The ‘heroic sufferer’; sickness narratives in early modern letters

I mentioned in my last post about the concept of the ‘heroic sufferer’. Patient narratives are very much the coming thing in medical history. ‘Off Sick’, for example, a recent collaboration between Cardiff University and the University of Glamorgan has looked at the voices of the patient over time. The historiography of disability is re-engaging with the often indistinct voices of disabled people in the past. Even in popular history, it’s often these ‘voices’ that people want to hear about – ‘Voices of the Great War’ and so on. Overall, there has been an impetus to learn about the sickness experience through those who had that experience; not those who treated them.

In my own work, I’ve looked at sickness narratives in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries through the letters that sufferers wrote to friends and relatives. Other than actual conversation (or even perhaps more than conversation), letters allowed people to construct their own narrative; their own sickness persona. Writing it down gave sufferers power over their own image; freed from the immediacy of speech, letter-writers could fashion themselves as literary sufferers. The results were often fascinating.

What strikes me most about these letters is the construction of a distinct persona, almost the creation of a different ‘sick self’. As I said in the previous post, it’s something that we do to a certain extent when we call in sick to work. There is perhaps an innate need to engender empathy, if not sympathy, and people are often very keen to detail even the most intimate symptoms to complete strangers. This seems to have been a constant for hundreds of years.

One of the most fruitful batches of letters for my purposes were those of the eighteenth-century Morris Brothers of Anglesey – Lewis, William and John. Lewis and William, especially, were prolific letter writers and, as was common for the time, health was a regular topic of conversation. Lewis Morris was a constant sufferer of sudden fits, coughing and giddyness, sometimes so bad that he could hardly get up. What struck me, though, was how far he was prepared to defend his right to be the unchallenged winner in any competition for worst symptoms. When William suggested that he was labouring under his own cough and ‘an asthma’, Lewis wrote back swiftly: “I own your asthma is heavy, but if you had such an asthma as I have, you would be unable to go to the office or even sit there”. In other words, my cough is worse than your cough!

Lewis was also the art exponent of the good old-fashioned wallow. In one letter complaining of various maladies, aches and pains, he was “scarce alive” but, stoically, would “trudge on while I live”.  Recovering from a “pleuritic fever” he told his brother he was “just returned from the shades of death”. When his brother asked him to check some papers, Lewis responded that he would do so if he recovered, having been suffering from an ague fit. Many times he began letters wearily, doubting that his life had long to run, but by the end of the letter was talking in fairly cheery terms about items of news and events.

Perhaps my favourite of all, though, were the letters of Roger Jones, an attorney from Talgarth in 1770s-Breconshire. Jones seems to have been something of a savant – a man of letters, constantly travelling around and involved in polite society (such as there was in eighteenth-century Breconshire!). His letters to his brothers reveal another side to sickness – that of the comedic narrative. Sickness was, at the time, far from funny, but Jones’s letters show a very modern sense of laughing at the profoundly un-funny, perhaps in a way to reduce its impact.

In 1771, for example, he set out on a journey to Hay on Wye, where he suddenly felt “weak and faynty and was obliged to give over”. A fever ensued, and he took pills and a glister to flush out his system. In the night he took a whey drink, which made him sweat profusely which “with the weakness occasioned by the fever, reduced me to a mere skeleton”.

Jones was certainly no fan of doctors. Whilst ill at Bath the previous year he had consulted a physician, who had prescribed glisters, opening pills, cordial drinks and purges which made him no better but a lot thinner. We can only guess at the frustration he encountered once when he lost his voice and tried to get help from his servant…who was deaf. Poor Roger was forced to repair to the local alehouse, where the landlady administered an emetic or, as he called it, “the puke”.

These are the voices of the sick in the past, speaking to us in their own terms but, importantly, terms they have selected very carefully. They tell us plenty about the experience of being ill – but they tell us more about how sufferers wanted to represent themselves to others. They are brilliant (and often under-used) sources in medical history and, one day, I can feel an article coming on!

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