The mystery of ‘Sansom Jones’ – the phantom Welsh doctor

“This book I had from — a resident of this parish (Bettws in Monmouthshire), who swears it was the book of Sansom Jones a physician of this county, some two hundred years ago”.

This note, dated around the early twentieth century, appears in the front cover of an intriguing manuscript – Cardiff public library MS 2.126. Since I first came across the document in 2005, it has fascinated me as it represents something of a mystery. It is, or at least appears to be, a remedy collection dating to around the early seventeenth century. It looks and feels ‘right’. The palaeography is consistent with a document of that age. The layout is what you’d expect from an early modern receipt book and the remedies are neatly written and ordered. And yet it is one of the most frustrating sources I have ever looked at.

It should be a fascinating view into the medical world of that most rare of creatures – the early modern Welsh doctor. We even have his name – relatively unusual for sources of this type. Except, so far, “Sansom Jones” has eluded every attempt I have made to find out more about him…or even to establish whether he even existed. He highlights one of the big problems for historians in trying to piece together individual lives through scattered documents. We have a few pieces of the jigsaw, but not the final picture. It also raises the danger in assuming that documents in local or county archives are necessarily from their own area.

Let’s start at the beginning of the ‘Jones’ document. The first couple of pages are interesting. The book begins with a list of standard apothecary measures – a common enough inclusion, especially if this were the book of a practitioner. Lists of scruples, drachms and other measures were necessary and useful in compounding the correct measures and dosages of remedies. But then the plot thickens, and the name ‘Bethia Marsh’ is written in bold script, suggesting authorship or ownership; more about that later. But also prominently written is the following heading:

Noblest teaching of urine to know the proffices thereof for the nature of man and woman which is known through urines. Through which urines the sicknesses of men are knowne, translated out of lattine (sic) into English. By mee Alexander Spraggot. 1569. May ixiiii”.

So the plot thickens. Here we appear to have the title page of a published book by the eponymous Mr Spraggot. We have an exact date and so, at least, a starting point. Looking at the book as a whole, it does ‘feel’ very much like a published work. It is very neatly set out and has, quite unusually, a complete alphabetical index at its end.

There is a section on uroscopy (the diagnosis of medical conditions by the appearance, smell and taste of human urine), followed by some general notes on life and health. These include “To knowe life or death/tokens of death”, “A treatise of Hypocras”, with astrological notes on sickness and other general observations including notes on why students are unhealthy – essentially because they spent so much time in motionless reading! The rest of the volume is given over to medical remedies, generally set out in order of different parts of the body.

For headaches, for example, there are remedies for “headach proceeding of a cold cause”, “headache proceeding of heate”, “for the mygrim or rigrim” and so on. Several pages deal with purges for various conditions, including “melancholie”, “palsey” and also specific diets, e.g. for the “rhewme”. There are sections on obstetrics and childbirth as well as conditions relating to both men and women. Given the standard practice of using animal, plant, and any number of other materials (!) in remedies of this time, there is ample evidence of a full range, and nothing out of the ordinary.

In many ways, there is much to support a theory of this as being the book of a practitioner; it contains just the sort of useful information that a practitioner might rely upon in his daily work. There is little evidence to suggest attributions in the book. In ‘domestic’ remedy collections (i.e. those used in families) it is common to find recipes gifted from others – e.g. my aunt’s remedy for a cold, Mrs x’s receipt for the gout, and so on. But this book has none, suggesting a more formal purpose. The fact that it is written in fair hand also supports a deliberate and disciplined document.

But if we look deeper at the document, what else might it reveal? Firstly, who was Alexander Spraggot? Did he indeed write a book called ‘noblest teachings of urine’, or might this be an unpublished manuscript from 1569? The answer to the latter is no. In terms of the date, I was partly lucky, since the paper was watermarked…but even this is slightly mysterious. Having sent a copy of the watermark to a colleague who specialises in this area, the watermark turned out to be from an unusual source for an early modern Welsh document…it was from Russia. Not only this, it dated no earlier than the mid seventeenth century, meaning that, at the very least, any copy from Spraggot’s original must have been done nearly a century later.

Searching under the name Alexander Spraggot reveals few likely candidates. Perhaps the most likely seems to be ‘Alexandrus Spraggot’, appointed the vicar of Martocke church in Somerset in 1564 – not a great distance from South Wales. But did Spraggot ever author a work of this name? Not as far as I can tell. There are no records in the British Library of a book by this title or author, so here the trail runs cold.

So what of the second name mentioned in the book – Bethia Marsh? Here again, I’ve drawn something of a blank. A lady of this name was born near Salem, Massachusetts in 1650 – roughly around the date of the creation of the book (or at least its paper), making her an unlikely candidate. The name isn’t especially Welsh either. One possibility is that Bethia was, at some point, the owner of this book which, after all, contained a large number of useful remedies. It was common for people to write their names in such books to assert ownership, and also for remedy collections to move across families as they were gifted, especially to newlyweds.

What, finally, of Sansom Jones, the mysterious Welsh practitioner of Bettws, south Wales? Is there anything to suggest that he was the true owner of the book? Sadly not. Having looked for the relatively unusual name of Sansom in likely parish records, I can find no trace…so far. He was not, at least as far as the records suggest, a licensed physician. His name doesn’t appear on any list of known doctors, nor does he appear to have been apprenticed or trained. None of this, of course, means that he never existed. He could, as many Welsh practitioners did, have simply carried on his medical practice to the local population unhindered by the need to obtain a licence, being so far from the centre in London. With such an indistinct date, he might have been of a later time period, with a misjudged attribution by the note writer. Another possibility is that he was actually from a different ‘Bettws’ than the one in Glamorganshire; there are several across Wales.

And so the search continues. As I turn my attentions back to Welsh medical practice (after a hiatus studying shaving and rupture trusses in the eighteenth century) the need to find out more about the daily life and work of Welsh doctors will again become paramount. If Sansom Jones was there, and if this was indeed his book, I want to find him, as ownership of these types of documents does much to provide an alternative to depictions of Welsh doctors as obsessed with folklore and magic.

p.s. If anyone can shed any light on any of this, I’d be very grateful.

There’s a bug ‘going round’.

Again last week I had to nurse a poorly toddler as he was sent home from nursery with yet another variety of stomach upset. There is, I’m told, something going around. I need to confess here to being a terrible hypochondriac. When I worked in an office I hated it when people used to come in, green-faced, and that say that they’d been ‘up all night’ being sick. In my mind, it is only a matter of time before this thing finds its way to me! If I read on the internet (as has recently occurred) that the norovirus has closed hospital wards anywhere near where I live, the sense of a creeping tide of contagion gets worse. In fact, there always seems to be something ‘going around’.

Talking to a colleague last week, we were speculating about whether the same conception was true in the early modern period – whether people believed that the same nasty bit of pathogenics was doing the rounds. It would be interesting to know whether early modern people had any sense of one particular ‘bug’.

In some ways this seems unlikely. Humoural beliefs held that illness was a personal thing; it was one’s own humoural balance that generally dictated sensitivity and vulnerability to sickness. If, for example, someone was naturally sanguine (i.e. had a predominance of blood in their humoural makeup) that made them naturally more susceptible to apoplexy, plethora and venery!

But there certainly was some conception of a sickness that moved around populations; what, after all, were epidemics of plague and smallpox if not mobile and progressive conditions? But it also seems clear that people were aware of flare-ups of particular diseases or conditions in their vicinity. The letters of Owen Davies, an Anglesey parson in the early eighteenth century, certainly reveal evidence of this, noting episodes of epidemic fevers in his area. The diarist Phillip Henry of Broad Oak in Flintshire referred to an outbreak of fever in seventeenth-century Glamorganshire, which was particularly affecting children. In fact, when we look closely, there was a constant dialogue about illness, and people were ever vigilant for what sorts of things might affect them.

If we think about domestic recipe/remedy collections (books of favoured remedies sometimes accumulated in literate households), it is possible to see them as part of a domestic arsenal against sickness. They were in some ways a pragmatic response to disease; it made sense to have some sort of weaponry in your arsenal to attack whatever symptoms you might have. In other ways though, they were also an insurance policy. They provided at least some means of recourse in an environment where sickness was almost always lurking. And it wasn’t just remedies that were written down; people simply knew remedies, and were able to memorise and internalise information in a way that in today’s internet-dominated world we would find impressive.

The terminology of sickness has certainly shifted. When people in the past referred to the local presence of conditions, it is more likely that they were referring to something deadly, rather than a minor stomach upset. Nevertheless, something of the fear of contagion must be innate. While we might not all regard ‘bugs’ to the same degree of pathological hatred as I do, we feel uncomfortable when sickness gets too close.

Now where’s my antibacterial spray? This keyboard looks filthy…