Parisian surgeons of the seventeenth century and the disciplinary emergence of modern medicine

Wilton-Godberfforde, Emilia (2021). Parisian surgeons of the seventeenth century and the disciplinary emergence of modern medicine. In: Chardin, Jean-Jacques; Corneanu, Sorana and Somerset, Richard eds. Ordering Knowledge: Disciplinarity and the Shaping of European Modernity. Manchester University Press.


This chapter seeks to explore the rise of surgery in seventeenth-century France. In early modern Europe France was, in many ways, at the epicentre of the metamorphosis of medicine. Amidst this time of change which heralded a new approach to clinical science, surgery was growing as a discipline that was garnering increasing respect. This study will examine the relationship between the material practice of surgery and its existence as a formal discipline. The following are some of the questions this investigation will engage with: in what way did the practice develop through new techniques that lay outside of the prescribed discipline with its theoretical models? How did surgeons organise themselves and how did their training shape their work as well as their perceived status as practitioners? With these questions in mind, this chapter will look closely at the training of the Paris surgeons of ‘Saint-Côme’ (tracing their independent status from the Paris Medical Faculty, and their separation from, and subsequent forced merger with, the ‘mechanicals’ of the Barber-Surgeons’ Guild). This study will demonstrate how institutions outside the universities played a more significant role in improving surgical instruction and focuses on the Jardin du Roi, one of the most influential of such organisations. The Jardin du Roi became an important site for the history of surgery when Louis XIV, in 1672, set up public demonstrations of anatomy and surgery which drew in huge crowds of observers. The increased prestige of surgery and the status of surgeons by the end of the seventeenth century can, no doubt, also be explained by the successful operation on the anal fistula of the King himself in 1686. In tracing this significant and highly-documented event, I show how the rise of surgery, that extended beyond the reach of Paris and France, can also be attributed to the increased visibility of surgery as an ‘art’ that was worthy of being performed on the mightiest of men.

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