The Evans Brothers and the ‘Cardigan Cancer Cure’.

It’s the start of a new year, and the start of what I hope will be a sustained revival for my blog. 2018 was a bit of a busy year, one which saw me writing and researching for my project on the history of facial hair, busy with lots of fab and fun media stuff, as well as taking up the full-time lectureship at Exeter. With all of that, my poor blog has been a bit neglected of late.

So, with my new year’s resolution firmly in place, time to make good and post the first of hopefully many for the 2019 blog season. And, to celebrate the publication of a new article on Welsh medical practitioners, I thought it might be nice to start the year off by returning to Welsh medicine with a nice little story from the archives (courtesy of my friend Dr Andy Croll in the University of South Wales).

In February 1907, an article appeared in the Weekly Mail, with the attention-grabbing headline ‘New Cancer Cure: Fame achieved by two Cardigan farmers’. The story centered upon two brothers, John and Daniel Evans, ships’ carpenters by trade. Brought up in the countryside, in the parish of Verwig near Cardigan, according to the article, ‘they studied the nature of herbs, gaining such proficiency that they soon became noted in their immediate locality, for cures effected of sores &c’.

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(Image from The National Library of Wales Newspaper Database – https://newspapers.library.wales)

As their reputation grew, the brothers began to treat ‘graver cases’ of illness and, by the end of the nineteenth century, were treating external cancers. Their reputation had clearly spread far beyond Cardiganshire. By 1907 they claimed to be treating patients not only from all across Wales, but from London and other parts of England. Not only this, offers of fees were flooding in from patients across the country, asking the brothers to attend them at their own homes, but these were refused by John and Daniel, who said they were already at full stretch at Cardigan ‘where the numbers of patients who visit them is very considerable’.

When asked how many they had cured, the brothers replied that many hundreds had been sent away restored, with only two patients lost. With the successes that they had apparently had, John and Daniel Evans had now turned to treating internal cancers which, it was reported, was already yielding good results. Despite having once been offered the enormous sum of twenty thousand pounds to effect a cure (which they refused), there was no formal charge, and patients were simply asked to pay what they could afford, or what they felt was a suitable amount.

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(Image from The National Library of Wales Newspaper Database – https://newspapers.library.wales)

According to the report, several hospitals, including London, Cardiff and Liverpool were even sending patients to Cardigan to be treated by the brothers, when the medical faculty acknowledged that there was no more that they could do. By the early twentieth century they were also selling their own medicinal compound, based on a secret recipe, known as the ‘Cardigan Cancer Cure’.

In their studies of herb lore, the Evans brothers belonged to a long tradition in Welsh (and indeed broader) medical history, of self-taught proficiency in healing. Although not referred to as such in the article, they were, essentially, ‘cunning men’ – popular practitioners who gained local reputations as specialists in particular conditions, or more generally as lay healers. Cunning folk, bonesetters, healers and charmers were undoubtedly an important element in medical provision in Wales throughout the early modern period, and well into the nineteenth century. Reputation was often the single most important factor in the popularity of such people, whose fame grew along with the numbers of apparent cures and subsequent recommendation.

The language of the article indeed reveals many echoes of reports of popular healers from centuries before. It noted, for example, several cases of patients who had been referred to the Evans brothers after being written off as incurable by the medical profession. In the seventeenth century, popular healers often claimed to succeed where medicine had failed, or where the patient had been ‘given over’ by physicians. The emphasis on charity and, if necessary, treating the poor gratis, was another important element of the cunning man’s practice – and also a popular trope in medical advertising in the early modern period and eighteenth century. The fact that that John and Daniel were brothers also fitted in with dynastic or family traditions of healers that was common in Celtic countries, and especially in Ireland, but also in Wales.

Perhaps most interesting, though, is the surprisingly uncritical tone of the Weekly Mail’s report. By the end of the nineteenth century, the earlier traditions of folk medicine were of great interest to Victorian antiquarians, who collected records of charms, remedies and practices. Whilst some were sympathetic to early healing practices, others took the chance to poke fun, taking to the pages of newspapers, journals and society ‘transactions’ to highlight the ‘weird’, ‘backward’ or ‘ignorant’ medicine of their predecessors. Here, however, the article apparently accepted the validity and success of the brothers’ treatments, neither making fun of their methods or beliefs, or treating the herbal basis of their practice as inferior to ‘official’ medicine.

But there was an unfortunate twist in the tale. Keen to stamp out what it saw as quack medicines and arcane practices, the British Medical Association summonsed the Evans brothers to London and denounced them as frauds. They apparently returned to Wales distraught and disillusioned, abandoning both their practice and the medicine soon after.

BMA-House

The BMA headquarters in Tavistock Square, London – Image from https://peopleshistorynhs.org/encyclopaedia/the-british-medical-association/)

The example of the survival of traditional healing in Wales demonstrates the longevity of what is sometimes (unsatisfactorily) referred to as ‘folkloric’ medicine, despite the growth of hospitals in Wales at the time, and the overwhelming shift towards biomedicine. But as the reaction of the BMA shows, there has long been a tension between what we might call ‘official’ and ‘lay’ or popular medical practices. As the popularity of the Evans brothers’ treatments suggests people across the country, and not just in Wales, were perfectly ready to consider alternatives where biomedicine had apparently failed them…a willingness which, it could be argued, is no less potent today, with the availability of a vast range of alternative therapies and treatments.

Whatever the truth behind their methods and successes may be, the case of the Evans brothers of Verwig reminds us of the dangers of viewing the history of medicine as some long journey of progress out of darkness and into some sort of modern medical enlightenment. The reality is often far more complex.

When Marmalade was Medicinal.

I must admit to a guilty pleasure – hot buttered toast with a (very!) thick covering of marmalade. Worse than that, I’m even fussy; it absolutely has to be a certain brand, and a particular type…none of your weedy shredless stuff for me!

But it seems that I’m not alone. Marmalade has recently made something of a comeback. It’s now become a serious foodie’s ingredient with all sorts of artisan flavours and combinations.

Now admittedly marmalade might not leap to mind for its potential health benefits. But in the early 1800s, it was nothing less than a revolutionary health food. In fact, marmalade was originally created as a medicinal substance.

To discover the origins of marmalade we need to go back to the eighteenth century and the increasing problem of scurvy in the British Navy. Scurvy, caused by a lack of Vitamin C, was a major killer in the period, and was even argued to cause the deaths of more sailors than enemy action. The disease caused a range of symptoms, including shortness of breath and bone pain, lethargy and changes to digestion, loss of teeth and hair and, eventually, death. The problem of getting and keeping fresh fruits and vegetables rendered long sea voyages potentially dangerous for crews.

The link between fruit and vegetables as a prevention against scurvy was already known in the seventeenth century, but it was a naval surgeon, James Lind, who first suggested citrus fruits as a viable option for ships’ crews. Throughout the eighteenth century, experiments with different types of foodstuffs (including, famously, sauerkraut by Captain James Cook on his 1768-71 expedition) began to have an impact on instances of the disease.

James_Lind_by_Chalmers

James Lind FRSE, FRCPE (Image from Wikipedia Commons)

One of the key issues was being able to provide foods that were easy to keep and store, but which also retained enough nutrients to be beneficial. Marmalade (originating from the Portuguese word ‘Marmelo’) had become a popular means of preserving fruit in Britain as early as the seventeenth century. In 1732, Charles Carter’s Compleat City and Country Cook contained a recipe for various marmalades, including apple, pear and apricot, and even cherry and currant.

In 1776 the physician Alexander Hunter wrote about preventing disease using carrot marmalade! A mere spoonful, he asserted, could cure fevers and scurvy, and prevent putrescence. An advertisement also appeared that year in the London Chronicle, titled ‘A Preparation of Carrots for the Use of Seamen in Long Voyages’, of which the ‘finest sort’ could be procured for sixpence a pound.

By the late eighteenth century grocers were beginning to latch on to a public appetite for marmalade as a luxury good. Portuguese Quince Marmalade was one of the many exotic-sounding products available at Joshua Long’s Grocery Warehouse near the Royal Exchange in London. Customers at Long’s shop could also treat themselves to a veritable cornucopia of other delights, from ‘Genoa sweetmeats’ to candied pineapples. Rather confusingly, the publishers of Volume 7 of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in March 1791 also included a line at the bottom of their advertisement, telling customers of their ‘Fine Orange Marmalade, just made’, available at the booksellers.

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But it wasn’t long before health came back to the fore. Seeing an opportunity, advertisers began to extol the virtues of marmalade as a restorative and preventative. An advertisement for the ‘Real Scotch Marmalade’ in 1813 listed many benefits. It was, said the advert, excellent for persons of weak constitutions, and those leading sedentary lives’. Not only this, marmalade was the perfect replacement for butter, which ‘never fails to create bile on the stomach, the forerunner of all flatulency’! A decade later, physicians were even recommending Scotch marmalade as a cure for colds! Levy and Salmon advertised their Scotch marmalade, for example, as being excellent for those troubled with bile or indigestion, and also as something to be given as a general health-preserver to children and the elderly.

Around this time marmalade also became genteel – the preserve of choice for the discerning Victorian household. ‘Mr Newton’ boasted in 1826 that his orange marmalade has been concocted to the ‘highest perfection’. ‘Hickson’s Shaddock Marmalade’ was, the advertisement claimed, met with ‘universal approbation’ from the nobility and gentry. In 1832, Mrs Wedderspoon’s ‘Genuine Orange Marmalade’ was available only from Capper’s Tea and Foreign Fruit Warehouse in the Strand, supplier of the ‘finest sauces and epicurean condiments’. Just like today, marmalade was fast becoming the preserve a la mode, the ideal accompaniment to a high tea, or family gathering.

The nineteenth century also saw the beginnings of some familiar brands, still in existence today. Keiller’s was formed in the 18th century, and became widespread (sorry!) during the 19th. Francis (Frank) Cooper started his marmalade production in the 1870s, whilst Wilkin and Sons Tiptree factory began producing jams, preserves and marmalades in 1885.

Paddington

So, it seems that Paddington Bear might have been right all along, in making sure that he always had “plenty of marmalade sandwiches to keep me going”! Perhaps, too, marmalade could indeed be the way to a healthy, as well as a happy, breakfast. That’s what I’m going to keep telling myself!

BBC Free Thinking Feature: Bamburgh Castle Surgery, c. 1770-1800

Over the past few years I’ve been working on the records of a unique eighteenth-century medical institution. The eighteenth century saw the rise of institutional medicine, first in the form of hospitals and infirmaries, and later dispensaries. The former were large, imposing buildings in a town landscape, housing inpatients and treating surgical cases, as well as other conditions. Dispensaries were smaller, sometimes occupying existing buildings, but generally acted as outpatient services where the poor could be given medicines, patched up if necessary, and sent on their way.

Both hospitals and dispensaries were funded by subscription. Subscribers were invited to pledge an annual sum of money, put towards the building, running and upkeep of the institution. In return, subscribers had the right to recommend patients for treatment, according to the size of their donation. Unlike today, patients could not simply turn up at the doors, unless in absolute emergency. Instead, they required a certificate of permission, signed by a subscriber and, as such, could be difficult to access at times.

Image from Wikimedia Commons
Image from Wikimedia Commons

Also, institutions were firmly urban in nature. They were closely bound up with the civic ambitions of Georgian towns. A hospital could be a strong statement about a town’s importance and beneficence to the poor. ‘See how kindly we look upon our poor objects’.

Unsurprisingly demand for these facilities was high. Even outside London, annual admissions could number in the thousands. Especially in the crowded and often unsanitary conditions of towns, conditions like epidemic fevers were rife.

But one medical institution stood apart – both literally and notionally – from the rest. In the 1770s, Dr John Sharp, Archdeacon of Northumberland, philanthropist, and member of a family which included a prominent surgeon and famous anti-slavery campaigner (Granville Sharp) was a trustee of a large charitable fund established by the late Nathaniel Lord Crewe. Crewe had set aside large amounts of money from land revenues, stipulating in his will that these were to be put to charitable use.

Image from Wikimedia Commons
Image from Wikimedia Commons

One of the properties was the dilapidated medieval Leviathan of Bamburgh Castle. Undertaking a massive programme of restoration, Dr John Sharp adapted the castle to a variety of charitable uses, including a school, corn charity, home for shipwrecked sailors and the surgery/infirmary.

With his brother’s advice (a surgeon at St Bartholomew’s hospital in London), Sharp equipped Bamburgh with the very latest in medical technologies, including an ‘electrical machine’ for literally electrocuting patients back to health, a full stock of medicines and equipment, and other modern apparatus such as the ‘machine for the recovery of the apparently dead’ – used to try and revive the recently-drowned.

L0011748 Title page: Report of the Society...recovery of persons

Last year I visited Bamburgh and made a short radio programme for BBC Radio 3, which is now available online.

Click on the link and then the ‘play’ icon in the new page to access the programme

For more about Bamburgh and its facilities, you can also click here for my ‘History Today’ article about Dr Sharp and his medical charity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this week’s number 1…

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

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

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

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

The Great Georgian Snuff Debate

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

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

glindoni_henri_gillard-gallant_taking_snuff~OMccc300~10287_20140205_LFEB14_1072

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

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

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

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

Snuff takers

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

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

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

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

George_IV_Silver_Hunting_Snuff_Box_1b

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

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

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

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

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

Woman taking snuff

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

17th-century remedies and the body as an experiment

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

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

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

Medicines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding that one special source…

I’m sometimes asked why I became interested in Welsh medical history, and people are usually surprised when I tell them it was a complete accident. In 2003 I had just left a 10-year career with a high-street bank and had returned to study. Actually, ‘returned to study’ is a bit of a misnomer; I left school with 6 GCSEs and packed in A-levels after one year with a burning ambition to work in an office and have my own swivelly chair and desk. Suffice to say it wasn’t all I had hoped! But, after starting my degree studies with the OU I decided to take the plunge and go to Uni full time, joining in the second year.

In the summer before my final year I was on the hunt for a dissertation topic. I had little idea what I wanted to do beyond a vague notion of looking at seventeenth-century Wales and the civil wars. Aside from a little bit of reading about James Lind and the cure of scurvy, I had no experience of medical history whatsoever. I headed off for the Gwent Record Office and asked the archivist what was available. In what turned out to be a prescient comment, he said “if you’re interested in the seventeenth century, you might like this”, and produced the notebook of John Gwin of Llangwm. Tony Hopkins, I’m very grateful to you!

Gwin’s book is a miscellany. It contains everything from farming notes to accounts, from biblical verses to poetry and from family records to church seating disputes. But what caught my eye were the medical remedies.  This was my first real experience of early-modern handwriting, and at first I couldn’t make out much, and what I could see wasn’t familiar. “The sesticall stone to cure sore eyes by mistress Moone” was one. Another recorded “Mr Cradock’s directions to us for our two children being afflicted by the small pox”. One even had a receipt “to make a horse pisse”. Something about these remedies piqued my curiosity; I wanted to learn more about Gwin and the medicines he used.

It was then that the second stroke of massive good fortune occurred. Having taken a photocopy of one page to show my supervisor, Dr David Turner (later my PhD supervisor and now a good friend and colleague at Swansea), it was he who first suggested that there was little work on medicine in seventeenth-century Wales, and that this might prove a fruitful topic for research. David, I’m very grateful to you too! This led to my undergrad dissertation, to an MA and then to a PhD, funded by Wellcome…all this from one visit and one source. I often wonder what shape my academic career might have had, if any, had I not gone to the record office that day. It is a point that I often make to students looking for a dissertation topic, that it often only takes one really good source to spark off an idea.

Nearly ten years later and although my research interests have broadened, I still like to return to the Gwin book from time to time. There is a danger in over-using a source; you can become too close to them and, to use a term I hate, risk ‘valorising’ your subject. But in this case, the richness of detail in the book, its value for so many areas of Welsh history and its insight into daily life all render it an amazing – but largely unused – resource for Welsh historians.

I am part of the ‘History Research Wales’ network of historians working in Welsh universities, and we’re now into the third series of articles for the Western Mail, my first two concentrating on medicine in Wales. For this series, ‘Iconic places in Welsh history’ I thought I’d do something different. My iconic place was Llangwm – home of a certain Monmouthshire yeoman. One day I might get around to doing something more definite with the book; maybe an edited edition. But for now it was nice to revisit the book and use it for something wider than medicine. Here’s a link to the article.

http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/welsh-history/articles/2012/03/30/welsh-history-month-llangwm-uchaf-in-monmouthshire-91466-30658342/