Treasures from the London Library: Wellbeing and welfare

In the 16th century, two men from enemy countries both wrote about similar issues of social welfare. Who were they and how did their books end up in the collections of the London Library?

In the 16th century, two doctors from enemy nations were moved to write about personal wellbeing and social welfare. Both were prominent in their field and had powerful connections; however, their temperaments, careers and motives for writing the two books now held at the London Library were very different.

Timothy Bright (1550-1615) began his academic career at the University of Cambridge and later travelled to the continent to train in medicine. He was in Paris at the time of the massacre of the Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Day, in 1572, and only survived by taking refuge in the house of Sir Francis Walsingham, the English ambassador in France. The experience strengthened Bright’s Protestant beliefs and probably influenced him to later abandon medicine and pursue, instead, a career in the Anglican Church.

Timothy Bright had a brilliant mind, but seemed to lack the discipline to train it on one subject at a time. Whilst holding the post of Chief Physician at the Royal Hospital of St. Bartholomew, he neglected his patients, spending most of his time devising a new system for shorthand or ‘characterie’ and writing on the nature of melancholy. His A treatise of melancholie: containing the causes thereof, & reasons of the strange effects it worketh in our minds and bodies, with the phisicke cure, and spirituall consolation for such as haue thereto adioyned an afflicted conscience was first printed in London 1586. His interest in the subject may have been triggered by a personal tragedy: Bright and his wife had lost one of their seven children a few months before the book appeared. Bright understood that the reasons for depression could be physical as well as psychological and the book explores the role of drugs and diet in helping those struggling with melancholy.

A treatise of melancholie not only influenced other physicians and medical writers interested in mental illness; some Shakespearean scholars believe that the bard also used it to write Hamlet. Bright’s contribution to shorthand, cryptography and psychiatry was considerable, but his boyish enthusiasm for all manner of subjects was perhaps the reason why he could not commit himself to the service of others for any length of time. He dedicated his treatise Characterie to Queen Elizabeth, who presented him to the rectory of Methley in Yorkshire, in 1591, and later to the nearby rectory of Barwick-in-Elmet. Bright neglected his parishioners in the same way that he had previously neglected his patients.

Throughout his career both as a physician and a rector, he profited enormously from the patronage of Sir Francis Walsingham. In return, it is likely that the Elizabethan spymaster drew on Bright’s knowledge of cryptography to try to gather information on England’s enemies. The day after the English fleet and the Spanish Armada clashed off the Isle of Wight, Queen Elizabeth granted Bright a fifteen year monopoly on the teaching and publishing of shorthand.

Our second author, who wrote about social welfare at the same time, was on board one of the doomed Spanish ships. Cristóbal Pérez de Herrera (1558-1620?) was ‘Protomédico de Galeras’, the most senior physician of the Armada. Comparatively little is known about Pérez de Herrera. During his naval career he played an active and heroic role in many sea battles, capturing several enemy flags and surviving being shot through the shoulder. The doctor was also a daily witness to the horrific conditions suffered by galley slaves. The practice of condemning men to long years of rowing in warships, often after committing only minor offences, was very common at a time when Spain had a pressing need to find the necessary manpower to supply a growing navy.

Pérez de Herrera’s daily interaction with the galley slaves deeply affected him and after leaving the Armada he devoted himself to charitable works. He wrote several treatises on ways to improve the lives of the most vulnerable people in 16th-century Spain, including Discvrsos del amparo de los legitimos pobres, y redvccion de los fingidos: y de la fundacion y principio de los albergues destos reynos (Discourses on the protection of the legitimate poor and reduction of those feigning and on the foundation and principle of shelters in these realms) in 1598. The book describes the ideal location and layout of a shelter in Madrid where the poor could live in clean and healthy conditions and be given a daily structure to engage them in useful occupation.

Pérez de Herrera wanted to help the genuinely needy: the sick, the elderly, wounded and disabled war veterans, prisoners, orphaned children, impoverished students, and even ‘vagabond and delinquent women’. He spent the rest of his life fundraising, even begging when necessary, in order to realize his vision in the Atocha district of Madrid. His shelter later became the site of the first general hospital in Madrid.

Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros is head of Bibliographic Services at the London Library.

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