The Agony and the Ecstasy: Hunting for 17th-century medics with few sources!

At the moment I’m once again on the hunt for elusive Welsh practitioners in the early modern period. The idea is to try and build up a map of practice, not only in Wales, but across the whole of the country. Once this is done we should have a clearer picture of where practitioners were, but also other key factors such as their networks, length of practice, range and so on.

Working on Welsh sources can at times be utterly frustrating. For some areas and time period in Wales sources are sparse to the point of non-existence. Time and again sources that yield lots of new names in England draw a complete blank in Wales. Ian Mortimer’s work on East Kent, for example, was based on a sample of around 15000 probate accounts. This enabled him to draw important new conclusions about people’s spending on medical practitioners in their final days. For Wales there are less than 20 probate accounts covering the early modern period!

17thc Wales

Wales had no medical institutions or universities, so there are no records of practitioners’ education or training. Welsh towns were generally smaller than those in England – the largest, Wrexham, had around 3000 inhabitants by 1700 –and this had a limiting effect on trade corporations and guilds. As far as I can tell there were no medical guilds in Wales between 1500-1750. It is also interesting to note that relatively few Welsh medics went to the trouble of obtaining a medical licence. A long distance from the centres of licensing in London, it could be argued that a licence was simply not necessary. Coupled with this was the fact that there was virtually no policing of unlicensed practice in Wales…only a bare few prosecutions survive.

The common perception has long been that there were simply few practitioners in early modern Wales. In this view, the vacuum left by orthodox practice was filled by cunning folk, magical healers and charmers, of which there is a long Welsh tradition. When I wrote Physick and the Family I suggested that there was a hidden half to Welsh medicine, and that if we shift the focus away from charmers etc then a much more nuanced picture emerges. When I began my search in earnest on this project, I was (and still am) confident that Welsh practitioners would soon emerge in numbers.

Cunning folk

At the moment, however, the number stands at around the 600 mark. This includes anyone identified as practising medicine in any capacity, and in any type of source, roughly between 1500 and 1750. So, 600 people engaged in medicine over a 250 year period, over the whole of Wales. Admittedly it doesn’t sound much! As a colleague gently suggested recently, this puts the ratio of practitioner to patient in Wales at any given time as roughly 1-50,000!

Here, though, the question is how far the deficiencies of the sources are masking what could well have been a vibrant medical culture. How do you locate people whose work was, by its nature, ephemeral? If we start with parish registers, for example, their survival is extremely patchy. For some, indeed many, areas of Wales, there are simply no surviving parish records much before 1700. Add to that the problem of identifying occupations in parish registers and the situation is amplified. How many practitioners must there be hidden in parish registers as just names, with no record of what they did? It is also frustrating, and probably no coincidence, that the areas we most want to learn about are often those with the least records!

Welsh registers

Records of actual practice depend upon the recording of the medical encounter, or upon some record of the qualification (good or bad), training, education or social life of the practitioner. Diaries and letters can prove insightful, but so much depends on the quality and availability of these sources. There are many sources of this type in Wales but, compared to other areas of the country with broader gentry networks, they pale in comparison.

All of this sounds rather negative, and it is one of the signal problems in being a historian of medicine in Wales of this period. In a strange way, however, it can also be a liberating experience. I have long found that an open mind works best, followed by a willingness to take any information – however small – and see where it can lead. Once you get past the desperation to build complete biographies of every practitioner you find, it is surprising what can actually be recovered.

In some cases, all I have is a name. Oliver Humphrey, an apothecary of a small town in Radnorshire makes a useful case in point. He is referred to fleetingly in a property transaction of 1689. This is seemingly the only time he ever troubles the historical record. And yet this chance encounter actually does reveal something about his life and, potentially, his social status and networks. The deed identifies him as an apothecary of ‘Pontrobert’ – a small hamlet 7 miles from the market town of Llanfyllin, and 12 from Welshpool. Immediately this is unusual – apothecaries were normally located in towns, and seldom in small, rural hamlets.

Pontrobert today

The deed involved the transfer of lands from Oliver and two widows from the same hamlet, to a local gentleman, Robert ap Oliver. Was this Robert a relative of Oliver Humphrey? If so, was Oliver from a fairly well-to-do family, and therefore possibly of good status himself? Alternatively, was Robert ap Oliver part of Humphrey’s social network, in which case what does this suggest about the social circles in which apothecaries moved?

Where there is a good run of parish registers, it can be possible to read against the grain and find out something of the changing fortunes of medics. Marriages, baptisms and deaths all point to both the length of time that individuals can be located in a particular place, and how they were identified. In some cases, for example, the nomenclature used to identify them might change; hence an apothecary might elsewhere or later be referred to as a barber-surgeon, a doctor or, often, in a non-medical capacity. This brings me back to the point made earlier about the problems in identifying exactly who medical practitioners were.

An example I came across yesterday was a bond made by a Worcestershire practitioner, Humphrey Walden, “that in consideration of the sum of £3 he will by the help of God cure Sibill, wife of Mathew Madock of Evengob, and Elizabeth Havard, sister to the said John Havard, of the several diseases wherewith they are grieved, by the feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist next ensuing, and that they shall continue whole and perfectly cured until the month of March next, failing which he shall repay the sum of £3”.

Apart from the wonderful early money-back guarantee, this source actually contains a potentially very important piece of information. It confirms that a Worcester practitioner was treating patients in Wales – Evenjobb is in Radnorshire. Walden may have been an associate of John Havard and been selected for that reason. Alternatively, he may have had a reputation along the Welsh marches as a healer for certain conditions, and been sought out for that reason. It strongly suggests the mutability of borders though, and the willingness of both patients and practitioners to travel.

In other cases practitioners pop up in things completely unrelated to their practice. The only record I have of one Dr Watkin Jones of Laleston in Glamorgan occurs because he was effectively a spy for the earl of Leicester, being called upon to watch for the allegedly adulterous activities of Lady Leicester – Elizabeth Sidney. At the very least, however, it confirms his presence in the area, his rough age, and the fact that he was connected to a gentry family.

And so the search continues. My list of potential source targets is growing and I’m confident that a great many more Welsh medics are still there to be found. If, as I suspect, the final number is still relatively small, I still don’t accept that as conclusive evidence of a lack of medical practice in Wales. As the old maxim goes absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. What it might call for is a revaluation of Welsh cultural factors affecting medical practice and, perhaps, a greater and more inclusive exploration of medical practice, in all its forms in Wales.

Physick and the Family: health, medicine and care in Wales, 1600-1750 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011)
Physick and the Family: health, medicine and care in Wales, 1600-1750 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011)

“Master Docturdo and Fartado”: Libellous Doctors in Early Modern Britain

I’ve just returned from a great conference at the University of Exeter – the Landscape of Occupations – organised by the project on early-modern medical practice of which I’m a part. There were a great variety of papers and many different aspects of occupation, occupational titles and identities and a range of other factors relating to ‘work’ in early-modern Europe.

One of the papers I was struck by was given by Professor Laurinda Abreu of the Unviersity of Evora, Portugal. Her paper explored something of the power struggles between the Portuguese crown and medical faculty for the assumption of medical authority and control over medical licensing. While the topic of conflict will be a familiar one to anyone studying early modern medical practice in Britain, it was really interesting to explore the same themes in a different context.

The relationship between different types of medical practitioner in the past has often been fraught. I’m oversimplifying here but, in general, physicians did not like surgeons as they saw them as low-status butchers who got their hands dirty. For their part, surgeons did not like physicians, whom they viewed as arrogantly adopting a position of superiority, often without basis. Apothecaries were not popular with either group since they often dabbled in physic and surgery – something they were not supposed to do. Quacks, cunning folk, ‘old women’ who healed and other types of ‘irregular’ practitioner, were pretty much attacked by all other practitioners!

17Th Century English Apothecary Shop

This apparent antipathy worked on a macro level, with entire groups entering paper wars and public slanging matches. But it is also clear that individual practitioners were prepared to take each other on if they thought that their territories were being invaded. I was reminded of a particular dispute between Exeter practitioners that was so vociferous that it ended up becoming a libel case in the Star Chamber court.

17thc Exeter

On May 10th 1604, the Exeter physician Thomas Edwards accused one of his colleagues – and possibly former friend – John Woolton of libel. The two men came from different backgrounds. Woolton was an Oxford graduate, son of a former Bishop of Exeter, holder of a medical licence and, later, an MD. In this respect he was about as ‘orthodox’ a physician as it was possible to be and was a leading physician in the town. Edwards, by contrast, had come to practice through the more usual route of apprenticeship and learnt his trade by observing his master, Francis Pampergo. Although he briefly went to Oxford, Edwards returned and established an apothecary business in Exeter.

Problems began to arise when Edwards, the apothecary, began to practice medicine, as well as selling drugs in his shop. Apothecaries were nominally banned from practising medicine, so Edwards was effectively breaking the law. In so doing, though, he also brought himself into direct competition with the prominent Woolton – a competition that Woolton was not prepared to tolerate.

Some time late in 1603, Woolton wrote a letter to Edwards which, even by the libel standards of the day was couched in the bitterest terms. Woolton began by addressing Edwards as ‘Master Docturdo and Fartado’ – hardly endearing terms to begin with. He went on, though, to launch a series of attacks on Edwards’ credibility, character and reputation. Edwards was accused of everything from dishonest dealings with his suppliers to the excessive bleeding and purging of one of his patients – Sir William Courtenay. Interestingly, Courtenay had originally been one of Woolton’s patients, so was he bitter at losing this prominent member of the Devonshire gentry to a mere ‘empirical’?

Dispute

The crux of the complaint, however, lay in Woolton’s objections to Edwards’ practice. “Your master taught you not to go beyond your mortar and pestle [and so] you aught not to minister so much as a clyster or open a vein’. Woolton backed up his objections by stating that Edwards was using dangerous substances in his ‘desperate practice’, including mercury, ratsbane, brimstone and aqua fortis, all of which were part of the chemical arsenal of Paracelsian physicians and which, argued Woolton, Edwards had insufficient knowledge of’.

Woolton made several copies of his letter, keeping one for himself, sending one to Edwards and passing on some to ‘divers others’ who published them, making the allegations widespread. The result of this was inevitable; Edwards was enraged. Reports suggest that tensions elevated and Edwards went looking for the doctor, with his rapier drawn. Woolton spotted him and shouted that he should ‘go back to his pestle and mortar’.

The battle lines were drawn and Edwards sued for libel. These were serious allegations the ‘publishing [of which] doth provoke malice and breach of the peace’. Edwards’ reputation was in the balance and everything hinged on whether the judges and court were sympathetic to the word of an apothecary against a prominent, university-educated physician.

17thc Westminster court

The judgement was conclusive, and Woolton was censured…in fact severely! The Lord Coke ‘began a very sharp sentence, and the greatest number agreed. He would spare Woolton corporal punishment because of his degree (!), but he fined him £500’. This, at the time, was an immense sum. The other libellers and publishers were also fined £40 a piece and Edwards was awarded £200 damages.

But still Lord Coke had not finished. Speaking ‘very sharply of the sin of libel’ he decreed that Woolton should ‘at a public market at the next general assizes’ be made to stand and publicly confess his faults. For a man of such eminent background as Woolton, the shame of this punishment, not to mention the financial penalty, must have been enormous.

Conflict in medicine has been a constant factor across time, but it is interesting to see the level of acrimony that individual disputes about medical authority could engender. The ruinous outcome for one of the parties here demonstrates the intolerance of the courts for those who resorted to publicly defaming rivals, but this did not stop practitioner squabbles from continuing well into the eighteenth century.
(For more on this case see R.S. Roberts, ‘The Personnel and Practice of Medicine in Tudor and Stuart England: Part 1, the provinces’, Journal of Medical History, 6:4 (1962)

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.

Negotiating a pay rise – 18th-century style!

In my last post I talked about letters from medics who were seeking jobs. Another second day in the archives yesterday yielded another crop of prospective employees, some of whom this time didn’t even know if there was a vacancy, but applied for it anyway. But another aspect of employment that we don’t often get a glimpse of in the past is that of pay-bargaining.

What happens when, after several years of work, you feel that you’re no longer getting paid what you deserve? Actually there are whole websites devoted to the etiquette of negotiating a pay rise with your boss. There is always the union to fall back on if it all goes wrong. How, though, did people do this for themselves. It was a tricky process. Don’t ask and you risk being stuck with your menial salary. Push your luck and you might end up by offending your employer and losing your position.

A letter from Dr Cockayne, surgeon-apothecary at the Bamburgh infirmary, gives us a brief insight. It’s 17th October 1782, and the doctor has been employed at the Infirmary for a little over six years. Up until now he has been paid regularly but on an ad hoc basis for his attendance on Wednesdays and Saturdays. In the ten years since its opening, the infirmary has witnessed a massive jump in from 206 in 1772 to 1500 in 1782. Small wonder that Dr Cockayne felt a little underpaid! His letter to the Reverend John Sharp reveals the delicate path he had to tread. He began on safe ground:

“Honoured Sir,
I hope you will pardon my boldness in addressing you upon this occasion, nothing but the consciousness of my own insufficiency, and your known candour, and continual kindness shewn to me upon every occasion could ever have induced me to ask so great a favour. At the same time it meets with your Disapprobation that alone will be sufficient to make me think no more of it.

It is now five years since by your kind patronage I was appointed surgeon to your dispensary. I hope during that time I have not neglected my duty but endeavoured to discharge my trust to the best of my abilities. The duties of the dispensary have continually increased year after year, and the vast number of patients admitted this year will shew to every one its great utility and at the same time the increas’d [need] and trouble so great an increase of business must necessarily give me.

If these considerations are of any weight, the favour I am going to ask will not I hope be look’d upon as presumptuous in some addition according to your better judgement in my salary. It was my duty to beg your advice upon this matter. I intended several times to have spoken to you of it when I was at the castle, but had always found myself incapable without some previous notcice to you of my intention. I therefore take this opportunity of addressing you.

I believe entirely upon your goodness and wisdom as to the fitness of my Request which if gained will be an addition to the many undeserved favours already confer’d upon me and a meanes of making me happier and easier in life. If not, I am content and shall still retain for ever a greatfull sense of your goodness in the mean time I beg leave to subscribe myself, honoured sir, your obliged humble servant, W. Cockayne.”

This was a skilful piece of negotiation and the relationship between employer and employed is interesting here. In the first paragraph, for example, he indulged in a little ego-stroking but was swift to mention that he would stop at once if he thought that Dr Sharp would be aggrieved. Sharp is almost a paternal figure, whose approval is continually sought.

Then he moved on and set out his grievances, pointing out the strains that the sheer volume of extra patient numbers had put upon him. The last part of the letter called for humility- and Cockayne had it in spades. Without “wishing to be presumptuous” and relying on Sharp’s “better judgement” Cockayne almost slipped in the fact that he wanted more money. Arguing that he had effectively been too afraid to ask in person, he tried to gain Sharp’s sympathy for his plight. If he got his money, Cockayne would he “happier and easier in life”. If not, he would “still retain a sense of your goodness” and would continue in his role regardless. Clever. But did it work?

No…at least not at once. For several years afterwards Cockayne continued on his ad hoc salary until, in 1785, he was granted an annual salary of £85 – a not insubstantial sum. Interestingly, though, he remained on that salary until at least 1810, the only increment being the addition of an extra 10 shillings in the 1790s – hardly enough to make a material difference.

So another story of the twists and turns of employment for medical practitioners in the eighteenth century. Who knows what other little gems are lurking in the archives.

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

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

Bamburgh Castle

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

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

Dr Sharp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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.