Among the most colourful characters in early modern medicine were the ranks of medical mountebanks and quacks that traversed the country selling all manner of dubious pills, potions and preparations. A vast range of medical substances were available with everything from the ‘Catholick Pill’ to the ‘Hercolean Antidote’ offering frightened (and gullible) patients a chance to escape the heavy burden of their conditions. The subject of quacks has been well covered over the years – perhaps most famously by the late Roy Porter – and quack remedies are always appealing to a popular audience. There is perhaps something within us that sympathises with the sheer cheek of these characters, even though we might question their motives as well as their remedies.
It was common for quacks to move around; in fact it was common sense. Once people realised that they had been duped it was probably not a good idea to hang around. Robert Bulkeley of Dronwy in Anglesey encountered one such figure on the road in the early seventeenth century. Bulkeley was suffering from toothache and a ‘mountebank’ offered to cure it for a penny. Unsurprisingly, two days later Bulkeley was a penny down but still had the toothache. But some ‘medical entrepreneurs’ travelled further than most. On occasion, foreign characters visited British shores, carrying with them a whiff of exoticism and something different to the travelling tinker’s pack. Some even achieved some measure of fame and renown as they moved around. One such was Vincent Lancelles, reputed to be Venetian, who appeared in Britain in the mid seventeenth century.
We know something about Lancelles from the flyer that he sent around to advertise his current or future presence. It was nothing if not confident:
“By the King’s Grant and Speciall Approbation, be it knowne that there is arrived in this towne M. Vincent Lancelles, Physician and Chyrurgeon, Spagyrique and a very expert operator, and one of the King’s most excellent Majesties Servants, and approved by the Colledge of Physicians of London, and by His Majesties Physitians in ordinary…”
Perhaps he had seen the King. Perhaps all the doctors of England did indeed laud him for his skill. Perhaps the august College of Physicians were falling over themselves trying to add him to their members. Perhaps.
The flyer then went on to list over 100 maladies that Lancelles unselfconsciously claimed to have mastered. These included epilepsy, melancholy, ‘hydropsie’, ulcers of the lungs, heate of the liver, flux, paine of the kidneys, cholick, worms…the list went on. And on. In addition to ailments he could also ‘helpe the blinde’, perfectly draw teeth and make hair grow again. Faced with such expertise, who would not want to flock to see Signor Lancelles?
In the mid seventeenth century Lancelles begins to be mentioned in various sources around the country. In 1652 he was in Chester. We know this because the so-called ‘Water Poet’, John Taylor was also there whilst on one of his many perambulations around the country. Whilst lodging at the Feathers in Watergate Street, Taylor “met with two brothers of mine acquaintance thirty years, they brought me to the chamber of a reverend Italian physician, named Vincent Lancelles, he was more than 80 years of age, yet of a very able body,and vigorous constitution”. Taylor was clearly impressed by the old man:
He helped such as were grieved for three several considerations —
First, He cured the rich, for as much as he
Secondly, He healed the meaner sort for what
they could spare, or were willing to part withal.
Thirdly, He cured the poor for God’s sake, and gave them money and other relief, as I myself (with thankful experience) must ever acknowledge : For he looked upon my lame leg, and applied such medicine, as did not only ease me, but I am in hope will cure me, the grief being nothing but a blast of lightning and thunder, or planet stroke, which I received nine years past at Oxford.”
It is clear that Lancelles was either in Britain for some considerable length of time, or alternatively left and came back. In either case he can be placed at Oxford in 1652 before seemingly moving north later on, making his way to Ashbourne in Derbyshire and Wrexham. It was there that an unfortunate incident probably brought him to the attention of the diarist Philip Henry.
In June 1663 Henry wrote an entry in his diary: “This week dyed in Chester a servant to an Italian Mountebank known by the name of his Apothecary, who received some blows about 3 weekes since upon ye stage in Wrexham, in a scuffle with Mr Puleston of Emeral”. In the entry the mysterious Italian is referred to as Giovanni, but the balance of probability points to Lancelles. And what of his servant, killed in a scuffle with the over-excited crowd?
Perhaps the incident was too much for Vincent who, if it is the same man, would be in his 90s by then! Whatever the reason, this is possibly the last reference to the enigmatic Italian mountebank.
Early modern Britain was replete with medical practitioners of many different qualifications, motivations and skills. All appealed to a common human trait, that of trying to rid the body of ailments and restore balance and health. They are some of the most fascinating body of historical actors that you could hope to find.