Ludovico Magno & Hippocrates of Kos, an excursion to Montpellier in three Parts


Ambling along posh rue Foch, leaving triumphal arch and royal park behind us, we soon turned into rue Saint-Firmin, again entering the rabbit warren of those narrow, ancient street of l’écusson. Only minutes later we’re stepping into the magic of Place de la Canourgue. 

Immediate consensus among us: here we’d like to live! The small public park is surrounded by hôtels particuliers, grand three and four story townhouses, in varying states of renovation from splendid to shabby. A hotel, a restaurant, cafes, court annexes, several professional offices and private apartments occupy these buildings.

The park is set up as a traditional boxwood garden, leading to a unicorn fountain at the far end.

Everything looks a little unkempt, which makes it all the more charming. 

Large hackberry trees filter the harsh sunlight. They soften the atmosphere to one of tranquility and serenity – despite the occasional tourist train invasion. We are afterall in the heart of a large city! 

From Place de la Canourgue we followed rue Jean Jacques Rousseau. Yes, Rousseau slept here, at number 26, and he bought his wine right next door. Could be, right?

And for exercise he ran up and down these stone steps, I bet. They were definitely already here in 1737! 

At the next intersection we could’ve turned left into rue du Puits de Palais, but we weren’t very interested in the wells of Guilhem’s old house.

Or we could’ve continued straight to the intersection with Boulevard Henry IV, where the ramparts or town fortifications ran in olden days.

But the view on the right intrigued me much more. Real people within ancient stone walls. A little graffiti and a bed sheet. Followed by more graffiti. And at the bottom of rue Bechamps, these expressions of contemporary conditions are overshadowed by the power of learning and prayer. The medical school of the University of Montpellier and the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre.   


The cathedral of Saint-Pierre with its unusual rocket shaped portico columns is one of the historical landmarks of Montpellier. If you think it odd that a cathedral is attached cheek by jowl to a medical school like an ordinary rental duplex, I have to agree. This unusually intimate proximity is explained by the fact that the medical premises used to be the monastery of Saint-Benoît. 

When you turn away from these pretty red doors, you first see they rest of the cathedral plaza, 

and if you turn yet a little further, you look up toward the far end of Place de la Canourgue. It appears that the area with the unicorn fountain is supported from beneath by a large round structure. 

When the cathedral of Saint-Pierre was destroyed in the War of Religion, it was decided to build an entirely new church in Place de la Canourgue. But only this one buttress was ever realised, and ultimately the existing cathedral was rebuild. 

But let’s retrace our steps and look more closely at the the main entrance to the Faculté de Médecine, the medical school, flanked by two rather important gentlemen.  

Monsieur François Gigot LaPeyronie (1678 – 1747), on your left, was a surgeon anatomist, who received his original degree as a barber-surgeon from this school. He never stopped learning, taking advanced training courses where ever he could find further knowledge. He worked in Paris for many years, rising to fame and official positions at Court, but returned to his alma mater to lecture and demonstrate, even donating the surgical theater here at one point. LaPeyronie was instrumental to bring about a 1743 law henceforth forbidding barbers to practice surgery. He first described Peyronie’s disease. His compadre on the right is Paul-Joseph Barthez (1734 – 1806), who is no less important to this faculty. Barthez, a physician, physiologist and encyclopedist, held a professorship of medicine, then he was even elected co-chancellor of the university. He was considered a brilliant lecturer and teacher, greatly adding to the prestige of the medical school. Sometime during his busy career, he also earned a doctorate in civil law and advised the provincial court of taxes and fines. Together with another physician, Theophilus Bordeu, Barthez is the founder of the school of vitalism in Montpellier. Both Barthez and LaPeyronie worked as field surgeons during times of war, as physicians charged with the well being of kings, they were teachers, researchers and philosophers, and they were both born in Montpellier. And I do understand that this is a lot more than you ever wanted to know about the medical faculty in Montpellier, but I’m not quite done yet.

Imagine an university founded in 1160. Not in a vacuum, but building on a base of ‘scientia’, of knowledge, already firmly established. The school of literature, later called school of arts, was a continuation of instructions first generated in the Languedoc during Gallo-Roman times. The medical faculty is believed to have been founded by learned doctors from Saracenic Spain, where medical scholars utilized knowledge going back to ancient Persia and Egypt. The House of Guilhem was instrumental to keep scientific thought alive and well in their city, which was known to have excellent medical care already in the early eleven hundreds. Now you may go.

But not too far, there’s still this sundial with its mysterious inscription. I had to work pretty hard on that one, because I didn’t recognise it as Greek upper-case letters at first. It looked more like a bungled ‘TEXAS’ to me, when it’s really the opening line from Hippocrates [sic] first aphorism 
which continues with the words: art is long, opportunity fleeting, experience misleading, reasoning difficult. 

Hippocrates’ succinct words of warning for his apprentices, ‘Life is short, art is long’, are usually interpreted as ‘the life of a physician is short, whereas the craft of healing is timeless’. There couldn’t be more appropriate words on an instrument that measures time, on the wall of a medical school!

As long as we’re still focused on healing, let’s walk over to the botanical gardens. It’s not far, I promise. We just skirt around the cathedral, then through another secret little garden tucked around the medieval Tour les Pins, one of only two towers left of the ancient town fortifications.

From here we quickly scurry across Boulevard Henri IV and voilà, we’re in the botanical garden.

Les Jardin des Plantes de Montpellier is another peaceful place to discover. Very soon you cease to perceive traffic noises or any other distractions generated by the busy citizens of this metropolis. 

Mahonia aquifolium, Berberidaceae, native to the American NW
Hollyleaved barberry or Holly-leaved Oregon-grape
State flower of Oregon
How did it get to Montpellier?

The heart of the botanical garden is the remnant of a ‘jardin médical’, a garden for plants used in healing. Upon the command of King Henri IV of France & Navarre in 1593, Pierre Richer de Belleval began planting the first medicinal botanical garden in the country of France. He modeled it after the botanical garden of Padua, the world’s oldest academic botanical garden, created fifty years earlier. Richer de Belleval (1564 – 1632) was well suited for this task, since he was not only a noted physician, but he is also considered the ‘father of scientific botany’. 

(the most important medicinal plants currently in use)

The stones in this partial wall go all the way back to the original gardens. The ones with numbers cut into them were used as ‘labels’ for the plant archives. 

But every excursion must come to an end and we have to walk back to retrieve our car for the return journey to Pézenas, where Richer de Belleval worked as a physician for a while, by the way. 

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