil. thesis ‘Medical Recipe Collections in Seventeenth-Century England: Knowledge, Text and Gender’ (Oxford, Unpublished D.Phil. Thesis, 2006), chapter 4.


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