“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?


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.


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.

Do you need a doctor? Applying for medical jobs in the eighteenth century

Filling in job application forms must rank as one of the world’s least rewarding pastimes…unless, of course, you get the job! There is the matter of displaying your own competence for the role, addressing your experience, evidence of your skills, ability to fit in with the recruiting organisation and, importantly, providing people who will attest to your obvious brilliance. It feels like a very modern thing to do. Whilst we increasingly acknowledge that people in the past could be ambitious, we don’t often get chance to actually glimpse the process in action – especially the further back you go. Some fantastic sources in Northumberland Archives, though, give us the chance to do just that. Better still, the aspiring job applicants were medical practitioners!

Bamburgh Castle

In 1774 a vacancy arose for the position of Surgeon-Apothecary at an infirmary in North East Britain. The infirmary was a charitable institution set up for the ‘relief of the sick and lame poor’, and was located in the magnificently austere Bamburgh Castle on the Northumbrian coast. The post had become available on the departure of the previous incumbent and, on the face of it, might not have seemed an ideal move. But something about this job appears to have resonated with the practitioner population of late eighteenth-century northern Britain. Perhaps it was the chance to work with the Reverend Dr John Sharp – administrator of the Lord Crewe Trust and the man who established the infirmary. Perhaps it was a genuine desire to do good for the poor people of rural Northumberland, who were far the nearest hospital in Newcastle. Or perhaps it was the lure of a decent salary and some authority within in institution, with their own staff to command! Whichever it was, news of the job appears to have spread fast, and letters poured in to Dr Sharp. Typical of the speculative applicants was Arthur Gair from Alnwick. Keeping his letter short and to the point, Gair nonetheless threw his hat firmly into the ring:

“25th June 1774. Reverend Sir, As I am informed the place of Surgeon-Apothecary for the Charity of Bambro’ Castle is now vacant, I beg leave to offer myself as a Candidate for the same & till I have the pleasure of paying my respects to you at the Castle which I intend to do on Monday next, I take this method to declare myself , reverend Sir, your most obedient and humble servant”.

Dr Sharp

(Image from the excellent Bamburgh Castle Research Project blog = http://bamburghresearchproject.wordpress.com/2012/12/07/an-18-century-bamburgh-castle-scandal/)

Others were less circumspect. Only three days later than Gair, the good Dr Sharp received the following letter from a Dr William Rennick. Unlike Gair, Rennick was not one to hide his light under a bushel.

“I beg leave to signify, that as there are rather too many physical practitioners in this place, I should be inclined to settle in Belford provided I could be favoured with the benefit, lately possessed by Mr Edmonton, at Bamborough – If you are willing to permit me to succeed him on satisfactory recommendation I should ever make it my study to merit your approbation of my conduct, and to display a grateful sense of the solicited obligation. I have been settled here as a Surgeon-Apothecary & man midwife near two years; my qualification in which professions, as well as the tenor of my moral conduct will, I flatter myself, bear the strictest enquiry. I am a native of Berwick & married. My attendance on some particular patients prevents my being able to wait on you in person.
I am with respectful esteem, Sir, your most humble servant”

Rennick’s was a slightly unusual pitch; pointing out that there was too much competition in his area was perhaps a risky pitch. But the rest of his letter is a work of polite (if slightly oily!) genius. Stressing that he would ‘ever make it my study’ to make his boss happy, it is possible to overdo it…and Rennick overdid it!

Some applicants were keen to provide character references. William Stoddart of Alnwick endorsed John Wilson’s application, stating Wilson was a “young man of sobriety and diligence in his profession. I would by no means have given you the trouble of this, but I could not tell how to deny him what I thought I might say with so much truth”. One William Green also tried his hand with a ‘celebrity’ referee – persuading a powerful local gentleman, Sir John Eden of County Durham, to write him a reference. “As there is a vacancy in the Castle of Bambrough” Eden wrote “I am desir’d to recommend to your notice Mr William Green”. That Eden was ‘desir’d’ to recommend Green suggests that his reference was not given entirely without coercion.

It is also interesting, however, just how far news spread. John Sharp’s brother Dr William Sharp was a prominent surgeon in St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, and often advised his brother on medical matters relating to the infirmary. In September 1774, William was visited by a naval surgeon, originally from the Bambrough area, who had learned of the position and asked William to petition his brother on his behalf. Although William did not know the man personally, “appearances were in his favour”.
Ultimately all of these approaches, entreaties and salutations were in vain; the job was filled and the successful candidate was a Dr Trumbull, for a time, before the role was taken by the aptly-named ‘Mr Cockayne’!

The letters are fascinating though, as they add a further dimension to the process whereby practitioners actively sought new positions in the eighteenth century, and shed some light on the methods they used to bolster their chances. We don’t know how the post was advertised, if at all – there is some evidence that the infirmary used the Newcastle Courant from time to time to share news and progress – but it is clear that some sort of grapevine existed. Many of the applicants stress how they have ‘heard’ about the vacant position – another reminder of the power of early-modern social networks.

The next time you’re applying for a job, perhaps take a line from some of these medics. Will you try the ‘short and sweet’ approach of William Gair, or the florid prose of Mr Rennick?! In either case, may your applications be more successful than theirs!

The Medical Case for Beards in the 19th Century

As Christopher Oldstone-Moore has argued in his excellent article about the Victorian ‘beard movement’, the middle years of the nineteenth century witnessed an abrupt volte-face in attitudes towards facial hair. The eighteenth century had been one where men were almost entirely clean-shaven. The face of the enlightened gentleman was smooth, his face youthful and his countenance clear, suggesting a mind that was also open. Growing a beard at this point would have been a deliberate act done purposefully to convey a message. John Wroe, for example, leader of the Christian Israelite group, let his beard grow wild to signify his withdrawal from society.

Image http://www.wakefield.gov.uk/CultureAndLeisure/HistoricWakefield/People/JohnWroe/default.htm

By the mid-Victorian period, however, the beard came back into fashion with remarkable swiftness. Part of the reason for this was changing ideals of masculinity. This was the age of exploration, of hunters, climbers and explorers. As rugged adventurers began to tackle the terra incognita of far-flung continents, they would immerse themselves in wild nature, letting their beards grow thick. The beard became a symbol of rugged manliness and men began to emulate their bewhiskered heroes.

John Hanning of Speke, Explorer and discoverer of Lake Victoria
Explorer and discoverer of Lake Victoria

Another element of the rise of the beard, however, was the supposed medical benefit of facial hair. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, facial hair had been viewed as a form of bodily waste. It was regarded as resulting from heat in the liver and reins, and was partly a signifier of a man’s virility. Equally though, as a waste product, shaving it off might be seen as healthy as it was another way of ridding the body of something potentially harmful.

By 1850, however, doctors were beginning to encourage men to wear beards as a means of warding off illness. As Oldstone-Moore points out, the Victorian obsession with air quality saw the beard promoted as a sort of filter. A thick beard, it was reasoned, would capture the impurities before they could get inside the body. Others saw it as a means of relaxing the throat, especially for those whose work involved public speaking. Some doctors were even recommending that men grew beards to avoid sore throats. Clergymen who shaved, according to one correspondent in the Hampshire Advertiser in 1861, invited all sorts of ‘thoracic and pectoral woes’!

Image carefully selected fromhttp://www.lakelandwildlife.co.uk/images/mcpherson.jpg

The 1894 edition of the Gloucestershire Notes and Queries contains an interesting example of this practice, but actually goes further by claiming that the county of Gloucestershire was in fact the first in Britain to fully embrace the beard! In a letter headed up ‘The Moustache and Beard in Gloucestershire’ the journal reported that ‘the custom among the civil population of wearing moustaches was first started in Gloucestershire’.

The article included a letter from a Mr William Johnston to the Gloucester Chronicle of 23 January 1892 who stated that he believed he was ‘the first individual of the city of Gloucester (and perhaps in the county) to grow the beard and moustache. I was induced by my medical man, the late Mr J.P. Hearne, about 42 years ago, to give up shaving and let my beard and moustache grow. I had been a terrible sufferer for a good many years with very sore throat. I was just getting the better of a very severe attack when the old doctor remarked to me ” Johnston, I advise you to give up shaving and let your beard and moustache grow, which, if you do, I believe you will not suffer again with such bad sore throat.”

I took his advice, and have not had a sore throat since, and it was the opinion of many of my friends and acquaintances in Gloucester that the moustache and beard was a great improvement to my looks and added immensely to the dignity of my countenance, so much so that a great many of them began to cultivate the beard and moustache, and amongst them a very prominent druggist (Mr Tucker) and woolen draper (Mr F.C.Newman) and within a very few years beards and moustaches were cultivated by hundreds in Gloucester and neighbourhood, and are now almost universal’.

Beard generator

Thanks to Prof. Jonathan Barry for passing this example to me. You heard it here first though; Gloucestershire was the beard progenitor of Victorian Britain. Whatever the truth of the matter, the medical aspect of beards and facial hair is one that invites more study. Were there any quack medicines, for example, that used the supposed medical benefits of beards as a selling point. I’ve only found one so far – the so-called ‘beard generator’, and this was more an aid for beardless boys who were lacking in the chin-whisker department. Yet another reason to continue research into this fascinating, and often overlooked, aspect of the history of masculinity and the body.

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.