Pig boys and boar bites: a seventeenth-century medical consultation

What did medical practitioners actually do in the past? Or, put another way, what sorts of things were they consulted for? Given the vast numbers of pages devoted to medical practice over the past few years this might seem to be a slightly redundant question. But, in fact, individual consultations are remarkably obscure. Physicians’ casebooks can be revealing, but the nature of these often means elite doctors and wealthy physicians. Also, whilst letters from patients can often give amazing insights into the sorts of diseases and maladies that afflicted them, it is less common to find evidence of the sorts of routine things to which practitioners could be called to attend for.

One little source in Glamorgan Archives (MS D/DF/215) gives us a fascinating insight into the day to day work of an early-modern doctor. It is a receipt for medical services to the Jones family of Fonmon Castle in Glamorganshire from Dr John Nicholl. The Joneses were a wealthy family who had supported Cromwell in the civil wars. Colonel Phillip Jones bought the castle in the mid seventeenth century, adding and rebuilding parts of it. By the early eighteenth-century it was a magnificent country house. Of the doctor, John NIcholl, we know very little. It is likely that he was the same man whose will was proved in 1726, listed as a surgeon of Llanbydderi in Llancarfan – a few miles from Fonmon Castle. Nicholl was clearly fairly affluent, owning lands and property in Glamorgan which he bequeathed to his family.

Picture from hha.org - copyright belongs to them
Fonmon Castle today. Picture from hha.org – copyright belongs to them

The source itself is a bill giving a brief description of the conditions treated between May and July 1715, together with the prices charged. The bill was sent to the house steward, and a note on the back states that it was paid in full at the end of the year. In a largely cashless society, it was common for people (and especially large households) to have services on account which could then be settled at intervals. It is also common in large houses for the same practitioners to be continually employed over periods of time. What sorts of things did Nicholl treat though?

The first ‘cure’ referred to is a visit to ‘Madam Jones’ for an unspecified condition, for which Jones charged several shillings. Which ‘Madam Jones’ is referred to here is unclear, but likely to be the house matriarch. The next recipient of medical attention was in fact a kitchen maid, Anne Cornish. Again, Anne’s condition is unspecified but required a second visit and “blooding hur”.

Another is to the unfortunately-titled ‘pig boy’, who occurs twice in the receipt. It is clear that the boy had fallen foul of his porcine charges since the receipt reveals that he was bitten by a boar! This necessitated two visits by the doctor, one of which was to dress his leg. Pig bites are in fact incredibly painful and, while the incident might appear faintly comical, could potentially be dangerous due to the risk of secondary infections entering through the open wound, or from the animal itself.

The medical treatment of servants is interesting. Domestic servants were part of the early-modern household family. Whilst their working lives were doubtless hard, it should not be forgotten that many employers were in fact fairly benevolent to their young employees. In these cases, for example, the servants were clearly given more than a cursory look over; both were given treatment by an apparently ‘orthodox’ medical practitioner (as opposed to a cunning man or empirick). We cannot know their social status, but it is no stretch of the imagination to suggest that they might usually not be able to afford such treatment. Servants were valuable commodities though and, as such, needed looking after. I have found other examples of servants being paid even when sick, and allowed other ‘perks’ like being given money to go to a fair, or to purchase new clothes or shoes. We should not necessarily view early modern servanthood as a life of drudgery.

(image from costumehistorian.blogspot.com…a great site and well worth a visit)

The last example contained in the receipt again concerns ‘Mrs Jones’ but this time gives us a little insight into an accident that could only really befall someone of higher status. At some stage in midsummer 1715 Mistress Jones was clearly abroad in her coach, no doubt enjoying views of the beautiful Vale of Glamorgan. Whilst comfortable standing still, the suspension systems of early-modern coaches were rudimentary at best and did not cope well with rough tracks. Perhaps it was an encounter with a wheel rut or some other type of obstruction that caused poor Madam Jones to hit her face and bruise her nose. No doubt nursing wounded pride as well as a bloody nose she clearly called for Doctor Nicholl!

Even in small, apparently limited, sources like these it is often possible to recover tantalising glimpses not only of healing practices, common (and in this case elite!) maladies and individual patients, but even something of the social attitudes towards sickness in a society and at a time where records of medical encounters are frustratingly rare.

For an interesting blog post on the Joneses of Fonmon see – http://huwdavidjones.wordpress.com/2012/10/07/keeping-up-with-the-joneses-paintings-at-fonmon-castle/

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Polite Sickness: Illness narratives in 18th-century letters

I have always found letters a brilliant source of information about patients. If writing to friends, relatives and business contacts was commonplace, then one of the most common topics was the writer’s health. Illness was a natural topic to discuss. It was a worthy news item and served to keep the recipient updated with the latest symptom or condition. It could be pragmatic; some sufferers wrote directly to doctors and procured their medicines by post. But others used letters as a means to gather information about their illnesses, not from doctors but from others in their social networks. These would often elicit a stream of responses with favoured recipes, which had never yet failed or were ‘probatum’ (proved) to work.

But letters worked on another level. They gave sufferers the chance to assemble their illness into narrative, and sometimes even episodes. As I have argued in my book Physick and the Family, the eighteenth century  in particular witnessed the rise of what I term the ‘heroic sufferer’. Here, rather than simply listing symptoms, or providing a description, letter writers began to create sickness stories with themselves often as the hero. Sometimes the letters have a resigned air; the missives of the Morris brothers of Anglesey are a good case in point. Their letters commonly contain entries along the lines of ‘the end is near, remember your dear brother’, sometimes suggesting that this might be their last letter and, inevitably, carry on as normal thereafter. Also interesting in their case is the virtual competition that seemed to exist among them as to who could be the most ill! Another common trope was to represent oneself as the battered victim of sickness, nonetheless heroically battling on in the face of almost insurmountable misery.

Depending on the writer though, some sickness narratives take an almost humorous view of their symptoms, treating the reader to a light-hearted walk through what were almost certainly unpleasant episodes. To me these are the most engaging. One set of letters I came across in my research for my PhD fits into this category. They are letters from a Breconshire attorney, Roger Jones of Talgarth. I haven’t researched much about the man himself (maybe I will one day) but he was clearly a ‘man about town’ – in eighteenth-century parlance, a Beau Monde. One particular run of letters were fired off in rapid succession following an abortive trip to Hay on Wye. In February 1769 he wrote to his brother, clearly in some distress.

“Dear Brother…on the fifth day of last month I was visited with a palsy which advances upon me…I was going to the Hay market and before I went halfe a mile off I was taken with a numbness and a kind of stiffness(?) in my left hand. It surprized me much and I turned home. I was immediately bled and sent for my apothecary in ye town of Hay whose advised to contact a physician. I directly sent for Dr Applby(?) of Hereford who attended me on Saturday. I have been bled, cupped, blister’d [and purged] and yet without effect. My disorder has advanced that it now affects all of my left side, both arm and leg.”

Poor Roger. Advised by his physician to eat nothing but puddings(!) he was forced to cancel a trip to Bath, and asked his brother, a clergyman, to pray for him.  Judging from other letters, he was not a man who held physicians and their prescriptions in any great esteem.  In July 1770 he wrote to his brother that he was again “greatly afflicted in both mind and body”, and felt that his body was “gradually wearing out” and that he now had a most “melancholy life”. Despite this, some of his accounts are also comedic. Struck down with an attack of some mystery condition, he attempted to get his servant, Morgan, to help him take a vomit. Unfortunately, Morgan was ‘thick of hearing’ and clearly failed to grasp what his ailing master was trying to tell him. In the end Roger was forced to repair to the local inn, the Lyon, where a Mrs Morgan assisted in giving him “the puke”.!

A sample of Roger Jones's spidery writing. Copyright for this image belongs to the National Library of Wales. Please do not use without their permission.
A sample of Roger Jones’s spidery writing. Copyright for this image belongs to the National Library of Wales. Please do not use without their permission.

In August 1770 he was again sick and ailing at home, this time under the stewardship of a Dr Isaacs. He was first prescribed ‘opening pills’, presumably purgatives to try and drive the malady out of him. When these failed to take effect, Dr Isaacs subjected Roger to a veritable barrage of the 18th-century’s most potent medicines. He took a glister (an enema) which, as he ominously reported “worked”, which was repeated with a purge daily for a week! It is difficult to imagine today a treatment regime that subjected the already weak patient to seven days ‘worth of self-inflicted diahorrea and vomiting. Roger’s verdict? “I think I am rather better but am grown a great deal thinner”!

Through the words of Roger’s letters we get a very intimate and human image of him; something of the character of the man comes out and he speaks to us very directly through more than 200 years’ distance. As we read letters from patients like Roger it is striking how little human nature has changed. We are all still obsessed with our symptoms and will readily tell everybody about them. What has changed are the means of communications; the quick-fire nature of texts and emails are not suited to the construction of sickness narratives. But next time you are in a doctor’s waiting room, see how willing complete strangers are to tell others all about their symptoms and treatments, maybe share the name of a favourite tablet! Treatments might have changed; we haven’t