Fowl Medicine: The early modern ‘pigeon cure’

In October 1663 news spread around London that Queen Catherine was gravely ill. Fussed over by a gaggle of physicians and priests, things got so bad that Her Majesty was even given extreme unction in the expectation that she might not pull through. In an effort to turn things around, as Samuel Pepys noted in his diary on the 19th October, “pigeons were put to her feet”. In another diary entry in 1667, Pepys recorded visiting the dying husband of Kate Joyce who was in his sick bed, his breath rattling in his throat. Despairing (for good reason) for his life his family “did lay pigeons to his feet while I was in the house”.

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(Image from Wikipedia)

Pigeons? Laid to the feet? Was Pepys mistaken, or was there a misunderstanding of his complicated shorthand? Actually, pigeons were a surprisingly common ‘ingredient’ in medicine and were even recommended for various conditions in the official pharmacopoeia (catalogue) of sanctioned remedies. But what were they used for, and how?

Remedies for the treatment of the plague certainly called for the use of pigeons. No less a publication than the London Pharmocopoeia issued by the College of Physicians in 1618, contained a remedy for the plague which involved pulling off the feathers of living pigeons, holding their bills shut and holding the bare patch to the plague sore “until they die and by this means draw out the poison”.

William Kemp’s 1665 ‘Brief Treatise of the Nature and Cure of the Pestilence’ noted that some writers advised cutting a pigeon open, and applying it (still hot) to the spine of a person afflicted with melancholy, or to a person of weak intellect. The English Huswife of 1615 advised those infected with the plague to try applying hot bricks to the feet and, if this didn’t work, “a live pidgeon cut in two parts”. Even the by-products of pigeons could come in useful. Physicians treating the ailing Charles II applied a plaster to his feet containing pigeon dung.

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(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Several sources suggest that the ‘pigeon cure’ was often a remedy of last resort. Writing of the last illness of her father in 1707 (dying of a “broken heart, which the physicians called a feaver”, Alice Thornton reported that, just before his death, pigeons were cut and laid to the soles of his feet. Seeing this her father smiled and said “Are you come to the last remedy? But I shall prevent your skill”. The diarist John Evelyn, in the ‘Life of Mrs Godolphin’ noted that ‘Neither the cupping, nor the pidgeons, those last of remedyes [my emphasis], wrought any effect’.

The ‘cure’ was evidently so popular that it made its way into popular culture, such as in Webster’s ‘Duchess of Malfi’. Speaking to the ‘Old Lady’, the character Bosola says that he would “sooner eate a dead pidgeon, taken from the soles of the feete of one sicke of the plague, than kiss one of you fasting”.

What were the perceived medical benefits of the pigeon and its various products? Some prominent physicians had plenty to say on the matter. William Salmon’s Pharmacopoeia Londonensis, Or the New London Dispensatory in 1716, (p. 200) held that “cut in the middle and laid to the feet, [pigeons] abate the heat of burning fevers, though malignant, and so laid to the Head, takes away Headaches, Frenzy, Melancholy and Madness. On the matter of pigeon dung, Dr Alleyne’s Dispensatory of 1733 stated that “we may judge of the nature of this [dung] from that of the birds…consists of subtle hot parts, which open the pores where it is applied, and by rarifying and expanding them, occasion a greater flux of fluid that way”. In other words the hot dung caused the body to open its pores and expel the bad humours causing the illness.

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Saint Gregory (and a pigeon!) – image from Wikimedia Commons

The particular significance of the pigeon is interesting too. One hint is given by the apparently strong connections in folklore between the pigeon and death, ranging from the belief that pigeons flying near a person – or indeed landing on their chimney – were supposed to indicate approaching death, to the “common superstition” (recorded in 1890) that no one can die happy on a bed of pigeon’s feathers. The symbolic power of the pigeon may therefore have been applied in reverse. Killing the bird perhaps imparted its vital power onto the dying person. Beliefs in the power of ‘anima’ – the vital life spirit – being able to be transferred from animals to humans were common in the early modern period.

If some of this seems like it belongs firmly to the 17th century, it is worth mentioning that the ‘pigeon cure’ was still apparently in use in Europe in the 20th century. A fleeting and poignant reference in Notes and Queries refers to a woman in Deptford in 1900, who unsuccessfully attempted to use the cure on her infant son when the medical attendant pronounced that there was no hope for him. He died shortly afterwards of pneumonia.

An article in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1900, though, reported that a Paris physician was casually told by one of his patients that she had “tried the pigeon cure for meningitis”, with some success. The physician, one Dr Legue, expressed his ignorance of the cure, and the patient described it to him.

“The head of the patient to be treated is shaved, and then the breast of the (freshly-killed) pigeon is ripped open by the operator, and the warm and bleeding carcass immediately applied to the bared skull”.

More than this, Dr Legue apparently discovered a shop in the city’s Central Market, where a Madame Michel ran a shop selling nothing but live pigeons, specifically for the purpose of the cure. On interviewing Madam Michel, the good doctor ascertained that she was on the point of retirement after making a “small fortune” from her business, since “the pigeon cure is considered a sovereign remedy for Influenza”, and she had been struggling to keep up with demand. The term ‘sovereign remedy’ takes us straight back to the 17th century but, before the article finished, Madam Michel mentioned one last use for the pigeons. In the case of Typhoid fever, she suggested, two pigeons were necessary. And they should be tied to the soles of the feet.

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(Wikimedia Commons)

As uncomfortable as they might sometimes appear to our eyes, early modern medicine involved all manner of plants, animals and substances, alive or dead. Rather than viewing them as ‘weird’, people at the time saw them as valuable ingredients, often with special properties, which they could use to help them in the fight against disease.

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Nendick’s Pill: Selling Medicine in Rural Britain

17th Century quack

(Anon, ‘Quacksalber’ – image from Wikimedia Commons)

Even as late as the 1970s it was largely assumed that people in rural England and Wales had little contact with medical practitioners or medicines for sale. As such, they were portrayed as being reliant upon ‘irregular’ practitioners such as charmers and cunning folk, and forced to make their own ineffectual medicines from the plants, animals and substances around them.

Recent work, however, has done much to explode this notion, showing instead that people in rural Britain were actually surrounded by medical practitioners of various kinds (see my previous blog post on the subject here) and could buy a variety of ingredients from apothecary shops which, if not on their doorstep, could be found in market towns nearby. Little work has yet been done, however, on the rural medical marketplace.

When I was writing my book on medicine in seventeenth-century Wales (a rural area if ever there was one!) I wanted to look at medicines for sale, and medicines advertised. In seventeenth-century London medical advertising proliferated. All manner of medical entrepreneurs took advantage of cheap print to peddle their wares to sickly Londoners, deploying tactics still familiar to advertisers today.

But how did this process work in areas far outside London? Did medical practitioners, and sellers of proprietary (ready-made) remedies even bother with the provinces? In fact, as I discovered for Wales, adverts for medicines reached far across the country, and remedy sellers and makers took advantage of local contacts to market their products.

A useful case in point is that of ‘Nendick’s Popular Pill’. Nendick was a London practitioner, described across various sources as a doctor, barber-surgeon, surgeon and ‘empiric’. He was based at the White Ball Inn, near to St Paul’s Churchyard. (For anyone interested in unusual wills, his final testament -National Archives PROB 11/496 – was virtually a mini theological treatise, on which he set forth his somewhat idiosyncratic views on the last judgement and resurrection, influenced by his work on chemical medicines.)

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(Image from Google Books)

Nendick published various books in his lifetime, but these were usually dedicated to promoting his ‘miraculous’ cure-all pills. In 1677, for example, he published ‘A Book of Directions and Cures done by that Safe and Successful Medicine called ‘Nendick’s Popular Pill. Although it claimed special dominion in the cure of scurvy, the book claimed that the pill cured everything from wind and cold to headaches and pimples, ‘cleansing the blood and purging gently by urine and stool’.

In line with the standard form of medical advertising for the time, the pamphlet gave detailed directions for use, a long list of claims for efficacy, and the place in London from where it could be purchased, along with warnings to customers to beware of fake pills! Perhaps more interesting, however, the pamphlet also gave a long list of sellers in towns around Britain, and even Ireland, from whom the pills could be bought. Nendick had managed to establish a network of agents around the country. These naturally included large towns like Bristol, Dartford, Plymouth and Ipswich but also much smaller market towns like Ledbury, Tenby and Kington in Somerset. Given the logistical difficulties of locating potential sellers, and maintaining supply and payment, this was an impressive undertaking.

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(Image from Google Books)

Looking down the list also tells us something about the sorts of places that might sell medical remedies. Some were medical practitioners. Mr Mainstone in Monmouth was a barber surgeon; Mr Betts in Guildford, Mr Ady in Chipping Sodbury and Mr Penny in Braton were barbers, and often interchangeable with medical services. Mercers, like Mr Northcote in Plymouth, and Mr Button in Taunton, often combined their trade with that of an apothecary, and so were common suppliers of medicines. But the connection with others was less clear. What of Mr Hill of Ryegate, the shoemaker, or Mr Lunt in Ledbury, a bookseller? The pill could also be found at a distiller’s, a coffee house and an inn.

But what if people wanted to buy pills and were not near enough to one of the warranted sellers to make the journey? Nendick had this covered. For three shillings a box of thirty pills could be dispatched by post, or would happily be provided to a messenger sent by a potential customer. Medicine by post was actually fairly common in the early modern period; it was even possible to send a flask of urine to a physician to be tested if a personal consultation was not possible. The state of the bottled piss by the time it had made the journey by coach of perhaps a day or two can only be guessed at!

Another clever device used by Nendick (and others) was to use testimony from local people to assure them that this ‘foreign’ pill could work for them. Examples from Wales are a case in point.

‘A poor Woman came from Kilgarren in Wales to lie in Cardigan, to get Cure of a sore Distemper, but to compleat her misery, she was left penniless, and uncured; yet by a Box of my Pills, which were given her by Mr. Griffith in Cardigan, she was Cured; they did expel wind, brought away store of Gravel, Water, and Blood, and she returned home well, that in three years before had not had the right benefit of Nature, much more might be said…’

Whereas poor Mr Whetnal of Presteigne, a gunsmith, could scarcely sit upright, much less leave his house before sending for Nendick’s products, a few pills later and he ‘now rode about the countrey’ through the miraculous power of the pill.

It was not only Nendick who employed this tactic. ‘Dr Salmon’s Pills…so famously known throughout England’ could be found everywhere from a Monmouth apothecary to a Gloucester bookseller as could ‘Dr. Stoughton’s Elixir Magnum Stomachicum, Or, the Great Cordial Elixir’, made by the Surrey apothecary Richard Stoughton and ‘Bromfield’s Pills’.

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(Image from the Anderson-Harvard Theological Library http://hdslibrary.tumblr.com/post/123373454944/who-knew-we-had-a-pamphlet-on-scurvy-spoiler)

Sometimes, though, the relationship could go wrong, as it did with Charles Taylor of the Kings Arms in Monmouth. Taylor was an agent for Anthony Daffy’s famous ‘Daffy’s Elixir’, a cure-all popular from the late seventeenth century. It seems that Taylor enthusiastically ordered a large stock of elixir to sell to his eager Welsh customers, but proved less enthusiastic in paying for them, leading to a lawsuit!

What these advertisements show, though, is that London medicines could be bought all across the country, in large and small towns alike. People from rural areas had ready access to them and, importantly, from local shopkeepers that they knew. The fact that they could read testimonials by locals – perhaps even neighbours – reinforced the safety and efficacy of the remedy. Also even if they could not get to town they even had the option to send for the pills by post. All of this reminds us that people in the past were by no means as cut off from medical provision as they were traditionally portrayed to be. Like us, they had access to a variety of medical goods, services and choices.

**(The full academic article I wrote on this topic in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine is available free on Open Access here)**

Beards…or no Beards?

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(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

It’s summer 2016, and beards are still pulling headlines in the news. A report on last week’s Financial Times website suggested that men are spending 20% more year on year, on niche products. One observer notes that the market for men’s grooming products is likely to top £1bn by 2018. The Guardian claim to be able to read personality through different beard styles, while other sites range from calling the end of the Hipster beard, to a report that one man wants to see the return of the beard tax.

There have been some signs of slowdown in recent months; a friend (and owner of a traditional barber shop) tells me that the numbers of men coming in for beard grooming has begun to fall, but also that the style has began to change towards shorter beards. Men who have beards are not removing them altogether, but seemingly cutting them back.

Shaving

(Image – Wikimedia Commons)

All of this has me thinking back to periods of beard ‘trend’ in history, and questions about actually how many men participate. Over the past few years we have seen an apparently huge rise in the popularity of beards. When a new trend starts it becomes literally remarkable. This certainly happened (and to some extent is still happening) with beards. Media, advertising, imagery all serves to build up a sense of momentum, beards became more noticeable on the high street and they begin to become associated with identity and lifestyle. But at some stage a tipping point is reached. This is essentially the idea behind so-called ‘peak beard’ – the point at which they become so popular that they lose their status as an alternative to what has gone before, and become…well…normal.

But even at their height this time around (probably 2014/5), how many men actually had beards? It’s impossible to quantify, but I’d be surprised if it went much about 25/30%. A study of 6500 European men in 2015 suggested that 52% had some form of facial hair, but such a small sample can hardly be considered bulletproof. (It was in the Daily Mail too by the way!)

I was talking recently to Christopher Oldstone-Moore (author of the recent book ‘Of Beards and Men’) and he argues that, even in times when beards are extremely popular, many (most?) men actually still don’t have them. I’ve been looking recently at Victorian photographic portraits of men across different levels of society, and different regions of the country. The period between 1850 and 1890 was the height of the ‘beard movement’ in Britain; a wide range of contemporary literature goes into great detail about the social, cultural and economic reasons why men should grow beards. As I’ve explored in other posts, these range from arguments that the beard filters out germs, protects the throat, chest and teeth, stops sunburn and even saves the economy millions by restoring the working hours lost in shaving!

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(Image https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/481533385133628358/)

But I’ve actually been struck by the amount of clean-shaven portraits that I’ve seen. For all the whiskers, moustaches, chin beards, Dundreary whiskers and all the rest, many men clearly did still prefer to shave. We can’t rule out the possibility that some were shaved specifically for their portrait, but this can’t account for all cases. So were these men freakish? Did their clean-shaven faces make them prominent when all other men were apparently sporting large patriarch beards?

There is certainly evidence to suggest that not all men viewed beards positively. In 1851, for example, just as the beard fashion was beginning to gather pace, a correspondent to the CS Leader and Saturday Analyst, complained at the ill treatment meted out to him by passers by, who took his beard as a sign of ‘foreignness’. As he walked through the streets he was hissed and laughed at, and particularly objected to someone shouting ‘French Dog!’ when, as he pointed out, he was not French and had served his country in the British army for many years. Neither were the jibes from children; his assailants included ‘well dressed and grown-up people, especially by ladies, and shopkeepers’ clerks’.

Those who still preferred the razor were well served by products available for them; in a previous post I mentioned shaving creams like the popular Rowland’s Kalydor, which were marketed throughout the nineteenth century. So were various kinds of razors. In fact, it could be argued that some of the biggest advances in razor technology occurred when beards were at their most popular. Of course some shaving was still necessary for certain styles, especially chin beards and whiskers, but it also suggests a ready market for the clean shave.

The Georgian period is renowned as a beardless age – lasting from the slow decline of beards and moustaches around the 1680s, to the start of the ‘beard movement’ in 1850. But was this actually the case? In Georgian Britain the majority of portraits we have are of the upper classes and elites; can we be sure that rural labourers did not hold on to their beards? In fact, part of the reaction against beards was that they made polite gentlemen resemble rustics. This suggests that the rustic look could be bearded. This point is made, for example, in a 1771 portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, ‘A Bearded Man’. The purpose of the painting is unclear, but it is unusual in depicting a beard at a time when being clean-shaven was the norm. According to the Tate Gallery, the sitter was a beggar named George White, perhaps explaining his unkempt appearance.

A Man's Head c.1771-3 by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1723-1792
A Man’s Head c.1771-3 Sir Joshua Reynolds 1723-1792 Presented by Sir George Beaumont Bt 1826 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00106

 

Another eighteenth-century portrait, by Balthasar Denner, also depicts a bearded man in the eighteenth century. This time the stubbly face represents the ageing man – a common artistic allusion but, again, suggests that clean-shaven may not have been the ubiquitous state it might at first appear from the sources.

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(Balthasar Denner, ‘Head of an Old Man’: Image from Wikimedia Commons)

As I delve deeper into the history of facial hair it becomes ever more clear that things are rarely as clear cut (sorry!) as they appear. Periods in history that we associate with certain facial hair styles do not necessarily speak for all men. Just as today, when by no means all men are sporting luxuriant Hipster beards, so not all Tudor men had ‘Stilletto’ beards, not all Victorians had ‘Cathedral’ beards, and not all Georgians were clean shaven. Instead, decisions to wear (or not wear) facial hair are bound up in a complex web of meanings and influences. I’m looking forward to the next stage in the development of beards!