This post covers a small part of the careers of two fascinating and talented individuals, whose expertise in their field marks them out as worthy of a mention. This profession is one that often receives much bad press- that of the Medieval surgeon. The two terms together in a sentence may conjure up images of painful procedures being performed on hapless individuals by a quack with no medical experience, pulling teeth or sawing off limbs.
Certainly, the some of the often untrained ‘barber surgeons’ seem to have been worthy of their notoriety, but John Bradmore and Thomas Morstede did not fall into that category. These two men are distinguished by their experience and practical knowledge, which could be commended even by modern medical practitioners.
Bradmore and Morstede were both surgeons employed by the Lancastrian Kings Henry IV and V. Of the two, Bradmore (d. 1412) played an important and memorable role on the life of the man who would become Henry V himself. In the years after his father’s seizing the throne, Henry would likely have witnessed the violence of rebellion and upheaval, which came to a head at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403 when Henry IV faced the forces of Henry Percy known as ‘Hotspur’.
At the tender age of 16, the young Prince Hal saw active service on the battlefield (recounted and fictionalised by Shakespeare in his play Henry IV Part 1). Although his father and dynasty emerged victorious, the battle could easily have proved fatal for the young Prince who was struck in the face with an arrow ‘beside the nose on the left side’. This was no superficial wound (although the arrow may have glanced off Hal’s armour) as the arrowhead ‘remained in the back bone of the skull six inches deep’. Others had tried unsuccessfully to treat the Prince, who must have been in terrible pain, until eventually Thomas Bradmore devised an ingenious method to remove the arrowhead. The surgeon:
“devised a pair of hollow tongs the width of an arrowhead with a screw-like thread at the end of each arm and a separate screw mechanism running through the centre. The wound had to be enlarged and deepened before the tongs could be inserted and this was done by means of … large and long probes made from ‘pith of old elder stitched with purified linen cloth.. infused with rose honey“
When Bradmore judged he had reached the bottom of the wound he introduced the tongs at the same angle as the arrow had entered, placed the screw in the centre and maneuvered the instrument into the socket of the arrowhead.”
The screwing mechanism allowed him to fix the tongs inside, and when they were firmly locked it was moved ‘to and fro’ and the arrowhead pulled out. This video clip gives an excellent dramatic reconstruction of the procedure, with an instrument recreated according to Bradmore’s own writings.
No wonder, when it was all over those around ‘gave thanks to God’. There was still the danger of the wound becoming infected, however. This Bradmore prevented by:
“washing it [the wound] out with white wine and placed into it new probes made of wads of flax soaked in cleansing ointment, which he had prepared from an unlikely combination of bread, sops, barley, honey and turpentine oil. These he replaced with new wads every two days with shorter wads until, on the twentieth day, he was able to announce with justifiable pride that ‘the wound was perfectly well cleansed’.”
So Prince Hal’s life was saved, though he must have carried a prominent scar on his face for the rest of his days. Perhaps this is why the only portrait we have of him, based on a contemporary original depicts Henry in profile view, on his right (uninjured) side. Fans of Shakespeare’s Henry V like me may find it difficult to imagine a scar-faced King Henry influenced as our perception is by his cinematic incarnations in the likes of Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hiddleston. After his operation, the Prince seems to have gained a respect for the surgical profession, and struck up a relationship with Bradmore who remained in royal employment until his death in 1412.
His successor was one Thomas Morstede (1380-1450) accompanied Henry V on the Agincourt campaign, bringing a group of surgeons, apprentices and medical men with him. These represented in the words of Juliet Barker the ‘first professional medical corps’ to accompany an English fighting force. Perhaps more intriguingly, Morstede is supposed to have written an instructional work on surgery, which was lost, but may have been rediscovered in the last century. This treatise (for which there is some debate over whether it was authored by Morstede or Bradmore or even another anonymous individual), wrote of the skills and competencies which a surgeon must possess.
Among these was knowledge of anatomy- so much for the popular misconception that human dissection was forbidden in the medieval period, and he should also know of the principles of surgery, for which he had to be well read. So much for the idea that only the clergy could read… Furthermore, as Morstede wrote a good surgeon should be experienced gained from having performed surgical procedures and seeing others do them, they should also be of keen wit, to be able to give advice and well-mannered.
Alongside the desirable attributes a surgeon should also possess certain skills and equipment. The latter included forceps, scalpels, scissors and probes, some of which would not be unfamiliar to a modern surgeon. He should also possess various drugs, plasters and ointments. He should also be skilled in the treatment of wounds and abscesses and how to ‘restore damaged tissue’ but also in teaching other how to manage wounds.
Morstede’s book, whilst fascinating to the modern historian also had a serious instructional purpose. The author seems to have had some concern over the influence that some ‘uneducated and unskilled’ people were having in the medical profession. Perhaps he was referring to the barber surgeons and other quacks who could give the surgical profession a bad name, and who even today can be cited as examples of Medieval Medical incompetence.
Morstede and Bradmore however stand apart from these ‘tares’ as shining examples of the skilled medical men whose knowledge, experience and ingenuity helped to save lives, and which they hoped to pass onto others for the good . If nothing else, their stories can hopefully go some way towards rehabilitating and restoring the reputation of the profession of Medicine and surgery in the Later Medieval Period.
Juliet Barker, Agincourt: The King, The Campaign, The Battle (London, 2005), p29-30.
S. J. Lang, ‘Bradmore, John (d. 1412)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/45759, accessed 27 May 2013]
Martha Carlin, ‘Morstede, Thomas (d. 1450)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/52676, accessed 27 May 2013]
J J Kirkpatrick & I L Naylor, ‘The qualities and conduct of an English surgeon in 1446: as described in a manuscript attributed to Thomas Morstede’, Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons in England 1997 May; 79(3): 225–228.
‘Henry V Arrowhead removal’, Youtube.com, 21st May 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=C8Nef1siUus