Eye treatments – 17th-century style

I really don’t like eye-tests – they worry me and I don’t know why. I get the same feeling of apprehension as I do before an appointment at the dentist (or, worse, the hygienist!) but without any real justificiation. There is not generally any pain involved at the optician’s. It’s not that sitting with a massive pair of round frames on, being asked in a soft voice if the image in front of you is clearer, worse or just the same while gentle adjustments are made is especially horrifying.

In my vocation though, I regularly mutter a silent thank-you to the powers that be that I wasn’t around in the period I research. Consider what things were like then. Firstly, the range of remedies for eye complaints would…well…make your eyes water. One popular remedy for sore eyes was ‘snail water’ – essentially impaling a snail onto a pin and letting the juice run into the affected eye. Another involved fresh (green or yellow) goose dung, and applying this as part of an ointment. If that didn’t appeal, you could always get a willing family member or friend to blow powdered hen’s dung into your eyes before you went to bed at night.

Then there were the eye ‘specialists’ – the occulists, ready and willing to cater to your opthalmic needs for anything from a few coins if you were poor. The seventeenth-century Welsh diarist Walter Powell, from Llantilio Crossenny in Monmouthshire, was a constant sufferer from eye complaints, including cataracts. He consulted several practitioners, one of whom blooded him using leeches, but to no avail. Eventually, Walter went to see a cataract specialist – one Anthony Attwood, who undertook to perform the technique of ‘couching’ or ‘cooching’.

It sounds nasty, and it was. It involved passing a thin silver or metal instrument into the eye to physically push the cataract back and away from the lens of the eye…all while the patient was awake. Whether the patient was lucid at the time, or instead fuelled with some potent, alcoholic anaesthetic is open to question. But lest it should be assumed that the only result of this procedure was instant blindness, it is worth mentioning that the sturdy Walter endured the procedure three times, and was still able to continue his diary afterwards. Painful these procedures undoubtedly were, but we shouldn’t always assume they were necessarily futile.

So, as yet another leaflet reminding me that it’s been three years since my last eye test drops onto my doormat, I can at least console myself that my local branch of Specsavers is unlikely to get the couching needle out, nor blow some form of animal excreta into my already reddening eyes.

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