Religion & the Sickness Experience in Early Modern Britain.

Over the years, a number of studies have been made of the sickness experiences of clergymen and religious figures as recorded in their diaries. One of the most well known is that of the diarist Ralph Josselin, vicar of Earl’s Colne in Essex. Another, lesser known, diarist I studied in the course of researching my book was Phillip Henry of Broad Oak in Flintshire, a puritan minister whose mid seventeenth-century diary covers a time of great religious upheaval, but also goes into great detail about his sicknesses. I also uncovered the records of an eighteenth-century Welsh Methodist preacher, who recorded the behaviours of his sick parishioners, naturally viewed through the lens of his own religious beliefs.

In every case, it is clear not only how central religious beliefs were in interpreting and understanding sickness, but how individual experiences could be affected by denomination.

For Puritans like Phillip Henry, for example, sickness was a test from God and it was up to the individual to interpret the message being given to them. In many ways sickness was to the body what sin was to the soul – both needed firm and definite action. As Henry wrote in 1657 “They that are whole need not a Physician…sin is the sickness of the soule, and sin-sick soules stand in great need of a Physician, and that Physician is none other than Jesus Xt”.

(c) Mansfield College, University of Oxford; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) Mansfield College, University of Oxford; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

When ill, Henry constantly monitored his symptoms and looked for causes in his behaviour. If he had a cold, he might wonder whether this was a result of the sin of pride. In other cases he felt that illness had been brought on by his over-attachment to wordly goods, or laxity in prayer. In almost every case, he viewed his body as the instrument through which God was correcting him.

If anything impressed the Godly in the sickness behaviours of others it was fortitude and stoicism. If people were penitent, so much the better. The clergy were especially pleased when the sick attended church, despite their afflictions, even if they had to be carried in, and limped out!

In the 1730s, John Harries, Methodist rector of Mynydd Bach and Abergorlech in Carmarthenshire, kept a journal in which he recorded his visits to sick parishioners (National Library of Wales MS 371B, Register of Mynydd Bach Chapel). Harries paid careful attention to the behaviour and comportment of the sick. When Morgan Evan Morgan ‘departed this life 23rd December 1736/7’, Harries noted that he had ‘behaved himself very sivil and sober’ despite being in a ‘lingering distemper about eight years’. Catherine Richard likewise ‘behaved herself inoffensive’, while Joyce Evan ‘was very cheerful…expected but to live, but hoped to be saved’.

In other cases, however, it is clear that Harries was looking to the sick for signs he could interpret of his own destiny. When Mary John died in October 1737 he noted that she ‘relied wholly on Jesus X for her soul and behaved very patient’ but also noted that she was the first received to communion at the same time as him. As he noted, ‘I shuld take this into consideration’. Those who did not conform to expectation troubled him. When Mary Richard died in July 1742, Harries was keen to stress that ‘she was very wavering and inconstant in her profession [of faith], sometimes in and sometimes out’.

M0018191 Dying man in bed. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Left: a dying man in bed. Original Negative is a Vinegar Negative CAN NOT BE RESCANNED Woodcut circa 1531 By: Hans BurgkmaierOfficia M.T.C. Cicero, Marcus T. Published: 1531 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
M0018191 Dying man in bed.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
images@wellcome.ac.uk
http://wellcomeimages.org
Left: a dying man in bed. Original Negative is a Vinegar Negative CAN NOT BE RESCANNED
Woodcut
circa 1531 By: Hans BurgkmaierOfficia M.T.C.
Cicero, Marcus T.
Published: 1531
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

He took comfort in those whom he felt offered a glimpse into his own fate. The last moments of Ann Rees showed a woman who ‘behaved herself very lovely [and] told me a few hours before she dyed that shee hoped for salvation for God’s mercy’. Reflecting on this Harries wrote that ‘the Lord prepare me for death and judgement. I see both young and old are carried away to another world unobserved’.

Constantly keeping company with the dying and dead could actually have an effect on the health of ministers. Welsh Methodists were apparently prone to depressive illness, due to their intensive introspection and concentration upon their own failings and weakness. Phillip Henry reported his unease at having attended three dying parishioners within a few days in January 1651, and worried that this was leaving him was a diminished sense of his own spirituality. Other ministers like the Manchester Presbyterian Henry Newcome, found the continual round of deathbed sittings and funerals overwhelming.

But it was not only ministers who applied their religious tenets to sickness. A lucky find in Cardiff University library’s collection was a transcription of the diary of Sarah Savage, Phillip Henry’s daughter. (J.B. Williams, Memoirs of the Life and Character of Mrs Sarah Savage, London: Holdsworth and Hall, 1829). Like her father, Sarah was quick to seek the hidden meanings in her symptoms. In 1691 she was “all day at home having got an ill cold in my head”. Clearly feeling ill she fretted that “My heart was a little let out in love and praise to my Redeemer”, but reassured herself that this was “but a fit [and] soon off again”.

An attack of the smallpox the following year placed her and her family in mortal danger. Her daughter Ann, also a diarist, wrote that ‘when I had received the sentence of death within myself, surely the Lord as ready to save me”. Ann also felt that the experience had taught her a valuable lesson: “the mercies, the sweet mercies which I experienced in the affliction, I shall never forget”.

Lawrence Stone’s (now much criticised) book on early modern family life suggested that people were reluctant to invest much love in their offspring since they stood a good chance of losing them. A wealth of evidence has been put forward to refute this. Puritans, often portrayed as the most stony-faced of all Christian denominations were as troubled as anyone by illness in children. In July 1663 Henry visited a local household where a child was ‘ill of the convulsion fitts. I went to see him & O what evil there is in sin that produces such effects upon poor Innocent little ones’. With a troubled conscience he reflected ‘if this bee done to ye green tree what shall be done to the dry?’.

L0043760 Memento Mori Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org The head and shoulders of a 'memento mori' corpse. These statues were used to remind people of the transience of life and material luxury. 16th century Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
L0043760 Memento Mori
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
images@wellcome.ac.uk
http://wellcomeimages.org
The head and shoulders of a ‘memento mori’ corpse. These statues were used to remind people of the transience of life and material luxury.
16th century Published: –
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

When family members, especially children, were ill, even the strongest of faith could be tested. After witnessing the sickness of other people’s children, he was forced to confront the death of his own young son from measles. It is one of the starkest and most moving diary entries I have ever encountered, and conveys the conflict between religious conviction and a parent’s desperation. Perhaps most strikingly, Henry looks to God to show him where he (Phillip) had strayed to be punished thus.

“At Sun-Sett this day hee dy’d, our first born and the beginning of our strength, a forward child, manly, loving, patient under correction. O that I could now be so under the correcting hand of my heavenly Father. Lord, wherefore is it that thou contendest, show mee, show mee? Have I over boasted, over loved, over prized? My heart bleeds. Lord have Mercy”.

Religion was a central part of the sickness experience, and coloured not only hopes and expectations of recovery, but also the actual, physical experience of illness. Ministers and lay individuals alike, albeit perhaps to different extents, looked to God to explain how they were feeling and what this might suggest about their own conduct.

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Good and Bad Deaths in the Seventeenth Century

Death of a pope

Whilst living well was clearly a primary concern for people in the past, dying well was equally, perhaps even more, important. A whole literature existed – the Ars Moriendi, or Art of Dying, printed in the 15th century, which sought to instruct people in how best to conduct themselves in their last mortal moments on earth. This was an age of extremely high death rates. Death was highly visible. Unlike today where death is sanitised and usually takes place outside the home, in the early modern period sickness and death were domestic events. It would even have been common for children to have seen a corpse, and spent some time around it.

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

The so-called ‘good death’ has a long history. Before the Reformation, the way a person behaved in their final moments was of signal importance since it could influence their final destination. But what constituted a good death? Ideally the sick person should firstly have prepared their soul well before. They should already have lived as a good Christian but, when sickness was upon them, they should act to ensure their affairs were in order.

The dying person should be surrounded by their family and friends who would monitor their behaviour, and take comfort at signs of piety. For example, the dying person should be humble and contrite, and show readiness to meet their God. If possible they should, out loud, confess and repent of their sins and forgive any sins against them. Finally, they might take time to speak to each of their family, expressing love and hoping to meet them on the other side. Such a death would reassure family members that their loved one was bound straight to Heaven, and that they should not worry about their soul.

After the Reformation things changed markedly in terms of attitudes towards final conduct. No longer was it firmly believed that behaviour could influence whether a person went to Heaven or Hell. But this is not to say that the ‘good death’ was not still extremely important. Protestant belief in predestination, in other words that people were already marked out before birth for either the Pearly gates or the River Styx, meant that people were ever watchful for signs that they, or their families, might be one of God’s elect. A good death might be just the sort of proof they sought.

Even in the seventeenth, and into the eighteenth, centuries people still monitored the behaviour of the dying and looked for possible messages. In 1668, John Gwin wrote in his notebook that “My wife’s mother died 25th May, the last words she spake O Dduw Kymer Vi [Oh God, come for me/take me] for w(hi)ch words and others we received coserninge her we yield all praise to God etc” For Gwin, the old lady’s final message was Godly and pious, displaying a readiness to submit to judgement. His note about reports from others about her conduct is also telling.

When Robert More died in 1670, his brother Giles reported with satisfaction that “after a quiet night] he sent forthe with great earnestnesse 3 or 4 most Divine shorte prayers…he died at 1 in the afternoon”. David Jones, The rector of Mynydd Bach in Abergorlech, Carmarthenshire in the 1730s kept a close eye on the conduct of his sick parishioners. Of one he wrote (with more than a hint of his Welsh accent) that, despite her pain she ‘behaved herself lovely’. Of another, although she was ‘hoping to live but expecting to die’ she ‘hoped she had been a good Christian.’

Copyright Wellcome Images
Copyright Wellcome Images

But the other side of the coin was the bad death. Whilst many people would surely have preferred their final moments to be peaceful and orderly, life was seldom that straightforward. Some people died suddenly, robbing them and their relatives of the chance to prepare. Victims of murder were denied a good death, prompting some speculation that ghosts were the souls of those troubled by not having had chance to prepare themselves. Some people simply died alone. For others, bouts of sickness took away the power of speech. Such an occurrence was especially troublesome to families since their loved one was physically with them but unable to communicate their feelings.

But there is another, often overlooked, group of people who simply wanted to be left alone to die in their own way. Imagine the scene. You are in the last hours of your life, perhaps gasping for breath, in pain and misery. Your family surround you, all constantly watching you, hanging on your every word and, perhaps, prompting you to hold forth with a stream of pious utterances. Some could clearly bear it no longer.

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

Others had long since abandoned any pretence at caring. In 1598 died Lord Burghley after a long sickness, and surrounded by children, family and friends who had spent several hours praying, crying by his bedside and trying in vain to save him. Burghley’s last words? “Oh ye torment me…For Godes sake let me dye quietlye’! Perhaps a similar bout of lectures, lessons and spiritual moralising prompted Elizabeth Angier, the wife of a Puritan minister to ask her doubtless devoted and panicked husband ‘Love, why will you not let mee goe?’.

Some took it a stage further and decided that misanthropy was the only way. If they were going to die, why keep up social pretences?! Reports of the death of Sir William Lisle in 1681 noted that he “Died privately in a nasty chamber – he allowed nobody to visit him, no not even his wife and children”. The last words here should fittingly go to ‘Old Duckworth’ of Yorkshire who also died in 1681. “He died miserably in poverty] his toes rotting off, he slighting it said they never did him any good, he stank that nobody could abide to come to his house, in a dreadful state