Social Networks and the spread of medical remedies in early modern Britain:

Much recent work by historians has highlighted the extent that medical knowledge was part of a ‘knowledge economy’ in the early modern period. Put simply, health and medicine were regular topics of conversation, whether in person or by letter. Just like today people told each other of their symptoms, suggested favourite remedies or recommended particular doctors. In some ways too, early modern people were perhaps more sensitive to their own bodies than we are today; they understood their bodies through a framework of the four humours, and had some idea of their own particular humoral balance. Also, they monitored their health constantly, ever vigilant for potentially unusual or dangerous changes.

With less easy access to medical practitioners for many of the population, self-medication was the first recourse in times of sickness. It made sense to have an armoury of remedies at the ready, just in case. In literate households, manuscript collections of remedies were effectively the next best thing to a consultation with a physician. But how were these collections assembled? Where did the remedies come from? By looking at a typical eighteenth-century recipe book in more detail, we can start to see the ways that medical information travelled through social networks in early modern Britain.

Between roughly 1706 and 1717, Amy Rowlands of the wealthy Rowlands family of Plas Gwyn, Anglesey, compiled her own book of medical and culinary receipts (available to see at the University of Bangor library, as MS Henblas A5). Her book is typical of the form. It is carefully laid out, written in a fair hand and fully indexed, following the format of a ‘receptaria’ medical book.  The image below is from the first page of the book, where Amy seems to be trying out a few writing exercises, based on a moral pnemonic.

Amy’s book contains more than a hundred recipes for a variety of conditions and using a wide range of ingredients. This one, “for the stone”, is fairly typical.

“Dry the roots of Red nettles and make them into pouder and drink a spooonfull of the powder thereof in a draught of white wine something warme and it will break the stone though itt bee ever soe great. And that with speed use it every day until the stone and gravell be all broken and consumed, A thinge of smale prices and great virtue”.

Looking through the book, it is clear that the sources of Amy’s recipes were broad, and included local acquaintances as well as a variety of more intriguing sources. Some, for example, were clearly given directly to her by people from her network of family and friends. Examples of these include:

To make Ginger Bread with honey Madam Griffiths way’‘To make Ginger Bread the best way Cosen Sidney Rowland is way’.

“Madam Griffiths is more difficult to trace, but ‘Cosen Sidney Rowland’ lived in Dewis Bren near Llangollen, and therefore in reasonably close proximity to Amy.  “A Reciept for a Consumptick Cough” was provided by  “Mrs Jane Williams of Ty yn ystrithsons”, clearly another acquaintance, as was a recipe for “flower water” attributed to Mrs Griffiths of Carnarvon – again, in very close proximity to Amy’s Anglesey home.

Aside from family and friends, there were other potential sources of remedies. One recipe, for example, was kept from a consultation with a practitioner:

“A Diett drink Dr Humphreys Recett to me Amy Rowlands

Take of the bark of Ash of the tender twigs of tamarisk of each two ounces of the same of Brooklime: scurvy grass, Liverwort, Hartshorn, Agrimony: Sage of each one handful: of Sene three ounces. Bruse all these and infuse them in seven quarts of smale(?) ale: after 24 hours you may drink of itt about half a pint furst in the morning and last att night you may ad quince seeds Brused to correct the wind if you please”.

For me, these records are especially interesting. Firstly, and obviously, they confirm that Amy sought the help of a doctor – one ‘Dr Humphreys’. Receipts attributed to doctors often appear in remedy collections, without the author having necessarily ever consulted the physician in question. Hence can be found remedies such as “Dr Butler’s receipt for the plague water”, noted in several collections from Wales at this time.  The inclusion of the title leant provenance and value to the remedy, especially if it had a positive reputation. Amy’s note here, however, strongly suggests that she had met (or perhaps consulted by post) this “Dr Humphreys”, and she recorded his directions for future use. Locating Humphreys is difficult given the commonness of his surname, but he was likely a local practitioner or apothecary, and unlikely to have been licensed.

Indeed, Amy Rowlands was seemingly not overly concerned about the ‘professional’ credentials of a practitioner; it was the reputation of a remedy that mattered more. A remedy for a ‘Meigrim in the head’ is included, attributed to “Pembrockshir Bess” – perhaps a cunning woman or magical healer.

Sources could, though, also come from much further afield, and suggested spread by word of mouth, rather than personal acquaintance.  The remedy below is attributed to “Mrs Pitt who lived in Stippleton in Dorsettshire” and is a receipt to make “a very good seercloth”. Amy included a note that she had made this recipe herself, and found it good – perhaps the best indicator of its reliability.

The efficacy of a remedy, though, was not just based on whether it had cured the author of the collection; the opinions and testimonials of others were just as valuable.

‘An infallible cure for sore Eies effected on Captain Fitspatrick in London when Given Over by all doctors, Given me by Mr Moris Owens of Holy Head

Taking some Garlick and pound them and bay salt together into a sort of a pultiss and apling them to the soles of the feet spread on leather for nine nights sucksesifly the which has done a wonderful cure upon the above Gentilman

In this example, the benefactor of the remedy was “Mr Moris Owens’ who perhaps (although by no means certainly) knew the ‘Captain Fitspatrick’ upon whom the initial remedy was so successful. Here, the remedy had travelled a physical distance (from London to North Wales), but had also moved through a social network by several removes, connecting people who otherwise had nothing to link them.

It is this last point that really highlights the value of these fantastic sources. They certainly reveal much about medicines, ingredients and the physical processes of manufacturing remedies in the early modern period. But, in cases where authorship and attributions are known, they also reveal much about the diversity of sources of medical information and the sheer wealth of medical knowledge that was available. Far from being helpless in the face of sickness, people in fact were surrounded by potential sources of relief. Recipe collections offer us a unique insight into this process.

(Images are copyrighted to me, and used with permission of the archive at Bangor University: Please do not reproduce them without the express permission of Bangor archives. Thanks)

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.

Medical practice in early modern Wales – revision time!

I started researching Welsh medical history properly in 2004. At that point, there wasn’t really a big historiography on the early modern period for Wales…in fact there was essentially only one book. Over the years, I’ve been busy putting that to rights, and have so far published my own book, three academic articles, four book chapters and a range of other stuff. The obvious problem is that if anyone else chooses to start looking at this topic, my research is first in the firing line. But, that’s another day’s worry.

When I started working on the book, I decided to leave the issue of medical practice to one side. Physick and the Family is broadly about the experience of sickness in the early modern period. It looks at things like how people viewed sickness and how they conceptualised and described it. It looks at how well prepared people were to cope with a patient in their own homes, and also the ways in which friends, neighbours and the wider community coped with having a sick person in their midst. Except for when they became part of this sickness experience, doctors were not part of the remit. But they are now.

There has been a long-held view that Welsh doctors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were part of a practice that was stagnating, backward-looking and pretty much tied to its ancient past. There are certainly reasons to support this view. Unlike England, Ireland and Scotland, Wales had no institutions in which practitioners could focus or gather. It had no universities or colleges of medicine and, as such, there was no formal medical training available. There were no hospitals aside, perhaps, from the odd lying-in room or lazar house.

Until the late seventeenth century, Welsh doctors were relatively reluctant to purse a licence, which they were at least nominally supposed to have, although the lack of policing and distance from London meant that this wasn’t so important in the Principality. Those wishing for a career as a professional physician, though, generally left Wales to train in Oxford or London, and then generally didn’t bother to return. The net result of this has been a view of Welsh practice as a vacuum of orthodox medicine, which was filled by cunning folk (in Welsh the ‘dyn hysbys’ – cunning man), and various other ‘irregular’ practitioners.

The problem with this view is that it simply isn’t accurate. It suggests firstly that there was a lack of practitioners in Wales, which isn’t the case. Secondly, the terminology itself carries baggage. When we talk in terms of ‘irregular’ and ‘unorthodox’ it automatically suggests unskilled. This too is inaccurate since much of the evidence I have looked at over the years suggests that Welsh doctors often went to extraordinary lengths to keep up with wider developments in medicine.

Books, for example, were one way that doctors could keep themselves informed, and there is evidence that Welsh practitioners sometimes purchased even esoteric Latin texts in order to access the latest thinking. The first Welsh-language medical book wasn’t even published until 1736, so they were in effect forced to engage with medical literature in English or Latin.

Secondly, it is interesting to note that Welsh practitioners, alongside their English counterparts, often adopted the title ‘Doctor’ even though they had no degree or licence. In Wales this is interesting because it is an English term; there were Welsh equivalents like “Meddyg” and “Physigwr”, but “Dr” was the preferred term. Although we can’t read too much into this, it might suggest that such practitioners wanted to feel part of a wider medical fraternity or profession.

Thirdly, all evidence points to the practice of medicine being identical in form and function to that in England and across Europe. As has long been demonstrated elsewhere, orthodox practitioners did little different in material terms to the cunning man. Whilst ‘magical’ practitioners might dress up their remedies with symbolism and esoteric language, the basic form and function was the same.

This is not to say that folklore itself was unimportant – far from it. There was an extremely lively oral tradition of medical knowledge in the Welsh language, and strong beliefs in the power of cunning folk. Wales, it must be remembered, was a largely rural country, and one of marked geographical contrasts. There were areas of agricultural lowlands, but also upland, mountainous regions, where travel was difficult. In many ways it was the perfect breeding ground for legends and magic to prosper.

But Wales shouldn’t be viewed as being cut off. It was connected in so many ways to the broader world. Shops, even in tiny villages, for example, sold a range of medical goods, imported often through large English towns such as Bristol, Chester and London, but sometimes directly through the coastal trade. People crossed the borders to visit English towns, again especially Bristol and along the marches, and Welsh accents would have been familiar in these towns. Welsh apothecaries had accounts with London suppliers, and imported proprietary medicines, meaning that Welsh people would have been familiar with popular potions like Daffy’s Elixir. They also bought newspapers and almanacks, so would have known about the lively medical marketplace developing in the seventeenth century.

Overall, Welsh medical practice is due an upgrade – if not a complete revision, and I’m ready to take on the task. I’m going to start on a new project shortly, assessing both the numbers and quality of Welsh medical practice. I have a theory that, like so many other parts of Welsh medical history, there is a lot more to discover, and some deeply-held myths to challenge.

Writing Welsh History (3)

A couple of weeks ago I took part in the ‘Writing Welsh history’ event at Swansea University. One of the main topics of the evening was how we approach Welsh history; is it somehow different to other countries or regions? Are there any specific problems facing historians that are uniquely Welsh? That last question is one that vexes me. The recent television series was titled The Story of Wales. As a participant in the television debate following the series noted, it is not The story, but A story. I believe that we are lacking a grand narrative of Welsh history. It is natural to think in terms of chronologies, but it is difficult to think of the sweep of Welsh history without using the broader British history as a reference point. In other words, could we even tell a story of Welsh history?

This problem is particularly relevant for me as I contemplate my next academic project. I’m thinking about tackling a narrative of Welsh medicine from earliest times to the present day. This hasn’t been attempted before, and there is certainly a need for such a study. The problem, though, lies in structure. From available source material, for example, is there enough evidence to fill chapters before, say, the tenth century? The obvious solution is to adopt a thematic approach, rather than a narrative chronology. But in other ways it highlights the fact that Welsh history cannot always be neatly compartmentalised.

There have been many ‘history of Wales’ volumes (I’m thinking of works by John Davies, Geraint Jenkins and Prys Morgan) and these ably take on the difficult task of constructing a narrative. Geraint Jenkins’s Concise History of Wales is excellently written on what he describes as a ‘formidable task’ of writing the entire history of a country. In terms of periodization, the first chapter, ‘the earliest inhabitants’, covers everything from Celtic and Roman Wales up until around 380AD. Chapter two covers around seven hundred years, up to 1063. But after 1063 the pattern changes to around two hundred years per chapter. This isn’t a criticism; it just underlines the reality for any chronological history of Wales that, before the 11th century, it is difficult to go into forensic detail.

But I also think that we do need more of these types of ‘stories’ to get a more fixed idea of what our history actually consists of. In my first book, I purposefully avoided a narrative, firstly because the evidence wasn’t suited to this type of approach, and secondly because I wanted to address a number of different themes in broader medical history. But this time I’m tempted to bite the bullet and try and answer my own question of whether we should think in terms of ‘Welsh medical history’ or ‘medicine in Wales’.