Robbing the Doctor: 17th-Century Medics as Victims of Crime

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a common complaint against medical practitioners was that they effectively picked the pockets of the sick, whilst doing little for them in return. As the Helmontian physician George Starkey remarked in the middle of the seventeenth century, the patient was “like to pay the price of the doctor fully with his life” – which Starkey regarded as a brave acte’!

But medics, just like anyone else, could sometimes be victims of crime. The records of the Old Bailey contain a fascinating list of these unfortunate practitioners, and the list of crimes and calumnies they suffered. More than this, however, they can offer an alternative glimpse into the world of early modern medical practice.

Old Bailey in the 19th century

(Old Bailey in the 19th century – image from Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes, for example, physicians and other practitioners found themselves the victims of petty crime. In 1686, Edward Newgent of St Clement Danes pinched the periwig of an unnamed ‘Doctor of Physick’. The good doctor testified that he had been walking along the street in the evening, when the assailant whipped off his hat and wig, and pelted away down the street with them. The doctor gave chase and had the thief arrested. For this seemingly innocuous crime, the unlucky Newgent was sentenced to death!

Another victim of circumstance was Richard Allen of Holborn. In 1675, hearing a disturbance in the street, Allen, ‘by profession a Sea-Chirurgeon’, opened his door and was attacked by a mob (including bayliffs on the hunt for a person to serve a writ). Allen, was set upon by the men, ‘they hacking and hewing him without any mercy, that they left him dead upon the place’. So ‘mortal and dangerous’ were his wounds, that a ‘good part of his skull was taken clean off’.

Surgeon01.jpg

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

At other times, the medicines or very tools of their trade might be targets for thieves. Surgeons, and their instruments, seem to have been a particular target. Instruments, especially high end examples, could be expensive and decorous, and were therefore worth taking. Consider the case of William Marriott, surgeon, whose house was broken into in October 1693 by the terrible trio of Batson, Dando and Bedford, ‘about 3 o’clock in the morning in a rude manner’. Swearing ‘great oaths’ and ‘offering to send his Soul to Hell’ they relieved him of £42 in cash, a gold locket and ‘a pair of forceps val. 4s, and other surgeons instruments besides’. All were acquitted.

March 1679 saw a “mischievous youth” slip into a barber-surgeon’s shop and observing that the barber was in another room, he made off with a “case of instruments, most of them tipt with Silver”. Crime didn’t pay for the errant youth; he was burnt in the hand for his trouble. A trio of thieves also relieved a London practitioner Peter Hillery of a “case of Chirurgeon’s Instruments” along with his sword. Hillery testified that he was “drinking in a Brandy shop” with one of the thieves, when he found the items missing. Quite why he felt the need to take his instruments to the pub with him is, unfortunately, not recorded.

Highway Robbery

(Image from Lewis Walpole Library)

Accosted by the highway robber, Daniel White, one John Delaphont was forced to stand and deliver ‘two boxes of surgical instruments, together with his hat, coat and shirt!

As well as the crimes themselves, some cases offer us a view into the world of what might be termed ‘irregular’ or ‘unorthodox’ practice. The descriptions of individuals are sometimes telling. In October 1679, for example, “several Bottels of a medicine called Elixar Vite” (otherwise known as ‘elixir vitae’ – a strong distilled water) were stolen from “a very ancient Itallian Gentel Man who has long professed Physick in this Kingdom”. The Italian was Salvator Winter, one of a string of European itinerant practitioners, who toured Britain in the mid seventeenth century, peddling their wares. In other sources, Winter was described as a ‘medical licentiate’, and signed letters testimonial to the skill of other practitioners. The servant of the unfortunate Winter was indicted, but later acquitted.

A_quack_doctor_treating_her_patient's_chilblains._Engraving_Wellcome_V0011085.jpg

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Another ‘unorthodox’ practitioner named Blagrave – “a pretender to physick” was relieved of a “Gold chain, a Medal, divers pieces of plate, several rich Cloaths, some Money &c”. The richness of the pickings from Blagrave highlights what a lucrative profession the practice of medicine could potentially be. To possess this level of goods suggested a man of means.

It wasn’t all one-way traffic however. As the records sometimes tell, medical practitioners could sometimes be tempted away from the path of righteousness. The exotically-named Toussaint Felix Urvoy was indicted of the heinous crime of stealing three china dishes in 1760. The case was complicated since Urvoy was owed money by the complainant, and claimed the dishes had been lent to him. Another witness described him as ‘a quack doctor’ who had befriended him in a public house (a pattern seems to be emerging here!) and said he ‘had some particular nostrums by which he could cure several disorders’.

Consider, though, the cautionary tale of the surgeon Stephen Wright, born to a wealthy Irish family, given a good education, versed in arithmetic and classics and sent to Dublin to be apprenticed to a prominent Irish surgeon. All was going well until…

“Unhappily for Stephen he chose to go by the Way of London, and to acquaint himself a little with England, the Place of his Nativity, whence his Forefathers came; tho’, as he said, his Father had a pretty good Estate, besides a handsome Sum of Money in Ireland, to which he was Heir, but by his desperate Misbehaviour, he has effectually prevented his inheriting either one or the other. For some Time after his coming to England, he served a Surgeon in the Country in Surrey, and might have done well, had he kept to his Business and been industrious, as he had good Education, and seemed capable of his Profession. His Friends had advanced to him 180 l. to bear his Expences at the Colleges in Paris. But he not content with that, resolved to improve this Sum, tho’ the Project he fell upon was wrong and foolish, and had no Success answerable to his Desire. In Effect he went to a Gaming-House in Covent-Garden, where in two or three Days, or at most a few Days, he lost the 180 l. designed to bear the Expence of his Travels, and then having no Money left, and not knowing what to do, but being destitute of the Grace of God, he resolved upon desperate Courses of Robbing.”

Given that so much focus is often upon the occupational lives of medical practitioners, it is interesting to see glimpses of their world through another lens. Lists of stolen items, for example, can be extremely useful in gauging what sorts of equipment physicians and surgeons owned, and where they took them. The terms by which medics were referred to and known is also revealing, not least in the colourful characters who sometimes inhabited the margins of medicine. The reason that I particularly like these records, though, is that they offer an intimate insight into the daily lives, frailties and misfortunes of a group of individuals, showing us a side of their lives not often reflected in the usual records of their medical occupation.

7 ‘Curious Particulars’: Useful knowledge in the 18th Century.

The eighteenth century brought with it a new interest in science and, perhaps more importantly, brought science into the public domain for perhaps the first time. Whereas scientific experiments had once been the domain of dilettante gentlemen, locked away in august institutions such as the Royal Society, more people were becoming aware of just how interesting – and indeed fun –science could be. Public demonstrations were one means through which people could learn about the latest ideas and inventions.

Image fromhttp://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/joseph-wright-of-derby-an-experiment-on-a-bird-in-the-air-pump
Image fromhttp://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/joseph-wright-of-derby-an-experiment-on-a-bird-in-the-air-pump

Visitors to the Isaac Newton’s Head public house in London in 1748, for example, could marvel at Francis Watkins’ ‘lately finished and most complete Electrical Machine’. For sixpence they could purchase their own account of all the electrical experiments lately carried out in the Royal Society. In Hart Street, Covent Garden in 1784, amazed onlookers could view marvellous and curious inventions such as the ‘mechanical bird’ of which ‘nothing similar was ever presented in the world’. Mr Cox’s London Museum offered visitors such pleasures as the mechanical machine that played God Save the King.

Alongside this, however, were books of useful knowledge which began to include directions for people to conduct their own experiments. Books of this sort had been around for a long time, often aimed at women and including lots of medical information, along with domestic knowledge, from cleaning pots and pans to directions to make washballs. But the emphasis upon science, and also upon systems of classification, brought diverse types of recipes together, covering everything from medicine and domestic life to experiments designed for no other reason than to entertain onlookers!

One such volume was The British Legacy: or fountain of knowledge, printed in 1754, and which contained ‘upwards of two hundred other curious particulars of the utmost service’ to the ‘Gentleman, the Scholar, the Mechanick and, in a word, every member of society so deeply interested in the Improvement of Arts and Sciences’.

Title Page of the 'British Legacy'
Title Page of the ‘British Legacy’

“Besides upward of two hundred Miscellaneous articles of great, nay inestimable value” the reader was promised “the most useful treatise on Farriery ever published”, and well as a ‘certain cure for the Glanders’. What, then, was amongst this panoply of knowledge? Here’s ten items to give a flavour of what the informed Georgian might find useful.

A certain Cure for the most severe flux:
Take a quantity of water cresses and boil them in clear water for fifteen minutes, strain them off, and drink about half a pint of the decoction every now and then, about milk warm.

The flux referred to severe diarrhoea, which was still a common and dangerous problem during this period. Medical remedies for the flux abounded in the early modern period, and belonged to a long tradition of recipe sharing. In fact water cresses can be found in recipe collections for diarrhoea well over a century before this date. Including medical recipes fitted well with the concept of medicine as useful knowledge of the sort it would be useful to keep handy.

To keep arms or any other polish’d metals from Rust:
One ounce of Camphire, two pounds of hog’s lard: dissolve them together and take off the scum; mix as much black lead as will bring them to an Iron colour; rub your Arms &C over with this and let it lie on 24 hours: them clean them with a linen cloth, and they will keep clean many months.

This one might appear strange but, in fact, rusting metal was a constant problem. Before the invention of stainless steel in the later nineteenth century, iron and steel was extremely prone to rusting. Imagine the scene; you’re awoken in the night by housebreakers. You fumble around for your pistol, which has been hanging around for years in a damp room, only to find the mechanism rusted and seized. Keeping metal goods of all sorts polished and rust free was important, and lots of commercial preparations were available to keep iron and steel from rusting.

To destroy and prevent Buggs, and other vermin, by Mr Selberg, Member of the Academy of Sweden:
Mix with the solution of Vitriol, the Pulp of Colquinta, and apply the mixture to all the crevices which serve as a Nursery to vermin; the Solution alone has prov’d effectual; but if apply’d to stone or brick walls, it may be mix’d with lime, which will give it a lively yellow, and insure its success.

Image fromhttp://publicdomainreview.org/2014/05/14/in-the-image-of-god-john-comenius-and-the-first-childrens-picture-book/
Image fromhttp://publicdomainreview.org/2014/05/14/in-the-image-of-god-john-comenius-and-the-first-childrens-picture-book/

Here again, in houses often infected with cockroaches, bedbugs and lice, anything to mitigate the problem was welcomed. The attribution to the eminent Mr Selberg was a common device, often used in medical recipes, to give weight to the provenance and efficacy of the recipe.

Dr Dover’s Excellent Cure for the Itch:
Sweet sublimate one drachm; cream of Tartar one ounce, Let these infuse two or three days in a pint of Spring Water; then bathe the parts broke out therewith, Morning and Evening, for four or five days, and the Cure will be completed.

Another medical remedy here but this time one for the itch – or venereal disease. Whilst promiscuity was certainly frowned upon, there was an acknowledgement that these things happened. It was far less embarrassing to treat yourself from a book than to dangle your putrefying privy parts in front of a physician

Other items appear slightly more perplexing:

To Make Artificial Thunder and Lightning:
Mix a quantity of the spirit of Nitre and Oil of Cloves, the least drop of the former is sufficient; as to Quantity in the latter you need not regard; for, when mixed, a sudden Ferment, with a fine flame, will arise; and sometimes if the Ingredients be very pure and strong, there will be a sudden explosion like the report of a Great Gun.

Lightning

As an afterthought, the author included the following public health warning!

“It is a little dangerous to the person who undertakes the experiment, for when the effluvia of acid and alkaline bodies meet each other in the air, the fermentation causes such a rarefaction as makes it difficult to breathe for all those who are near it”.

The very next recipe was one ‘To make an artificial earthquake”, which involved 20 ounces of sulphur which, it was promised, after eight or ten hours buried in the ground would ‘Vomit flame and cause the earth to tremble all around the place to a considerable distance”. Don’t try this at home kids!

And one last one that might appeal to anyone who had one of those kids’ science/ chemistry kits that let you grow your own crystals. Ladies and gentleman, straight from the pages of history, I give you…

The Philosophical Tree
Fine silver one ounce; Aqua Fortis and Mercury, each four ounces; in this, dissolve your silver in a vial, put therein a Pint of Water, close your Vial, and you’ll have a curious Tree spring forth in branches which grows daily.

10 Seventeenth-century remedies you’d probably want to avoid!

Whilst I strongly advocate not poking fun at the medical beliefs and practices of our ancestors, now and again it does no harm to remind ourselves of just how…unusual they could sometimes appear. And so I give you my top ten early modern recipes!

10) An excellent good medisian for an Eye that is bruised or blood shott by any crust
Take ass soon as the eye is hurt; take a house pidgin & cut ye vain that is under the winge & let it bleed into a sauser: and while it is hot wett some cloth and presently lay it to ye eye: and the next day dress it in like manner and with out doubt it will help you”

9) For the bloody flux (ie. Dystentry or severe diarrhoea)
Take A handkerchief dipped in the blood of a hare harte newly killed, dry this handkerchief in ye sun & after straine your beer being at least three weeks ould always through it and drink of it every morning and evening a pint’

Image from http://www.doctorwellgood.com/clinic-a-z/diarrhoea.html
Image from http://www.doctorwellgood.com/clinic-a-z/diarrhoea.html

8) Aproved thing for the Collick
Distill hens codds (testicles!) and and when they are pretty tender do then with a soft fier: not burn it: and when the collick troubles you take two spoonfuls of this — with a little sugar to make it pleasant to your taste.

7) How to make a water to kill the worems in hollow teeth;
buy three pence of Mercury and grinde it smale on a stone, then put it in a glass bottle or other glass: and stir it well then let the pacient get a quill of a goose and drop some of it therin and put it in to the holow tooth :3: times and use it two or :3: dayes and it will kill the worem and the tooth actch and never troble you ageine but in any wise let the pacient take heed (not) to swalowe any of it downe, but spitte it out

(so, just to be clear, dropping mercury straight into your teeth. Although there are mercury fillings today, probably not a good plan!)

6) Excelent for a consumption, Dropsey, Scurvey or Most Sickness whatever
Take cow dung fresh in May, dry it in ye oven to a fine powder, Give as much as will lye upon a sixpence in a draught of warme stronge beer 3 times a day, or you may distill cow dung in an ordinary still & take half a gill of ye water at a time, more or less three times a day

Image fromhttp://www.bioenergyconsult.com/anaerobic-digestion-of-cow-manure/
Image fromhttp://www.bioenergyconsult.com/anaerobic-digestion-of-cow-manure/

5) To make oyle of swallowes
Take as many swallowes as you can gette as 20 or 25, and put unto them lavender cotton, spiked, knotgrasse ribworte Balme valerian, rosemarie topps, strings of vines, cothan, plantain, walnut leaves sayd of virtue, mallows, alecroft etc etc

4) To Cuer the dead Palsey
Take a Fox, cleanse him, mince the flesh very smalle then dress a goose, pull out the Gutts; putt all the flesh of the fox into the goose and sowe her upp close; then roste them whilest any moisture will dropp out. Take the dripping and putt into it Rosemary; Lavender; Sage; Bettiny; The Weight of Ffower pints of each of them powdered, Anniseede; Ffennellseede, nutmeg, mace, Cloves, Pepper, ginger, Ffrankencence, the weight of sixpence of a peece of each of them Powdered, Boyle all twoe or three wallmes on a softe fire, put itt being strayned and Cooled into a pott. Annoynt the partye on the place grieved therewth and Rubb it in well before the fire.

Image from Wikipedia - creative commons
Image from Wikipedia – creative commons

3) For the falling sicknesse (epilepsy)
Take a live mole and cut the throat of it into a glass of white wine
And presently give it to the party to drink at the new and full of the moon
(viz) the day before the new, the day of the new, and the day after, and soe at the full. This will cure absolutely, if the party be not above forty yeares of age.

2) For the Frenzie or inflammation of the cauls of the brain,
Cause the juice of beets (beetroot juice) to be with a syringe squirted up into the patient’s nostrils, which will purge and cleanse his head exceedingly, and then give him posset ale to drinke in which violet leaf and lettice has been boiled and this will suddainly bring him to a verie temperate mildness’

And this week’s number 1…

1) For the bloody flux,
take a stag’s pizzle dried and grate it and give it in any drink, either in beer, ale or wine and it is most sovereign for any flux whatsoever.

Image fromhttp://www.nhm.ac.uk/natureplus/blogs/whats-new/2011/02
Image fromhttp://www.nhm.ac.uk/natureplus/blogs/whats-new/2011/02

Narrowly missing out were directions for constipation, which involved the aggrieved person squatting over a bucket of boiling milk ‘for as long as the party can bear it’…

And the cure for hydrocele (grossly swollen testicles) which involved injecting port wine into the affected parts!

The Great Georgian Snuff Debate

We’re used to debates about tobacco. In any given week it’s a fair bet that smoking/cigarettes/e-cigarettes will be food for editorial thought. What the UK’s Guardian recently called a ‘global epidemic of tobacco’ is, according to their statistics, a bigger killer than Malaria, TB and AIDS…combined. Recent scare stories have surrounded e-cigarettes, prompting tabloids to ruminate over the question of whether they might even act as baby steps to full-strength cigs. The central problem with tobacco is its undoubted potential to kill. We think of this as a modern debate about a modern affectation. But, in fact, debates about the healthiness of tobacco have raged for centuries. Three hundred years ago, snuff was at the centre of the storm.

One of the most quintessential emblems of the eighteenth century dandy or fop is the snuffbox. By the mid eighteenth century the practice was ubiquitous…and not to everyone’s taste. In 1754 a disgruntled reader known only as ‘T’ wrote to the editors of the Connoisseur magazine, complaining about the practice.

glindoni_henri_gillard-gallant_taking_snuff~OMccc300~10287_20140205_LFEB14_1072

“Dear Sir, I know not if you yourself are addicted to a filthy practice frequent amongst all ranks of people. The practice I mean is that of snuff-taking…[everyone] appears obliged to cram his nostrils with a quantity of scented dirt to fence them from the disagreeable effluvias of the rest of the company…

It is indeed impossible to go into any large company without being disturbed by this abominable practice. The church and the whole playhouse continually echo with this musick of the nose, and in every corner you may hear them in concert, snuffling, sneezing, hawking and grunting like a drove of hogs’.

To illustrate his point further, ‘T’ claimed to have witnessed ‘a whole congregation suddenly raised from their knees in the middle of a prayer by the violent coughing of an old lady, who has been almost choaked by a pinch of snuff in giving vent to an ejaculation’! Any lady who succumbed to this vile practice was, in their view, no better than a serving wench. Why, then, was snuff so apparently popular?

Snuff first came to Europe in the 16th century and was first advocated as a medicinal product, being used to treat headaches and other conditions. Snuff was manufactured from cured and Tobacco leaves were slowly cured and fermented, and certain ‘flavours’ could be added. Snuff quickly found favour amongst wealthy elites, with prominent advocates including Queens, Popes, nobility and prominent society figures. By the eighteenth century everyone from George IV to Samuel Johnson were hawking vast quantities of powdered tobacco up their nostrils.

Snuff takers

Advertisments promoted special types of snuff. The ‘Golden Snuff’ advertised in the Daily Courant in 1704 counted headache, drowsiness, dullness of hearing and humours in the eye amongst the list of afflictions readily cured. Also of use in ‘Gouty and Rhewmatick paines and for asswaging swellings’, its manufacturers also claimed that ‘it never decays’.Medical authors were divided on the subject. Thomas Apperley’s Observations in Physick considered the potential benefits of a small pinch of snuff against certain conditions, but was cautious of the effects in ‘one not accustomed to it’. In a 1790 Account of Several Excellent and Genuine Patent and Public Medicines a writer known as ‘Castor’ extolled the virtues of the ‘Cephalic Snuff’ in treating ‘hysteric and paralytic complaints’ as well as the ‘Complaints of the Head that Painters &c are subject to’!

Others were far less than convinced. In his 1799 Essay on Regimen James McKittrick Adair railed against the practice of snuff taking, since ‘encrusted snuff impedes the breathing’ while ‘acrid, poisonous oil’ produced by nasal mucous could be highly injurious to the stomach. Adair suggested that the ‘use of tobacco in any form is a vile practice’ and that sniffers of snuff should cleanse their nostrils and wash their mouths with warm water. Dr Allen’s Synopsis of Medicine from 1730 condemned the ‘inordinate use of snuff’ for apoplexy and others cautioned people to beware of the damage that ingesting snuff could cause.

In 1720 an anonymous Dissertation on the Use and Abuse of Tobacco in relation to the Smoaking, Chewing and Taking of Snuff, and was ‘humbly subscrib’d to the Ladies and Gentlemen who use it in the Above ways’. In 1760 Edward Baynard wrote a whole book of poetry about snuff, titled Health: to which are added cautions agains the immoderate use of snuff, devoting 36 densely written pages to his task. Snuff was under attack.

Part of the problem for naysayers of snuff was its popularity. Snuff had become a social ritual, and one popular at all levels of society. Taking a pinch had become embedded in popular culture, and with it came a secondary market in snuff paraphernalia. Snuff boxes, for example, became increasingly elaborate and ornate. As such they were high up the list of desirable items for pickpockets. In 1688 one Claudius Bertin was relieved of a gilt ‘Princes Mettle snuff box’ valued at thirty shillings. Two snuff boxes stolen from the house of the wealthy Don Diego Capyllar in September 1692 were valued at over £5 alone – then a princely sum.

George_IV_Silver_Hunting_Snuff_Box_1b

Jewellers and makers made a wide variety of boxes in precious metals and bedight with jewels and ornamentation. In 1765 a Mr Burnsall of London begged leave to keen to acquaint the public of the wide range of goods, including ‘Agate snuff boxes richly set in gold’ that he had for sale in his London shop.

Fans of the product even took to the newspapers to defend their favourite ‘tipple’. A poem found inside an 18th-century recipe collection provided, taken from the Chester newspaper of 1761, proselytized about the power of snuff to lighten the day and preserve the health. The first three verses should be enough to give a flavour:

‘Six reasons for taking a pinch of snuff
When strong perfumes and noisome scents
The suffering nose invade
Snuff, best of Indian weeds presents
Its salutary aid

When vapours swim before ye eyes
And cloud the Dizzy breath
Snuff, to dispel the might applies
Its quick enlivening grain

When pensively we sit or walk
Each social friend away
Snuff best supplies the want of talk
And cheers the lonely day’.

Woman taking snuff

Snuff-taking continued unabated into the nineteenth century; ‘celebrity’ snuffers included Benjamin Disraeli, but the practice gradually declined as it became increasingly viewed as an antiquated relic of the past. Whilst it is still possible to buy snuff today, it is unlikely, given its many nasty side effects including mouth and throat cancer. Unless someone bothers to invent ‘e-snuff’, which seems equally unlikely, then it seems best to consign it to history. Nonetheless, it does provide us with a useful means to look at how people dealt with addictions, and in particular tobacco use, in the past.

‘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!

The Hand of History: Hands, fingers and nails in the eighteenth century

Firstly, apologies for the hiatus from the blog; it’s proving to be a busy summer, and this is my first post as a BBC/AHRC ‘New Generation Thinker’ – no pressure then!

I’ve now started work on my second book, which relates to the history of technologies of the body in the eighteenth century. The book will look at the ways in which people increasingly used objects to fashion their bodies, and the relationship between these objects and new materials, such as steel. There are chapters, for example, on razors, spectacles, rupture trusses and bodily ‘ephemera’.

As I’ve been building up my secondary reading on eighteenth-century views of the body, it occurred to me that very little work has been done on the history of the hands. Lots of articles refer to hands as metaphors or explore, for example, the importance of hands in manufacturing. But far less attention has been paid to the aesthetics of the hand. This is surprising because, in many ways, the hands were both literally and symbolically important in the enlightenment.

Baptista - Hand

In the second half of the eighteenth century, the body became more ‘polite’. It was important for people to look a certain way; to dress in particular clothes certainly, but also to try and achieve an ideal body shape. Any sort of bodily deformity or deficiency was socially undesirable and carried connotations of immorality or low status. An increasing range of corrective products was being manufactured and marketed for people desirous of a socially pleasing form.

An important component of the ‘polite body’ was the hand. Nicholas Andry was one of the first to define the ideal hand, in his famous work Orthopaedia. Andry dedicated long passages of his book to defining the perfect shape for various limbs. One section, for example, was titled ‘What shape the ARMS, HANDS, FINGERS and NAILS ought to have to appear handsome’. For Andry, hands should be ‘well-shaped…delicate, pretty long and not square’. Some hands, he argued, looked like ‘shoulders of mutton on account of their breadth and length’. Whilst useful for catching things they were, he reasoned, the worst shaped.

Andry

The hand should be covered with a ‘fine smooth skin…and the fingers should have an Air of Freedom and Mobility’, and be long and fleshy. The knuckles should leave small dimples when the fingers are extended. A long section was dedicated to the perfect proportions of the fingers. The index finger, when stretched out, for example, should end precisely at the root of the nail of the middle finger. All this was important, argued Andry, since the hands were the ‘Principal Organs of Touch’. In an age that privileged the senses above all things, this was a vital point.

Books instructing artists on the correct proportions of the hands were also appearing in an age where painters like Joshua Reynolds were busily establishing rules of composition and ideals of appearance. A white, smooth and delicate hand bespoke refined living and sound attention towards personal grooming. A rough, calloused hand was the domain of the manual worker. We can only imagine the thinly-disguised distaste at taking the hand of a lady at a society ball, only to find rough nails, warts and ‘onions’. It sounds frivolous, but was actually a very serious matter.

The importance of the hands is reinforced in other ways, not least in the increasing marketing of products for hand and nail care. From around 1750, for example, a range of practitioners began to specialise in hand and nail care, and advertised their services. In the seventeenth century and before, corns, callouses, warts and ingrown toenails were dealt with by so-called ‘corn cutters’. A range of techniques might be used, from incising the offending callouses off, to attempting to treat with various creams or pastes. By the later 18th century, however, the first ‘chiropodists’ were beginning to appear.

the-corn-doctor-1793

One of the most prominent was D. Low of London, chiropodist and author of his own book on the treatment of ‘Corns, Onions, Callosities and Warts’. Low offered a range of services to the paying public, claiming that his ‘process is safe and easy, without the least unpleasing sensation or danger’. It had, he argued, been met with universal approbation. A number of other specialists quickly jumped on the bandwagon. J. Frankel of Germany arrived in high feather from Germany and ‘acquainted the nobility, gentry and others’ that he was ready to serve them. He was keen to stress that he was ‘Famous for cutting nails…without the least pain or drawing blood’.

Medical self-help books were full of recipes to beautify the hands and preserve their delicate appearance. Works such as Amelia Chambers’ 1775 The Ladies Best Companion contained a number of recipes such as beatifying waters, containing a range of ingredients from white wine to lemons, leeks and lillies, which softened the skin of both face and hands. The exotically-named Toilet of Flora, published in 1775, contained a similar range of preparations from ‘Venice toilet water’ to a beautifying wash, and a paste to remove freckles from the skin. Ready-made potions such as ‘Dr Solomon’s Balsamic Corn Extract’ promised to remove callouses and warts without the need for cutting, and were available for a shilling or two per box.

Dr Solomon

As ‘principle organs of touch’ the hands were important in the eighteenth century. Those able to afford to do so lavished much expense and attention upon them, at least. How the lower orders cared for their hands, if they did at all, is far more difficult to recover, but the ready presence of beauty washes in remedy collections, and the lively culture of sharing medical recipes, hints that people, perhaps especially women, paid attention to them. More work needs to be done to tease out the hidden meanings of the body, and the types of materials, goods and processes involved in bodily self-fashioning. I’m certainly on the case….and I feel the hand of history on my shoulder.

Sorry. I’ll get my coat.

“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.

Mad Dog (bites) and Englishmen: Early-modern remedies for Hydrophobia

If the sheer volume of manuscript space devoted to recipes for the bite of a ‘mad dog’ is to be believed, the pathways of early-modern Britain were dangerous places. Seemingly every bush or thicket contained a rabid hound just waiting for the opportunity to sink his teeth into the unwary traveller. Given the ubiquity of remedies, dog bites seem to have been an occupational hazard.

But hydrophobia – rabies – was a serious matter. A viral disease capable of being transmitted from animal to human, its symptoms were nasty. They began with headache, fever, muscular pain and a general sense of illness. As the disease progressed, however, the symptoms became more serious, and also more dramatic. Attacking the central nervous system the unfortunate victim suffered bouts of ‘uncontrolled excitement’ as well as involuntary movements, mania, depression and a fear of water…hydrophobia. Death was almost inevitable.

Rabies_patient

As in so many instances of early-modern treatments, however, the seeming inevitability of death did not prevent people from attempting to cure the disease – or at least to palliate the symptoms. A variety of substances and approaches were used – some based on established medical practice, others seemingly based on supposition – that all aimed to halt the progress of the disease and restore the sufferer to a state of balance.

Some took a straightforwardly herbal approach. This one, for example, is from a remedy collection dated 1781 and was made up of ‘simples’ – unadulterated herbs used ‘straight’ rather than mixed or decocted.

“A medicine for any one bit by a mad dog
Take a handful of the herb called Lady’s Bedstraw, bruise it in a mortar then roll up the leaves and juices with a lump of butter and make the party swallow it. It is reputed as an immediate cure for man or beast”

Another from around the same date used a variety of ingredients and a more complex mixing process. This example is interesting in a number of ways. Firstly it required metallic, as well as herbal, ingredients, and also included the foul-smelling resin ‘Venice Treacle’ – also known as Theriac, which itself contained 64 ingredients. Also of note is the 9-10 day duration of the cure, hinting at a recognition of the progressive nature of the disease.

For the biting of a mad dog
Take Garlick, rue, scraped pewter, of each two ounces of Venice Treakle, one ounce and quarter of Masgadin, put all these things into it & stop it close, boil it two hours in a kettle of water then par off the clearest away, and put a little dregs into the place bitten & give the patient two spoonefulls morning and evening, 9 or 10 days together.

A receipt in the recipe book of the Welsh gentry lady Catherine Nanney, dating to the early 18th century, advocated surgical intervention as well as herbal ingredients, but also included an element of symbolism. Here the issue of the fear of water, synonymous with the disease, in a procedure that would be familiar to phobia therapists today:

“A Receipt for the bite of a mad dog
The patient to loose ten ounces of Blood out of the Arm, to take of grey ground liverwort one Dram, of Black beaten pepper one Scruple in half a pint of cows milk every morning for Four day and to go into Cold Spring every morning for a month Togeth Dipping all over and staying in about four minute with the head above water, & then thrice a week for a Fortnight longe”

In other words, address the phobia head on. There were some, however, who perhaps took this to the extreme. One seventeenth-century ‘cure’ for hydrophobia advocated that the patient’s head should be held under water three or four times ‘for as long as ye party can bear it’. So, push a person scared of water under the water, and hold them there until they begin to splutter…I doubt Paul McKenna will be using that one in his next book!

Middle_Ages_rabid_dog

So afraid of Rabies were people (and understandably so) that remedies even appeared in newspapers and were cut out and kept, or copied, by people in case they were needed. In a 1730 commonplace book of Michael Hughes of Anglesey is the note:

“An infallible cure of ye bite of a mad dog brought from Tonguin by Sir George Cobbs Bart…
Taken from ye Chester paper of ye 24th June 1760 by Michael Hughes then Plas y Brain”

The clergy even kept records in case their parishioners were struck down, and it is interesting that some of these remedies could become widely known. In the parish registers of a Monmouthshire church is a recipe for the bite of a mad dog which states that it was taken from Cathorp church in Lincolnshire where the “greatest part of the town were bit by a mad dog”.

Dog bites were a serious matter in the early modern period. People recognised the danger and were quick to act if they, or their families, were bitten. Keeping a recipe – sometimes several – in a domestic collection, learning remedies by rote or having access to them through others, was an important expedient should the worst happen. It was better to be prepared than not to have anything to fight back with.

Detoxing in History: the morning after the night before!

Detoxing in history: the morning after the night before.

It’s January. After the festive season is over it’s that time of year when we take stock, count the calories and do our best to offset some of the costs to our body of overindulgence. Up and down the country people will be joining gyms (as my fitness trainer says “entering like lions but leaving like lambs”), doing too much too soon and quitting before the soles of their Nikes even get scuffed. Others will be starting their healthy eating regimes, cutting out the chocolate, cakes and dairy and starting ‘holistic’ mind and body routines to try and ‘zen’ their way back to health, wealth and happiness. It’s human nature to overdo it, and it’s certainly nothing new.

Image fromhttp://www.amazing-mediagroup.com/Domains/www.amazing-mediagroup.com/CMSFiles/Images/medicalmysterys-1.jpg
Image fromhttp://www.amazing-mediagroup.com/Domains/www.amazing-mediagroup.com/CMSFiles/Images/medicalmysterys-1.jpg

In the seventeenth century, overindulgence was frowned upon. Gluttony is, after all, one of the seven deadly sins and people were extolled from the pulpit to be mindful of the special place in Hell reserved for those who couldn’t control themselves! In medical terms too, overeating in general was viewed as risky, and medical practitioners cautioned those who would stuff themselves that they were in danger of all manner of ‘windy diseases’.

Medical self-help books were becoming popular during this period and many contained lists of remedies for the afflicted, but were also not afraid to dish out morals with the medicine. Thomas Tryon’s, 1697 A way to health, long life and happiness, or, A discourse of temperance and the particular nature of all things requisite for the life of man was a typical tome. On the subject of overeating, Tryon had much to say.

It was a gross error, he argued, “for People to imagine, that a great quantity must be thrust into the Belly”. “Nothing destroys the Health, and breeds evil Juices in the Body more than this Intemperance, which most People are subject to more or less; and from hence are generated Windy Diseases and Griping Pains in the Stomach, and Fumes in the Head, which miserably afflict many of these Gluttonous People.”

Thomas Tryon

The cause of all this misery? Tryon was clear. It was “Great drinking of Wine and strong Drinks, after full Meals of Flesh and Fish, [which]do often wound the health… many of the richest sort of People in this Nation might know by woful experience, especially in London, who do yearly spend many hundreds, (I think I may say thousands) of Pounds on their ungodly Paunches.”

“Many of whom may save themselves that charge and trouble [of going] upright, for their Bellies are swelled up to their Chins, which forces them to behold the Skie, but not for Contemplation-sake you may be sure, but out of pure necessity, and without any more Impressions of Reverence towards the Almighty … all their precious hours are spent between the Platter and the Glass, and the Close-stool and Piss-pot”

That told them.

The concept of overindulging specifically at Christmas, however, would have been an alien one to our seventeenth-century counterparts. Christmas in the seventeenth century was largely a one-day festival. Beyond the advent sermons and the observation of the twelve days (including the ‘twelfth cake’), there was little celebration before or after the day. For those who could afford it, though, Christmas Day did involve some sort of special meal. In 1660 Samuel Pepys’ Christmas dinner was a hearty meal including chicken and duck…so hearty in fact that he fell asleep in the church pew later that day! For the lower orders, celebration foods might include white bread (then a luxury item), plum pudding, and plenty of beef. The basic diet of the early modern period was generally pretty basic, with plenty of barley bread and meat; for the very poorest it is unlikely that Christmas would have involved anything more than the usual fare. (For more on the history of food check out Dr Annie Gray’s great website http://www.anniegray.co.uk/index.html)

But for some, Christmas Day was just as likely to involve a fast than a feast. When Cromwell banned religious festivals in the mid seventeenth century, Christmas was pared down to its bare religious components, with no feast, games or merry-making. For Puritans, ever wary of artifice or show, elements such as a special lunch were easily dispensed of.

Image fromhttp://www.shakespearesengland.co.uk/category/christmas/
Image fromhttp://www.shakespearesengland.co.uk/category/christmas/

For those whose feasting had left them feeling queasy, though, a number of options were available. In the early modern period, overeating was referred to as ‘’surfeit”, and a range of options were available. Chief among these was the good, old-fashioned purge, either upwards or downwards. This could be self-administered; something like rhubarb would do the trick. (A word of warning here; the variety of rhubarb used in the seventeenth century is not the same as the happy pink variety used in your crumble. Put seventeenth-century rhubarb in your crumble after a meal and you wouldn’t be downstairs to enjoy the coffee and mints!). If you didn’t fancy the job yourself, then a range of purgatives and emetics (medicines to make you sick) could also be purchased from the local practitioner or apothecary.

A number of ready-made concoctions, known as surfeit waters, were also available, which aimed to calm the stomach down and release the pent up windy humours. Nicholas Culpeper recommended Liverwort as a sovereign herb for surfeits, and especially those whose livers had been corrupted by their excesses!

It is also worth noting that the concept of a health regime is also nothing new; our early-modern ancestors got there well before us with what they knew as health ‘regimens’. These often included lists of foods to eat, things to avoid, days to avoid doing things on, and even medical proverbs. One medieval Welsh proverb advised people who wanted to stay healthy never to disturb a Wren’s nest!

A book attributed to a practitioner, Sansom Jones of Bettws, Monmouthshire, contained a long list of rules. Some of these seem remarkably modern. “First use labour and exercise” he advised, to keep the body moving, such as throwing a wooden ball against a wall, and also exercising in fresh air an hour before eating meat. Food was to be well-cooked and alcohol (in fact any drink) was to be used in moderation. “Keepe thy heade and neck warme and thy feet drie” and this would help the body to “consume the watery humours”. Perhaps most important, according to Jones, was to “hold thy breath hard now and then, which forceth the blood to the outward parts of the bodye”. So, fresh air, exercise, temperance and diet…all things that your life coach will happily sell you today!

Image fromhttp://www.thesite.org/mental-health/looking-after-yourself/new-years-resolutions-6291.html
Image fromhttp://www.thesite.org/mental-health/looking-after-yourself/new-years-resolutions-6291.html

Christmas may be over but now is the time to join the centuries-old tradition of undoing the effect of excesses on your body. Do Thomas Tryon and Sansom Jones proud and watch the diet, get outside and get those new trainers dirty! Happy New Year!

17th-century remedies and the body as an experiment

I have long argued that, for people in the past, the body was a site of experiment. Today, we are constantly told that medicines should be handled with caution. In the accompanying (usually terrifying) leaflets included with most medicines, we are told in great detail how to use them, how not to use them and, most worryingly, the list of possible side-effects, which often seem to outweigh the benefits. One of the potential side-effects in my box of mild painkillers, for example, is a headache…the reason I usually head for the painkillers! But medicines, say the manufacturers, should only be used as directed by a medical professional. Care should be taken with the dosage, and they should not be used for more than a few days. If symptoms persist, head for the nearest A&E and don’t book any holidays!

Image from http//:www.theboredninja.com
Image from http//:www.theboredninja.com

We are a society who is certainly prepared to self-dose – something attested to by the shelves full of proprietary medicines in modern pharmacies. Indeed there is a broader issue of distrust with modern biomedicine, leading people to try out alternative and healers. The resurgence of medical herbalism in recent years, the popularity of herbal ‘magic bullets’ from Royal Jelly to Glucosamine and treatments from acupuncture to Yoga all attest to our willingness to consider alternatives.

Medicines

But all of these ‘alternatives’ are controlled. When we buy over-the-counter remedies they are generally mild and, unless deliberately consumed in large quantities, not dangerous. They are also strongly regulated, and have to pass years of testing before they make it onto the shelves. Alternatives are now generally regulated, with professional practitioners, while herbal medicines from health food shops are also subject to increasing regulation and scrutiny. Alternative practitioners now have available qualifications and endorsements. All in all, while we certainly consider alternatives, we are doing so within a defined, controlled and measured environment.
Early-modern people, however, held a different view of both their bodies and the concept of how medicine worked. In their view, medicine was a process and one that required continual experimentation to find what worked and what didn’t. Even a cursory glance over an early-modern remedy collection confirms this. Some remedies are highlighted – sometimes by a pointing hand or a face, to signify their value. Sometimes words like ‘probatum’ (it is proved) attest to their efficacy, or even notes like ‘this cured me’ or, my favourite, the simple ‘this I like’. Others, however, were clearly unsuitable and might be crossed out many times with thick strokes, highlighting the dissatisfaction of the patient.

A page from Wellcome Library MS 71113, p.10. See article by Elaine Leong at http://recipes.hypotheses.org/tag/lady-anne-fanshawe
A page from Wellcome Library MS 71113, p.10. See article by Elaine Leong at http://recipes.hypotheses.org/tag/lady-anne-fanshawe

It is worth mentioning that the whole concept of ‘working’ has shifted over time. Today, a remedy ‘works’ if it makes us feel better. In the seventeenth century, however, a medicine ‘worked’ if it had an effect. Therefore if a purgative was taken as a measure against, say, a cold, then provided it made the subject purge it was regarded as having ‘worked’, regardless of whether the cold got better. In this sense medicine was experimental. People consistently adapted, modified and changed recipes, adding or replacing substances, until they found something they were happy with.

This process of experimentation was, though, potentially deadly. Use too much of the wrong type of herb, plant or substance, and the results could truly be dangerous. It is often forgotten that plants are full of chemicals. It is entirely easy to suffer an overdose using plant material as it is with modern tablets. The contents of early-modern remedies are often the butt of jokes. Using everything from animal matter, live or dead, to breast milk, spiders’ webs and so on is difficult to fathom from several centuries distance, even though it was perfectly logical to people at the time. In fact, little actual work has yet been done to assess exactly how much damage could potentially be done by people using things like animal or human dung in their efforts to make themselves better. It would be interesting to actually work out the levels of various compositions in some medical remedies, to gauge their potential for harm. This is not helped by the often vague doses provided in recipes. Whilst some directions might be fairly specific in terms of weight measurements, others might rely on including ‘as much as will lye on a sixpence’ or, worse, a handful. Depending on the size of the recipe-preparer’s hand, this could vary considerably!

But this experimentation also meant that virtually everyone was a scientist, involved in testing and measuring remedies against their own bodies. In some cases, though, the element of experiment was literal. Many elite gentlemen followed an interest in science, and especially chemistry, as part of their wider intellectual pursuits. In the early 1700s, the wealthy London lawyer John Meller, latterly of Erddig in Flintshire, kept a notebook entitled ‘My Own Physical Observations’ in which he recorded details of his chemical experiments, and sometimes upon himself! Some of his experiments, for example, appear to be related to finding substances to purge himself. On more than one occasion he seems to have gone too far and suffered the consequences. We can only imagine the circumstances which led him to record that one purge had “proved too hot” for him!
17th century toilet from Plas Mawr, Conwy (image from education.gtj.org.uk

Our early-modern ancestors were arguably more in tune with their bodies than we are today. They continually sought new ways to relieve themselves of illnesses and symptoms, accumulating those that seemed to make things better and discarding the rest. Whilst we also do this to some degree, the stakes were much higher for them. We are protected to some degree by the various safeguards in place, and also perhaps by a reluctance to put our own health at risk.
Many early-modern remedies must, though, have been harmful and some might have resulted in permanent damage to internal organs, or even death.

Sickness and medicine are often referred to in military terms, with ‘magic bullet’ cures helping people to ‘battle’ their illnesses. In a sense though our forebears were engaged in single combat, each remedy, each experiment, carrying both high risk and high reward. Remember this the next time you reach for your packet of painkillers!