The Agony and the Ecstasy: Hunting for 17th-century medics with few sources!

At the moment I’m once again on the hunt for elusive Welsh practitioners in the early modern period. The idea is to try and build up a map of practice, not only in Wales, but across the whole of the country. Once this is done we should have a clearer picture of where practitioners were, but also other key factors such as their networks, length of practice, range and so on.

Working on Welsh sources can at times be utterly frustrating. For some areas and time period in Wales sources are sparse to the point of non-existence. Time and again sources that yield lots of new names in England draw a complete blank in Wales. Ian Mortimer’s work on East Kent, for example, was based on a sample of around 15000 probate accounts. This enabled him to draw important new conclusions about people’s spending on medical practitioners in their final days. For Wales there are less than 20 probate accounts covering the early modern period!

17thc Wales

Wales had no medical institutions or universities, so there are no records of practitioners’ education or training. Welsh towns were generally smaller than those in England – the largest, Wrexham, had around 3000 inhabitants by 1700 –and this had a limiting effect on trade corporations and guilds. As far as I can tell there were no medical guilds in Wales between 1500-1750. It is also interesting to note that relatively few Welsh medics went to the trouble of obtaining a medical licence. A long distance from the centres of licensing in London, it could be argued that a licence was simply not necessary. Coupled with this was the fact that there was virtually no policing of unlicensed practice in Wales…only a bare few prosecutions survive.

The common perception has long been that there were simply few practitioners in early modern Wales. In this view, the vacuum left by orthodox practice was filled by cunning folk, magical healers and charmers, of which there is a long Welsh tradition. When I wrote Physick and the Family I suggested that there was a hidden half to Welsh medicine, and that if we shift the focus away from charmers etc then a much more nuanced picture emerges. When I began my search in earnest on this project, I was (and still am) confident that Welsh practitioners would soon emerge in numbers.

Cunning folk

At the moment, however, the number stands at around the 600 mark. This includes anyone identified as practising medicine in any capacity, and in any type of source, roughly between 1500 and 1750. So, 600 people engaged in medicine over a 250 year period, over the whole of Wales. Admittedly it doesn’t sound much! As a colleague gently suggested recently, this puts the ratio of practitioner to patient in Wales at any given time as roughly 1-50,000!

Here, though, the question is how far the deficiencies of the sources are masking what could well have been a vibrant medical culture. How do you locate people whose work was, by its nature, ephemeral? If we start with parish registers, for example, their survival is extremely patchy. For some, indeed many, areas of Wales, there are simply no surviving parish records much before 1700. Add to that the problem of identifying occupations in parish registers and the situation is amplified. How many practitioners must there be hidden in parish registers as just names, with no record of what they did? It is also frustrating, and probably no coincidence, that the areas we most want to learn about are often those with the least records!

Welsh registers

Records of actual practice depend upon the recording of the medical encounter, or upon some record of the qualification (good or bad), training, education or social life of the practitioner. Diaries and letters can prove insightful, but so much depends on the quality and availability of these sources. There are many sources of this type in Wales but, compared to other areas of the country with broader gentry networks, they pale in comparison.

All of this sounds rather negative, and it is one of the signal problems in being a historian of medicine in Wales of this period. In a strange way, however, it can also be a liberating experience. I have long found that an open mind works best, followed by a willingness to take any information – however small – and see where it can lead. Once you get past the desperation to build complete biographies of every practitioner you find, it is surprising what can actually be recovered.

In some cases, all I have is a name. Oliver Humphrey, an apothecary of a small town in Radnorshire makes a useful case in point. He is referred to fleetingly in a property transaction of 1689. This is seemingly the only time he ever troubles the historical record. And yet this chance encounter actually does reveal something about his life and, potentially, his social status and networks. The deed identifies him as an apothecary of ‘Pontrobert’ – a small hamlet 7 miles from the market town of Llanfyllin, and 12 from Welshpool. Immediately this is unusual – apothecaries were normally located in towns, and seldom in small, rural hamlets.

Pontrobert today

The deed involved the transfer of lands from Oliver and two widows from the same hamlet, to a local gentleman, Robert ap Oliver. Was this Robert a relative of Oliver Humphrey? If so, was Oliver from a fairly well-to-do family, and therefore possibly of good status himself? Alternatively, was Robert ap Oliver part of Humphrey’s social network, in which case what does this suggest about the social circles in which apothecaries moved?

Where there is a good run of parish registers, it can be possible to read against the grain and find out something of the changing fortunes of medics. Marriages, baptisms and deaths all point to both the length of time that individuals can be located in a particular place, and how they were identified. In some cases, for example, the nomenclature used to identify them might change; hence an apothecary might elsewhere or later be referred to as a barber-surgeon, a doctor or, often, in a non-medical capacity. This brings me back to the point made earlier about the problems in identifying exactly who medical practitioners were.

An example I came across yesterday was a bond made by a Worcestershire practitioner, Humphrey Walden, “that in consideration of the sum of £3 he will by the help of God cure Sibill, wife of Mathew Madock of Evengob, and Elizabeth Havard, sister to the said John Havard, of the several diseases wherewith they are grieved, by the feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist next ensuing, and that they shall continue whole and perfectly cured until the month of March next, failing which he shall repay the sum of £3”.

Apart from the wonderful early money-back guarantee, this source actually contains a potentially very important piece of information. It confirms that a Worcester practitioner was treating patients in Wales – Evenjobb is in Radnorshire. Walden may have been an associate of John Havard and been selected for that reason. Alternatively, he may have had a reputation along the Welsh marches as a healer for certain conditions, and been sought out for that reason. It strongly suggests the mutability of borders though, and the willingness of both patients and practitioners to travel.

In other cases practitioners pop up in things completely unrelated to their practice. The only record I have of one Dr Watkin Jones of Laleston in Glamorgan occurs because he was effectively a spy for the earl of Leicester, being called upon to watch for the allegedly adulterous activities of Lady Leicester – Elizabeth Sidney. At the very least, however, it confirms his presence in the area, his rough age, and the fact that he was connected to a gentry family.

And so the search continues. My list of potential source targets is growing and I’m confident that a great many more Welsh medics are still there to be found. If, as I suspect, the final number is still relatively small, I still don’t accept that as conclusive evidence of a lack of medical practice in Wales. As the old maxim goes absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. What it might call for is a revaluation of Welsh cultural factors affecting medical practice and, perhaps, a greater and more inclusive exploration of medical practice, in all its forms in Wales.

Physick and the Family: health, medicine and care in Wales, 1600-1750 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011)
Physick and the Family: health, medicine and care in Wales, 1600-1750 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011)
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The Case of the Severed Finger: Callow vs Heane, 1634

In my last blog post I looked at a libel case between two Exeter medical practitioners. It was interesting to see how professional reputations were at stake and the ways in which practitioners called each other’s skills into question. For this post I’m staying on a similar theme, but this time a medical practitioner plays the part of a key witness in a bitter dispute between two ‘Gentlemen’ from the Welsh marches in the 1630s.

In September 1634, members of the families of Heane and Callow were enjoying an evening’s revelry in an alehouse in Brockweir, Gloucestershire. No doubt oiled by good sack, a discussion about the wardship of a young member of the Heane family quickly became a debate….and inevitably a dispute which quickly got out of hand.

Alehouse

At some point a £10 wager was made and a member of the Heane family declaimed, loudly, that ‘the Heanes were as good men or better’ than the Callows and challenged them to back up their boasts with weapons. That did it. Rowland Callow called Walter Heane a ‘base rogue and a Villaine’ (strong stuff in the 17th century) and promised to ‘have Heane’s hart’s blood’. Callow made a grab for Heane’s sword, pulling it partly out of its scabbard, but things didn’t quite go his way. In pulling out the sword he severed one of his own fingers!

Meissonier_La-Rixe_Brawl

As was often the case, this one single flashpoint was the catalyst for a bitter feud that spilled over into other arenas and quickly came to court. Aside from the question of injury, both to Callow’s fingers and also to the reputation of both men, a variety of other petty accusations began to fly. Callow accused Heane of failing to present one of his nephews for the crime of trespass on Lord Pembroke’s estates. Heane called Callow’s witnesses ‘infamous and of no credit’, and others of taking bribes, living incontinently with a woman in Ireland and keeping an unlicensed alehouse. The stage was set for a court battle of epic proportions.

In January 1635 depositions began to be heard in Monmouth and a commission was further held in St Briavels in May 1635. It is interesting to examine some of the evidence that was heard before the commission. The defence was based on whether certain actions and words had taken place. Had, for example, Callow called Heane a rogue and a villain. Had he indeed threatened to have Heane’s blood and had he, as some witnesses had it, struck Heane, drawing blood and then, in a Tyson-esque show of fury, bitten off a piece of Heane’s ear?

17th century tribunal

Callow’s severed finger was the subject of much debate amongst witnesses. Robert Ellice of Deane Magna, Gloucestershire, a victualler, testified that Callow had come to him for ‘chuirurgerie and shewed him his hand whereon he had an hurt on the little finger and a scarr on the finger next to it, and he saith that the bone of the little finger was scaled and could not be cured, but that the scale must be by force pulled off or by corraisive plaister eaten off.’

John Morgan, a Malster also of Dean Magna, suggested a different course of events. As Callow had no weapon of his own, Morgan ‘Saith that Walter Heane did then draw his sword out of the scabbard and did strike Rowland Callow and cutt his little finger so much that it hanged downe’, and Morgan ‘was fayne to splint it up; and had done him further hurt if the company had not stopped and prevented him, by which Rowland Callow has lost the use of his finger’.

Here the finger was purposefully severed by Heane, rather than a result of Callow’s misjudged grab! Other witnesses testified to the finger ‘hanging down’ after the scuffle but other embellishments began to enter, such as Heane taking up a ‘great stone with an intention to throw it at Callow’s face’ and then ‘did buffet [Callow] on the face with his fist so that his face therewith brused and grew black and blew’.

One of the most interesting witnesses (for me as a researcher on Welsh medical practitioners!) was Thomas Evans of Trelleck in Monmouthshire, described as a barber surgeon aged about 30. Evans testified that ‘He had known Callow for 4 years ‘and in that tyme hath heard him called Mr Callowe and taketh him to be reputed a gentleman’. He did not know Heane. About 23 October last he was sent for to come to Callow’s house at Llandogo, co. Monmouth where he saw Callow’s wounded finger and was desired to cure it. He searched the wound ‘and was faine to take a bone out of it; and a weeke after he did take another bone out of Mr Callowe’s finger.’

St_Briavels_Castle_Victorian_print

The case dragged on, with testimony after testimony beginning to test the patience of the commissioners. Debate moved from the original incident to claim and counter claim, questions of ‘gentlemanliness’ and reputation, accusations of impropriety, and on it went. Finally the commissioners had enough. Sentence was due to be passed in May 1636 but was first referred to arbitration…which dragged on until January 1637. Frustratingly the final judgement is not recorded but something of the exasperation of the authorities can be gleaned from the comments of Sir Richard Catchmay, bailiff and local process server. Perhaps without much sarcasm he suggested that the two men should simply settle matters by seeing ‘which of them could leap furthest into the River of Wye’!

(The full details of this case and testimonies are available at the University of Birmingham’s great site and database relating to the early modern court of chivalry, available at: http://www.court-of-chivalry.bham.ac.uk)