The Case of the Severed Finger: Callow vs Heane, 1634

In my last blog post I looked at a libel case between two Exeter medical practitioners. It was interesting to see how professional reputations were at stake and the ways in which practitioners called each other’s skills into question. For this post I’m staying on a similar theme, but this time a medical practitioner plays the part of a key witness in a bitter dispute between two ‘Gentlemen’ from the Welsh marches in the 1630s.

In September 1634, members of the families of Heane and Callow were enjoying an evening’s revelry in an alehouse in Brockweir, Gloucestershire. No doubt oiled by good sack, a discussion about the wardship of a young member of the Heane family quickly became a debate….and inevitably a dispute which quickly got out of hand.

Alehouse

At some point a £10 wager was made and a member of the Heane family declaimed, loudly, that ‘the Heanes were as good men or better’ than the Callows and challenged them to back up their boasts with weapons. That did it. Rowland Callow called Walter Heane a ‘base rogue and a Villaine’ (strong stuff in the 17th century) and promised to ‘have Heane’s hart’s blood’. Callow made a grab for Heane’s sword, pulling it partly out of its scabbard, but things didn’t quite go his way. In pulling out the sword he severed one of his own fingers!

Meissonier_La-Rixe_Brawl

As was often the case, this one single flashpoint was the catalyst for a bitter feud that spilled over into other arenas and quickly came to court. Aside from the question of injury, both to Callow’s fingers and also to the reputation of both men, a variety of other petty accusations began to fly. Callow accused Heane of failing to present one of his nephews for the crime of trespass on Lord Pembroke’s estates. Heane called Callow’s witnesses ‘infamous and of no credit’, and others of taking bribes, living incontinently with a woman in Ireland and keeping an unlicensed alehouse. The stage was set for a court battle of epic proportions.

In January 1635 depositions began to be heard in Monmouth and a commission was further held in St Briavels in May 1635. It is interesting to examine some of the evidence that was heard before the commission. The defence was based on whether certain actions and words had taken place. Had, for example, Callow called Heane a rogue and a villain. Had he indeed threatened to have Heane’s blood and had he, as some witnesses had it, struck Heane, drawing blood and then, in a Tyson-esque show of fury, bitten off a piece of Heane’s ear?

17th century tribunal

Callow’s severed finger was the subject of much debate amongst witnesses. Robert Ellice of Deane Magna, Gloucestershire, a victualler, testified that Callow had come to him for ‘chuirurgerie and shewed him his hand whereon he had an hurt on the little finger and a scarr on the finger next to it, and he saith that the bone of the little finger was scaled and could not be cured, but that the scale must be by force pulled off or by corraisive plaister eaten off.’

John Morgan, a Malster also of Dean Magna, suggested a different course of events. As Callow had no weapon of his own, Morgan ‘Saith that Walter Heane did then draw his sword out of the scabbard and did strike Rowland Callow and cutt his little finger so much that it hanged downe’, and Morgan ‘was fayne to splint it up; and had done him further hurt if the company had not stopped and prevented him, by which Rowland Callow has lost the use of his finger’.

Here the finger was purposefully severed by Heane, rather than a result of Callow’s misjudged grab! Other witnesses testified to the finger ‘hanging down’ after the scuffle but other embellishments began to enter, such as Heane taking up a ‘great stone with an intention to throw it at Callow’s face’ and then ‘did buffet [Callow] on the face with his fist so that his face therewith brused and grew black and blew’.

One of the most interesting witnesses (for me as a researcher on Welsh medical practitioners!) was Thomas Evans of Trelleck in Monmouthshire, described as a barber surgeon aged about 30. Evans testified that ‘He had known Callow for 4 years ‘and in that tyme hath heard him called Mr Callowe and taketh him to be reputed a gentleman’. He did not know Heane. About 23 October last he was sent for to come to Callow’s house at Llandogo, co. Monmouth where he saw Callow’s wounded finger and was desired to cure it. He searched the wound ‘and was faine to take a bone out of it; and a weeke after he did take another bone out of Mr Callowe’s finger.’

St_Briavels_Castle_Victorian_print

The case dragged on, with testimony after testimony beginning to test the patience of the commissioners. Debate moved from the original incident to claim and counter claim, questions of ‘gentlemanliness’ and reputation, accusations of impropriety, and on it went. Finally the commissioners had enough. Sentence was due to be passed in May 1636 but was first referred to arbitration…which dragged on until January 1637. Frustratingly the final judgement is not recorded but something of the exasperation of the authorities can be gleaned from the comments of Sir Richard Catchmay, bailiff and local process server. Perhaps without much sarcasm he suggested that the two men should simply settle matters by seeing ‘which of them could leap furthest into the River of Wye’!

(The full details of this case and testimonies are available at the University of Birmingham’s great site and database relating to the early modern court of chivalry, available at: http://www.court-of-chivalry.bham.ac.uk)

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Reading between the lines: reconstructing lives from parish registers

I’ve recently returned from a research visit to Ruthin archives to look at the Denbighshire parish registers. The purpose of the visit was to trawl through every one of the hundreds of parish register transcriptions, looking for medical practitioners. With two bookcases full of volumes, each containing many individual registers, this was always going to be a long task. The registers for the town of Wrexham alone took two days, and monotony soon sets in when faced with page after page after page of names and bare information.

Parish registers are commonly the domain of genealogists and family historians, perhaps researching their own family history. Through the popularity of television shows like Who Do You Think You Are researching your own family tree has never been so popular, aided by the growing availability of source material online. Historians too are making use of parish registers. In aggregate they can reveal a whole range of demographic information, allowing assessment of long and short term population changes, marriage, birth and death patterns and so on.

But parish registers are generally deficient in detail, and even more so the further back in time you go. In the register of marriages in the seventeenth century you may get no more than the names and locations of both parties. The same for births. The burials registers give you name and parish, and sometimes the name of the father if the deceased was a child. In some cases occupations are given, but unevenly and sometimes selectively. So much depends on the diligence of the parish notary. As such, individual registers are generally unsatisfactory as qualitative evidence for the lives of individual people. If, however, as I was able to do, you search through a large number of records, then it is often surprising what extra information is able to be gleaned. In fact, the marginal comments made by the register creators often contain nuggets of extra information that can reveal much not only about their own prejudices, but of wider attitudes in society.

Parish registers were legal documents. As such they were deliberately formulaic and only required the bare minimum of information. With no legal reason or administrative need to add in anything else, many notaries didn’t bother. But it is the very fact that extra comments were not necessary that renders them more interesting.

One thing that becomes clear is the disapproval levied against anyone who was perceived to have transgressed in some way. Some women in the Denbighshire burials registers, for example, were obviously held in low regard by the local clergyman. Several entries appear with the appellation ‘harlot’ written in the margin, ‘whore’ and even one recorded as being a ‘wich’.  Here was an indictment of loose morals writ large and preserved forever in legal documents. Whoever wrote these remarks was making a definite statement and was fully aware of the stain that they were forever putting against these parishioners names. Being ahistorical for a moment, it is sad to reflect that perhaps these women’s only appearance in the record is coloured in this way. Perhaps the worst (or best) example I have come across is poor Barbara Roberts, buried in Denbigh in 1832 and, according to the vicar, “The dirtiest woman in the neighbourhood”!

There is an obverse to such pejorative comments though, and this is the sometimes laudatory comments that could be made. Those who left money to the parish poor or were well known for their good deeds might forever be bestowed with comments such as ‘a well liked body’ or ‘a person of good repute’. Here again we can encounter glimpses of personal affiliations. It is no coincidence that gentry and other clergy were often well reported in parish registers!

Accidents and other notable or lamentable deaths were often remarked upon and these are often touching in their brevity. ‘An infant died on the road in the arms of its mother’ is a typical example which says so much but also so little. Registers are full of drownings, deaths in fires and other accidents that reflect the dangers of hard rural lives, belying any depictions of a romantic rural idyll. People who were extremely old (‘110 by common repute’) were likely to be remarked upon, as were women like Jane Reece of Holt in Denbighshire who died aged 58 in 1696 “pregnant for the 100th time”.

Even occupations were not free of the individual foibles of recorders. In some parishes certain occupations might be recorded where others were ignored. This might mean that weavers or glaziers might be recorded while apothecaries or barbers could go unremarked. This is only one of the frustrating problems facing anyone looking for occupational data. ON the other hand they can throw up surprising little quirks. In Denbighshire alone I found evidence of three ‘Aquavitae’ men,  in different parishes, all of whom were known only by their first names and who had died on the road. These were travelling salesmen selling what was a semi-medicinal strong brew. Of no fixed abode they probably succumbed to the harsh life of travelling. Given what they were peddling this seems a fitting case of ‘Physician heal thyself’.

Registers can be frustrating documents but they are often well worth spending time with. By reading against the grain it is possible to learn much about early modern life, as well as the characters of individual clergy as they wrote their sometimes barbed observations. I think that more qualitative work on early-modern registers is badly needed.

A Welsh doctor, Sir Hans Sloane, and the disappearing catheter!

**WARNING: CONTAINS SOME GRAPHIC DESCRIPTION OF A PARTICULARLY UNCOMFORTABLE SURGICAL TECHNIQUE**

In 1720, Dr Alban Thomas was something of a high-flyer. The son of a Pembrokeshire cleric and poet, Alban first matriculated from Oxford in 1708, became librarian of the Ashmolean museum, assistant secretary of the Royal Society and, if that wasn’t enough, obtained his doctorate in medicine from Aberdeen in 1719. At a time when Wales was still a largely rural country, with no medical institutions of its own and fairly poortransport and road infrastructures, these were exceptional achievements for a boy from Newcastle Emlyn.Also unusual was that Alban appears to have returned to Wales to set up his medical practice; many Welsh practitioners who had trained in Oxford or London chose not to return, choosing the potentially more lucrative market of the larger English towns. Nonetheless, especially in and around the growing Welsh towns, there was still a relatively wealthy Welsh elite to cater for and some, like Alban, positioned themselves to serve the denizens of large estates and houses.

It is clear, though, that Alban still had connections. One of his correspondents was no less a luminary than Sir Hans Sloane, the Irish physician to the fashionable and, indeed, the royal and, later, president of the Royal Society. Surviving letters from Alban Thomas to Sloane suggest that theirs was a fairly regular correspondence, with Sloane acting in an advisory role for particular cases. It is one particular case that interests us here.

File:Hans Sloane.jpg

Sir Hans Sloane

In November 1738, Alban Thomas wrote to Sloane regarding a patient, Sir Thomas Knolles of Wenallt, Pembrokeshire, who was causing him concern. Knolles, although “a person of great worth, candour and humanity” was also “a person of very gross habit, of body an unusual size and make and about 20 stone weight with an appetite to his meat but very moderate in his drinking”. Knolles enjoyed exercise but, due to his size, this was often done on horseback.

At some stage, Knolles had become ‘dropsicall’ and suffered from swollen legs. The doctor used a combination of diuretics and tight, laced stockings to countermand this with, he reported, some success as Knolles returned to health, requiring only the odd purge as a ‘spring clean’. About four years previously however Knolles had begun to complain of a swelling in his scrotum, which Alban Thomas assumed to be hydrocele – a condition causing grossly swollen testicles (sometimes treated by injecting port wine into the testicles). After drawing off “about a quart of limpid serum” from the stoic Knolles testicles, followed by a dressing and strict recovery routines, the doctor hoped that he had cured the condition for good. This proved to be premature.

A selection of bladder stones and calculus
A selection of bladder stones and calculus

When Knolles began to complain sometimes of not being able to pass urine at all, at others a few drops and occasionally losing his bladder control entirely, he took it upon himself to get a second opinion from an unnamed doctor in nearby Haverfordwest. This physician prescribed a ‘Turbith vomit’ which wrought well and even caused Knolles to void a stone about the size of a kidney bean. Rather than being put off by this occurrence, Knolles was encouraged and began to pester Dr Thomas to give him more of these treatments. Unimpressed and undeterred,Thomas decided on a more proactive course. After putting Knolles on a course of diuretic medicines, liquors and balsams for a week he brought in to his consulting room. What happened next highlights the particular horrors of early modern surgery.

When Knolles arrived, Dr Thomas first applied a Turbith vomit, hoping that “so rugged a medicine” would clear the blockage without the need for more invasive procedures. It didn’t. In fact, the symptoms grew worse. It was at this point that Dr Thomas reached for his catheter and introduced it into the unfortunate Sir Thomas’s member. Expecting some resistance, he was surprised to find that the catheter went in without resistance. “On the contrary it seemed to force itself out of my fingers after passing the neck of the bladder as if it was sucked in, which I thought was owing to the pressure of his belly, the crooked end was now upward”. Yes, you read it right. The catheter was ‘sucked’ out of the doctors fingers and upwards further into the bladder! Now, any male readers may want to cross their legs!

In an attempt to probe for the stone that he feared was lurking in the bladder, and to release some water, Dr Thomas decided to turn the catheter around. At this point, the poor patient “cryed out with some violence…TAKE IT OUT I CAN BEAR IT NO LONGER”. Happily for Knolles the catheter came out “with as much ease as it went in without one drop through it or immediately after it”.

Three months later, the patient was still suffering, with the addition of great pain, defying all attempts for his relief. Despite being a “hail, hearty man having good lungs but lyable to hoarseness” and the occasional cold, Alban Thomas perceived him to be a healthy man. His efforts to treat Knolles had so far failed and he appealed to the eminent Sloane to help him “form a right judgement in this case”.

And so we leave the story there. What happened to Knolles is unclear, but the pain of his condition can only have been matched by the pain of his treatment. Suffering a succession of violent vomits, pills, electuaries and, finally, a wandering catheter, it is almost amazing to think that he ever went near Dr Alban Thomas again. Such (uncomfortable) cases remind us of the situation facing patients in the early modern period. For some the decision to see a doctor must have been a balancing act between bearing their illness or facing treatment.

Lady Elinor Stepney and the Georgian ‘Heroine Pill’

In many ways, Lady Elinor Stepney of Llanelly, Glamorganshire, (born 1702) had everything going for her. She was the only daughter, and therefore sole heiress, to the fortune and lands of her father John Lloyd of Llangennech, including the picturesque house of Buwchllaethwen near Llanelly. She married John Stepney, heir of the wealthy patriarch Sir Thomas Stepney of Llanelly, and together they had five children; Margaretta (b. 1718), Justina (b. 1719), Maria (b. 1721), Thomas (b. 1724) and John (b. 1726).

Buwchllaethwen House – ancestral home of Elinor Stepney

By the late 1720s, perhaps unsurprisingly, given that she bore so many children in such a relatively short space time, Elinor was somewhat delicate and prone to bouts of illness. But these were no attacks of fashionable nervousness or fainting; she was chronically ill. Information about her ailments is sketchy, but a series of letters from Elinor, her husband John, and some prominent medical practitioners, can help us to recreate what was an increasingly desperate situation.

It is difficult to say, from nearly 300 years’ distance what was wrong with Elinor, although a common theme seems to have been chronic stomach pains and fits. In January 1729, for example, she was suffering from “Colical pains”, and had regular fits which left her debilitated and weak. According to her husband, after having “escap’d her fits from Tuesday to Sunday” but then was stricken with terrible pains that “seized her in her stomack, side, back, gut…with a palpitation of the heart & thence it dispers’d itself in to her stomack as before, then to the back and both the sides, the violence of which would throw her into small fits, & her stomach very much swelled”. Even down the centuries, this account of the “violence” of her pain is striking.

It is clear from other clues that Elinor’s sickness had an impact on the family’s life. It was said that the Stepneys rarely left Llannelly House, preferring the peace and solitude of a country life. But, clearly worried about his wife’s deteriorating condition, John Stepney was determined to seek out the best medical advice that money could buy, and this often took he and his wife outside their native countryside and to one of the most busy and cosmopolitan cities in Georgian Britain.

One of his Stepney’s correspondents was Dr John Powell of Carmarthen, in many ways an unusual Welsh practitioner. Powell was distinguished from his many unlicensed and unorthodox colleagues by having gone to Lincoln College in Oxford, achieving a BA, MA and MD. He was licensed by the Bishop of Llandaff to practise medicine in the diocese of Llandaff, Hereford and St Davids and letters testimonial to his skills were signed by several medical luminaries, including the president of the Royal College of Physicians in London, Thomas Witherley.  Unusually, given that many Welsh doctors who left the Principality to train subsequently set up practice outside Wales, Powell returned to Carmarthen and counted a number of wealthy Welsh gentry amongst his clients.

But Powell also seems to have taken advantage of the popularity of the newly fashionable city of Bath, and especially its growing reputation as a place of healing, as it appears that he sometimes held a practice there.  Even more interestingly, his consultations were not always held alone; letters suggest that he occasionally held court with another rising medical star – Richard Mead. Mead was a celebrated Whig physician and medical author who had attended Padua and Leiden, and studied under the famous Herman Boerhaave. He was a fellow of the Royal Society, fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and was physician to George II. Amongst the exclusive clients who made their way to Bath to consult these two luminaries were Sir John, and Lady Stepney.

Richard Mead (1673-1754)

Powell first corresponded with John Stepney, their letters discussing Elinor’s health, and mentioning the consultations in Bath, the prescriptions given and offering further advice. At this point it seems that Elinor was the third party. John Stepney seemingly took responsibility for ordering the many medicaments that Powell prescribed, generally including purges, vomits and various electuaries, pastes and juleps. In January 1729, for example, Powell recommended “a paper of cordial powders” to help with her stomach pains, as well as a “stomack plaster to spread and apply to her stomack”. If she found herself “bound”, she could take “2 ownces of purging tincture” to relieve her symptoms. From Dr Mead came the advice to take chalybeate tincture, and drink “bitter decoction” and peppermint waters. These were well-known digestifs and were clearly targeted specifically at her symptoms.

A common theme in the letters is that of the sheer amounts of medicines that Lady Stepney must have been taking. So much so, in fact, that she frequently ran out and even, on occasions, depleted local supplies so much that emergency doses had to be obtained from Powell in Carmarthen, but even from London. In September 1725, there was even a note of irritation in Powell’s letter to John Stepney regarding the increasing demand. “Had your lady spoken to me that she would have her things made by our apothecary here” he wrote “I would have sent them to her by the first carrier when I came home”.  As a result, he chastised Stepney, “she has lost a pretty deal of time both in takeing the medicines & drinking ye waters”. Powell immediately sent for another batch of medicaments, including a “fresh cargo from London”, including “a Vomit, 2 Doses of Purging Pils, a Paper of Ingredients for a bitter wine, anchovies, Garlic Electurary” and a “Antiscorbutic Electuary”.

By 1730, Powell was corresponding directly with Elinor herself, and it seems that her treatment had now included visiting Bath again to take the waters, although the sulphourous liquids did little to ease her discomfort. In June 1730 Powell noted that her stomach “acted indifferent” to most types of food and that she should stick to drinking asses or goats milk until such time that she could bear to take the waters again.

It also seems that Powell was becoming increasingly concerned about Lady Stepney’s apparent habit of staying indoors.  It was imperative, he argued, that she “use exercise to get out into the air more or less everie other day, if not everie day”, and for three to four miles every morning, whether walking or on horseback, or even in a coach “if it be inclement weather”.  This, he argued, would “restore your lost Stomack and Appetite and cause all ye animal functions to perform their proper office”. Such themes of natural, animal constitutions, vigorous exercise and fresh air, were common in eighteenth-century medical thought.

But one of Powell’s prescriptions to Elinor stands out particularly from the page. On returning from a consultation in Bath in May 1731, Powell made reference to some prescriptions from Richard Mead, and to one pill in particular. These pills were made from “Russia Castor, Goa stone & wild valerian, with the syrup of compound peony”.  These pills were designed to ‘loosen’ the constitution, and be taken in conjunction with a cordial julep. The pills, Powell stated, “I call ye heroine pills”. Not to be confused with the Class A drug, it is interesting that the use of the name predates the latter use by 250 years. Perhaps Lady Stepney was one of the first in history to partake of a dose of ‘Heroine’.

Unfortunately there is no happy end to this tale. Elinor died in 1734, at the young age of 32. Her memorial reads:

“Near this place rested the body of Mrs Eleanor Stepney wife of John Stepney Esquire, and daughter of John Lloyd of Llangennech, Esquire. She was a most obliging, endearing wife, a most tender but prudent Mother; happy in all valuable endowments, religious and moral; constant in her devotions to God, ever sincere to her friends, charitable to the poor, just and benevolent to all, a pattern truly worthy the imitation of her sex. In her husband’s affectionate esteem she still lives and as an instance of that esteem this monument is erected to her memory. She died the 3rd of January 1733/4. Aged 32 years”

Despite the best efforts of her husband, family and some of the most prominent medical practitioners and treatments of her day, Lady Elinor was ultimately helpless in her ongoing battle against her unknown malady. The striking accounts of her treatments and suffering provide us with a useful, if ultimately tragic, account of the experience of sickness in eighteenth-century Britain.

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.

The ‘heroic sufferer’; sickness narratives in early modern letters

I mentioned in my last post about the concept of the ‘heroic sufferer’. Patient narratives are very much the coming thing in medical history. ‘Off Sick’, for example, a recent collaboration between Cardiff University and the University of Glamorgan has looked at the voices of the patient over time. The historiography of disability is re-engaging with the often indistinct voices of disabled people in the past. Even in popular history, it’s often these ‘voices’ that people want to hear about – ‘Voices of the Great War’ and so on. Overall, there has been an impetus to learn about the sickness experience through those who had that experience; not those who treated them.

In my own work, I’ve looked at sickness narratives in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries through the letters that sufferers wrote to friends and relatives. Other than actual conversation (or even perhaps more than conversation), letters allowed people to construct their own narrative; their own sickness persona. Writing it down gave sufferers power over their own image; freed from the immediacy of speech, letter-writers could fashion themselves as literary sufferers. The results were often fascinating.

What strikes me most about these letters is the construction of a distinct persona, almost the creation of a different ‘sick self’. As I said in the previous post, it’s something that we do to a certain extent when we call in sick to work. There is perhaps an innate need to engender empathy, if not sympathy, and people are often very keen to detail even the most intimate symptoms to complete strangers. This seems to have been a constant for hundreds of years.

One of the most fruitful batches of letters for my purposes were those of the eighteenth-century Morris Brothers of Anglesey – Lewis, William and John. Lewis and William, especially, were prolific letter writers and, as was common for the time, health was a regular topic of conversation. Lewis Morris was a constant sufferer of sudden fits, coughing and giddyness, sometimes so bad that he could hardly get up. What struck me, though, was how far he was prepared to defend his right to be the unchallenged winner in any competition for worst symptoms. When William suggested that he was labouring under his own cough and ‘an asthma’, Lewis wrote back swiftly: “I own your asthma is heavy, but if you had such an asthma as I have, you would be unable to go to the office or even sit there”. In other words, my cough is worse than your cough!

Lewis was also the art exponent of the good old-fashioned wallow. In one letter complaining of various maladies, aches and pains, he was “scarce alive” but, stoically, would “trudge on while I live”.  Recovering from a “pleuritic fever” he told his brother he was “just returned from the shades of death”. When his brother asked him to check some papers, Lewis responded that he would do so if he recovered, having been suffering from an ague fit. Many times he began letters wearily, doubting that his life had long to run, but by the end of the letter was talking in fairly cheery terms about items of news and events.

Perhaps my favourite of all, though, were the letters of Roger Jones, an attorney from Talgarth in 1770s-Breconshire. Jones seems to have been something of a savant – a man of letters, constantly travelling around and involved in polite society (such as there was in eighteenth-century Breconshire!). His letters to his brothers reveal another side to sickness – that of the comedic narrative. Sickness was, at the time, far from funny, but Jones’s letters show a very modern sense of laughing at the profoundly un-funny, perhaps in a way to reduce its impact.

In 1771, for example, he set out on a journey to Hay on Wye, where he suddenly felt “weak and faynty and was obliged to give over”. A fever ensued, and he took pills and a glister to flush out his system. In the night he took a whey drink, which made him sweat profusely which “with the weakness occasioned by the fever, reduced me to a mere skeleton”.

Jones was certainly no fan of doctors. Whilst ill at Bath the previous year he had consulted a physician, who had prescribed glisters, opening pills, cordial drinks and purges which made him no better but a lot thinner. We can only guess at the frustration he encountered once when he lost his voice and tried to get help from his servant…who was deaf. Poor Roger was forced to repair to the local alehouse, where the landlady administered an emetic or, as he called it, “the puke”.

These are the voices of the sick in the past, speaking to us in their own terms but, importantly, terms they have selected very carefully. They tell us plenty about the experience of being ill – but they tell us more about how sufferers wanted to represent themselves to others. They are brilliant (and often under-used) sources in medical history and, one day, I can feel an article coming on!

Constructing the Sufferer (part 1)

I’ve always been interested in the ways that people construct narratives of sickness, and the sickness persona. I was watching a comedian recently who brought up the subject of the ‘phoning in sick’ voice; the slightly husky, weak and tired tone people adopt when they have to convince the boss that they really are ill, and not having a ‘duvet day’. One day there’s going to have to be a study of the language and art of phoning in sick – stuff like having been ‘up all night’ being ill, ‘really don’t think I can make it in today’, ‘see how I feel tomorrow’ are all stalwarts. But sufferers have always constructed and deployed sickness in some measure. When I was researching for my book I looked at petitions by the sick poor in the seventeenth century, written to try and convince the parish authorities to give them money.

Consider this example written to a wealthy lady in Cardiganshire in the eighteenth century – the spelling is original. (National Library of Wales, MS 182D)

“Madam Lloyd, by submission to your Honour, my little grand Child whome I nurs’d since he was a year old, happen to fell sick, this day fortneight (sic), and had been very low, I hope that he begin to recover. He is longing for rosted meat that ever he had in my cottage, and I sure that he cannot distinguies between any sort of rosted meat. If your honour please to send a bit, or order me to wait for it, I will be very glad and in so doing you will add to the obligation of your honest old shoemaker, and your most humble servant, John Jenkin, alias, little shoemaker”

Here, we have the heart-wrenching tale of a sick [and presumably orphaned] child, desperately ill and longing for something substantial to eat. The writer of the letter appeals to the charitable nature of ‘Madam Lloyd’, but it is interesting to note the language used, of the humble, honest old shoemaker, trying to use whatever personal connections he has to secure something for his grandchild.

Others appealed to the charitable nature of people in their surrounding areas to provide support or relief (National Library of Wales, MS 434B):

“To all faithfull people to whome it doth appeare or may concerne, 3rd October 1656

Whereas John Owen, being a poore ould man borne and breed in the parish of Llanfydd being grievously troubled with a disease…that he is not able to travel and seeke or get his bodily foode & sustenance by reason it is broken out in several places of his body, the quantity of seven or eight places…so beseeching all good and charitable people out of charitie to commiserate his distressed state to bestow their benevolence towards payment to the churgeon…”

Another, Mary Jones of Llandenny, petitioned the parish to offer her support as her husband had fallen sick for ‘five quarters of a year’ and was ‘sick now’. Unable to raise the money herself to feed her family, and facing eviction from her cottage on the waste by the Duchess of Beaufort “to punish the poor man in spite and malice’, Mary was forced into desperate measures.

It is interesting to note, though, that although occasionally such letters were written by the parties involved themselves, they were more often written by an amanuensis – someone who knew the people involved but had more skill in writing. These notes are usually deliberately constructed to emphasise the individual’s suffering. They often highlight the symptoms and use emotive language to highlight the particular suffering.

The reasons for this are clear; the petitioner wanted and needed money, and thus needed to convince the authorities that their need was special. They make interesting reading not just for the language of sickness, but for the ways that it could be deliberately deployed.

I think there could be another post to follow on the ‘heroic sufferer’, but enough for today!