1636: The Chronicles of Dr. Gribbleflotz – Snippet 16

Chapter 3

The Quinta Essentia

December 8, 1615, Padua

Phillip stepped up to the dissection table in the public anatomical theater in the Palazzo Bo off the south west courtyard at the University of Padua. He looked up at the six tiers of galleries, all of them packed, except for a little space either side of a man on the second tier. The observers and students around him were, quite naturally, not pushing up against Professor Giulio Casseri, holder of the chair of surgery at Padua.

The theater was expectant as Phillip bowed his head in honor of his mentor and then pulled back the draping to reveal the cadaver. There were cheers around the theater as students recognized the late and unlamented Professor Hieronymus Fabricius ab Aquapendente, Giulio’s former mentor, and for the last thirty years his most bitter rival, on the dissection table. Not that the rivalry had been Giulio’s fault. He could hardly be blamed for being a much better teacher, but Fabrictus, as Fabricius was known to Giulio’s most devoted admirers for his rigid opposition to innovation, had resented Giulio’s success and popularity and used all the power at his disposal to stifle Giulio’s career. It was therefore fitting that Giulio’s greatest apprentice would be the man to dissect his body.

Phillip held out a hand for the scalpel he would use to make the first incision . . .

“Phillip. Wake up!”

Philip blinked a few times and looked around. He was no longer in the public anatomical theater, unfortunately. It had only been a dream, which was equally unfortunate. He was in his room in Giacomo Sedazzari’s house in Padua. He turned his attention to the person who’d woken him. “I was having the most beautiful dream, I was . . .”

“There’s no time for that,” Francesca Sedazzari said. “We need you to amuse the children.”

Phillip cocked an ear. There were only the faintest sounds of children playing. “They don’t sound so noisy.”

“That’s because I told them that if they were good you would read to them.” Francesca stood with her hands on her hips and stared expectantly at Phillip.

He knew what she was doing. She was trying to intimidate him, and as was usual, succeeding. “Okay, okay.” He hauled himself off his bed and staggered over to the bookshelf. “How long do you want me to entertain them for?’ he asked.

“The feast will be served at noon.”

Phillip looked outside to see if he could estimate the time. Unfortunately, and he was using that word a lot right now, it looked like it was barely after eight. That meant he had to read for four hours. Still, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, as celebrated by the extended Rovarini family, would be more than adequate compensation. He selected a number of books that he hoped would take at least four hours to read and headed for the door.

“I’ll see that refreshments are sent over soon,” Francesca called.


Phillip was mobbed by the children the moment he stepped into the front room. Eager hands relieved him of the books while equally eager, but smaller, hands took hold of his and led him away. It was almost a tradition now when the Rovarini families gathered that Phillip would read to the children to keep them out from underfoot while the womenfolk got on with preparing the meals and the men got everything else ready. Not that Phillip minded. It was a completely new experience for him to be so much a part of a family.

A space in Giacomo’s barn had been prepared. There was a lamp so Phillip had enough light to read, and the straw and hay around Phillip’s seat were festooned with children wrapped up in blankets to keep warm. Phillip sat down on an oversized blanket and wrapped it around himself before he picked up the first book. He snuggled down on his chair of straw and made himself comfortable. The sense of anticipation in the barn was almost palpable.

Phillip had been forced by children constantly complaining that they couldn’t hear to develop a speaking voice that could fill the barn. Once he’d mastered that he’d gone on to develop the ability to give identity and personality to the characters so the children could keep track of who was who. It wasn’t a quiet reading, because Phillip didn’t encourage silence. He changed his voice to suit the characters and changed his tempo to reflect events in the story. He interacted with the children, making them part of the experience, and they responded by hanging onto his every word. He loved the feeling it gave him. He imagined that this must be something like what Professor Casseri felt when he gave a lecture.

The end came as a bit of a shock to Phillip. He finished one book and automatically reached out for another, only to feel nothing but an empty space where the books should have been. He looked apologetically to the children, and realized they’d been joined by most of the adults. “Is it time for supper?” he asked.

Standing close to the main door Francesca nodded.

Phillip glanced down at the plate of refreshments that he had been provided, and discovered it to be empty. He must have eaten everything without noticing, which was a shame, because Paola Rovarini’s panettone was something to be savored. He fought his way out of his blankets and got to his feet. “Well, children, it seems dinner is about to be served, so reading time is over.”

There was a satisfying heartfelt sea of moans as the children got to their feet and packed up their blankets before walking off. Phillip was amongst the last to leave, with Francesca and her husband waiting for him at the door.

“Thank you for keeping then amused,” Francesca said as Phillip joined them.

“No, thank you for treating me as one of the family,” Phillip said. “I enjoy reading to them, and they certainly enjoy being read to.” He glanced back to check his lamp and blanket had been taken collected before stepping out into the cold with his landlady and her husband.

A few days later

The lecture on theoretical medicine was exploring how to treat a fever and Phillip had to hold onto his seat to prevent himself shooting to his feet and protesting loudly when Dr. Francesco Piazzono started to talk about the virtues of bloodletting.

“The objective is to remove only enough blood to induce syncope, at which point the . . .”

“. . . patient is almost dead,” Phillip muttered his own ending to the sentence. Unfortunately, his utterance fell into an untimely silence and was heard by most of the room. There was a collective, and noisy, intake of breath as the audience waited to see how Dr. Piazzono would react.

He reacted by singling out Phillip. “What was that you said, Signor Gribbleflotz?”

“Nothing, Dr. Piazzono,” he said, hoping that the pontificating Paduan hadn’t heard him

“I’m sure I heard you say something while I was describing the proper way to bleed a patient, Signor Gribbleflotz.”

Phillip made eye contact with Dr. Piazzono. “All I said was that bloodletting to syncope can kill the patient.”

Dr. Piazzono folded his arms and glared at Phillip. “It is not the bloodletting that kills the patient, Signor Gribbleflotz. It is the gross imbalance of the humors that causes the blood to overheat that kills. One bleeds a feverish patient to purge their body of the feverous blood. Health will be restored as the liver produces new blood.”

Phillip shook his head. “I board with an animal doctor, and he never bleeds an animal, no matter how feverish it might be. And they always recover.” In truth some of them died, but Phillip knew that bleeding them wouldn’t have helped, so they didn’t really count.

“I am not impressed by whatever a common farrier may or may not do, Gribbleflotz. Man is more complex than a beast”

Phillip wanted to protest that Giacomo Sedazzari was more than a common farrier, but to the left of Dr. Piazzono he caught his mentor’s eye. Professor Giulio Casseri’s almost undetectable shake of his head told Phillip to stop arguing. But he couldn’t resist one final salvo. “Paracelsus held that bloodletting drains the life-essence from the patient, and that you should be treating the disease with drugs.”