“By the King’s Special Grant”: A Venetian Quack in Early Modern Britain

One from the archives today – a post about a Venetian quack who travelled Britain in the 17th century. He even made it to Wrexham…but not to his advantage!

Dr Alun Withey

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.

The Quack

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…

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Shaving in the Trenches: Washing and grooming in the Great War.

100 years after the repealing of the order, a post about shaving and personal grooming in the Great War trenches.

Dr Alun Withey

As the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War approaches, we are constantly reminded of the horror of trench warfare. A raft of new books, articles, websites and programmes will be devoted to charting the conflict. All of the big questions will be revisited, from the motives for going to war to the fitness of those in charge to lead their men. Much attention has already been paid to the lives of ordinary ‘Tommies’ in the trenches and the recent publication of diaries, such as that of Harry Drinkwater vividly bring to life the experience of living in the shadow of battle.

In the discussions of action, however, the day-to-day experience of living in the trenches, the ordinary routines of life, are sometimes overlooked. How did men keep themselves clean, for example? In the muddy quagmire of battle trenches, did the usual routines of washing and grooming still…

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The Lost Children’s Drawings in a 19th-Century Medical Manuscript.

I’ve always been fascinated by marginalia in manuscripts – the comments written in the margins, the little drawings or doodles that someone absent-mindedly scribbled onto a piece of paper, in all likelihood blissfully unaware that someone would be reading them centuries later.

Remedy collections have always been a fruitful source for marginalia. The utilitarian nature of remedies invited comments and it’s common to find little notes about how well (or not) a particular remedy worked. This can be specific comments: One of my favourite was the addition ‘This I lyke’ next to a remedy for a cold I once came across. In another instance, an unfortunate patient had noted – next to a particular purge – that it was ‘too hot’ for him! Other things can include the pointing hand (known as a ‘manicule’) next to a favoured remedy, the word ‘probatum’, meaning ‘it is proved’ or, in other words, ‘it works’, and even a smiling face.

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(image from http://collation.folger.edu/2015/05/a-spoonful-of-sugar-helps-the-medicine-go-down/)

This week I’ve been working at the wonderful archive in the Barber Surgeons’ Hall in London. It’s a treasure trove of all sorts of documents relating to the history of the barber-surgeons, from account books to apprentice registers, wills, details of fines and freedoms, portraits, artefacts…even a box full of antique razors. It was great to spend time there, and to see some of the wonderful things in their collection: A huge Holbein painting, for example, or a cup that Samuel Pepys once quaffed from.

On this visit I was looking for information about barbers after the 1745 split, so was looking through various manuscripts. Occasionally, though, and usually when you’re not particularly looking for it, you come across a document that stops you in your tracks. On the desk was a 19th-century manuscript book comprising of notes taken from medical lectures given by John Abernethy, at the anatomy theatre in St Bartholomew’s hospital, London. Abernethy (1764-1831) was an English surgeon and Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. Having founded the medical school in St Bartholomew’s hospital in London, and been elected principal surgeon there in 1815, he had become lecturer in anatomy at the RCS in 1814.

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(Image taken by author – used by permission)

The note taker was one E. Long – part of a family hailing from Barham, Canterbury. Long was meticulous and methodical in his note taking. His pages were well ordered, neat and tidy, written in a fine Victorian script, with writing on just one side of each page, leaving the other blank. I’m not sure if Long continued his studies or went into practice afterwards, but the book remained in the family. There it might have stayed and perhaps still found its way into the archives as a fascinating record of the lectures of a prominent Victorian surgeon.

But at some point, perhaps years after, Long’s habit of leaving every other page blank proved tempting to certain younger members of the family. And they didn’t just add a few doodles on the odd page; they filled the reverse side of every page in the book with drawings, paintings, draft letters, copied passages from verses and even practised their writing. The book probably contains hundreds of these drawings, but I’ve picked just a few out.

One image, for example, depicts Victorian soldiers (“of the 93rd”)- perhaps copied from a book. The figure on the right, with his curly hair and beard, seems to have been the subject of particular attention.

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(Image taken by author – used by permission)

Another shows various heads in profile. Elsewhere in the book there are strong suggestions that some of these images were drawn from life, with an aunt and nanny being mentioned.

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(image taken by author – used by permission)

Another shows writing being practised, together with a less defined (and dramatically elongated) body, perhaps betraying the hand of a younger artist.

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(image taken by author, used by permission)

This next page of sketched faces reminded me strongly of the Dickensian ‘Boz’ character faces, with slightly grotesque, grimacing features.

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(image taken by author, used by permission)

Sometimes the children didn’t even pick a blank page. Was this their own house?

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(Image taken by author – used by permission)

A final one intrigued me: Captioned ‘Dick’s Drive to Dover’, with ‘The Accident’ written underneath, it seems like it might have been copied out of a novel or magazine. If anyone can identify it, I’d be delighted to know! IMG_3016

Aside from the obvious charm of the children’s additions, the book stands as a fascinating example of the multiple uses to which historical documents could be put and also, more broadly, the continued utility of books over long periods of time. This is something that early modernists are familiar with. Books – even manuscripts – were lent, gifted, exchanged, bequeathed and, in many cases, continued to be added to over years…sometimes even centuries. Remedy collections can be particularly long-lived in this respect. The Long family book shows the same process, with two completely different authors, the children’s drawings in sharp contrast with the stark medical language of the lectures. What would those children make of their drawings being ‘discovered’ 150 years later? Perhaps more importantly, what was Mr Long’s reaction when he found his lecture notes had become a child’s scribble pad?!