As I delve into the gruesome world of early modern amputations, I’ve been wondering: What really happened to Sir Philip Sidney’s leg? Or, more specifically, why wasn’t it amputated?

Sidney met his death-wound on September 22, 1586, in the heavy fog at Zutphen. Pushing forward into enemy lines to rescue Lord Willoughby, Sidney was shot in the left thigh, just above the knee. (Contrary to legend, he left off his cuisses not out of gallantry but simply because he was in too much of a hurry to put them on.) He refused assistance as he retreated, riding back to camp on his own. According to George Whetstone — possibly already mythologizing — Sidney insisted on doing so without help so that “The foe shall misse the glory of my wounde” (sig. C1r).

His uncle, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, called the wound “the most grievous that ever I saw with such a bullet” (qtd. in Duncan-Jones 295). The bone was shattered, and although Sidney recovered well at first, his condition took a sharp turn for the worse after a visit from Leicester on October 7. By this time he had developed horrible bedsores; Fulke Greville writes that “the very shoulder-bones of this delicate Patient [had] worn through his skin.” Trying to find comfort, Sidney shifted around in bed and smelled “some extraordinary noisom savor about him” (sig. L5r). Correctly deducing that his wound had turned gangrenous, he resigned himself to the worst; his new symptoms were “a welcome messenger of death” (sig. L5v).

Yet, according to Greville, Sidney had given the surgeons permission to do whatever was necessary:

When they began to dress his wound, he both by way of charge, and advice, told them, that while his strength was yet entire, his body free from feaver, and his mind able to endure, they might freely use their art, cut, and search to the bottome. (sig. L3r-v)

Why wasn’t the leg amputated? Amputation had become a common treatment for gunshot wounds precisely because they so easily turned gangrenous. Katherine Duncan-Jones is equally mystified:

According to Moffet, the ‘stitched edges of the muscles [were] opened and pulled apart’ by a doctor from Bergen; but the bullet was never extracted, lying too deep in the thigh, and amputation, which might conceivably have saved his life, was apparently not attempted. (297)

By the time his leg turned gangrenous, surely it would have been better to attempt amputation than simply to let him die. Perhaps Sidney objected; Greville paints him in his last days as ready for death, and maybe the agony of amputation and the prospect of living without a leg for the rest of his life seemed far worse than dying. As far as I can tell, though, the subject was never even broached, unless Greville describes the conversation in the most general terms possible:

Shortly after, when the Chirurgions came to dress him, he acquainted them with these piercing intelligences between him, and his mortality. Which though they opposed by authority of books, paralleling of accidents, and other artificiall probabilities; yet moved they no alteration in this man, who judged too truly of his own estate, and from more certain grounds, than the vanity of opinion in erring artificers could possibly pierce into. (sig. L5v)

And, frankly, amputations were so dangerous that it’s entirely possible the procedure could have been done and Sidney might still have died. Ambroise Paré, who introduced the practice of sealing amputations with ligatures instead of cauterizing the wound, was still alive in 1586, but his practices would not become commonly accepted for some time yet.

Nevertheless, it’s tantalizing to wonder what would have happened if Paré had been one of the many doctors at Sidney’s bedside in Arnhem. Would it still have been his deathbed? Might Sidney have survived to complete the New Arcadia? Would the Arcadia have become as central as it did if it had an ending?

How might early modern English literature have been different with an amputee as one of its cornerstone authors?


Sources:

  • Charles B. Drucker, “Ambroise Paré and the Birth of the Gentle Art of Surgery,” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 81.4 (2008): 199-202.
  • Katherine Duncan-Jones, Sir Philip Sidney, Courtier Poet (New Haven: Yale, 1991).
  • Fulke Greville, The Life Of the Renowned Sir Philip Sidney (London: Printed for Henry Seile, 1651, Wing B4899, accessed 31 October 2015 via Early English Books Online through the Renaissance Society of America).
  • George Whetstone, Sir Phillip Sidney, his honourable life, his valiant death, and true vertues (London: Printed for Thomas Cadman, [1587], STC 25349, accessed 31 October 2015 via Early English Books Online through the Renaissance Society of America).
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