Announcing…’The Age of the Beard”


I’m delighted to be able to announce the launch, in November 2016, of the exhibition linked to my Wellcome Trust project on the history of facial hair in Britain.

Between Mid November and March 2017, the Florence Nightingale Museum in London will host ‘The Age of the Beard’ – a photographic exhibition of some of the finest examples of Victorian facial hair, along with a range of other fantastic exhibits including Victorian razors and shaving paraphernalia, advertising and all sorts of other beard-related facts and figures.


(Henry Wellcome, to whom I owe my career! – copyright Wellcome Images)

Along with the exhibition will be a series of public events, including talks, family activities and even a production of the pantomime ‘Bluebeard’.

Full details are available from the museum’s website here

I hope that many of you can come and join us, and celebrate the golden age of the hirsute face that was Victorian Britain!

Beards…or no Beards?

A post from earlier in the year, In honour of World Beards Day!

Dr Alun Withey


(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

It’s summer 2016, and beards are still pulling headlines in the news. A report on last week’s Financial Times website suggested that men are spending 20% more year on year, on niche products. One observer notes that the market for men’s grooming products is likely to top £1bn by 2018. The Guardian claim to be able to read personality through different beard styles, while other sites range from calling the end of the Hipster beard, to a report that one man wants to see the return of the beard tax.

There have been some signs of slowdown in recent months; a friend (and owner of a traditional barber shop) tells me that the numbers of men coming in for beard grooming has begun to fall, but also that the style has began to change towards shorter beards. Men who have beards are not removing them altogether…

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Concocting Recipes: The early modern medical home.

Looking at how well equipped 17th-century homes were to concoct medicines.

Dr Alun Withey

It has long been argued that the early modern home was a medical hub. And, in many ways, so it was. Sickness was first and last a domestic experience. It was almost always treated in the home and, given the range of potential conditions, the presence of one or more sick members of the family was doubtless a fairly regular occurrence.

In the main, it was women who were expected to take responsibility for medicating the household.  Women were assumed to be natural carers, and also to have acquired some skill in the preparation of medical recipes, and their application, by the time they reached the age of consent to marry. There were books dedicated to schooling literate women in the art of physick, many including what was effectively a ‘starter’s collection’ of remedies to enable them to treat a large number of common conditions. Indeed, medicine was part of…

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‘Gymnasticks’ and Dumbbells: Exercise in early modern Britain

As we begin to draw near to the end of the Olympics, questions will probably begin to be asked about the ‘legacy’ of the games, and how far they will inspire people to take up sport and exercise. After the 2012 London games, a report noted that 1.4 million more people in Britain had taken up a regular sport since the UK had won its bid to host in 2005. In fact, as the British Olympic team return to the UK next week, the broadcaster ITV and the National Lottery are planning ‘nation’s biggest sports day, the former switching off all of its channels for an hour, to encourage people to follow in the footsteps of Team GB, and take up sports.

Team GB

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Exercise is now deeply entrenched in British culture. Last year the Guardian reported that spending on gym membership was up by 44%, whilst a host of new sports (including open water swimming) along with things like running clubs and organised park runs, was painting a picture of ‘a nation of gym goers’. How many of these new devotees fell by the wayside a couple of weeks after their New Year’s resolution is not, unfortunately, recorded!

We might think of the concept of exercise, and particularly as an aide to health, as a thoroughly modern invention. In fact though, (leaving to one side the original, ancient, Olympic games!) it has a long history.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for example, the importance of exercise was well known. Popular perceptions of the ‘plague doctors and leeches’ aspect of early modern medicine obscure what was in fact a sophisticated and logical system of understanding the body. Much emphasis is often laid upon ‘weird’ remedies whilst, in reality, prevention was viewed as vastly preferable to cure. A great deal of importance was attached to the concept of ‘regimen’; this was effectively a holistic system for wellbeing, encompassing sleep, rest, eating as well as exercise.

Medical self-help books extolled the virtues of exercise, and in particular motion, as a means to keep the body healthy. Alexander Spraggot’s Treatise of Urine recommended that those in sedentary positions (especially students) needed to keep moving in order to avoid the dangerous settling accumulation of foul humours. Some recommended walking, others riding.

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For A.B, author of the 1611 Sick Man’s Jewel, ‘Exercise ought to be moderate, nei|ther too gentle, nor too vehement, neither too quick, nor too slow.’ The activity should be vigorous enough to get the ‘benefit of motion’, to make the face florid and for ‘hot vapours[…] to break forth’. Exercise was considered useful in treating conditions such as Scurvy and diseases of the liver. It also prevented the accumulation of ‘gross, vicious humours, heaped up in the body’. It should never be too vigorous, however, since this could deplete the vital spirits. Neither should exercise be undertaken straight after food.

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(image from Google Books)

In 1711 Francis Fuller published an entire book devoted to the ‘power of exercise’. For Fuller, a life spent in lazy, supine repose was dangerous. For the body to be vigorous and vital it needed continual stimulus, ‘since the vigour of the parts is acquir’d by use’. Exercise was therefore vital since it ‘promotes the digestion, raises the spirits, refreshes the mind and strengthens and relieves the whole man’.

But what sorts of exercise was involved? Fuller was vague. ‘By Exercise, then, I understand all that motion or agitation of the Body of what kind ‘soever’. Promisingly, for those who set the bar low, he considered both hiccoughing and laughing as legitimate forms of exercise. The ‘best and noblest of all exercises for a sick person’ was riding. It was both an active and passive exercise, combining movement and the automatic stretching of limbs. For the more energetic, tumbline and rope-dancing offered a good means to get the perspiration flowing.


(Final set tie-break, 17th-century style! Image from Wikimedia commons)

In 1794, in his book on the science of muscular action, John Pugh separated exercise into various degrees. The strongest of these were ‘tennis, cricket, fencing running &c, where great muscular action is necessary’. Next down were activities including walking, riding on horseback or in a carriage and, rather confusingly, reading aloud. In the third category was sailing.

As the eighteenth century progressed, the increasing fixation upon ‘machines’ offered new possibilities for shaping the body. The use of artificial weights was one, perhaps surprising, means by which to exercise. The origin of the term ‘dumbbell’ was actually literal – it referred to the swinging of weights resembling bells with their clappers removed. Philip Jones’ 1788 ‘Essay on Crookedness’ commented on ‘swinging the dumb bells’ as a means to cure spinal distortion and ‘crookedness’. Whilst Jones recognised that some success had been obtained, he was keener on the new trend for sea bathing as a means to keep the body in good order. To promote good posture, the physician James Parkinson advocated exercising with dumb bells, and horse riding. Anticipating 21st century ideas about the healthiness of gardening, however, he also suggested ‘the culture of a flower garden’!

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(Copyright Lewis Walpole Digital Image Collection)

Also popular was the ‘chamber horse’ – a chair with a bellows mechanism in which the ‘rider’ sat and then, through the power of the bellows, bounced up and down. For a great post and image of the ‘chamber horse’ on the ‘Two Nerdy History Girls’ blog, click here.

Riding the wave of popularity for ‘gymnastic’ exercise, some enterprising Georgian artisans began to create and patent new equipment. The London merchant Abraham Buzaglo made his name as a maker of patent stoves in the second half of the eighteenth century. But, Buzaglo also used his metallurgical expertise to diversify into other areas. In February 1779 he lodged a patent for a device for ‘Muscular health and strength restoring exercise by the means of machines, instruments and necessaries for practising the same. The apparatus involved a system of plates, bags and poles, attached to the wall, to exercise the limbs. They were especially recommended for the treatment of gout. A contemporary satire depicts the use of ‘gymnastick’ equipment by ‘gouty persons’.

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(Copyright Wellcome Images: Three men wearing orthopaedic apparatus, by Paul Sandby)

So as the final events take place in Rio, and perhaps as you lace up your shoes and head for the weights rack, inspired, you’re actually following in the footsteps of health-conscious early modern people, for whom exercise was an important part of health and regimen. It’s interesting to note, for example, the long and close relationship between exercise and health, rather than just recreation. Often the key element has been that of movement or motion. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, motion was needed to prevent an accumulation of foul humours or, in a sense, to prevent the body stagnating. Little has actually changed. The tagline of the Government’s current UKActive programme is… “let’s get moving”!

What is a ‘remedy collection’?: Recording medical information in the 17th century

Dr Alun Withey

What exactly is a ‘recipe collection’? The most obvious answer is something like the example shown below, a formal ‘receptaria’ book of medical receipts and remedies. In the early modern period, and across Europe, these types of collections were fairly common, and especially in wealthier households. These were often carefully constructed documents, containing indices and sometimes containing groups of remedies according to various types of remedy, or parts of the body. In many ways these were the high-end of domestic medicine.

But were such formal collections necessarily representative? In other words, did everyone (or at least everyone capable of writing remedies down) collect their medical information this way? No. As a great deal of recent work by historians is revealing, the committal of recipes to paper was often a much more haphazard, and far less regimented, process.

For a start, paper was an expensive commodity in the early modern period…

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10 Seventeenth-century remedies you’d probably want to avoid!

Just a little something to brighten up a dull summer’s day!

Dr Alun Withey

Whilst I strongly advocate not poking fun at the medical beliefs and practices of our ancestors, now and again it does no harm to remind ourselves of just how…unusual they could sometimes appear. And so I give you my top ten early modern recipes!

10) An excellent good medisian for an Eye that is bruised or blood shott by any crust
Take ass soon as the eye is hurt; take a house pidgin & cut ye vain that is under the winge & let it bleed into a sauser: and while it is hot wett some cloth and presently lay it to ye eye: and the next day dress it in like manner and with out doubt it will help you”

9) For the bloody flux (ie. Dystentry or severe diarrhoea)
Take A handkerchief dipped in the blood of a hare harte newly killed, dry this handkerchief in ye sun…

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Fowl Medicine: The early modern ‘pigeon cure’


In October 1663 news spread around London that Queen Catherine was gravely ill. Fussed over by a gaggle of physicians and priests, things got so bad that Her Majesty was even given extreme unction in the expectation that she might not pull through. In an effort to turn things around, as Samuel Pepys noted in his diary on the 19th October, “pigeons were put to her feet”. In another diary entry in 1667, Pepys recorded visiting the dying husband of Kate Joyce who was in his sick bed, his breath rattling in his throat. Despairing (for good reason) for his life his family “did lay pigeons to his feet while I was in the house”.


(Image from Wikipedia)

Pigeons? Laid to the feet? Was Pepys mistaken, or was there a misunderstanding of his complicated shorthand? Actually, pigeons were a surprisingly common ‘ingredient’ in medicine and were even recommended for various conditions in the official pharmacopoeia (catalogue) of sanctioned remedies. But what were they used for, and how?

Remedies for the treatment of the plague certainly called for the use of pigeons. No less a publication than the London Pharmocopoeia issued by the College of Physicians in 1618, contained a remedy for the plague which involved pulling off the feathers of living pigeons, holding their bills shut and holding the bare patch to the plague sore “until they die and by this means draw out the poison”.

William Kemp’s 1665 ‘Brief Treatise of the Nature and Cure of the Pestilence’ noted that some writers advised cutting a pigeon open, and applying it (still hot) to the spine of a person afflicted with melancholy, or to a person of weak intellect. The English Huswife of 1615 advised those infected with the plague to try applying hot bricks to the feet and, if this didn’t work, “a live pidgeon cut in two parts”. Even the by-products of pigeons could come in useful. Physicians treating the ailing Charles II applied a plaster to his feet containing pigeon dung.


(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Several sources suggest that the ‘pigeon cure’ was often a remedy of last resort. Writing of the last illness of her father in 1707 (dying of a “broken heart, which the physicians called a feaver”, Alice Thornton reported that, just before his death, pigeons were cut and laid to the soles of his feet. Seeing this her father smiled and said “Are you come to the last remedy? But I shall prevent your skill”. The diarist John Evelyn, in the ‘Life of Mrs Godolphin’ noted that ‘Neither the cupping, nor the pidgeons, those last of remedyes [my emphasis], wrought any effect’.

The ‘cure’ was evidently so popular that it made its way into popular culture, such as in Webster’s ‘Duchess of Malfi’. Speaking to the ‘Old Lady’, the character Bosola says that he would “sooner eate a dead pidgeon, taken from the soles of the feete of one sicke of the plague, than kiss one of you fasting”.

What were the perceived medical benefits of the pigeon and its various products? Some prominent physicians had plenty to say on the matter. William Salmon’s Pharmacopoeia Londonensis, Or the New London Dispensatory in 1716, (p. 200) held that “cut in the middle and laid to the feet, [pigeons] abate the heat of burning fevers, though malignant, and so laid to the Head, takes away Headaches, Frenzy, Melancholy and Madness. On the matter of pigeon dung, Dr Alleyne’s Dispensatory of 1733 stated that “we may judge of the nature of this [dung] from that of the birds…consists of subtle hot parts, which open the pores where it is applied, and by rarifying and expanding them, occasion a greater flux of fluid that way”. In other words the hot dung caused the body to open its pores and expel the bad humours causing the illness.


Saint Gregory (and a pigeon!) – image from Wikimedia Commons

The particular significance of the pigeon is interesting too. One hint is given by the apparently strong connections in folklore between the pigeon and death, ranging from the belief that pigeons flying near a person – or indeed landing on their chimney – were supposed to indicate approaching death, to the “common superstition” (recorded in 1890) that no one can die happy on a bed of pigeon’s feathers. The symbolic power of the pigeon may therefore have been applied in reverse. Killing the bird perhaps imparted its vital power onto the dying person. Beliefs in the power of ‘anima’ – the vital life spirit – being able to be transferred from animals to humans were common in the early modern period.

If some of this seems like it belongs firmly to the 17th century, it is worth mentioning that the ‘pigeon cure’ was still apparently in use in Europe in the 20th century. A fleeting and poignant reference in Notes and Queries refers to a woman in Deptford in 1900, who unsuccessfully attempted to use the cure on her infant son when the medical attendant pronounced that there was no hope for him. He died shortly afterwards of pneumonia.

An article in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1900, though, reported that a Paris physician was casually told by one of his patients that she had “tried the pigeon cure for meningitis”, with some success. The physician, one Dr Legue, expressed his ignorance of the cure, and the patient described it to him.

“The head of the patient to be treated is shaved, and then the breast of the (freshly-killed) pigeon is ripped open by the operator, and the warm and bleeding carcass immediately applied to the bared skull”.

More than this, Dr Legue apparently discovered a shop in the city’s Central Market, where a Madame Michel ran a shop selling nothing but live pigeons, specifically for the purpose of the cure. On interviewing Madam Michel, the good doctor ascertained that she was on the point of retirement after making a “small fortune” from her business, since “the pigeon cure is considered a sovereign remedy for Influenza”, and she had been struggling to keep up with demand. The term ‘sovereign remedy’ takes us straight back to the 17th century but, before the article finished, Madam Michel mentioned one last use for the pigeons. In the case of Typhoid fever, she suggested, two pigeons were necessary. And they should be tied to the soles of the feet.


(Wikimedia Commons)

As uncomfortable as they might sometimes appear to our eyes, early modern medicine involved all manner of plants, animals and substances, alive or dead. Rather than viewing them as ‘weird’, people at the time saw them as valuable ingredients, often with special properties, which they could use to help them in the fight against disease.