The Hand of History: Hands, fingers and nails in the eighteenth century

Firstly, apologies for the hiatus from the blog; it’s proving to be a busy summer, and this is my first post as a BBC/AHRC ‘New Generation Thinker’ – no pressure then!

I’ve now started work on my second book, which relates to the history of technologies of the body in the eighteenth century. The book will look at the ways in which people increasingly used objects to fashion their bodies, and the relationship between these objects and new materials, such as steel. There are chapters, for example, on razors, spectacles, rupture trusses and bodily ‘ephemera’.

As I’ve been building up my secondary reading on eighteenth-century views of the body, it occurred to me that very little work has been done on the history of the hands. Lots of articles refer to hands as metaphors or explore, for example, the importance of hands in manufacturing. But far less attention has been paid to the aesthetics of the hand. This is surprising because, in many ways, the hands were both literally and symbolically important in the enlightenment.

Baptista - Hand

In the second half of the eighteenth century, the body became more ‘polite’. It was important for people to look a certain way; to dress in particular clothes certainly, but also to try and achieve an ideal body shape. Any sort of bodily deformity or deficiency was socially undesirable and carried connotations of immorality or low status. An increasing range of corrective products was being manufactured and marketed for people desirous of a socially pleasing form.

An important component of the ‘polite body’ was the hand. Nicholas Andry was one of the first to define the ideal hand, in his famous work Orthopaedia. Andry dedicated long passages of his book to defining the perfect shape for various limbs. One section, for example, was titled ‘What shape the ARMS, HANDS, FINGERS and NAILS ought to have to appear handsome’. For Andry, hands should be ‘well-shaped…delicate, pretty long and not square’. Some hands, he argued, looked like ‘shoulders of mutton on account of their breadth and length’. Whilst useful for catching things they were, he reasoned, the worst shaped.

Andry

The hand should be covered with a ‘fine smooth skin…and the fingers should have an Air of Freedom and Mobility’, and be long and fleshy. The knuckles should leave small dimples when the fingers are extended. A long section was dedicated to the perfect proportions of the fingers. The index finger, when stretched out, for example, should end precisely at the root of the nail of the middle finger. All this was important, argued Andry, since the hands were the ‘Principal Organs of Touch’. In an age that privileged the senses above all things, this was a vital point.

Books instructing artists on the correct proportions of the hands were also appearing in an age where painters like Joshua Reynolds were busily establishing rules of composition and ideals of appearance. A white, smooth and delicate hand bespoke refined living and sound attention towards personal grooming. A rough, calloused hand was the domain of the manual worker. We can only imagine the thinly-disguised distaste at taking the hand of a lady at a society ball, only to find rough nails, warts and ‘onions’. It sounds frivolous, but was actually a very serious matter.

The importance of the hands is reinforced in other ways, not least in the increasing marketing of products for hand and nail care. From around 1750, for example, a range of practitioners began to specialise in hand and nail care, and advertised their services. In the seventeenth century and before, corns, callouses, warts and ingrown toenails were dealt with by so-called ‘corn cutters’. A range of techniques might be used, from incising the offending callouses off, to attempting to treat with various creams or pastes. By the later 18th century, however, the first ‘chiropodists’ were beginning to appear.

the-corn-doctor-1793

One of the most prominent was D. Low of London, chiropodist and author of his own book on the treatment of ‘Corns, Onions, Callosities and Warts’. Low offered a range of services to the paying public, claiming that his ‘process is safe and easy, without the least unpleasing sensation or danger’. It had, he argued, been met with universal approbation. A number of other specialists quickly jumped on the bandwagon. J. Frankel of Germany arrived in high feather from Germany and ‘acquainted the nobility, gentry and others’ that he was ready to serve them. He was keen to stress that he was ‘Famous for cutting nails…without the least pain or drawing blood’.

Medical self-help books were full of recipes to beautify the hands and preserve their delicate appearance. Works such as Amelia Chambers’ 1775 The Ladies Best Companion contained a number of recipes such as beatifying waters, containing a range of ingredients from white wine to lemons, leeks and lillies, which softened the skin of both face and hands. The exotically-named Toilet of Flora, published in 1775, contained a similar range of preparations from ‘Venice toilet water’ to a beautifying wash, and a paste to remove freckles from the skin. Ready-made potions such as ‘Dr Solomon’s Balsamic Corn Extract’ promised to remove callouses and warts without the need for cutting, and were available for a shilling or two per box.

Dr Solomon

As ‘principle organs of touch’ the hands were important in the eighteenth century. Those able to afford to do so lavished much expense and attention upon them, at least. How the lower orders cared for their hands, if they did at all, is far more difficult to recover, but the ready presence of beauty washes in remedy collections, and the lively culture of sharing medical recipes, hints that people, perhaps especially women, paid attention to them. More work needs to be done to tease out the hidden meanings of the body, and the types of materials, goods and processes involved in bodily self-fashioning. I’m certainly on the case….and I feel the hand of history on my shoulder.

Sorry. I’ll get my coat.

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)

“By the King’s Special Grant”: A Venetian Quack in Early Modern Britain

Among the most colourful characters in early modern medicine were the ranks of medical mountebanks and quacks that traversed the country selling all manner of dubious pills, potions and preparations. A vast range of medical substances were available with everything from the ‘Catholick Pill’ to the ‘Hercolean Antidote’ offering frightened (and gullible) patients a chance to escape the heavy burden of their conditions. The subject of quacks has been well covered over the years – perhaps most famously by the late Roy Porter – and quack remedies are always appealing to a popular audience. There is perhaps something within us that sympathises with the sheer cheek of these characters, even though we might question their motives as well as their remedies.

The Quack

It was common for quacks to move around; in fact it was common sense. Once people realised that they had been duped it was probably not a good idea to hang around. Robert Bulkeley of Dronwy in Anglesey encountered one such figure on the road in the early seventeenth century. Bulkeley was suffering from toothache and a ‘mountebank’ offered to cure it for a penny. Unsurprisingly, two days later Bulkeley was a penny down but still had the toothache. But some ‘medical entrepreneurs’ travelled further than most. On occasion, foreign characters visited British shores, carrying with them a whiff of exoticism and something different to the travelling tinker’s pack. Some even achieved some measure of fame and renown as they moved around. One such was Vincent Lancelles, reputed to be Venetian, who appeared in Britain in the mid seventeenth century.

Mountebank of Old London

We know something about Lancelles from the flyer that he sent around to advertise his current or future presence. It was nothing if not confident:

“By the King’s Grant and Speciall Approbation, be it knowne that there is arrived in this towne M. Vincent Lancelles, Physician and Chyrurgeon, Spagyrique and a very expert operator, and one of the King’s most excellent Majesties Servants, and approved by the Colledge of Physicians of London, and by His Majesties Physitians in ordinary…”

Perhaps he had seen the King. Perhaps all the doctors of England did indeed laud him for his skill. Perhaps the august College of Physicians were falling over themselves trying to add him to their members. Perhaps.

The flyer then went on to list over 100 maladies that Lancelles unselfconsciously claimed to have mastered. These included epilepsy, melancholy, ‘hydropsie’, ulcers of the lungs, heate of the liver, flux, paine of the kidneys, cholick, worms…the list went on. And on. In addition to ailments he could also ‘helpe the blinde’, perfectly draw teeth and make hair grow again. Faced with such expertise, who would not want to flock to see Signor Lancelles?

John-Taylor-the-Water-Poet

In the mid seventeenth century Lancelles begins to be mentioned in various sources around the country. In 1652 he was in Chester. We know this because the so-called ‘Water Poet’, John Taylor was also there whilst on one of his many perambulations around the country. Whilst lodging at the Feathers in Watergate Street, Taylor “met with two brothers of mine acquaintance thirty years, they brought me to the chamber of a reverend Italian physician, named Vincent Lancelles, he was more than 80 years of age, yet of a very able body,and vigorous constitution”. Taylor was clearly impressed by the old man:

He helped such as were grieved for three several considerations —

First, He cured the rich, for as much as he
could get.

Secondly, He healed the meaner sort for what
they could spare, or were willing to part withal.

Thirdly, He cured the poor for God’s sake, and gave them money and other relief, as I myself (with thankful experience) must ever acknowledge : For he looked upon my lame leg, and applied such medicine, as did not only ease me, but I am in hope will cure me, the grief being nothing but a blast of lightning and thunder, or planet stroke, which I received nine years past at Oxford.”

It is clear that Lancelles was either in Britain for some considerable length of time, or alternatively left and came back. In either case he can be placed at Oxford in 1652 before seemingly moving north later on, making his way to Ashbourne in Derbyshire and Wrexham. It was there that an unfortunate incident probably brought him to the attention of the diarist Philip Henry.

200px-Philip_Henry_(1631–1696)

In June 1663 Henry wrote an entry in his diary: “This week dyed in Chester a servant to an Italian Mountebank known by the name of his Apothecary, who received some blows about 3 weekes since upon ye stage in Wrexham, in a scuffle with Mr Puleston of Emeral”. In the entry the mysterious Italian is referred to as Giovanni, but the balance of probability points to Lancelles. And what of his servant, killed in a scuffle with the over-excited crowd?
Perhaps the incident was too much for Vincent who, if it is the same man, would be in his 90s by then! Whatever the reason, this is possibly the last reference to the enigmatic Italian mountebank.

Early modern Britain was replete with medical practitioners of many different qualifications, motivations and skills. All appealed to a common human trait, that of trying to rid the body of ailments and restore balance and health. They are some of the most fascinating body of historical actors that you could hope to find.

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.

Sit up Straight! Bad posture and the ‘Neck Swing’ in the 18th century.

Posture is a problematic issue for medicine. Having established a link between ‘bad’ posture and all manner of conditions, from spinal curvature and back pain to nerve damage and headaches, slouching is high on the government’s hit list. Why? Let’s be clear about it, back pain is as much an economic issue as a medical one. While clearly there are many causes for back pain, the BBC recently calculated that it costs the NHS over £1.3 million every day. Add to that the costs to businesses of lost working time and it is painful to the economy as well as the body. It is no coincidence that the NHS website has a number of micro-sites dedicated to suggestions for improving the way we sit and stand.

Posture chart

All manner of devices can be bought with the aim of straightening us up. Leaf through the pages of those glossy little free catalogues that often appear in the post (the ones which routinely have walk-in baths, shooting sticks and things for kneeling on in the garden…you get the picture?) and you’ll notice a panoply of postural devices. There are corsets to force you back into position, as well as all manner of back braces to pull your shoulders back. You can buy cushions for your favourite chair that encourage you to sit in a ‘better’ (for which read less comfortable!) way, as well as special chairs that encourage you to kneel. Even, recently, desks that you stand at, instead of slumping in front of the PC screen. All tested. All clinically proven. All, usually, very expensive. Someone is making money off our drooping shoulders and crooked spines.

But devices to make us sit or stand ‘straight’ are certainly nothing new. As we’ll see, the Stuarts and Georgians got there first with a variety of more or less painful solutions. What have changed are attitudes towards posture. For the Georgians, posture was partly medical, certainly, but perhaps more of a social and cultural issue. Put another way, the ‘polite’ body stood straight and tall; to hunch over was unnatural and uncouth.

In the eighteenth century, the ideal body was straight and well proportioned. But even a cursory glance around the inhabitants of a Georgian town would confirm that many – perhaps the majority – were very far from this ideal. Vitamin deficiency caused by poor diet stunted growth, while a variety of diseases experienced through life could leave their mark. Accidents and bone-breakages might be cursorily treated, but a broken leg could easily leave a person with a limp. Also, many conditions, which today are easily treatable, were then left to run rampant through the body. All this meant that the ‘standard’ Georgian body was often far from the ideal.

It would be easy to assume that people simply accepted their lot and got on with their lives. Doubtless many did. But the eighteenth century also witnessed an increasing willingness to shape the body to try and bring it more in line with this elusive ideal. In 1741, Nicholas Andry published his famous ‘orthopedia’, in which he likened the human body to a tree, which needed support as it grew and, later, as it declined. His famous image of the so-called ‘Tree of Andry’ illustrates this well.

The eighteenth century was a golden age of corrective devices. Just like today you could buy a vast number of corsets and stays, which aimed not only to correct medical deformities, like ruptures, but to help women to try and meet the most fashionable body shape, of a miniscule waist and broad bust. The experience of wearing some of these devices must have been at best uncomfortable and, at worst, excruciating.

There were, for example, steel ‘backs’ – large plates of metal inserted and lashed inside the back of the wearer’s clothing, which ‘encouraged’ them to stop slouching. Metal ‘stays’ gave the illusion of a harmonious form while simultaneously forcing the sufferer’s body back into a ‘natural’ shape. Here’s a typical advert from an eighteenth-century newspaper showing the range of available goods:

“London Daily Post and General Advertiser, February 16th, 1739
‘This is to give NOTICE
THAT the Widow of SAMUEL JOHNSON, late of Little Britain, Near West Smithfield, London, carries on the Business of making Steel Springs, and all other Kinds of Trusses, Collars, Neck Swings, Steel-Bodice, polish’d Steel-Backs, with various Instruments for the Lame, Weak or Crooked.
N.B. She attends the Female Sex herself”

Perhaps some of the most uncomfortable devices were those to correct deformities of the neck. For both sexes, having a straight neck was extremely desirable. For men, keeping the chin up was a sign of masculine strength, poise and posture. Those who slouched were mumbling weaklings, destined never to get on in business or the social sphere. The allure of the soft female neck, by contrast, lay in its swan-like grace; a crooked neck ruined the allusion of femininity and threatened the chances of a good match.

Sheldrake illustration

Many makers supplied products to help sufferers of neck problems. Metal collars, hidden under clothing, forced the chin up. If it sagged, it would rest on an uncomfortably hard metallic edge. Perhaps the most extreme of these devices, however, was the ‘neck-swing’ supposedly introduced into England from France by one ‘Monsieur Le Vacher’. This heavy apparatus fitted around, and supported, the wearer’s head and neck, after which they were suspended, feet off the ground, in an effort to elongate the spine and promote a straighter back. We have one unique testimony of someone who tried it. She described how, every morning, she was: “suspended in a neck- swing, which is merely a tackle and pulley fixed to the ceiling of the room; the pulley is hooked to the head-piece of the collar, and the whole person raised so that the toes only touch the ground”. In this awkward position she remained, sometimes for long periods of time.

There seemed to be something of a vogue for postural devices in the eighteenth century, to the extent that they even entered popular culture. In the anonymous Village Memoirs: In a Series of Letters Between a Clergyman and his Family in the Country, and his Son in Town, the titular clergyman noted the vagaries of bodily fashions: “To remedy the ill effects of a Straight line, an uniform curve is now adopted – but alteration is not always improvement – and it reminds me of the conduct of the matron, who, to prevent her daughter from dropping her chin into her bosom, threw it up into the air by the aid of a steel collar – Hogarth’s Analysis has as yet been read to very little purpose’

It is therefore interesting to note how the dialogue of posture has changed over time. Georgian postural devices sought to return the body to a state of nature, or meet an ideal of appearance. While they certainly encouraged the returning of sufferers to productivity, this was less important than creating the impression of a harmonious whole. Today it might be argued to be the other way around. While cosmetic appearance is undoubtedly important, the emphasis is firmly upon health and minimizing the pressure on a creaking health servce. Our impressions of the body rarely remain static. How will the bodily ‘ideal’ translate itself in future?

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!