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?!

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Touching the Past: Why History Is Important?

I was talking to a colleague recently about what first got us fired up about history. I’ve loved history since childhood, and it was probably inevitable that it would end up as a career. As an undergraduate, though, I vividly remember a turning point – a brilliant lecture I attended on life in the South Wales coalfields, which began with an image of a miners’ protest in the early 20th century. The lecturer began with a simple question: ‘what was it like to be there?’ He went on to talk about the men, the town and environment, the sights and smells and the conditions they lived in, bringing it all vividly to life.

But why does history matter? What is the ‘point’ of history? What is the value of humanities in a modern society? Depressingly, these are questions that historians increasingly have to face, and face them we do. A recent post by Laura Sangha gives a great response to just these sorts of questions.

Despite abundant evidence of the public appetite for ‘popular’ history, academic historians are under constant pressure to defend our discipline in the face of threats to funding, the need to recruit students and bring in research income. Sometimes it is easy not only to lose touch with why history matters, but what it was that got us enthused about it in the first place. For me, though, a chance encounter in an antiquarian bookshop in London last week has gone a long way towards bringing back the excitement I first felt when I first became interested in the past, and the people who inhabited it.

I wasn’t even to go in to the shop. But, with a little time to kill before lunch, I wandered in, and asked the owner if he had a section on health and medicine. He looked apologetic and said he had a few on some shelves at the back of the shop, but “mostly vintage stuff’”. What he actually had were two bookcases full of treasures; all manner of 17th and 18th-century medical and surgical treatises, histories of the body, anatomical works, medical lectures, books of remedies and pharmacopoeia…for a historian of medicine, a little shop of dreams!

One, in particular, caught my eye – an original 1667 copy of John Tanner’s Hidden Treasures of the Art of Physick. I pondered for a little while about whether to buy it…I’ve long worried about buying these old books (especially from places like Ebay) and whether it is right to own something that should ideally be in a museum. But, before long, it was coming home with me!

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Unwrapping the book from its packaging at home gave me time to look at it in detail, but also to reflect on the incredible journey that it’s had. More than that it reminded me of exactly why I fell in love with history in the first place. Here, on my desk, next to me now in fact, is a tangible artefact – a survivor from another world.

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(Thomas Wyck – ‘Old St Paul in Ruins’, Image from Wikimedia Commons)

It rolled off the press in Clerkenwell, London one day in 1667, in a city still in shock after the dual calamities of the plague and the Great Fire of the previous year. What would an imaginary visitor to London that year have seen? Everywhere were burnt-out buildings, piles of rubble and devastated streets still in the process of being cleared. In January that year Samuel Pepys noted that there were still ‘smoking remains of the late fire’ with ‘the ways mighty bad and dirty’. Even as late as the 28th of February Pepys was still having trouble sleeping because of ‘great terrors about the fire’, and observed ‘smoke still remaining of the late fire’ in the City. On the skyline was the devastated, but still recognisable, symbol of old London – the first St Paul’s Cathedral, whilst the once noted sea of church spires across London was diminished. Clerkenwell itself, however, largely escaped the fire. It was a fairly upmarket area, containing some affluent houses and businesses. Clerkenwell green was a fashionable area, home to some of the nobility.

What, then, of the book’s author and publishers? John Tanner who, according to the blurb, was a ‘student of physick and astrology’ wrote it. In fact, Tanner was a practising physician who resided in Kings Street, Westminster. In other sources he was referred to as a ‘dr in physic’ and a ‘medicus’, possibly even a member of the Royal College of Physicians in February 1675. When he died in 1711, Tanner had done pretty well for himself, leaving gold, silver and money, together with valuable goods, to his children. In his house, according to his inventory, were a ‘Physick room, Chirurgery room and still house’, the last used to distil waters for medicinal use. Tanner was the author of ‘my’ book, but he likely never touched it.

Someone who potentially had more to do with the physical book, however, was its publisher John Streater, a prolific producer of medical texts and brother of Aaron Streater, a noted physician and ‘divine’. Streater often worked in tandem with the bookseller George Sawbridge ‘at his House on clerken-well-Green’. Sawbridge was an eminent bookseller and publisher of medical books by luminaries such as Nicholas Culpeper. According to Elias Ashmole, Sawbridge had been a friend of the ‘English Merlin’ (or the ‘Juggling Wizard and Imposter’, depending on your source!) William Lilly. When he died, Sawbridge was worth around £40,000 – a colossal amount of money in the seventeenth century. It’s not too much of a leap of imagination to picture Sawbridge in his shop, surrounded by shelves and shelves of leather and calf-bound volumes, handing the book over to its first owner.

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Who owned it? It’s impossible to say, but let’s speculate. A book like Tanner’s Treasury was meant for a general readership. It’s aim was to help the ‘diligent reader’ attain a good understanding of physick and the body, synthesising a range of different authors. Its medical content might have made it appealing as an easy reference work for a medical practitioner, but far more likely is that it found its way into the library of a local gentleman…perhaps even one of the Clerkenwell nobility who lived hard by. Medical texts were common inclusions amongst the libraries of gentlemen; medicine was one of the accepted intellectual pursuits of elite men. In fact there is only one signature inside the book, which is now, sadly illegible. Only the word ‘boak’ (book) and the date 1726 are now discernible, but show that it was still being used, or at least referred to, at that date. There is also only one slightly unclear annotation, which appears to say ‘used above [unclear] but are fare’. I’ve included the image below.

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This copy of Tanner’s Treasury has had a long journey to this point. It has been passed down – perhaps gifted, bequeathed, sold, resold, lent, scores of times. At some point it ended up in a Birmingham library, and was potentially read by countless scholars, before its journey took it back to where it began – a London bookseller, where an interested party (me!) couldn’t leave it on the shelf. Rest assured that it’s found a good home, and will be carefully looked after.

To me, things like this little book are the reasons I love doing what I do. To be sure, the contents are important, giving us a window into the medical worldview of the time, and the sorts of individuals practising, writing and publishing medicine. The remedies are fascinating (and indeed one of my academic research interests). But there’s more to it than that. The book itself lets us literally touch the past and make contact with an object that was actually there. The people who wrote, sold, bought and passed it on have long gone, but we can still hold and appreciate something that was once important to them. It’s a line of direct contact back through the centuries. For all the academic theorising about grand narratives, discourses, theories and the rest, it’s nice to be reminded now and again of the simple, visceral thrill of letting a source fire up your imagination of what it was like in the past.

And that is why I think history is important.