Medical practice in early modern Wales – revision time!

I started researching Welsh medical history properly in 2004. At that point, there wasn’t really a big historiography on the early modern period for Wales…in fact there was essentially only one book. Over the years, I’ve been busy putting that to rights, and have so far published my own book, three academic articles, four book chapters and a range of other stuff. The obvious problem is that if anyone else chooses to start looking at this topic, my research is first in the firing line. But, that’s another day’s worry.

When I started working on the book, I decided to leave the issue of medical practice to one side. Physick and the Family is broadly about the experience of sickness in the early modern period. It looks at things like how people viewed sickness and how they conceptualised and described it. It looks at how well prepared people were to cope with a patient in their own homes, and also the ways in which friends, neighbours and the wider community coped with having a sick person in their midst. Except for when they became part of this sickness experience, doctors were not part of the remit. But they are now.

There has been a long-held view that Welsh doctors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were part of a practice that was stagnating, backward-looking and pretty much tied to its ancient past. There are certainly reasons to support this view. Unlike England, Ireland and Scotland, Wales had no institutions in which practitioners could focus or gather. It had no universities or colleges of medicine and, as such, there was no formal medical training available. There were no hospitals aside, perhaps, from the odd lying-in room or lazar house.

Until the late seventeenth century, Welsh doctors were relatively reluctant to purse a licence, which they were at least nominally supposed to have, although the lack of policing and distance from London meant that this wasn’t so important in the Principality. Those wishing for a career as a professional physician, though, generally left Wales to train in Oxford or London, and then generally didn’t bother to return. The net result of this has been a view of Welsh practice as a vacuum of orthodox medicine, which was filled by cunning folk (in Welsh the ‘dyn hysbys’ – cunning man), and various other ‘irregular’ practitioners.

The problem with this view is that it simply isn’t accurate. It suggests firstly that there was a lack of practitioners in Wales, which isn’t the case. Secondly, the terminology itself carries baggage. When we talk in terms of ‘irregular’ and ‘unorthodox’ it automatically suggests unskilled. This too is inaccurate since much of the evidence I have looked at over the years suggests that Welsh doctors often went to extraordinary lengths to keep up with wider developments in medicine.

Books, for example, were one way that doctors could keep themselves informed, and there is evidence that Welsh practitioners sometimes purchased even esoteric Latin texts in order to access the latest thinking. The first Welsh-language medical book wasn’t even published until 1736, so they were in effect forced to engage with medical literature in English or Latin.

Secondly, it is interesting to note that Welsh practitioners, alongside their English counterparts, often adopted the title ‘Doctor’ even though they had no degree or licence. In Wales this is interesting because it is an English term; there were Welsh equivalents like “Meddyg” and “Physigwr”, but “Dr” was the preferred term. Although we can’t read too much into this, it might suggest that such practitioners wanted to feel part of a wider medical fraternity or profession.

Thirdly, all evidence points to the practice of medicine being identical in form and function to that in England and across Europe. As has long been demonstrated elsewhere, orthodox practitioners did little different in material terms to the cunning man. Whilst ‘magical’ practitioners might dress up their remedies with symbolism and esoteric language, the basic form and function was the same.

This is not to say that folklore itself was unimportant – far from it. There was an extremely lively oral tradition of medical knowledge in the Welsh language, and strong beliefs in the power of cunning folk. Wales, it must be remembered, was a largely rural country, and one of marked geographical contrasts. There were areas of agricultural lowlands, but also upland, mountainous regions, where travel was difficult. In many ways it was the perfect breeding ground for legends and magic to prosper.

But Wales shouldn’t be viewed as being cut off. It was connected in so many ways to the broader world. Shops, even in tiny villages, for example, sold a range of medical goods, imported often through large English towns such as Bristol, Chester and London, but sometimes directly through the coastal trade. People crossed the borders to visit English towns, again especially Bristol and along the marches, and Welsh accents would have been familiar in these towns. Welsh apothecaries had accounts with London suppliers, and imported proprietary medicines, meaning that Welsh people would have been familiar with popular potions like Daffy’s Elixir. They also bought newspapers and almanacks, so would have known about the lively medical marketplace developing in the seventeenth century.

Overall, Welsh medical practice is due an upgrade – if not a complete revision, and I’m ready to take on the task. I’m going to start on a new project shortly, assessing both the numbers and quality of Welsh medical practice. I have a theory that, like so many other parts of Welsh medical history, there is a lot more to discover, and some deeply-held myths to challenge.


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