Negotiating Royal Medical Authority in Eighteenth-Century Brittany
During the early modern period, Court physicians in Europe were granted numerous powers of patronage and regulation which were used to increase their authority. In a kingdom such as France geographic distance, regional cultural variations and rival medical practitioners could prove to be obstacles for an imposition of royal medical authority. This paper will examine the efforts of the French crown and its agents to exert royal influence over medical matters in regard to campaigns to alleviate the effects of dysentery in Brittany. From 1728 the province of Brittany was the site of a series of almost yearly outbreaks of dysentery. The French crown opted to act in accordance with its traditional stance to offer both difficult to obtain medicines and medical advice from the king’s chief physician as charitable gifts to those who sought to stem the epidemics. While the medicines were sought after and used as a form of patronage by the Intendant and his subdelegués, the royal medical advice was met with a mixed reception. In 1734 medical advice sent out to the province by Jean-Adrien Helvetius led to a run on certain medicines in its towns and the introduction of counterfeit remedies to fill the void. In the following years, as the royal physician turned to cheaper and more common remedies, provincial practitioners, both learned and amateurs, repeatedly rejected advice that they felt was based on misinformation and contrary to the best interests of the sick. Provincial physicians, grey nuns and parish priests alike offered criticism of the king’s chief physician and his prescriptions for treating epidemics. This paper will examine this challenge to the authority of the king’s chief physician, examining how the problem was addressed by the province’s Intendants from the 1730s to the 1770s, who sought a consensus between the crown and the seigneurs, nuns, parish priests and learned medical men who confronted the sickness in the countryside. The paper will conclude that as a result of this challenge, the royal response to epidemics was expressed in the second half of the century in the form of a decentralised medical authority as new royal medical posts were created in the province and filled by local physicians whose advice was trusted.