Hugh Trevor-Roper, who died in 2003, was almost certainly the most gifted of the remarkable generation of British historians who did their best work in the decades after World War II. Yet whereas A.J.P. Taylor, J.H. Plumb, Christopher Hill, R.W. Southern, Alan Bullock, Eric Hobsbawm, Lawrence Stone, Asa Briggs, G.R. Elton, Michael Howard, and E.P. Thompson all went on to publish substantial works worthy of their talents, the general consensus is that Trevor-Roper never entirely fulfilled himself. He was a brilliant essayist and formidable in polemic, with a prose style of unequaled verve, color, and precision. But he never published the magnum opus which his admirers so eagerly awaited.
As a young man, he had made a remarkable start. After winning the top classics prizes as an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford, he turned to history, and, when still in his twenties, published a clever and iconoclastic study of Charles I’s archbishop, William Laud. He then embarked on a notably successful wartime career in military intelligence, where he demonstrated his exceptional ability to reconstruct a convincing story out of incomplete pieces of evidence. “My ambition,” he wrote in 1943, “is to solve intellectual problems and present my solution in satisfying aesthetic form.” This was the guiding principle behind all his subsequent historical writing. In 1945 it enabled him to bring off the great coup of proving beyond all possible refutation that Hitler had indeed killed himself in his Berlin bunker and to reconstruct the macabre circumstances of that event in scathing prose. His report, commissioned by British intelligence to scotch Soviet claims that the Führer was still alive, was published in 1947 as The Last Days of Hitler.
The book brought worldwide fame to its author, now back at Christ Church as a history tutor. It meant that in addition to his true métier as an early modern historian, Trevor-Roper had henceforth to maintain a second identity as an authority on Nazi Germany. Regularly called upon to edit or introduce documents from the Hitler era, he became, as he put it, “the prisoner (though the well-rewarded prisoner) of a casual, fortuitous, and not altogether enjoyable expertise.” Unfortunately, this expertise did not rest on wholly secure foundations; and in 1983 it would prove his nemesis, when in an ill-judged and quickly regretted moment of hubris, he publicly authenticated the forged “Hitler diaries,” whose serial rights had been acquired by the Sunday Times, a newspaper of whose parent company he was an independent director. It was an extraordinary gaffe for someone who had devoted so much of his scholarly career to exposing the errors of those he regarded as frauds or charlatans. Ironically, it is the action for which he is now best remembered by the wider public.
In the 1950s, Trevor-Roper established himself as a formidable presence in the study of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century history. He made a devastating intervention in the controversy over the “rise of the gentry,” which dominated British historiography at the time, savagely demolishing the analysis by his former pupil Lawrence Stone of the economic plight of the Elizabethan nobility, and arguing, against R.H. Tawney, that the English Civil War was occasioned by the gentry’s economic decline, not their rise. In 1957 his publisher, Harold Macmillan, then prime minister, appointed him to Oxford’s Regius Chair of Modern History. Two years later, Trevor-Roper returned the favor by masterminding Macmillan’s election as chancellor of the university.
In the ensuing years, Trevor-Roper wrote prolifically on many aspects of the history of early modern Europe, producing five volumes of essays, many of them masterpieces of learning, eloquence, and intellectual originality. He also worked away at larger projects: a study of four financial adventurers in Tudor and Stuart England, including Sir Thomas Sutton, founder of his old school, Charterhouse, and Sir Thomas Bodley, who endowed the Oxford library in which he spent so many hours; a major book on the career of Robert Cecil, secretary of state to Elizabeth I and James I; a squib on the Roman Catholic revival in nineteenth-century England; and a huge work, in three volumes, on the Great Rebellion and the rule of Oliver Cromwell. Some of these got as far as the publisher’s catalog of forthcoming books, but none saw the light of day and, sooner or later, all were put aside.
Was this just another case of academic perfectionism? Or did Trevor-Roper’s nerve fail him when he thought of all his professional enemies waiting to avenge themselves for the sardonic (and, in the case of Lawrence Stone, mercilessly sadistic) way in which he had reviewed their work? It is hard to tell, for there were so many other reasons which prevented him from giving these larger projects the sustained attention they required. He himself cited “the interruptions of life, the necessities of lecturing on quite different subjects, the pressures of this and that occasion, the dislocation of illness, etc.” The range of his interests, stretching from the rise of Christian Europe to Nazi Germany, prevented him from concentrating as intensely on the early modern period as did his rivals, Christopher Hill and Lawrence Stone. He was easily diverted into pursuing some new quarry, like the treacheries of the British intelligence agent and Soviet spy Kim Philby, in The Philby Affair (1968), and the forgeries of “the hermit of Peking,” the fraudulent Sinologist Sir Edmund Backhouse, in A Hidden Life (1976). He spent many hours on lucrative but ephemeral journalism and he led a demanding social life of considerable pretension. He also devoted much of his astounding literary energy to writing letters.
And what letters! Sitting opposite him in the 1960s at meetings of the Oxford Modern History Faculty Board, I used to watch him scribbling away, pausing only to intervene briefly in the discussion before returning to his mounting pile of correspondence. I had no idea of the wit, the malice, and the marvelously sustained metaphors which were being committed to paper in front of my eyes. In the perceptive introduction to his carefully produced edition of Trevor-Roper’s letters between 1948 and 1959 to the aesthete Bernard Berenson (“BB”) at his exquisite Italian villa, I Tatti, Richard Davenport-Hines calls him “the greatest letter-writer of his generation, a letter-writer whose irony, grace and knowledge make him the twentieth-century equivalent of Madame de Sévigné or Horace Walpole.”
This judgment is debatable, for the letters to Berenson are distinctly mannered and contrived. They derive much of their effect from the ironic contrast between the Latinate grandeur of their language and the triviality of their subject matter (mostly Oxford gossip). The air of Glasgow is “fuliginous,” the cloisters of Oxford “umbratile,” the path of worldly success “funambulatory.” The effect is of a brilliant parodist performing carefully acquired literary tricks. Yet for all their self-mocking artificiality, Trevor- Roper’s letters are as enthralling as any of his historical works; and we must hope that more installments are on the way. Davenport-Hines may be right to suggest that posterity will regard Trevor-Roper’s copious correspondence as “his ultimate masterpiece,” a “subtle and intricate history of late twentieth-century folly,” and a partial substitute for the great book that never came.
When he first called on the sage of I Tatti in 1947, armed with an introduction from Alys Russell (sister of Berenson’s brother-in-law, the American expatriate Logan Pearsall Smith, who was Trevor-Roper’s early mentor and literary inspiration), Trevor-Roper was aged thirty-three. Berenson was eighty-two. As their relationship deepened, the old man grew frailer. Unable to travel, he was increasingly dependent on visitors and correspondents for news of the outside world. He himself had little gossip to pass on and his replies became increasingly feeble and perfunctory, whereas Trevor-Roper, whose letters were now often addressed to Berenson’s companion, Nicky Mariano, to be read aloud to BB, became ever more expansive.
One feels that the destination of these virtuoso compositions was largely incidental. Berenson’s hospitality was much appreciated by Trevor-Roper, who found I Tatti a comfortable and civilized place to stay when visiting Italy; and thank-you letters were a necessary sequel. But these great epistolary set pieces could have been addressed to anyone. Trevor-Roper was writing to please himself. When, a decade later, he resumed his satirical narratives of Oxford happenings,1 this time in mock seventeenth-century English, he wrote as “Mercurius Oxoniensis,” addressing a nonexistent “Mercurius Londiniensis,” and published them anonymously, first in The Spectator and later as a book. The letters to I Tatti foreshadow the letters of Mercurius and their subject matter sometimes overlaps.2
When corresponding with Berenson, Trevor-Roper tells him what he has been thinking and doing, where he has been traveling, and what has been happening in Oxford. He takes BB into his confidence about the progress of his future wife’s divorce and gives mocking accounts of the desperate attempts by her estranged husband, “the Admiral,” to rescue the situation. He offers his opinions of the countries he visits. Of Iran, he writes that “not even in Italy, not even in Greece, have I seen such natural love of beauty, and especially of beauty in colour.” Less perceptively, he describes Iraq as “efficient, energetic, prosperous, complacent: a Levantine Switzerland. There is no danger of revolution there.” This was in 1957; in the following year, the King of Iraq was killed in a violentupheaval, and a republic proclaimed.
Although masked in ironic self-deprecation, Trevor-Roper’s social prejudices are clearly visible. The son of a north country doctor, he had long succumbed to the aristocratic embrace of Christ Church, many of whose undergraduates came from exclusive schools and patrician families. He developed a gentlemanly taste for hunting, fishing, and expensive cars, which the flow of royalties from The Last Days of Hitler helped him to indulge. Even though his early work shows some Marxist influence, he detested left-wing politics and professed contempt for “the dispiriting principles of the welfare state.” In 1954 he married Lady Alexandra Howard-Johnston, daughter of Field-Marshal Earl Haig,3 and the couple later established themselves on the Scottish Borders at Chiefswood, a Regency house built by Sir Walter Scott. (Berenson eventually warmed to Lady Xandra, though his initial reaction was loftily unfavorable: “no interest or talk to entitle her to frequent us or to be travelling with Hugh.”) Trevor-Roper’s tutorial duties at Christ Church were not oppressive (“I firmly and conveniently believe that undergraduates really only learn by teaching themselves”). He spent many weekends in the country houses of the aristocracy, to whose sons at Christ Church he acted as a benevolent patron. Dukes and duchesses figure frequently in his letters. “Cock-sure, arrogant…. Seems to have known everybody, or at least everybody who has counted, in the last 30 years,” noted Berenson in his diary. When in 1958 the Trevor-Ropers gave a musical party in their house, the two performers were Poulenc and Shostakovich.
“Socially I am a snob,” Trevor-Roper confessed. “I like the world of grace and leisure, and the opulence necessary to maintain it.” Yet more often than not the upper classes proved a disappointment: “I am continually disgusted by the triviality and vulgarity of the great world, and bored by its lack of education.” The Duke of Marlborough, for instance, was “an illiberal, illiterate dolt.” Trevor-Roper liked Christ Church undergraduates who were rich, good-looking, cultivated, and well connected. But the graduate students to whom he devoted much careful attention when he became a professor were diverse in their origins and seldom came from privileged backgrounds. He respected intellect wherever he found it. Nowhere does he sound more enthusiastic about the work of a fellow contemporary scholar than in his remarks on Moses Finley, the author of The World of Odysseus, who had been driven from Rutgers by McCarthyism and who he hoped would come to Oxford. (He ended up at Cambridge.)
Even so, Trevor-Roper’s intellectual values are hard to separate from his social preferences. Knowledge of the Greek and Latin classics, fluency in modern languages, and a strong sense of European culture were easier to achieve for those with an expensive education, a large private library, leisure and money for travel, and a range of cultivated and hospitable acquaintances with whom to stay en route. Trevor-Roper’s Gibbonian prose, with its mordant irony, its self-conscious Latinisms, and its soaring metaphors, distanced him from many of his fellow academics, whom he despised for their provincialism and their pedestrian literary style. In his letters he laments that “the art of footnotes …and the gift of irony” have disappeared; and he affects a genteel distaste for scholarship, explaining apologetically to Berenson that, having written a best seller in The Last Days of Hitler, it was now necessary for him to rehabilitate himself with the learned world by writing “a book of infinite pedantic exactitude on a character of infinite dullness.”4 Even Oxford was too dull for him: “There are in this university only 19 intelligent people, of whom six are hermits or otherwise unsuitable for social life.” It was this tone of aristocratic hauteur that made him unpopular with many of his less gifted contemporaries. They were further distanced from him in 1979 when he was elevated to the House of Lords as Lord Dacre of Glanton.
Not that he ever sought popularity. He took a sardonically detached view of what was for him la comédie humaine. Like that earlier member of Christ Church whom he greatly admired, Robert Burton, the Jacobean author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, his attitude was that of Democritus, the mocking philosopher who, in the intervals of his studies, would walk down to the harbor of the Thracian town in which he lived and laugh heartily at the variety of ridiculous sights he saw there. By 1951 Trevor-Roper was ceasing to think that historical events always had deep economic causes: “I now believe that pure farce covers a far greater field of history, and that Gibbon is a more reliable guide to the subject than Marx.” He delighted in ridiculing his bêtes noires, like “those never failing comedians the English convert RCs.” All Souls College (to which in his youth he had failed to secure election) is a regular target of his mockery. Warden Alic Smith of New College, the septuagenarian vice-chancellor who proposed to drive a highway through Christ Church Meadow, is another. The social vicissitudes of the publisher George Weidenfeld provide him with a constant source of satirical pleasure.
Trevor-Roper’s letters abound in hatreds, real or affected: for Scotch professors (“as a general rule I can do without the Scots”),5 for the Welsh, for the Irish (inhabitants of “that lunatic country”), for Cambridge (“that provincial university”), for Marxists and “left-wing humanitarian dons,” for Jesuits, and Catholics of any kind: “a second class degree in the Roman Catholic Church in England is an intellectual peak not often scaled.” His judgments on his contemporaries, though often percipient, are seldom charitable. A.J.P. Taylor “no longer troubles about the truth.” The art historian Edgar Wind “is, I am sure, a total fraud.” Lawrence Stone is “a charlatan.” Most of the heads of Oxford colleges are “men ‘of the utmost insignificance.'” When in 1953 the publisher Hamish Hamilton and his wife met Trevor-Roper chez the Duke of Buccleuch, they found themselves “wondering if one so young and gifted ought to spend quite so much time hating people.”
Davenport-Hines suggests that a cold and lonely childhood left Trevor-Roper “tense and reticent with a pent-up accumulation of aggression.” Certainly much of his historical writing was deliberately intended to make mischief. He saw his attack on R.H. Tawney in The Gentry 1540–1640 (1953) as “a little aluminised bombshell” to be “placed under the hieratic throne of the most respected of our professors”6 ; and he noted with satisfaction that it was “causing some (to me) pleasurable commotion in the academic mutual-admiration society of the London School of Economics.” He hoped (“but perhaps it is too much to hope”) that his projected essay on the Roman Catholic revival in nineteenth-century England (“a wicked little book”) would “cause a paralytic stroke to my old enemy Evelyn Waugh.” He reported “a most enjoyable attack on the present Foreign Minister of Sweden,” and he took pleasure in writing a “wicked article” on Arnold Toynbee. He enjoyed sending mischievous, pseudonymous letters to newspapers; like the solemn inquiry, published in The New York Review, purporting to come from one “Miss Agnes Trollope” of “Buttocks, near Ambleside,” asking Lawrence Stone for documentary evidence of the prevalence of coitus interruptus in Caroline England.
His interest in academic politics and preferment was obsessive. He rejoiced that Oxford and Cambridge were “the only places where elections are still conducted in the old 18th century manner: with that elaborate attention to the individual weaknesses, cupidities, ambitions etc. of a small and personally manipulated electorate.” Like the great eighteenth-century political patron the Duke of Newcastle, he believed that however lowly the office, it was important to get in our man rather than theirs. For Trevor-Roper, “we” were the party of “gaiety” and life enhancement (itself a Berensonian concept). “They” were the dull, the respectable, the puritanical, and the life-diminishing.
It was a Manichaean view. He wished Oxford to be “a gay sceptical tolerant enquiring unshockable world, enjoying experience for its own sake, and unimpressed by proprieties & slogans.” It should be the home of “Learning and Pleasure,” rather than “administrative efficiency and Dullness.” So for warden of All Souls he wanted the incomparable Isaiah Berlin, not the “respectable elderly gentleman” Sir Hubert Henderson; and for chancellor he championed the dashing Harold Macmillan (“a gay, cavalier figure, ready for battle, fond of life and an occasional skirmish”) against the morally faultless Oliver Franks (“intellectually ordinary and of dull, puritan, not to say sanctimonious virtue”). He was disappointed that Maurice Bowra (“brilliant, gay, convivial, and intolerant of all forms of puritanism”) should have supported Franks; and he suffered a further letdown when he attended Berlin’s famous inaugural lecture on “Two Concepts of Liberty,” only to find it “less gay than I had hoped.”
Some of the more revealing letters throw light on Trevor-Roper’s historical philosophy. Although describing himself as “an empiricist, hostile to all abstract terms,” he admired the “philosophical historians” of the eighteenth century, David Hume, Adam Smith, and, above all, Edward Gibbon (“that greatest of all historians”). Clarendon, Sir Walter Scott, and Jacob Burckhardt were other sources of inspiration, while among the moderns, he respected Henri Pirenne, Lewis Namier, Pieter Geyl, and Gerald Brenan. Believing that antiquarian research should always be employed in the service of broader historical generalization, he was contemptuous of the austere brand of medievalism exemplified by F.M. Powicke and V.H. Galbraith, his predecessors in the Regius Chair. To bring British historians “out of their backwater,” he looked across the English Channel to the Annales school founded by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, and led in the 1950s by Fernand Braudel. “Only the French can write history: Marc Bloch and his disciples have made all other historians seem trivial.”
Yet even the Annalistes never solved what Trevor-Roper rightly identified as the most difficult of all problems confronting the historian, that of how to combine sociological analysis with narrative and movement. “How can one both move and carry along with one the fermenting depths which are also, at every point, influenced by the pressure of events about them? And how can one possibly do this so that the result is readable? That is the problem.”
It is a problem which Trevor-Roper came near to solving in the substantial book on which he had been working on and off for over thirty years and which has now appeared posthumously. A study of the life of Sir Theodore de Mayerne (1573–1655), a Swiss Huguenot doctor who combined his role as a leading physician with secret diplomacy and intelligence at the courts of Henri IV of France, James I, and Charles I of England, it has been sensitively stitched together from an incomplete manuscript by the author’s friend and former pupil, the historian Blair Worden.7 The result is a very fine book indeed, embodying formidable research in a wide range of European archives, displaying remarkable powers of historical imagination, and written in an agreeable (and, for its author, comparatively restrained) narrative style.
Mayerne is not a household name, even among experts on the early modern period. He enjoyed great contemporary eminence, but he was a minor player on the historical stage and might seem a curious choice of subject for so major a historian. But he lived in the period of European history which Trevor-Roper knew best and the threads of the doctor’s extraordinarily intricate career intertwine with many of his deepest historical interests. Moreover, Mayerne turns out to have had a finger in more pies than anyone previously guessed.
He was born Théodore Turquet, the grandson of a Piedmontese silk manufacturer who had emigrated to Lyons, and the son of a prominent Protestant scholar who had fled to Geneva after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572. Years later, he would follow his father in adopting the name of de Mayerne, supposedly after a family property in Piedmont. He studied arts at the University of Heidelberg and then medicine at Montpellier, where, under the influence of Joseph du Chesne, a family friend, he defended in his doctoral thesis the use of chemical remedies, championed earlier in the century by the German physician Paracelsus, but still highly controversial among orthodox doctors because they had not been authorized by the classical authorities, Hippocrates and Galen.
Mayerne then moved to Paris to join du Chesne as one of King Henri IV’s doctors, under the chief royal physician, another Huguenot, Jean Ribit, Sieur de la Rivière. There his commitment to the Protestant cause was consolidated by a lasting attachment to the Huguenot leader, Henri, Duc de Rohan, whom he accompanied on his grand tour. Equally formative was his membership in an alchemical circle which grew up around du Chesne. Its members were Hermeticists who sought to resurrect the esoteric wisdom of the mythical pre-Platonic philosophers, the prisci theologi—Moses, Zoroaster, Hermes Trismegistus, and Orpheus. They conducted experiments, devising new chemical cures from mercury and antimony, producing mineral panaceas and elixirs of life.
The presence of these heretical Paracelsian doctors at Henri IV’s court was greatly resented by the orthodox Galenist medical faculty of the University of Paris, who condemned du Chesne and Mayerne as charlatans and tried to prevent them frompracticing. There ensued a protracted feud between the two rival schools of medicine. Trevor-Roper does not attempt to assess the therapeutic superiority of one approach to the other, but prefers to treat it as a contest between conflicting interest groups and ideologies.
In 1606 Mayerne was introduced to the court of James I by a young English nobleman whom he had cured in Paris. He treated James’s wife, Queen Anne, and established influential contacts in court circles, which he resumed when, at the King’s invitation to become his official physician, he returned to England in 1611 after Henri IV had been assassinated and the Catholic dévots had taken over in France. He got off to a shaky start in his new role, failing to prevent the successive deaths of two of his most distinguished patients, the King’s chief minister, Robert Cecil, and the heir to the throne, Prince Henry, and finding himself uncomfortably close to the much-publicized scandal over the murder of his friend Sir Thomas Overbury. Yet he quickly became the most successful physician of the time, building up a lucrative London practice, and eventually securing a knighthood.
Mayerne threw himself into London medical politics. He backed the apothecaries in their campaign to be separated from the grocers and recognized as a separate guild, though one subject to the control of the physicians. He also successfully championed the project for the first official pharmacopoeia, which specified the drugs which the apothecaries could sell. It included chemical remedies, for chemical medicine was an easier cause to advance in England, where it was free from contentious religious affiliations, than in France, where it was seen as a Huguenot creed.
Mayerne was not an original medical thinker, like his contemporary William Harvey, but an eclectic who incorporated Paracelsian elements into a Galenic frame. But he was an exceptionally meticulous and open-minded practitioner who kept careful notes on his patients; they included almost everyone of note in England, from John Donne to Oliver Cromwell, along with an astonishing range of the well-connected in France, Germany, and Switzerland. Trevor-Roper gives a tongue-in-cheek account of some of his fearsome prescriptions, in which metals and mineral waters are employed side by side with powdered newts, dried horse testicles, and oil of scorpions. His most original notion arose in response to the plague of 1630, when he proposed the setting-up of a centralized Office of Health, with a corps of trained officials, dedicated hospitals, and powers to enforce its regulations.
Mayerne’s medical procedures were lucidly analyzed a few years ago by an American medical historian.8 The originality of Trevor-Roper’s study lies in his account of the political aspects of Mayerne’s activities and, in particular, his brilliant reconstruction of the physician’s involvement as a confidential agent in successive diplomatic missions for James I. Mayerne was admirably qualified for this role by his sympathies with the struggles of international Calvinism against the resurgent forces of the Counter-Reformation. He was helped by the range of his European contacts and the presence among his patients of so many prominent figures, including all the foreign ambassadors. King James used him to establish links with the leaders of the Huguenots, whom he hoped would rebel against the French crown, and with the Protestants of Geneva and Berne, whom he wished to protect against the threat of Catholic reconquest, which had been opened up by the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618. The French became justifiably suspicious of Mayerne’s activities and expelled him from the country, but the Swiss gladly appointed him their representative at the English court. He much enjoyed the exercise of power and campaigned vigorously to secure protection for the Swiss Protestants against a Habsburg invasion.
Mayerne had never greatly cared for the daily life of England and hankered to return home to Switzerland. In 1620 he bought a seigneurial estate with a huge castle in the Pays de Vaud. He also set about mending his fences with the French, from whom he still expected a salary and pension rights, having hung on to his post as royal physician, despite his move to England. Then in 1625 came the news of James I’s death.
This proved a turning point in the doctor’s career. For although Mayerne made up the recipe for the coronation oil with which the new king was anointed,9 Charles I’s accession put an end to his influence on European politics. Charles preferred the medical services of William Harvey and lacked his father’s interest in the international Protestant cause. He shunned involvement in the Thirty Years’ War and stood by while the Huguenots in France were crushed. Mayerne lost his French post and was no longer allowed to travel abroad. His plans to found a dynasty in Switzerland were frustrated when his two sons, both of whom had proved disappointments, died in their mid-twenties.
Yet his reputation as Europe’s most successful physician steadily grew. Deeply acquisitive by nature, he was spurred on by his Paracelsian vision of the world as abounding in chemical secrets waiting to be exploited. He devised numerous projects: to corner the Franco-Scottish coal trade, to reopen disused lead mines, to monopolize oyster beds. An expert on the techniques of painting, jewelry, and the decorative arts, he embarked on a large, never-completed treatise on the technology of art. It drew upon the experience of his many artistic acquaintances, who included Rubens, Van Dyck, the Gentileschis, and the miniaturists John Hoskins, Edward Norgate, and Samuel Cooper; and it remains a crucial source for the techniques of Baroque painting. He was also responsible in 1633 for the posthumous publication of a great work on insects by an earlier Paracelsian doctor, the Elizabethan entomologist Thomas Muffett (best known for his daughter’s adventures with a spider).
When the Civil War came in 1642, Mayerne declined Charles’s summons to join him at York, but remained in London. When he threatened to return to Europe, Parliament passed a resolution exempting him from having to pay tax. He was active as a physician to the end, though increasingly immobilized by obesity. To Lord Conway, who sent him a recipe “to make fat men lean,” he replied that the recipe was good, but that he would never use it, “having been long aware that an evil soul never—or rarely—dwells in a fat body.”
Clinician, courtier, diplomat, and polymath, Mayerne pursued a career that took him into many different corners of seventeenth-century life. Trevor-Roper’s reconstruction of his life and times is a virtuoso performance, drawing on sources in six countries and eight languages. Always at his best when the evidence is incomplete and inspired guesswork the only way forward, he picks his way confidently through the byways of early- seventeenth-century Europe. His story is intricate and detailed, but never less than absorbing. No grand new interpretation of the period emerges, but many aspects of it appear in a clearer light.
Europe’s Physician is a quieter book than most of Trevor-Roper’s previous works. But his sense of the human comedy is still in evidence; and there is much sly, Gibbonian humor. Who other than Mercurius Oxoniensis would have included a note explaining that the publication in 1637 of De procreatione hominis, “perhaps the most elaborately obscene work ever to have been veiled in a learned language,” was “approved for faith and morals by the Archbishop of St Andrew’s”?
April 12, 2007
Or rather resumed publishing them, for it is likely that they were continued in the meantime as letters to other recipients. ↩
The Letters of Mercurius (London: John Murray, 1970). ↩
Irreverent undergraduates used to repeat the (doubtless apocryphal) story of the colleague who invited the newly married Trevor-Roper to a party, adding “and do bring Mrs. Trevor-Roper too.” “She’s not Mrs. Trevor-Roper,” said the professor, to which his host replied, “Never mind. Bring her all the same.” ↩
This was presumably the life of Sir Thomas Sutton. It was never completed, though near the end of his life he was persuaded to contribute a much-shortened version to The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. ↩
For a fine appreciation of Trevor-Roper’s incursions into Scottish history, see Colin Kidd, “Lord Dacre and the Politics of the Scottish Enlightenment,” Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 84 (2005). ↩
In Europe’s Physician he describes Mayerne as “inserting the last few ounces of dynamite into the literary bomb which he was about to insert under the throne of Marie de Médicis.” ↩
Trevor-Roper’s short life of Mayerne, summarizing his main conclusions, was posthumously published in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. ↩
Brian Nance, Turquet de Mayerne as Baroque Physician: The Art of Medical Portraiture (Rodopi, 2001). ↩
And has been used ever since, most recently for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. ↩