Our eighth blog of the 2016-17 class, by Caitlin Hammond, presents a real historical curio – a pair of gloves from the late-sixteenth century strongly reputed to have belonged to Peter Lowe, founder of hte Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow.
The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow today preserves a large collection of unique artefacts that help tell the history of this four hundred and seventeen year old Glaswegian establishment. Many of these artefacts are historically significant in the context of royal patronage of medicine in late renaissance Scotland, one of the most interesting examples of this is an ornate pair of gloves that were gifted to the founder of the College, or the Faculty, as it used to be called, Maister Peter Lowe. Relatively little is known about the story of these gloves and the same is true of the life of Lowe himself. It is difficult to prove that he ever wore them and there is little information to be found about the circumstances surrounding his receiving of them. To make the gloves even more mysterious, there is no record of who commissioned the manufacture of the gloves, where the gloves were made, or who made them. To find out more about these gloves we must delve into the life of Peter Lowe and the circumstances behind the founding of the Faculty in 1599.
Fortunately a lot of information can be gleaned from the physical features and condition of the gloves; we can tell how old they are. The gloves, or gauntlets as they are often referred, measure c.30cm in length and are c. 14cm wide at the bottom of the cuff. The gloves can be dated back to the first decade of the seventeenth century, due to the particular length of the glove sleeves, which are c.15cm long; because this style of glove was very fashionable in the first decade of the seventeenth century. The gloves are made of leather and are heavily embroidered with gold, silver and gilt thread. The embroidered designs outlines a raised pattern of foliage, mythical animals, and classical architecture. These motifs were very popular particularly in the first two decades of the seventeenth century. During this period, in which there was a fashion for voluminous sleeves, ribbons were often attached to gloves, such as the gloves owned by Lowe, and were used ‘to confine the wide sleeves, and allow the ornamentation of the gauntlets unhindered admiration’. The thin, fragile gloves would be unwearable today; at the seams up the length of the gloves and particularly at the fingers, and at the bottom of the gloves, the thread is loose or missing entirely, the right hand glove shows more signs of damage indicating that the owner was right handed. The gloves were presented by the President of the College, or the Faculty, as it was called at the time, to the other Faculty members at a meeting which is dated in the minute book on the 1st of the August 1867. The gloves were donated by Mrs Hamilton Gray, after the death of her husband, John Hamilton Gray of Carntyne who was “collaterally descended” from Peter Lowe, in 1867. According to the minutes, the council unanimously agreed that ‘the best thanks of the Faculty be tendered to Mrs Hamilton Gray for her kindness in presenting to the Faculty so interesting a relic of this distinguished Founder’.
To understand the significance and the provenance of the gloves, we must discuss the life and legacy of surgeon Scottish born Peter Lowe (c.1550-1612). Like many Scots, he studied and worked in France before returning to Scotland; France was a popular choice for young Scots as France’s ‘close political ties with Scotland allowed common citizenship at that time.’ He obtained his ‘magister artium’ degree, perhaps in Orleans , before training to become a surgeon in the College of St Côme’. Lowe trained as a surgeon at a time when there was intense rivalry between the university- trained physicians and ‘long gown’ surgeons, who in turn sought to separate themselves from the barber-surgeons. The physicians, who held university degrees, saw themselves as superior to the surgeons, who often obtained their education through apprenticeships rather than through formal education programmes. This tension over the hierarchy of medical professions in France influenced Lowe’s attitudes to surgery and barber surgeons when he returned to Glasgow in 1598; he strived to raise the competency levels of surgeons, thereby improving their status. After his training, Lowe made a successful career for himself in France, living there ‘for over 30 years, serving the French armies and royal houses as surgeon’. The fact that he was royal surgeon to the French king perhaps helps explain why within a year of his return to Scotland, King James VI could describe him as ‘our chirurgiane, and chief chirurgiane to our dearest sone the Prince’. Clearly, his reputation preceded him.
There has been some debate as to why Lowe travelled to Glasgow, in 1598, ‘in middle age and at the height of his powers, to a small town with only a handful of doctors’. However, it may have been precisely because of the perceived lack of potential interference or rivalry which appealed to him as David Hamilton argues that the town ‘gave him unhindered scope for his clinical and political activities.’ This leads us to wonder what exactly Lowe’s professional and political ambitions were when he arrived in Glasgow, and through his writings and his actions in Glasgow we can find out what these ambitions were. Upon his arrival in Glasgow Lowe was aghast at the lack of regulation and available training for physicians, surgeons and barber-surgeons. Only the wealthy members of society could afford to receive their medical care by skilled physicians. The majority of people still relied on domestic remedies, and were targeted by quack doctors advertising miracle cures. Because of the absence of any effective regulatory bodies, incompetent medical professionals were free to ply their trade unchecked, leading to a high mortality rate. The Royal Charter granting permission for the founding of the Faculty in 1599 was a direct attempt to improve this situation. The Faculty was designed to reduce the ‘daily abuses committed by incompetent medical practitioners, who took advantage of people for their own benefit without fear of retribution.’
Lowe wanted to raise the professional and social status of surgeons, aware of their perceived inferiority to physicians. One of the ways he aimed to do this was by raising the teaching and examination standards for students of surgery, and thereby raising the average competence levels of surgeons in Glasgow. Today the royal college preserves the literary works that helped cement the reputation of Lowe. The most famous of his works was ‘A Discourse of the Whole Art of Chyrurgerie’, a textbook of surgery that was aimed to provide a comprehensive guide to students of surgery. The fact that it was written in the vernacular instead of the traditional Latin can be taken as ‘proof he was really anxious to afford to young surgeons in this country means of acquiring, in their own language, a knowledge of their art, which would otherwise be inaccessible to many of them’. In other words, Lowe wanted the next generation of Scottish surgeons to have access to training and education than he had been forced to travel to France to obtain for himself.
As has already been made clear, King James VI of Scotland was a significant patron of Lowe and the Royal College of Glasgow. However there is debate as to the motives behind James’s decision to approve the founding of a Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow rather than any of the bigger population centres in his kingdom. Glasgow had a comparatively small population and was not a major industrial or political power at this time. However, it is likely that James saw its future potential to become so, and thus saw the wisdom in founding an establishment that would help improve public health, and regulate standard medical practice in his kingdom. The significance of the role of King James in the founding of the Faculty cannot be understated; it is probable that he wrote the charter himself. The king’s interest in improving the public health in the west of Scotland is clear in the charter, as the Faculty was obligated ‘to visit the sick…as a condition of the power given to the Faculty.’ This was ‘more onerous than it seems, for while it was easy for the doctors to give of their time, there was no way of paying for the drugs used other than from their own pockets.’ However this self-sacrifice helped to an extent to improve the regulation of public health in a way that was innovative for the time.
There must be some discussion regarding the history of the gifting of gloves in Stuart Scotland. During Lowe’s life gloves still were ‘gifts of significance’ that were given for various symbolic reasons. Gloves were often given at ceremonies as very visible status-symbols, ‘carefully proportioned in value to the rank of the recipient, and their worth was made no secret, but rather blazoned abroad.’ The more ornate and expensive the gloves, the higher the status of the owner. Lowe’s high status as a surgeon and political figure in Glasgow is thus reinforced by his ownership of these gloves. It is not unreasonable to speculate that the gloves were commissioned by the King or that at least he was involved in some way with the gift. These gloves would have been an appropriate gift for the loyalty and service that Lowe showed to the King throughout his adult life.
There is evidence to suggest that Lowe and the King had a mutually beneficial relationship. Lowe ‘was probably useful to the King as a result of his travels and knowledge of Europe. He may have been involved in political intrigue and in 1601 he travelled back to France in the ambassador’s entourage.’ His network of European contacts, his experience and knowledge of the royal courts and politics, understandably made him useful to the king. The founding of the Faculty benefited both Lowe and the king. Lowe’s career in France allowed him to gain the political clout that helped secure the royal charter, and the founding of the Faculty is Lowe’s most important achievement. The Faculty also benefited the king because it helped regulate medical practice in Glasgow and the west of Scotland.
It would be a pity if Lowe’s gloves were kept hidden away from the world in the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow. These gloves are a unique historical artefacts and should be made more accessible to the public for various reasons. Firstly the gloves are an important artefact in the history of the Royal College, which is still an integral part of the medical world today.
The gloves also help tell the life and legacy of founder and surgeon Peter Lowe. They show the significance of royal patronage of King James VI particularly in the context of the advancement and regulation of medicine and public health in Scotland. Overall the gloves are an important artefact for anyone interested in culture and society in late renaissance Scotland. There are various ways for the College to display and raise public awareness, enthusiasm, and knowledge about Lowe’s gloves. Museums and galleries are constantly using innovative techniques, taking advantage of innovative technology to engage and inform the public. Lowe’s gloves, as has already been discussed, are of historical interest on various levels; and thus could attract the attention of different groups of people. Lowe’s gloves can be displayed as part of a public exhibition on the history of the Royal College, the life and legacy of Peter Lowe, the historical significance of royal patronage, the realities and reforms of medical practice and the regulation of public health at the end of the sixteenth century in Scotland and in particular in Glasgow. An exhibition on the life of Peter Lowe can branch into various related themes for instance the exhibition could focus on the lives and legacies of various Scottish medical pioneers, royal surgeons, or important historical figures of Glaswegian or wider Scottish society. The exhibition could also focus on the people of royal court of King James VI of Scotland or the impact of his patronage on Scottish culture and society in general. Alternatively the exhibition could focus on the idea of key contributors of Scottish renaissance who studied or made careers in mainland Europe before returning to Scotland; and the impact of this international culture on Scotland. The exhibition could focus on the historical tradition and symbolic significance of royal gift-giving, particularly of gloves, in Scottish society. The exhibition could focus on the differences and tensions between physicians, surgeons, and barber-surgeons in renaissance Scotland. In particular Lowe’s gloves would be a relevant artefact to display for an exhibition which focused on Scottish surgeons, innovations of surgical practice in Scotland and changes to the status and public perceptions of surgeons, and Lowe’s attempts to raise the status of surgeons through founding the Faculty. Overall it is clear that these unique gloves deserve a wider public audience; they provide a glimpse into the story behind the creation of a Scottish institution that still thrives today.
Beck, William S., Gloves their annals and associations: A chapter of trade and social history (London: Hamilton Adams & Co., 1883)
Beck, William S., Some Historic Gloves, (London: 1883) (Copyright ProQuest LLC 2008)
Buchanan, W. Watson, King James VI of Scotland and I of England (1566-1625) The first Royal Patron of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow: Warts and All (Toronto, Ont. : Pro Familia Publishing, 2001)
Dingwall, Helen, Scottish Medicine: An Illustrated History (Edinburgh: Birlinn: 2011)
Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons: Minutes 1859-1871 p434-5
Hamilton, David, The Healers: A history of medicine in Scotland Edinburgh: (Mercat Press Ltd., 2003)
James Finlayson, Account of the Life and Works of Maister Peter Lowe: The founder of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow (Glasgow: James Maclehose & Sons, 1889)
Laignel-Lavastine, Maxime, French Medicine (New York: AMS Press, 1978)