Pare, Vesalius and the Death of Henri II of France
Renaissance Medicine in Action
At the 2005 SHP Conference, Sue Holt, who teaches on the Wirral, came up with the intriguing information that, in 1559, Vesalius and Pare were in the same room, treating the same patient - and not just any patient but the King of France. I was amazed. I’d always thought of Vesalius and Pare as separate topics from different pages of a textbook, not real men who met and talked. It seemed it ought to provide the basis for an activity but it’s not always easy to turn a good story into an activity. In the end I decided to combine the two - keeping it as a story but creating a series of tableaux which both create movement for students and sets them thinking about key features of Renaissance medicine.
The other question was what it could achieve in terms of learning objectives, besides being a good story. My suggestion is using this activity as an introduction to Renaissance Medicine, identifying some of the key ideas and people that will be studied in the weeks to come and identifying some of the changes and continuities from the Middle Ages. It provides a basic set of ideas to build on.
After using this activity students should have developed knowledge and understanding of:
- Vesalius and Pare and their areas of expertise
- Some key changes and causes of change i.e. printing, experience of war, anatomical knowledge and dissection, experimentation and practical surgery
- Some continuities from the Middle Ages i.e. trephinning, bleeding, diagnosis using uroscopy, belief in the Four Humours
If, as a teacher, you do not have much experience of active learning, this kind of simulation or tableau activity offers a gentler way in. As teacher you act as the news broadcaster, providing a running commentary on the events of June 1559 - so you have a clear script. The students take the parts of the people in the news, miming actions and moving according to your directions but not needing to say anything or move around the room on their own accord. You don’t have to be thinking of questions and responding to answers as well if you don’t want to - but you can build them in if you wish.
1. You need a space to set up the tableaux. The front of the classroom may well suffice.
2. Props - a bed for the King (large desk with pillow?), a crown, a urine flask containing some apple juice, maybe a couple of jousting helmets.
3. Identify which student is playing which role. It may be helpful to give them each a card saying who they are (as hold-ups and confusions because The captain of the Guard has forgotten who he is just disrupts the story). The list of characters is below. Some do very little other than walking on and standing there i.e. prince and princess, ministers, doctors - so you need to decide whether they are worth having, depending on the nature of the individual class and students.
4. Students not playing parts need to keep notes of any changes or continuities they can spot. The degree of structure you give them obviously depends on the class. You could just have a list of key features of medieval medicine on a sheet with three columns - changed, stayed the same, no evidence yet - and ask students to complete them as the activity unfolds. Or you could provide much more guided questions, focusing students on individual characters and events within the activity.
- King Henri II
- Queen Catherine
- Princess and Prince
- Several doctors
- Two government ministers
- Captain of the Guard
- 4 criminals (or use stuffed toys for this role - see below)
Below is the story/commentary together with a description of which characters are doing what at each stage. You don’t have to ask the students questions while they are in role but you may want to - these are suggested in [brackets].
Note - the wedding in tableau 1 was a proxy wedding to Philip II of Spain, who was replaced by the Duke of Alba for the occasion. So the “Prince” is historically inaccurate but you won’t want to get distracted by what a proxy wedding was. I just mention that to save anybody correcting me! The other excitement is that it was Nostradamus who warned Henri against jousting - makes me wonder who else might turn up in this story.
Tableau 1 - King, Queen, Prince and Princess
Commentary - It is the summer of 1559. King Henri II of France and Queen Catherine are holding a big celebration for their daughter’s wedding. Part of the celebration is a 3 day jousting tournament and King Henri is looking forward to taking part in the jousting, even though he has been warned that it will be very dangerous.
Tableau 2 - King and Montgomery standing at opposite sides of room. Queen, P and P, servants watching.
Brief the characters to follow your words and act them out.
Here they are ready for the joust. Henri II at that end and his opponent, the Count de Montgomery over there. The flag drops and the two men gallop forward. They lower their lances and take aim at each other’s helmets. They’re about to strike - crash!
The King has been hurt. Montgomery’s wooden lance has gone through the gaps in the King’s visor and hit him in the right eye. The King is still on his horse but he’s swaying from one side to the other. Men are running out to control his horse and they are helping the King down. Montgomery is watching anxiously. What is going through his mind?
[Ask Montgomery what he’s worried about? What he might be afraid of?]
The King is on his feet. No, he’s collapsed. Servants are walking him towards the palace. No, wait, he’s walking properly himself. Is he going to be all right?
[Ask all students - what kinds of surgery might be possible? What were the problems of doing surgery at that time? What are his chances of recovery?]
Tableau 3 K, Q, P &P, ministers, doctors, Pare and servants.
Have urine flask (containing apple juice not urine) to hand for doctors’ use.
Here we are in the King’s bed chamber. The Queen and their children have gathered round the King’s bed. Here are the government ministers and his doctors. Fortunately the great French surgeon, Ambroise Pare, is here. If anyone can save the King it’s Pare.
[Ask - where might Pare have gained his surgical experience? What do you think doctors will do to diagnose and treat the king?]
But the doctors are looking grim. They are examining the king’s urine to see if it tells them anything about his condition. Pare is tasting it. Now they are suggesting bleeding the King because the wound has thrown his humours out of balance. Pare has seen many wounds like this on the battlefield so we must not give up hope. The Queen has ordered the arrest of the Count de Montgomery if he can be found.
[Ask Montgomery - what is he afraid of? Could also ask students here about changes/continuities in medical practice.]
Tableau 4 - as previous but bring in Vesalius
Good news - the great anatomist, Andreas Vesalius, has arrived to see the King, who is no better. Vesalius knows more about the human body than anyone else in the world. He's needed because the king is no better.
[Ask - how do you think he has found out about anatomy?]
Vesalius has written magnificent books based on his own dissected of bodies. They are full of detailed pictures thanks to the wonderful invention of printing.
Vesalius is examining the King, looking carefully at the wound. He’s shaking his head. The King has a high fever. Vesalius says the wound is infected and this will kill the king.
[Ask - how might they try to stop infections? Could they do so successfully?]
Tableau 5 - takes place to the side - just Queen and Captain of the Guard.
You could use students as the criminals but that may feel too sensitive so you could use stuffed toys in the roles of the criminals - although even with them you don’t do the beheading and experimentation!
Queen Catherine is leaving the room. She’s talking to the Captain of the Guard.
[Ask - what do you think he’s going to do?]
She’s given orders that 4 criminals are to be beheaded,
[Ask - why?]
then lances are to be thrust into their eyes so that the doctors can examine the wounds more closely.
[Ask - what does this tell us about medical knowledge at the time and how they found out?}
Now the government ministers are bringing news to the Queen. Montgomery has tried to escape. Now she’s deciding what to do
[Ask - what will she do?]
she’s ordered him to be executed.
Tableau 6 King, Queen P & P, Pare, doctors
Back at the king’s bedside.
[Ask - Pare is considering an operation - what might it be?]
The great Pare is considering trephination, cutting a hole in the King’s skull. This is an operation which has been done by doctors for many centuries. Pare is an expert but he says it will do no good in this case. He knows that trephination helps other kinds of injuries but not this one.
The King is much weaker. The doctors have examined the wounds in the heads of the executed criminals but they say they can do nothing to help the King. Now the doctors leave the King’s bedside.
The King is dead.
Now we need to focus on changes and continuities since the Middle Ages. Exactly how you do this depends on the way you set up students’ observation of the activity.
Questioning could follow this sequence:
- Who were the two famous doctors? What were they famous for?
- How did each man gain his experience?
- Which of these was the biggest change from the Middle Ages? (i.e. Vesalius and anatomy a big step forward; Pare very much a continuity in method on what we know so far)
- What other changes have you spotted? What was helping changes to happen?
- What continuities have you identified? Why hadn’t there been changes?
- So what have been the main 3 things we have learned about Renaissance Medicine?
- What other questions do you want to ask about Renaissance medicine?
Notes & Variations
Googling Pare, Vesalius and Henri/Henry II produces quite a few references, of which the most useful is an article (although written for doctors) which can be found at
For flash cards to use identifying the characters in this simulation and a wide range of other activities on the History of Medicine see Dan Lyndon’s school site:
- Have students enjoyed this activity and what was its value for them?
- What was the impact of this activity on understanding of changes and continuities within the period and students’ abilities to make comparisons?
- Where else might you use this technique within your teaching?
I’d be grateful for any further details comprehensible to a non-doctor, many of which seemed to be tucked away in obscure medical journals which I don’t expect to understand. Plus any feedback on how well this activity has worked and what students got out of it - and of course, suggestions for improvement.