Social Networks and the spread of medical remedies in early modern Britain:

Much recent work by historians has highlighted the extent that medical knowledge was part of a ‘knowledge economy’ in the early modern period. Put simply, health and medicine were regular topics of conversation, whether in person or by letter. Just like today people told each other of their symptoms, suggested favourite remedies or recommended particular doctors. In some ways too, early modern people were perhaps more sensitive to their own bodies than we are today; they understood their bodies through a framework of the four humours, and had some idea of their own particular humoral balance. Also, they monitored their health constantly, ever vigilant for potentially unusual or dangerous changes.

With less easy access to medical practitioners for many of the population, self-medication was the first recourse in times of sickness. It made sense to have an armoury of remedies at the ready, just in case. In literate households, manuscript collections of remedies were effectively the next best thing to a consultation with a physician. But how were these collections assembled? Where did the remedies come from? By looking at a typical eighteenth-century recipe book in more detail, we can start to see the ways that medical information travelled through social networks in early modern Britain.

Between roughly 1706 and 1717, Amy Rowlands of the wealthy Rowlands family of Plas Gwyn, Anglesey, compiled her own book of medical and culinary receipts (available to see at the University of Bangor library, as MS Henblas A5). Her book is typical of the form. It is carefully laid out, written in a fair hand and fully indexed, following the format of a ‘receptaria’ medical book.  The image below is from the first page of the book, where Amy seems to be trying out a few writing exercises, based on a moral pnemonic.

Amy’s book contains more than a hundred recipes for a variety of conditions and using a wide range of ingredients. This one, “for the stone”, is fairly typical.

“Dry the roots of Red nettles and make them into pouder and drink a spooonfull of the powder thereof in a draught of white wine something warme and it will break the stone though itt bee ever soe great. And that with speed use it every day until the stone and gravell be all broken and consumed, A thinge of smale prices and great virtue”.

Looking through the book, it is clear that the sources of Amy’s recipes were broad, and included local acquaintances as well as a variety of more intriguing sources. Some, for example, were clearly given directly to her by people from her network of family and friends. Examples of these include:

To make Ginger Bread with honey Madam Griffiths way’‘To make Ginger Bread the best way Cosen Sidney Rowland is way’.

“Madam Griffiths is more difficult to trace, but ‘Cosen Sidney Rowland’ lived in Dewis Bren near Llangollen, and therefore in reasonably close proximity to Amy.  “A Reciept for a Consumptick Cough” was provided by  “Mrs Jane Williams of Ty yn ystrithsons”, clearly another acquaintance, as was a recipe for “flower water” attributed to Mrs Griffiths of Carnarvon – again, in very close proximity to Amy’s Anglesey home.

Aside from family and friends, there were other potential sources of remedies. One recipe, for example, was kept from a consultation with a practitioner:

“A Diett drink Dr Humphreys Recett to me Amy Rowlands

Take of the bark of Ash of the tender twigs of tamarisk of each two ounces of the same of Brooklime: scurvy grass, Liverwort, Hartshorn, Agrimony: Sage of each one handful: of Sene three ounces. Bruse all these and infuse them in seven quarts of smale(?) ale: after 24 hours you may drink of itt about half a pint furst in the morning and last att night you may ad quince seeds Brused to correct the wind if you please”.

For me, these records are especially interesting. Firstly, and obviously, they confirm that Amy sought the help of a doctor – one ‘Dr Humphreys’. Receipts attributed to doctors often appear in remedy collections, without the author having necessarily ever consulted the physician in question. Hence can be found remedies such as “Dr Butler’s receipt for the plague water”, noted in several collections from Wales at this time.  The inclusion of the title leant provenance and value to the remedy, especially if it had a positive reputation. Amy’s note here, however, strongly suggests that she had met (or perhaps consulted by post) this “Dr Humphreys”, and she recorded his directions for future use. Locating Humphreys is difficult given the commonness of his surname, but he was likely a local practitioner or apothecary, and unlikely to have been licensed.

Indeed, Amy Rowlands was seemingly not overly concerned about the ‘professional’ credentials of a practitioner; it was the reputation of a remedy that mattered more. A remedy for a ‘Meigrim in the head’ is included, attributed to “Pembrockshir Bess” – perhaps a cunning woman or magical healer.

Sources could, though, also come from much further afield, and suggested spread by word of mouth, rather than personal acquaintance.  The remedy below is attributed to “Mrs Pitt who lived in Stippleton in Dorsettshire” and is a receipt to make “a very good seercloth”. Amy included a note that she had made this recipe herself, and found it good – perhaps the best indicator of its reliability.

The efficacy of a remedy, though, was not just based on whether it had cured the author of the collection; the opinions and testimonials of others were just as valuable.

‘An infallible cure for sore Eies effected on Captain Fitspatrick in London when Given Over by all doctors, Given me by Mr Moris Owens of Holy Head

Taking some Garlick and pound them and bay salt together into a sort of a pultiss and apling them to the soles of the feet spread on leather for nine nights sucksesifly the which has done a wonderful cure upon the above Gentilman

In this example, the benefactor of the remedy was “Mr Moris Owens’ who perhaps (although by no means certainly) knew the ‘Captain Fitspatrick’ upon whom the initial remedy was so successful. Here, the remedy had travelled a physical distance (from London to North Wales), but had also moved through a social network by several removes, connecting people who otherwise had nothing to link them.

It is this last point that really highlights the value of these fantastic sources. They certainly reveal much about medicines, ingredients and the physical processes of manufacturing remedies in the early modern period. But, in cases where authorship and attributions are known, they also reveal much about the diversity of sources of medical information and the sheer wealth of medical knowledge that was available. Far from being helpless in the face of sickness, people in fact were surrounded by potential sources of relief. Recipe collections offer us a unique insight into this process.

(Images are copyrighted to me, and used with permission of the archive at Bangor University: Please do not reproduce them without the express permission of Bangor archives. Thanks)

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Unpacking the ‘eccentric’ in popular memory: Local characters of old Cardiff.

Disclaimer!: This is not a fully-formed argument, just some thoughts about the ‘eccentric’ in reminiscences of childhood and popular memory. I’d be interested in hearing what others think.

I’ve been reading the ‘Cardiff Borough Records’ – a magisterial five-volume set of miscellany relating to Cardiff from Norman times through until the early twentieth century. It is fascinating. There is everything from court cases to inquests, slander suits to land rents and tithes. For a good Cardiff boy like myself, I find the references to land parcels very interesting in, say, the fourteenth century, which still have echoes in areas and street names to this day. There are, for example, several references to the ‘Weddle’ or “Weddal fields”. Wedal Road is now a busy conduit not far from the University of Wales hospital. But I digress…

One section that stands out for me is the ‘Reminiscences of Old Cardiff’, which contains a brief but fantastic list of ‘eccentric old characters of Cardiff’. These include ‘Pegg the Wash’, an apparently feisty and pugnacious old washerwoman, whose habit was to chase children away from her house with a stick, perhaps peppering her imprecations with a good Welsh oath or two.

“Dammy Sammy” was an apparently well-known schoolmaster, whose sobriquet relates to his colourful choice of language in front of his young charges. A dwarf sweet-seller, known as ‘cough candy’ took advantage of his appearance and, in fact, seems to have augmented it by using his top hat as an advertising hoarding, pasting shop adverts and flyers onto it. The list goes on, but also noteworthy is ‘Hairy Mick’, the lamplighter!

What, though, stands out about these reminiscences? For me, it is the fact that all of these figures involve, or have relevance, for children. They were clearly denizens of a childish world – larger-than-life characters who left an indelible mark on the memory.

Memory, and reminiscence, is an odd thing, especially in terms of using and interpreting these characters in context of, say, social conditions.  How can we separate the ‘truth’ (if such a thing exists) from misty-eyed, if not evocative, depictions of ‘characters’. It is an interesting question. History is full of ‘characters’. If we think of history taught in schools, it is most often done in terms of a cast of individuals (Henry VIII, Hitler et al) and set-piece historical events.

And yet there is a remarkable constant throughout history and human nature, in our ability to identify and remember people who, for one reason or another, were somehow different. I can illustrate this from my own memory. When I was little, there was an unfortunate character who frequented a main street nearby, and who would suddenly leap out and shout at the traffic, sometimes even accompanied by violent gestures and karate actions. A certain mythology built up around him; it was popularly supposed that his wife and children were killed in an accident, thus affecting his mind and causing his behaviour. Whilst it’s certainly possible, it is interesting that no hard evidence really exists; people simply ‘know’.

In his excellent study of the history of folklore in London, Steve Roud makes this important point relating to the endurance of certain types of popular myths – things that are still ongoing today. Aside from more obvious ones such as empty properties gaining a reputation for being haunted, or patches of waste land being attributed to plague pits, he also notes the spread of often baseless rumours, which are then taken as truth. One such is the belief that a certain portion of land or building can never be developed as it was, at some stage, ‘given to the people’. There is one of these on my doorstep; the Caerphilly Miner’s Hospital has long been said by locals to be the property of the people of Caerphilly. Unfortunately, this hasn’t stopped it from recent closure…and redevelopment! A mythology of the individual, perhaps especially when that individual is located within the context of childhood memory,  fits well into this type of folklore.

How could we interpret characters like ‘Dammy Sammy’? As a medical historian, I am loath to engage in ‘retro-diagnosis’ since it’s obviously possible that he just had a foul mouth! But it’s also plausible that a pathological condition, say Tourette’s syndrome, certainly unknown and undiagnosed at the time, might explain spontaneous expletives. If so, a historian of nineteenth-century attitudes towards such conditions might find a useful case study. In a sense, it is not the character himself, but the reason why (s)he stood out that renders them interesting.

Let’s speculate further. Was ‘Peg the Washerwoman’ simply a bad-tempered old woman? Highly likely. But dementia, or perhaps an underlying psychological or sociopathic condition might explain a fear of strangers and a desire to drive them away. Historians of witchcraft have long highlighted the fact that ‘difference’ was often a crucial deciding factor in suspicions of witchcraft. Old women, especially those at the margins of society, were vulnerable.

The point is that we sometimes need to look beyond the simple description or reminiscence and try and unpack the social context of the ‘other’ in society. That the names of these characters – and their apparent ‘eccentricities’ – have survived or achieved notoriety, whilst many others have not, tells us something of how difference was perceived in past societies.

Reviving the ‘apparently dead’ in Georgian Britain

In the course of my research, I often come across great sources which, although they might not be directly relevant to what I’m looking for at the time, make great ideas for future topics. One that I encountered recently, while looking into the history of steel surgical instruments, was the following:

Charles Kite, An Essay on the Recovery of the Apparently Dead (London: 1788) containing “A Description of a Case of Pocket Instruments for the Recovery of the Apparently Dead”.

The question of whether it was possible – and indeed ethical – to revive the dead was certainly a hot topic towards the end of the eighteenth century. On the one hand, an increasing interest in the possibilities created by scientific and technological advances was increasingly rendering the impossible possible. This was the age of technological innovation and artisanal skill. Industrial luminaries such as Benjamin Huntsman, Josiah Wedgewood, James Watt and Matthew Boulton were all investing massively in new technologies, and their creations – from steam engines and pumps to everyday household items – were themselves heralding a new age. Scientific societies offered prizes to inspire would-be inventors to create useful products. Useful, in this case, often meant something that could advance agricultural or military prowess. But, with the creation of the Royal Institution, and an emphasis upon experimentation, endeavours towards the advancement of science for its own sake were also promoted. Science, it seemed, had the potential to unlock many of the mysteries of life and the universe…even death.

On the other hand, however, there was still a lingering tension between science and its relationship with religion. Could, and indeed should, man interfere in the natural processes and cycles of life. In many ways he already did. At the most basic level, medicine itself sought to prevent or delay death, or at least to palliate symptoms. There was some degree of uncertainty about when death actually occurred, and how to discern the point beyond which revival or resuscitation was possible.

Charles Kite’s book was part of a new interest in the question of death, approached from a scientific and essentially detached point of view. Among the types of death that men like Kite were interested in preventing were those caused by drowning. There was, indeed, even a whole society dedicated to the subject!

Accidental drowning represented a large percentage of causes of death, whether by accident or intention. It was also recognised, however, that this was a state that had the potential to be reversed. The opening sentence of Kite’s book reveals something of attitudes towards death by drowning.

“THAT the principle cause of the want of success in the recovery of the apparently dead, is the length of time that elapses before the proper remedies [my emphasis] can be applied, will admit of no doubt. It is equally certain, that this too frequently depends on circumstances wholly out of our power to prevent: but it is no less true, that cases terminating unfavourably often occur, to which, if proper and timely assistance could have been given, it is extremely probable they might have had a more fortunate conclusion”

It is firstly interesting to note that death is something potentially to be “remedied”; this immediately places it out of the metaphysical and into harsh corporeal reality. It is reversible. But more importantly, as Kite recognised, time was of the essence. If speedy assistance could be rendered, then more people could be saved.

The answer, as Kite saw it, was a device that could restart the respiratory process. Such devices were already in existence. In 1775, one “Dr Cogan” had contrived an apparatus and brought it to the attention of the Royal Society. According to Kite, “it soon came into common use and has remained so until the present day”. The problem, though, was one of size. Cogan’s apparatus was unwieldy and the delay in moving it from place to place often meant that the patient was dead (properly dead!) by the time it arrived. It involved, for example, an ‘electrical machine’ which was too impractical to use in the field and could not be scaled down. This image of the proposed apparatus highlights the problem!

Kite’s answer was a set of ‘pocket-sized’ instruments that could be carried from place to place with more ease, reducing the delay and thus raising the chances of successfully reviving the drowned person. Standard practice involved taking blood from the jugular vein of the patient but, depending on the length of time they had been in the water, getting blood from their rapidly deteriorating venal system could be tricky. The solution was to use Kite’s handy small instruments along with anything else at hand – even coffee cups – to draw off the requisite amount of blood, which was seen as the first stage in the process of revival.

Secondly, and more interestingly, though, was the recognition that the “suspended action of the lungs” had to be reversed. This was “of the utmost importance in our attempts to recover the apparently dead, let the original cause be whatever it might”. But how was this to be achieved?

Kite suggested an elastic tube, about twelve inches long, which had an ivory or silver mouthpiece, or bellows, attached to a conical screw. The other end had an ivory appendage to allow it to be passed into the deceased’s nostrils.  One person was to be stationed at the head of the body to insert the tube into the nose, and then to blow air “with force” through the tube. It was the job of the other person (the “medical director”) to keep the deceased’s mouth closed whilst also maintaining pressure on the windpipe to ensure that the air went into the lungs, rather than the stomach.

What is essentially being described here is artificial respiration. Perhaps less conventionally, however, Kite recommended the use of tobacco as a stimulant to further jolt the person back to life. This could be administered either as smoke passed through the tube and into the lungs, or passing it in solution to the stomach.

What can we learn from this source? Firstly, it highlights the sometimes remarkably ‘modern’ attitudes towards the body, and of reviving the dead, thought about and adopted by eighteenth-century medical practitioners. The application of sustained scientific enquiry into the body, together with the knowledge gained from anatomical studies was beginning to have a profound effect on medicine; some see this as the change to a ‘medicalised’ view of health and the body.

Secondly, though, it is a fascinating glimpse into an eighteenth-century medical treatise, written by a practitioner for practitioners. The sharing of essential knowledge, the questioning of accepted truths and the willingness to test new theories all come together to make the eighteenth-century a rich and absorbing period in the history of medicine.