4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Why is there no option to give this zero stars?,
This review is from: The Death of Kings: A Medical History of the Kings and Queens of England (Paperback)This purports to be a medical history of the kings and queens of England, covering Edward the Confessor to Victoria. There is no denying the voyeuristic fascination of the subject matter; sadly, its treatment leaves much to be desired.
Clifford Brewer TD FRCS is, according to the forward, "a senior and highly experienced retired surgeon" [p. vii], which is apparently his only qualification for this work. For most of the time period covered here, medical knowledge was insufficient to give any sort of diagnosis that would be satisfactory for a modern physician. He is therefore forced to speculate on highly incomplete and unsatisfactory evidence. Sometimes this is within the bounds of possiblity, but when, for example, it is suggested that King John was poisoned because "there is no detail of a food taster" [p. 50] at his last meal, one begins to wonder exactly what kind of history this is.
Unfortunately, that soon becomes all too obvious. Particularly for the pre-Tudor monarchs, records are so scanty and so inconclusive that Brewer feels the need to pad them out with potted political histories. It is these that are my major objection to this book; it's like reading 1066 and All That without the jokes. In Richard III's section, for example, a whole page of speculation about the thoughts of Elizabeth Woodville after Edward IV's death is presented as fact. So is a blow-by-blow account of the Battle of Bosworth; as there are no eye-witness accounts extant, I assume this is based on The Ballad of Bosworth Field which dates several years after the battle: it is a fictional resource. Likewise, we are treated to a recitation of Palgrave's fiction about an ancient one-eyed monk who used to be Harold II. Brewer may be well-respected as a surgeon, but he is no historian.
Unfortunately, my knowledge of the medical side of things is too lacking to make much comment, but even here, Brewer seems to have missed some fairly well-known recent scholarship. The best argument I know against Henry VIII's having had syphilis is that he was never treated with mercury, which was the standard treatment for the disease until recent times. Though Brewer does conclude that the king was not syphilitic, this conclusive argument is never adduced. Nor does he mention the several scholars over the last decade or so who have argued that Henry VIII's medical problems were largely down to lack of vitamin C in his all-meat diet.
These problems all become less acute the closer to the modern day we get, but this is mostly because Brewer can quote wholesale and verbatim from actual medical attendents to the dying monarch, thus rendering his own role as purely one of translation into modern medical terminology.
It is a long time since I was so disappointed in a book. The very obvious flaws make me so suspicious that even when Brewer is accurate, I'm going to throw this baby right out with the bathwater.