David Wootton

David Wootton’s Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm since Hippocrates will be published by Oxford in June. He teaches early modern history at the University of York, where he is an Anniversary Professor.

As a small child, I was afraid of the dark, or rather of the monsters that entered my bedroom under cover of darkness. As an adult, I feel safe in my bed, and, until recently, I was never in true darkness except when in bed. But I have been reacquainting myself with the dark: I have become a weekly commuter, and spend part of each week on a narrow-boat. In winter, when the sky is cloudy, I...

The road is still open: Turpin Hero?

David Wootton, 3 February 2005

“Turpin’s ride to York is not just about immortality and liberty; it also, obviously, has to do with speed: ‘The torrent leaping from the crag – the bolt from the bow – the air-cleaving eagle – thoughts themselves are scarce more winged in their flight.’ Black Bess flies along at twenty miles an hour. Turpin is enraptured, maddened, furious, intoxicated by speed . . . Harrison Ainsworth’s achievement in Rookwood was to knit together past and future, to imagine, at a time when the stagecoach took four days to get from York (with a 5 a.m. start) to London, what it would be like to make the journey at railroad speeds. His readers wanted to believe in Black Bess because they wanted to halt the pace of change around them, to think of speed as animal not mechanical. Rookwood is the first, reluctant novel of the steam age.”

“It is a basic truth that no one is ‘normal’; to be normal is simply to pass for normal. Each of us has had several genetic or other abnormalities. But if the thought of abnormality alarms us so, it is because every normal Dr Jekyll is conjoined with a monstrous Mr Hyde that he is reluctant for others to meet. If we could bear to acknowledge something of this psychological complexity we might find the bodies of conjoined twins less shocking . . . we might place less value on the ‘bodily integrity’ that Lord Justice Walker wanted to restore to Rosie Attard even at the cost of her life.”

“One woman described being assaulted three times by Thomas Hellyer. On three successive Sundays he had forced her onto a bed, pulled up her clothes, and sought to have carnal knowledge of her for between half an hour and an hour. She denied that he had succeeded for all their prolonged and repeated wrestling: the purpose of her testimony was to corroborate the claims of another servant whom he had made pregnant. In this context, denying he had succeeded preserved her own honour, while insisting he had lifted her clothes proved him to be capable of fornication.”

Lacanian Jesuit: Michel de Certeau

David Wootton, 4 October 2001

In 1632 Loudun was a frontier town, with Catholicism to the north, south and east, and Protestantism to the west. Internally divided, it was in the process of being recaptured by the new religious orders of the Counter-Reformation (the Jesuits arrived in 1606, the Capuchins in 1616, the Ursulines in 1626); while at the same time Richelieu was planning to destroy the town’s castle, thus...

Skipwith and Anktill: Tudor Microhistory

David Wootton, 10 August 2000

Both David Cressy and Cynthia Herrup believe they are writing microhistory, a word coined by Italians, but used to describe above all the work of Natalie Zemon Davis (The Return of Martin Guerre, 1983) and Robert Darnton (The Great Cat Massacre, 1984). Microhistorians have turned to the verbatim records of interrogations kept in the law courts of early modern Europe (or at least those parts of Europe where Roman law procedures were followed) to reconstruct the detailed stories of individual trials. They have been trying to write ‘history from below’, convinced that the stories peasants or apprentices told about their lives, and the decisions courts reached on the basis of them, were inconsistent, distorted, fractured, but that at the same time there was precious little objective truth to be discovered beyond these accounts. Davis and Darnton both taught at Princeton, where they attended the seminars of Clifford Geertz, who encouraged the belief that the simplest events (his classic account was of a cock-fight in Bali) were invested with the preoccupations and styles of thought of the whole culture; that objects and actions could be interpreted as if they were texts; and that the right sort of description (‘thick description’) would enable readers to ‘see’ what was at issue. Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (which appeared in English in 1977) provided a ready model of how historians might achieve similar effects.‘

Brutish Babies: witchcraft

David Wootton, 11 November 1999

There are people who believe themselves to be witches. One can find them without difficulty on the Internet, and on a recent canal trip I was surprised to pass a whole series of narrow-boats (Black Cat, Sorceress) apparently inhabited by practising witches. The modern scholarly literature on the history of witch beliefs and witch trials, however, first took shape in opposition to Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), which claimed that Renaissance witches were worshippers of pagan gods. It has therefore been resolutely agnostic about the existence of actual witches in the period of the great witch-hunt. Even Deborah Willis, who reads the confessions of English witches with close attention, maintains only that ‘they suggest, if not a shared set of practices, at least a shared fantasy life.’‘

Close Cozenage

David Wootton, 23 May 1996

William Lilly was the first to produce a major textbook of astrology in the English language, at a time when the truth of astrology was almost universally recognised. At their peak in the 1650s his almanacs sold up to 30,000 copies a year. From them he may only have netted a modest £70 a year (enough for a gentleman to live on), but they served to advertise his astrological practice, from which we have the surviving records of many thousands of consultations. Lilly advised the rich, famous and powerful; among his friends were leading scientists of the day. And he shaped the course of events. At the Restoration he had to counter the charge that the day the King was executed was chosen to conform to his prognostication. Through the key years of the Civil War he had forecast Parliamentary victory and royal defeat (he predicted victory at Naseby, the key battle of the war), and Royalists complained that his almanacs were worth several regiments to the Parliament. He had helped to ensure his prognostications came true, and had emerged victorious in his own war with the King’s astrologers. Briefly (before his failure to foresee the Restoration or the Fire of London cut his reputation down to size), Lilly seemed to embody the success of a new astrological science.

Although Thomas Hobbes lived to be 91, and was one of the most famous philosophers of his day, there are only 211 surviving letters to or from him. This compares with 3656 to or from Locke, some twenty thousand to or from Leibniz. For the last three decades of his life Hobbes suffered from Parkinson’s disease, but he always had the assistance of a secretary, and he seems to have replied to letters whenever he received them. Alas, few people wrote to him. Worse, most of his correspondents were obscure and insignificant. Between the letter from Henry Oldenburg, soon to be secretary of the Royal Society, in 1655 and Leibniz’s of 1670, the only letters between Hobbes and an intellectual of the first rank are two scathing reports transmitted through intermediaries by Christian Huygens. In them he dismisses Hobbes’s claim to have transformed geometry by a number of major discoveries, such as that the value of pi is the square root of ten, as ‘absurd childish nonsense’. Hobbes believed geometry was the queen of sciences because nobody contested the truth of geometrical proofs. It must have been deeply embarrassing for him to discover that his own efforts to square the circle convinced nobody, but provided yet further opportunities for his enemies to attack him. One of the best books on the reception of Hobbes’s philosophy is called The Hunting of Leviathan, and what we find in these two volumes is the correspondence of a philosopher who has been driven out of polite society.

Disarming the English

David Wootton, 21 July 1994

The Thirty-Nine Articles required all Englishmen to practise archery on Sundays. For the Elizabethans bearing arms was a duty, not a right. Few of them were allowed to shoot at anything but targets: all game in the kingdom belonged to the Queen and could only be hunted under licence. Bows and arrows, guns and pistols must normally have been kept at home, but every man carried a knife with which to cut his food, and every gentleman a sword. Fights were common, but the law required you, if attacked, to retreat until your back was against the wall: only then could you kill with impunity. After 1604 one particular weapon was singled out as especially in need of control: the Stabbing Act made it always murder, never manslaughter, to kill someone with a knife. This was the one weapon everyone had to hand.


Bad Medicine

30 November 2006

Steven Shapin says Bad Medicine is ‘not history’, and advises me to ‘consider another way of making a living’ (LRB, 30 November). Are my facts wrong? Is my argument incoherent? Are there gaps in my reading? No. It’s something much worse: I’ve discussed progress. ‘Academic historians of medicine didn’t – with rare exceptions – criticise the...
I was surprised by the tone of Stephen Mulhall’s letter in response to my essay on conjoined twins, and to be told that I had demonstrated ignorance of the philosophical debates on applied ethics, personal identity and the mind-body problem (Letters, 19 August). Fourteen lawyers were in court for the Gracie and Rosie Attard case in September 2000; all recognised they were engaged in a philosophical...

Brutish Babies

11 November 1999

I would like to thank Ruth Evans (Letters, 25 November 1999) for sending me off to read Dyan Elliott’s Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality and Demonology in the Middle Ages (1999). I sense that Evans was giving voice to the frustration that medievalists often feel at the reluctance of early modernists to look backwards in time (often attributable to their inability to read Latin). On the other...

The Agathocles Story

22 August 1996

Jeremy Waldron (LRB, 22 August) asks: ‘If Agathocles’ – in Machiavelli’s Prince – ‘is to be condemned as someone who has crossed the line into tyranny, how are we to distinguish him from other apparently unscrupulous princes, like Cesare Borgia, whom Machiavelli praises for their ruthlessness?’ The answer is simple, and evident from Machiavelli’s telling...

Straight Shooter

21 July 1994

Nicholas Denyer (Letters, 4 August) is right to be sceptical of my claim that ‘the Thirty-Nine Articles required all Englishmen to practise archery on Sundays.’ Article 38 states: ‘It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars,’ but it was the state, not the Church, which specifically required archery practice on...

On 11 February​, David Reitze, executive director of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Ligo) in the US, announced that his team of almost a thousand scientists had...

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In the winter of 1609-10, Galileo Galilei made a series of astronomical observations that added to the growing list of anomalies threatening the stability of the earth-centred Ptolemaic cosmos....

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Possessed by the Idols: Does Medicine Work?

Steven Shapin, 30 November 2006

Historical progress is back, even if it was only in some genres of academic history that it ever went away. It’s been some time, certainly, since historians of art saw painting as a...

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