The mystery of ‘Sansom Jones’ – the phantom Welsh doctor

“This book I had from — a resident of this parish (Bettws in Monmouthshire), who swears it was the book of Sansom Jones a physician of this county, some two hundred years ago”.

This note, dated around the early twentieth century, appears in the front cover of an intriguing manuscript – Cardiff public library MS 2.126. Since I first came across the document in 2005, it has fascinated me as it represents something of a mystery. It is, or at least appears to be, a remedy collection dating to around the early seventeenth century. It looks and feels ‘right’. The palaeography is consistent with a document of that age. The layout is what you’d expect from an early modern receipt book and the remedies are neatly written and ordered. And yet it is one of the most frustrating sources I have ever looked at.

It should be a fascinating view into the medical world of that most rare of creatures – the early modern Welsh doctor. We even have his name – relatively unusual for sources of this type. Except, so far, “Sansom Jones” has eluded every attempt I have made to find out more about him…or even to establish whether he even existed. He highlights one of the big problems for historians in trying to piece together individual lives through scattered documents. We have a few pieces of the jigsaw, but not the final picture. It also raises the danger in assuming that documents in local or county archives are necessarily from their own area.

Let’s start at the beginning of the ‘Jones’ document. The first couple of pages are interesting. The book begins with a list of standard apothecary measures – a common enough inclusion, especially if this were the book of a practitioner. Lists of scruples, drachms and other measures were necessary and useful in compounding the correct measures and dosages of remedies. But then the plot thickens, and the name ‘Bethia Marsh’ is written in bold script, suggesting authorship or ownership; more about that later. But also prominently written is the following heading:

Noblest teaching of urine to know the proffices thereof for the nature of man and woman which is known through urines. Through which urines the sicknesses of men are knowne, translated out of lattine (sic) into English. By mee Alexander Spraggot. 1569. May ixiiii”.

So the plot thickens. Here we appear to have the title page of a published book by the eponymous Mr Spraggot. We have an exact date and so, at least, a starting point. Looking at the book as a whole, it does ‘feel’ very much like a published work. It is very neatly set out and has, quite unusually, a complete alphabetical index at its end.

There is a section on uroscopy (the diagnosis of medical conditions by the appearance, smell and taste of human urine), followed by some general notes on life and health. These include “To knowe life or death/tokens of death”, “A treatise of Hypocras”, with astrological notes on sickness and other general observations including notes on why students are unhealthy – essentially because they spent so much time in motionless reading! The rest of the volume is given over to medical remedies, generally set out in order of different parts of the body.

For headaches, for example, there are remedies for “headach proceeding of a cold cause”, “headache proceeding of heate”, “for the mygrim or rigrim” and so on. Several pages deal with purges for various conditions, including “melancholie”, “palsey” and also specific diets, e.g. for the “rhewme”. There are sections on obstetrics and childbirth as well as conditions relating to both men and women. Given the standard practice of using animal, plant, and any number of other materials (!) in remedies of this time, there is ample evidence of a full range, and nothing out of the ordinary.

In many ways, there is much to support a theory of this as being the book of a practitioner; it contains just the sort of useful information that a practitioner might rely upon in his daily work. There is little evidence to suggest attributions in the book. In ‘domestic’ remedy collections (i.e. those used in families) it is common to find recipes gifted from others – e.g. my aunt’s remedy for a cold, Mrs x’s receipt for the gout, and so on. But this book has none, suggesting a more formal purpose. The fact that it is written in fair hand also supports a deliberate and disciplined document.

But if we look deeper at the document, what else might it reveal? Firstly, who was Alexander Spraggot? Did he indeed write a book called ‘noblest teachings of urine’, or might this be an unpublished manuscript from 1569? The answer to the latter is no. In terms of the date, I was partly lucky, since the paper was watermarked…but even this is slightly mysterious. Having sent a copy of the watermark to a colleague who specialises in this area, the watermark turned out to be from an unusual source for an early modern Welsh document…it was from Russia. Not only this, it dated no earlier than the mid seventeenth century, meaning that, at the very least, any copy from Spraggot’s original must have been done nearly a century later.

Searching under the name Alexander Spraggot reveals few likely candidates. Perhaps the most likely seems to be ‘Alexandrus Spraggot’, appointed the vicar of Martocke church in Somerset in 1564 – not a great distance from South Wales. But did Spraggot ever author a work of this name? Not as far as I can tell. There are no records in the British Library of a book by this title or author, so here the trail runs cold.

So what of the second name mentioned in the book – Bethia Marsh? Here again, I’ve drawn something of a blank. A lady of this name was born near Salem, Massachusetts in 1650 – roughly around the date of the creation of the book (or at least its paper), making her an unlikely candidate. The name isn’t especially Welsh either. One possibility is that Bethia was, at some point, the owner of this book which, after all, contained a large number of useful remedies. It was common for people to write their names in such books to assert ownership, and also for remedy collections to move across families as they were gifted, especially to newlyweds.

What, finally, of Sansom Jones, the mysterious Welsh practitioner of Bettws, south Wales? Is there anything to suggest that he was the true owner of the book? Sadly not. Having looked for the relatively unusual name of Sansom in likely parish records, I can find no trace…so far. He was not, at least as far as the records suggest, a licensed physician. His name doesn’t appear on any list of known doctors, nor does he appear to have been apprenticed or trained. None of this, of course, means that he never existed. He could, as many Welsh practitioners did, have simply carried on his medical practice to the local population unhindered by the need to obtain a licence, being so far from the centre in London. With such an indistinct date, he might have been of a later time period, with a misjudged attribution by the note writer. Another possibility is that he was actually from a different ‘Bettws’ than the one in Glamorganshire; there are several across Wales.

And so the search continues. As I turn my attentions back to Welsh medical practice (after a hiatus studying shaving and rupture trusses in the eighteenth century) the need to find out more about the daily life and work of Welsh doctors will again become paramount. If Sansom Jones was there, and if this was indeed his book, I want to find him, as ownership of these types of documents does much to provide an alternative to depictions of Welsh doctors as obsessed with folklore and magic.

p.s. If anyone can shed any light on any of this, I’d be very grateful.

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