‘Worems in the teeth’: Toothache, dentistry and remedies in the early modern period.

According to an article on the BBC Website today, dentists are now beginning to think that drill-free dentistry may soon be possible. Emerging technology will use electricity to force minerals into enamel and encourage the tooth to repair itself. Eventually teeth may even be able to regrow. For the thousands of people with a genuine fear of visiting the dentist, this would be a welcome development.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-27866399

The poor quality of people’s teeth in the past has long been acknowledged. In the seventeenth century, mouths full of blackened, rotting stumps would not be uncommon. As sugar became more common in the eighteenth century, dental decay became even more problematic, especially amongst the well to do. There is a good reason why people in portraiture do not often display a toothy grin; in many cases their teeth would have looked like a row of condemned houses! Here’s Jean-Etienne Liotard’s engagingly honest self-portrait!

Jean Etienne Liotard self portrait

Tooth care was rudimentary and a range of medical interventions existed to try and soothe smarting teeth. In the seventeenth century, it was widely believed that toothache was the result of worms in the teeth. In fact, a condition called ‘teeth’ was a recognised medical affliction and was regularly quoted as a cause of death in the Bills of Mortality. Sometimes they were as high as the fifth or sixth highest cause of death!

As with many aspects of early modern medicine, prevention was better than cure, and a range of techniques were used to keep teeth clean. One method to whiten teeth was to make a mixture of vinegar, honey and salt, add it to a cloth and rub vigorously…but not enough to make the gums bleed. For daily maintenance things like rubbing the teeth with tree bark or chewing herbs such as parsley offered ways to get problematic bits out of the teeth, or to sweeten the breath. The toothbrush did not appear until the end of the eighteenth century in Britain, being an imported fad from France. People were thus forced to use other means.

Once toothache had taken hold, a large body of remedies existed to try and relieve the pain. The popular author Gervase Markham recommended taking daisy roots, stamping them in a cloth before adding salt and liquid, putting this into a quill and ‘snuff it up into your nose’.

Remedies for toothache seem to have attracted some fairly dangerous substances. Mrs Corlyon, author of a domestic remedy collection dating from 1606 advocated boiling sliced henbane roots in vinegar, then heating the roots from underneath to cook away most of the moisture, before holding one of the slices between the teeth until the remaining liquid dripped onto it. Henbane, also known as ‘Stinking Nightshade’ is poisonous and can cause hallucination and some severe psychoactive effects!.

tooth drawer

Another remedy, this time from the commonplace book of a Welsh gentleman, Phillip Howell of Brecon, c. 1633, appears even more risky. His remedy involved taking 3 drams of mercury, grinding it on a stone and putting it into a glass bottle. The patient then needed to drop some of the mercury ‘granules’ into the afflicted teeth 3 times a day over two or three days ‘and it will kill the worm and the tooth ache and never troble you ageine’. The patient should take care, cautioned Howell, not to swallow any of it, but spit it out. An early mercury filling…but potentially offering bigger problems than the toothache.

As is also common, remedies did not necessarily have to be applied to the body part afflicted. One recipe for toothache involved putting some ‘Burgamy pitch’ onto leather, sprinkling some nutmeg over it and then applying it to the soles of the feet.

If you had loose teeth and wanted them to stay in your mouth, then Markham suggested first letting some blood through the gums, before taking hartshorn or ivory and red pimpernel (a type of the herb saxifrage), bruising them together in a linen cloth and then laying the cloth to the teeth, promising that this would ‘fasten the teeth’. He neglected the rather vital instruction of how long the patient should do this for however!

Removing teeth was obviously problematic…and painful. Recognising this, some medical writers turned to medical preparations to loosen teeth without the need to forcibly pull them. ‘To Draw Teeth Without Iron: Take some of the green of the elder tree, or the apples of oak trees and with either of these rub the teeth and gums and it will loosen them so as you may take them out’.

If the worst came to the worst though, a range of practitioners were ready, willing and able to pull the offending tooth out. Whist there were no specific dentists, specialist tooth-drawers were often on hand to do the job. Some advertised their services, emphasising their skill in removing teeth without pain. In the 1760s, R. Maggerrus advertised his services in the Public Advertiser as an ‘Operator for the Teeth’ having an ‘infallible method’ and ‘cureing the poor gratis’.

But there were other less obvious candidates. Blacksmiths often ran a lucrative sideline in tooth-removal; they had the upper body strength to pull the offending tooth out, together with the metal instruments to deal with any stubborn ones. Travelling mountebanks criss-crossed the country offering to cure symptoms. Robert Bulkley, a 17th-century Anglesey diarist, noted that he had paid one such figure a penny to cure his toothache. Two days later the mountebank was long gone, but Bulkeley still had his toothache.

Tooth extractor

Perhaps the day of the ‘regrowing tooth’ is not far away and, for many, this will be a relief. Next time you grin for the camera, though, spare a thought for our ancestors…and offer up a silent prayer that you live in an age of relatively pain-free dentistry!

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

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 to hang around. Robert Bulkeley of Dronwy in Anglesey encountered one such figure on the road in the early seventeenth century. Bulkeley was suffering from toothache and a ‘mountebank’ offered to cure it for a penny. Unsurprisingly, two days later Bulkeley was a penny down but still had the toothache. But some ‘medical entrepreneurs’ travelled further than most. On occasion, foreign characters visited British shores, carrying with them a whiff of exoticism and something different to the travelling tinker’s pack. Some even achieved some measure of fame and renown as they moved around. One such was Vincent Lancelles, reputed to be Venetian, who appeared in Britain in the mid seventeenth century.

Mountebank of Old London

We know something about Lancelles from the flyer that he sent around to advertise his current or future presence. It was nothing if not confident:

“By the King’s Grant and Speciall Approbation, be it knowne that there is arrived in this towne M. Vincent Lancelles, Physician and Chyrurgeon, Spagyrique and a very expert operator, and one of the King’s most excellent Majesties Servants, and approved by the Colledge of Physicians of London, and by His Majesties Physitians in ordinary…”

Perhaps he had seen the King. Perhaps all the doctors of England did indeed laud him for his skill. Perhaps the august College of Physicians were falling over themselves trying to add him to their members. Perhaps.

The flyer then went on to list over 100 maladies that Lancelles unselfconsciously claimed to have mastered. These included epilepsy, melancholy, ‘hydropsie’, ulcers of the lungs, heate of the liver, flux, paine of the kidneys, cholick, worms…the list went on. And on. In addition to ailments he could also ‘helpe the blinde’, perfectly draw teeth and make hair grow again. Faced with such expertise, who would not want to flock to see Signor Lancelles?

John-Taylor-the-Water-Poet

In the mid seventeenth century Lancelles begins to be mentioned in various sources around the country. In 1652 he was in Chester. We know this because the so-called ‘Water Poet’, John Taylor was also there whilst on one of his many perambulations around the country. Whilst lodging at the Feathers in Watergate Street, Taylor “met with two brothers of mine acquaintance thirty years, they brought me to the chamber of a reverend Italian physician, named Vincent Lancelles, he was more than 80 years of age, yet of a very able body,and vigorous constitution”. Taylor was clearly impressed by the old man:

He helped such as were grieved for three several considerations —

First, He cured the rich, for as much as he
could get.

Secondly, He healed the meaner sort for what
they could spare, or were willing to part withal.

Thirdly, He cured the poor for God’s sake, and gave them money and other relief, as I myself (with thankful experience) must ever acknowledge : For he looked upon my lame leg, and applied such medicine, as did not only ease me, but I am in hope will cure me, the grief being nothing but a blast of lightning and thunder, or planet stroke, which I received nine years past at Oxford.”

It is clear that Lancelles was either in Britain for some considerable length of time, or alternatively left and came back. In either case he can be placed at Oxford in 1652 before seemingly moving north later on, making his way to Ashbourne in Derbyshire and Wrexham. It was there that an unfortunate incident probably brought him to the attention of the diarist Philip Henry.

200px-Philip_Henry_(1631–1696)

In June 1663 Henry wrote an entry in his diary: “This week dyed in Chester a servant to an Italian Mountebank known by the name of his Apothecary, who received some blows about 3 weekes since upon ye stage in Wrexham, in a scuffle with Mr Puleston of Emeral”. In the entry the mysterious Italian is referred to as Giovanni, but the balance of probability points to Lancelles. And what of his servant, killed in a scuffle with the over-excited crowd?
Perhaps the incident was too much for Vincent who, if it is the same man, would be in his 90s by then! Whatever the reason, this is possibly the last reference to the enigmatic Italian mountebank.

Early modern Britain was replete with medical practitioners of many different qualifications, motivations and skills. All appealed to a common human trait, that of trying to rid the body of ailments and restore balance and health. They are some of the most fascinating body of historical actors that you could hope to find.

The English Priest’s Powder: A 17th-century quack doctor’s advertisement

The marketing strategies of 17th and 18th-century quack doctors are now familiar territory. As Roy Porter’s outstanding book Quacks did so well to bring alive, early modern Britain was a vibrant medical market, a panoply of colourful characters and dubious remedies. They were, to use Porter’s phrase, “a ragtag and bobtail army of quacks”.

Taking advantage of the newly-available cheap print, quack doctors produced reams of advertisements to peddle their wares. Ranging from brief, straight to the point details to more sophisticated means of selling, quack doctors were often skilled wordsmiths; in many ways they needed to do something to stand out from the crowd. With so many different medicines and vendors jockeying for position, they needed to be innovative. This might include elaborate descriptions of the virtues of their medicine. They often included testimonials from those who, they claimed, recovered through the use of their pill or potion. They might use imagery to embellish their advertisements. Occasionally, though, some particularly innovative strategies can be found. One of my favourite is the clever tool of selling without appearing to sell. One of the ways this was done was by disguising the advertisement in the form of a book. A case in point is the engagingly titled Riddles mervels and rarities: or, A new way of health, from an old man’s experience, published in 1698 by Thomas Mace.

Title page from 'Riddles and Mervels' - availble on EEBO (copyright)
Title page from ‘Riddles and Mervels’ – availble on EEBO (copyright)

At first glance this appears to be a typical ‘self-help’ book, a genre popular in the period. In his opening preamble, Mace sets out his philosophy that age and experience are better than any university-trained, licensed physician. Anticipating howls of derision from the faculty, Mace acknowledged that “I am no physician either by education, graduation, licence or practice’. And yet, he argued, a man like himself of 80 years knew his own body better than any young man of 20 or 30 who had merely spent 5 years reading books in a university. Compelling stuff!

The first hint that all might not be as it first seems occurs early on with the inclusion of the following:

“TO Prevent all Frauds, know, That This Rare Power, known by the Name of the English PRIEST’S-POWDER, is to be had No where but at These few Places Following, viz. By the Author (Tho|mas Mace) at his House in St. Peter’s Parish in Cam|bridge, near the Castle; And at Mr. Daniel Peachcy’s in St. Buttolphs Parish there: And in London, by Mr. Adam Mason at his House in Old Bedlam near Bishops|gate; And by Mr. William Pearson, Printer, at the third Door in Hare Court in Aldersgate-street near the Meet|ing House; And by Mr. John Vaughan, Milliner, at his House in Grivil-street near Hatton Garden; and by Mr. Will. Benson in the Old Baily”

Indeed, advertisements in ‘proper’ books were not unusual, but the alert reader will no doubt note the name of the creator and seller of the powder…one Thomas Mace – the man who claims to be no physician. Disguised within an ‘explication of the title page’, the sell goes on…

Universall-Physical-Me|dicine, for all sorts of Constitutions, and all sorts of Maladies, Sicknesses, and Diseases, is a Chymical Prepar’d Powder which for some late years past I have Publish’d in the Name of the English PRIE                         T’S POWDER, and which it self is never to be Taken, either Inwardly (as Physick) nor Ap|plyed Outwardly to any Wound, Sore Scab, Bruise, Swelling, Pains, Aches, Head-Ach Rheumetick-Sore-Eyes, &c. All which, and many more, tis most Ad|mirably good for.) I say, it is never (it self) to be us’d or Apply’d (as Me|dicine) But (only) a lycture, which It sends forth, into some Certain Li|quors; into which it is to be Infus’d, for some certain Hours: And Those Li|quors, (Retaining its Virtue) are only to be us’d; And (as Physick) are to be taken, into the Body, in the way of Potion; […]ther for Vomit, Purge, Glister, or Sweat; But in the way of Chirurgery, are only Outwardly Applyed, by Washings or Bathings &c.

As the book progresses, it seems to revert to the ‘every man his own physician’ style. Mace assured the reader that his intentions were honourable and that he only wished to “Accommodate the Meaner sort of Men; but more especially the Poorest of all, who stand most in Need of Help and Comfort in their Sicknesses, seeing no Great and Skillfull-Physicians, will so much as look after Them, or scarce think of their Miseries; so that many Thousands live in Misery; Languish and Dye, for want of That which every ordinary House keeper might Easily Purchase, and not only have the Benefit of it for himself and his whole Family, during his Life, in all common Sicknesses, and Disea|ses, but might also be assisting to all his Poor Sick Neighbours round Him”

There follows a discourse on the Philosopher’s stone, including several pages of what can only be described as vernacular poetry. A short stanza should suffice:

MUch Talk has been of The Philosophers-Stone,
From Ages past; That by its livge alone,
‘Twould turn Inferiour Metals into Gold.
A Glorious Worder sure, if True; but Hold!
Where is’t? Who has’t? we no such Thing can see;
‘Tis surely Folded up in Mystery

There is even a page of music to allow the reader to literally sing the praises of the remedy!

EEBO (Copyright)
EEBO (Copyright)

But the next sections of the book, although clothed in a discussion of the miraculous effects of the philosopher’s stone, are in fact a shining example of pure quack rhetoric. On first glance it seems that Mace is merely reporting the effects of the ‘philosopher’s stone’ on a range of conditions. But, looking more closely, his ‘priest’s powder’ has been cunningly woven into the narrative. A clue comes in the title to his first section – “The admired use of this powder (or stone)”…which one is more prominent?!

The real clincher comes in the “Eight eminent stories” of the power of the “powder (and stone)”.  Ranging from the dying man who could not sit upright but recovered almost as soon as he had taken the powder, to the cured leper, to the woman suffering from yellow jaundice, whose “foul, corrupt stomach” was poisoning her food, all were miraculously brought to recovery not only by the mysterious priest’s powder but by the personal intervention of the ubiquitous Thomas Mace…who, as he was no physician but knew his own body, clearly just happened to be passing!

This was selling by not selling. The reader, perhaps expecting a list of cures and remedies for all ailments, and lulled by the promise of being able to cure themselves of all maladies without the need for physicians, surgeons or apothecaries, was instead subject to stealth marketing. Mace provided everything about his powder, including where to buy it and how to use it, but disguised it in a discussion of the ‘Philosopher’s stone’ to try and locate his ‘Riddles and Mervels’ as a scientific discourse. Clearly this was an advertisement, but it shows the innovation of medical retailers, and the lengths to which they went to sell their goods. Little is known about Mace. By his own admission he was an old man, but was he someone with a genuine concern for his fellow man, or just another medical entrepreneur, out to make a fast buck. You decide.

Unpacking the ‘eccentric’ in popular memory: Local characters of old Cardiff.

Disclaimer!: This is not a fully-formed argument, just some thoughts about the ‘eccentric’ in reminiscences of childhood and popular memory. I’d be interested in hearing what others think.

I’ve been reading the ‘Cardiff Borough Records’ – a magisterial five-volume set of miscellany relating to Cardiff from Norman times through until the early twentieth century. It is fascinating. There is everything from court cases to inquests, slander suits to land rents and tithes. For a good Cardiff boy like myself, I find the references to land parcels very interesting in, say, the fourteenth century, which still have echoes in areas and street names to this day. There are, for example, several references to the ‘Weddle’ or “Weddal fields”. Wedal Road is now a busy conduit not far from the University of Wales hospital. But I digress…

One section that stands out for me is the ‘Reminiscences of Old Cardiff’, which contains a brief but fantastic list of ‘eccentric old characters of Cardiff’. These include ‘Pegg the Wash’, an apparently feisty and pugnacious old washerwoman, whose habit was to chase children away from her house with a stick, perhaps peppering her imprecations with a good Welsh oath or two.

“Dammy Sammy” was an apparently well-known schoolmaster, whose sobriquet relates to his colourful choice of language in front of his young charges. A dwarf sweet-seller, known as ‘cough candy’ took advantage of his appearance and, in fact, seems to have augmented it by using his top hat as an advertising hoarding, pasting shop adverts and flyers onto it. The list goes on, but also noteworthy is ‘Hairy Mick’, the lamplighter!

What, though, stands out about these reminiscences? For me, it is the fact that all of these figures involve, or have relevance, for children. They were clearly denizens of a childish world – larger-than-life characters who left an indelible mark on the memory.

Memory, and reminiscence, is an odd thing, especially in terms of using and interpreting these characters in context of, say, social conditions.  How can we separate the ‘truth’ (if such a thing exists) from misty-eyed, if not evocative, depictions of ‘characters’. It is an interesting question. History is full of ‘characters’. If we think of history taught in schools, it is most often done in terms of a cast of individuals (Henry VIII, Hitler et al) and set-piece historical events.

And yet there is a remarkable constant throughout history and human nature, in our ability to identify and remember people who, for one reason or another, were somehow different. I can illustrate this from my own memory. When I was little, there was an unfortunate character who frequented a main street nearby, and who would suddenly leap out and shout at the traffic, sometimes even accompanied by violent gestures and karate actions. A certain mythology built up around him; it was popularly supposed that his wife and children were killed in an accident, thus affecting his mind and causing his behaviour. Whilst it’s certainly possible, it is interesting that no hard evidence really exists; people simply ‘know’.

In his excellent study of the history of folklore in London, Steve Roud makes this important point relating to the endurance of certain types of popular myths – things that are still ongoing today. Aside from more obvious ones such as empty properties gaining a reputation for being haunted, or patches of waste land being attributed to plague pits, he also notes the spread of often baseless rumours, which are then taken as truth. One such is the belief that a certain portion of land or building can never be developed as it was, at some stage, ‘given to the people’. There is one of these on my doorstep; the Caerphilly Miner’s Hospital has long been said by locals to be the property of the people of Caerphilly. Unfortunately, this hasn’t stopped it from recent closure…and redevelopment! A mythology of the individual, perhaps especially when that individual is located within the context of childhood memory,  fits well into this type of folklore.

How could we interpret characters like ‘Dammy Sammy’? As a medical historian, I am loath to engage in ‘retro-diagnosis’ since it’s obviously possible that he just had a foul mouth! But it’s also plausible that a pathological condition, say Tourette’s syndrome, certainly unknown and undiagnosed at the time, might explain spontaneous expletives. If so, a historian of nineteenth-century attitudes towards such conditions might find a useful case study. In a sense, it is not the character himself, but the reason why (s)he stood out that renders them interesting.

Let’s speculate further. Was ‘Peg the Washerwoman’ simply a bad-tempered old woman? Highly likely. But dementia, or perhaps an underlying psychological or sociopathic condition might explain a fear of strangers and a desire to drive them away. Historians of witchcraft have long highlighted the fact that ‘difference’ was often a crucial deciding factor in suspicions of witchcraft. Old women, especially those at the margins of society, were vulnerable.

The point is that we sometimes need to look beyond the simple description or reminiscence and try and unpack the social context of the ‘other’ in society. That the names of these characters – and their apparent ‘eccentricities’ – have survived or achieved notoriety, whilst many others have not, tells us something of how difference was perceived in past societies.