copyright © 2006
in The Guardian
5 August 2006
Felix Platter was a nice young student who
travelled from his native Basle to study medicine in Montpellier
in 1552, and kept a journal which he later wrote up. Beloved
Son Felix (published in 1962) is a translation by Seán
Jennett of the part of this journal that deals with his journey
to and fro, and his experiences in Montpellier. The original
is in the Basle dialect. It seems to have been rather faithful
to the spirit of the original document, for Platter tells us
many embarrassing things that happened to him, as well as sharing
his triumphs and distinctions.
He is a pleasant character, understandably
nervous of travel and wary of the underworld characters he meets,
and tries to avoid, on the road. He gets homesick, and goes
into the stable to his little horse, throws his arms around
its neck and bursts into tears. "The poor beast, who was
also alone, and whinnied plaintively for other horses, seemed
to share the sorrow of our isolation."
As he approaches Montpellier he finds that
the outskirts of the city are marked by scenes of execution,
bodies broken upon the wheel, and limbs hung from gibbets and
on the olive trees. The brutal methods of killing criminals
and heretics, coolly recorded, will become a theme in the journal.
The first servant who takes off his boots in Montpellier is
later hanged for throwing her newborn child into the latrine.
Her body is dissected in the anatomy theatre, the womb still
swollen from childbirth. "Afterwards the hangman came to
collect the pieces, wrapped them in a sheet, and hung them on
a gibbet outside the town."
In the course of some 120 pages, the author
of the journal goes from being a frightened boy, afraid on Christmas
Eve of being left alone in the house, shutting himself up in
his study and reading an old copy of Plautus, to being part
of a group of anatomy students who organise a spy-ring to tell
them of recently interred bodies. The students themselves go
out at night, dig up the bodies and carry them off for autopsy.
Eventually the monks in one place begin to guard their graveyard,
and if a student comes near he receives bolts from a crossbow.
After work, sitting in his study or on the
terrace at the top of the house, Platter plays his lute, and
people gather down below to listen. You get a very good sense
of the dissemination of music in the Renaissance: "After
supper a wandering musician came by. We played him for his songs,
and he lost; he was therefore obliged to sing them to us, which
he did, sitting on the sill of a window. These singers know
some very pretty airs, for example 'A la chambre' etc."
Platter gets a friend to send him lute-strings from Basle, and
in return he sends him some music, to give him a sense of the
progress he has made.
Another object of dissemination: botanical
specimens. Platter has an "Indian Fig", that is, a
prickly pear, growing in a pot in his study and later on his
terrace. "One of these plants in my master's garden had
become a real tree, with several branches, and produced fruit;
nevertheless it had grown from a single leaf from Italy."
That single leaf would have been a recent novelty from the New
World, whose products impinge elsewhere in the narrative when
Platter sees a flock of turkeys (he calls them peacocks).
He is becoming a Renaissance man, though even
by the end of the narrative he has yet to acquire a beard. He
has collected specimens of coral, shells and sea fish, which
he will organise with his dried, pressed plants into a museum
for which (in a way that strikes us as childlike) he will always
charge admission, and whose records he will meticulously keep.
In 1555 he and his friends go to visit Nostradamus, then about
to become famous. In the next year a rumour is put about that
July 22, Mary Magdalen's Day, will be the end of the world.
In 1557, having passed his baccalaureate, he
comes home, taller by a head than when he had left five years
before. His guide goes with him as far as the gate of his home.
He rings the bell, but the house is empty, it being Sunday afternoon.
In front of the gate is a man going to the doctor to have his
urine examined, which seems to Platter to be a happy omen for
his future as a physician. Soon his mother comes running, and
folds him in her arms, bursting into tears. Platter pays off
his guide, and gives him his cloak as a tip.