The problem with early modern remedies!

Being an historian of early modern medicine is sometimes difficult. It can be a juggling act between  maintaining academic credibility on the one hand, and engaging a popular audience on the other. Medicine in fact translates very well into a popular topic. Everyone knows how it feels to be ill; it doesn’t require any great theoretical leap of understanding to empathise with our ancestors as they struggled with any number of more or less serious ailments.

People are genuinely fascinated – and indeed often revolted – by the types of medicines used in Tudor and Stuart times. Nothing beats the reactions of a group of primary school children when they hear for the first time that people used hen’s dung, snail-water or earthworms as a cure for sore eyes or that oil made from 20 swallows was believed to cure withered limbs. The ‘eeeurgh’ moment is palpable!

And yet I also wrestle with the need to satisfy an academic audience for whom the experience (and any perception of ‘weirdness’) are secondary to the broader questions about medical culture that they can answer. There is a constant tension between what I argue in my academic work, and what I am often asked to talk about in public lectures and invited talks.

Let’s give an example. In much of my work about Wales I complain about the predominance of attention paid towards Welsh folklore and magic. It’s not that these things are unimportant or irrelevant, it’s just that so much work has concentrated upon them that it obscures what I think is the bigger picture. For me, Wales was part of a bigger medical world; it was open for business and its people had access to medical information from the printed word as well as the incanted charm. Likewise, while cunning folk and dewiniaid (wizards) were absolutely important in terms of local provision, they were also part of a much broader spectrum of healers, including ‘orthodox’ or licensed practitioners and other specialists from occulists to bonesetters…even blacksmiths would draw a tooth. For me, the magical charms and ‘folkloric’ (I hate that word!) remedies were not necessarily distinctly Welsh, nor even distinctly magical. They too were a component of the wider ‘knowledge bank’ of early modern medicine.

But, when speaking to a public audience, I am often gently forced down the ‘weird remedies’ route; it’s what people want to hear. At a stroke I am reduced to becoming the very thing that I complain about in my book and several articles. I have indeed even had comments from academic colleagues to this effect. But should there really be a tension? Despite many years research on recipe collections, I am still fascinated by them and enjoy the more outlandish examples as much as anyone. The question is one of degree.

With more newspaper articles in train I am also thinking about my next academic research theme, and considering the implications. My ideas are based around some research I’ve done on the history of shaving in the eighteenth century, and its relation to masculinity. An article on razors and shaving; surely there’s no scope for popular interest there? Damn, I’ve done it again!

2 thoughts on “The problem with early modern remedies!

  1. Hi Alun – glad to see you’ve started blogging on top of everything else! I share your interest in how we can best present work to a wider audience without just going for the gory bits; it seems like a tricky balancing act between being true to the sources and getting people interested. I think it’s also a really important debate for historians to be having today.

    Looking forward to reading more,


  2. Very much enjoyed your blog, not least because so much of it resonates with me.

    I shared your reluctance to enter the twittersphere but did so and can see that it offers a lot of opportunity to use it for information gathering and dissemination, for networking (ugh, that word!), for engagement with a wider audience and for shameless self-promotion. I’m not including you in that last, by the way!

    I haven’t blogged myself and I’ve read very few, so can’t claim to have any great knowledge of in this area but it does seem to be the accepted way forward. And I did learn a lot from your blog. I knew from twitter that you were an early modern historian of medicine in Wales but from this I see more specifically where your areas of interest lie and where your research is heading. It’s particularly interesting for me because there is considerable overlap with my own interests. Your thoughts on the pros and cons of buying manuscripts from ebay echoes a lively discussion I had when doing my History of Medicine MA.

    I think you were unsure whether this was a worthwhile blog. Well, in my opinion it is extremely useful and you should definitely continue doing it. It’s a perfect vehicle for sharing information and it invites participation and discussion. You will, of course, have to become one of those shameless twitter self-promoters!

    Sorry, this is rather long-winded. The freedom of having more than 140 characters has gone to my head. I’ll certainly continue to read your blog, even if I decide not to take my Hist of Med studies any further.

    So, looking forward to further instalments…


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