Fowl Medicine: The early modern ‘pigeon cure’

In October 1663 news spread around London that Queen Catherine was gravely ill. Fussed over by a gaggle of physicians and priests, things got so bad that Her Majesty was even given extreme unction in the expectation that she might not pull through. In an effort to turn things around, as Samuel Pepys noted in his diary on the 19th October, “pigeons were put to her feet”. In another diary entry in 1667, Pepys recorded visiting the dying husband of Kate Joyce who was in his sick bed, his breath rattling in his throat. Despairing (for good reason) for his life his family “did lay pigeons to his feet while I was in the house”.

Samuel_Pepys

(Image from Wikipedia)

Pigeons? Laid to the feet? Was Pepys mistaken, or was there a misunderstanding of his complicated shorthand? Actually, pigeons were a surprisingly common ‘ingredient’ in medicine and were even recommended for various conditions in the official pharmacopoeia (catalogue) of sanctioned remedies. But what were they used for, and how?

Remedies for the treatment of the plague certainly called for the use of pigeons. No less a publication than the London Pharmocopoeia issued by the College of Physicians in 1618, contained a remedy for the plague which involved pulling off the feathers of living pigeons, holding their bills shut and holding the bare patch to the plague sore “until they die and by this means draw out the poison”.

William Kemp’s 1665 ‘Brief Treatise of the Nature and Cure of the Pestilence’ noted that some writers advised cutting a pigeon open, and applying it (still hot) to the spine of a person afflicted with melancholy, or to a person of weak intellect. The English Huswife of 1615 advised those infected with the plague to try applying hot bricks to the feet and, if this didn’t work, “a live pidgeon cut in two parts”. Even the by-products of pigeons could come in useful. Physicians treating the ailing Charles II applied a plaster to his feet containing pigeon dung.

672px-Dodelycke_Uytgang_van_Syn_Hoogheyt_Fred._Hendrik_Prince_van_Oranje_etc._Anno_1647

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Several sources suggest that the ‘pigeon cure’ was often a remedy of last resort. Writing of the last illness of her father in 1707 (dying of a “broken heart, which the physicians called a feaver”, Alice Thornton reported that, just before his death, pigeons were cut and laid to the soles of his feet. Seeing this her father smiled and said “Are you come to the last remedy? But I shall prevent your skill”. The diarist John Evelyn, in the ‘Life of Mrs Godolphin’ noted that ‘Neither the cupping, nor the pidgeons, those last of remedyes [my emphasis], wrought any effect’.

The ‘cure’ was evidently so popular that it made its way into popular culture, such as in Webster’s ‘Duchess of Malfi’. Speaking to the ‘Old Lady’, the character Bosola says that he would “sooner eate a dead pidgeon, taken from the soles of the feete of one sicke of the plague, than kiss one of you fasting”.

What were the perceived medical benefits of the pigeon and its various products? Some prominent physicians had plenty to say on the matter. William Salmon’s Pharmacopoeia Londonensis, Or the New London Dispensatory in 1716, (p. 200) held that “cut in the middle and laid to the feet, [pigeons] abate the heat of burning fevers, though malignant, and so laid to the Head, takes away Headaches, Frenzy, Melancholy and Madness. On the matter of pigeon dung, Dr Alleyne’s Dispensatory of 1733 stated that “we may judge of the nature of this [dung] from that of the birds…consists of subtle hot parts, which open the pores where it is applied, and by rarifying and expanding them, occasion a greater flux of fluid that way”. In other words the hot dung caused the body to open its pores and expel the bad humours causing the illness.

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Saint Gregory (and a pigeon!) – image from Wikimedia Commons

The particular significance of the pigeon is interesting too. One hint is given by the apparently strong connections in folklore between the pigeon and death, ranging from the belief that pigeons flying near a person – or indeed landing on their chimney – were supposed to indicate approaching death, to the “common superstition” (recorded in 1890) that no one can die happy on a bed of pigeon’s feathers. The symbolic power of the pigeon may therefore have been applied in reverse. Killing the bird perhaps imparted its vital power onto the dying person. Beliefs in the power of ‘anima’ – the vital life spirit – being able to be transferred from animals to humans were common in the early modern period.

If some of this seems like it belongs firmly to the 17th century, it is worth mentioning that the ‘pigeon cure’ was still apparently in use in Europe in the 20th century. A fleeting and poignant reference in Notes and Queries refers to a woman in Deptford in 1900, who unsuccessfully attempted to use the cure on her infant son when the medical attendant pronounced that there was no hope for him. He died shortly afterwards of pneumonia.

An article in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1900, though, reported that a Paris physician was casually told by one of his patients that she had “tried the pigeon cure for meningitis”, with some success. The physician, one Dr Legue, expressed his ignorance of the cure, and the patient described it to him.

“The head of the patient to be treated is shaved, and then the breast of the (freshly-killed) pigeon is ripped open by the operator, and the warm and bleeding carcass immediately applied to the bared skull”.

More than this, Dr Legue apparently discovered a shop in the city’s Central Market, where a Madame Michel ran a shop selling nothing but live pigeons, specifically for the purpose of the cure. On interviewing Madam Michel, the good doctor ascertained that she was on the point of retirement after making a “small fortune” from her business, since “the pigeon cure is considered a sovereign remedy for Influenza”, and she had been struggling to keep up with demand. The term ‘sovereign remedy’ takes us straight back to the 17th century but, before the article finished, Madam Michel mentioned one last use for the pigeons. In the case of Typhoid fever, she suggested, two pigeons were necessary. And they should be tied to the soles of the feet.

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(Wikimedia Commons)

As uncomfortable as they might sometimes appear to our eyes, early modern medicine involved all manner of plants, animals and substances, alive or dead. Rather than viewing them as ‘weird’, people at the time saw them as valuable ingredients, often with special properties, which they could use to help them in the fight against disease.

Nendick’s Pill: Selling Medicine in Rural Britain

17th Century quack

(Anon, ‘Quacksalber’ – image from Wikimedia Commons)

Even as late as the 1970s it was largely assumed that people in rural England and Wales had little contact with medical practitioners or medicines for sale. As such, they were portrayed as being reliant upon ‘irregular’ practitioners such as charmers and cunning folk, and forced to make their own ineffectual medicines from the plants, animals and substances around them.

Recent work, however, has done much to explode this notion, showing instead that people in rural Britain were actually surrounded by medical practitioners of various kinds (see my previous blog post on the subject here) and could buy a variety of ingredients from apothecary shops which, if not on their doorstep, could be found in market towns nearby. Little work has yet been done, however, on the rural medical marketplace.

When I was writing my book on medicine in seventeenth-century Wales (a rural area if ever there was one!) I wanted to look at medicines for sale, and medicines advertised. In seventeenth-century London medical advertising proliferated. All manner of medical entrepreneurs took advantage of cheap print to peddle their wares to sickly Londoners, deploying tactics still familiar to advertisers today.

But how did this process work in areas far outside London? Did medical practitioners, and sellers of proprietary (ready-made) remedies even bother with the provinces? In fact, as I discovered for Wales, adverts for medicines reached far across the country, and remedy sellers and makers took advantage of local contacts to market their products.

A useful case in point is that of ‘Nendick’s Popular Pill’. Nendick was a London practitioner, described across various sources as a doctor, barber-surgeon, surgeon and ‘empiric’. He was based at the White Ball Inn, near to St Paul’s Churchyard. (For anyone interested in unusual wills, his final testament -National Archives PROB 11/496 – was virtually a mini theological treatise, on which he set forth his somewhat idiosyncratic views on the last judgement and resurrection, influenced by his work on chemical medicines.)

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(Image from Google Books)

Nendick published various books in his lifetime, but these were usually dedicated to promoting his ‘miraculous’ cure-all pills. In 1677, for example, he published ‘A Book of Directions and Cures done by that Safe and Successful Medicine called ‘Nendick’s Popular Pill. Although it claimed special dominion in the cure of scurvy, the book claimed that the pill cured everything from wind and cold to headaches and pimples, ‘cleansing the blood and purging gently by urine and stool’.

In line with the standard form of medical advertising for the time, the pamphlet gave detailed directions for use, a long list of claims for efficacy, and the place in London from where it could be purchased, along with warnings to customers to beware of fake pills! Perhaps more interesting, however, the pamphlet also gave a long list of sellers in towns around Britain, and even Ireland, from whom the pills could be bought. Nendick had managed to establish a network of agents around the country. These naturally included large towns like Bristol, Dartford, Plymouth and Ipswich but also much smaller market towns like Ledbury, Tenby and Kington in Somerset. Given the logistical difficulties of locating potential sellers, and maintaining supply and payment, this was an impressive undertaking.

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(Image from Google Books)

Looking down the list also tells us something about the sorts of places that might sell medical remedies. Some were medical practitioners. Mr Mainstone in Monmouth was a barber surgeon; Mr Betts in Guildford, Mr Ady in Chipping Sodbury and Mr Penny in Braton were barbers, and often interchangeable with medical services. Mercers, like Mr Northcote in Plymouth, and Mr Button in Taunton, often combined their trade with that of an apothecary, and so were common suppliers of medicines. But the connection with others was less clear. What of Mr Hill of Ryegate, the shoemaker, or Mr Lunt in Ledbury, a bookseller? The pill could also be found at a distiller’s, a coffee house and an inn.

But what if people wanted to buy pills and were not near enough to one of the warranted sellers to make the journey? Nendick had this covered. For three shillings a box of thirty pills could be dispatched by post, or would happily be provided to a messenger sent by a potential customer. Medicine by post was actually fairly common in the early modern period; it was even possible to send a flask of urine to a physician to be tested if a personal consultation was not possible. The state of the bottled piss by the time it had made the journey by coach of perhaps a day or two can only be guessed at!

Another clever device used by Nendick (and others) was to use testimony from local people to assure them that this ‘foreign’ pill could work for them. Examples from Wales are a case in point.

‘A poor Woman came from Kilgarren in Wales to lie in Cardigan, to get Cure of a sore Distemper, but to compleat her misery, she was left penniless, and uncured; yet by a Box of my Pills, which were given her by Mr. Griffith in Cardigan, she was Cured; they did expel wind, brought away store of Gravel, Water, and Blood, and she returned home well, that in three years before had not had the right benefit of Nature, much more might be said…’

Whereas poor Mr Whetnal of Presteigne, a gunsmith, could scarcely sit upright, much less leave his house before sending for Nendick’s products, a few pills later and he ‘now rode about the countrey’ through the miraculous power of the pill.

It was not only Nendick who employed this tactic. ‘Dr Salmon’s Pills…so famously known throughout England’ could be found everywhere from a Monmouth apothecary to a Gloucester bookseller as could ‘Dr. Stoughton’s Elixir Magnum Stomachicum, Or, the Great Cordial Elixir’, made by the Surrey apothecary Richard Stoughton and ‘Bromfield’s Pills’.

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(Image from the Anderson-Harvard Theological Library http://hdslibrary.tumblr.com/post/123373454944/who-knew-we-had-a-pamphlet-on-scurvy-spoiler)

Sometimes, though, the relationship could go wrong, as it did with Charles Taylor of the Kings Arms in Monmouth. Taylor was an agent for Anthony Daffy’s famous ‘Daffy’s Elixir’, a cure-all popular from the late seventeenth century. It seems that Taylor enthusiastically ordered a large stock of elixir to sell to his eager Welsh customers, but proved less enthusiastic in paying for them, leading to a lawsuit!

What these advertisements show, though, is that London medicines could be bought all across the country, in large and small towns alike. People from rural areas had ready access to them and, importantly, from local shopkeepers that they knew. The fact that they could read testimonials by locals – perhaps even neighbours – reinforced the safety and efficacy of the remedy. Also even if they could not get to town they even had the option to send for the pills by post. All of this reminds us that people in the past were by no means as cut off from medical provision as they were traditionally portrayed to be. Like us, they had access to a variety of medical goods, services and choices.

**(The full academic article I wrote on this topic in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine is available free on Open Access here)**

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.

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“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.

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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.

‘Worems in the teeth’: Toothache, dentistry and remedies in the early modern period.

According to an article on the BBC Website today, dentists are now beginning to think that drill-free dentistry may soon be possible. Emerging technology will use electricity to force minerals into enamel and encourage the tooth to repair itself. Eventually teeth may even be able to regrow. For the thousands of people with a genuine fear of visiting the dentist, this would be a welcome development.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-27866399

The poor quality of people’s teeth in the past has long been acknowledged. In the seventeenth century, mouths full of blackened, rotting stumps would not be uncommon. As sugar became more common in the eighteenth century, dental decay became even more problematic, especially amongst the well to do. There is a good reason why people in portraiture do not often display a toothy grin; in many cases their teeth would have looked like a row of condemned houses! Here’s Jean-Etienne Liotard’s engagingly honest self-portrait!

Jean Etienne Liotard self portrait

Tooth care was rudimentary and a range of medical interventions existed to try and soothe smarting teeth. In the seventeenth century, it was widely believed that toothache was the result of worms in the teeth. In fact, a condition called ‘teeth’ was a recognised medical affliction and was regularly quoted as a cause of death in the Bills of Mortality. Sometimes they were as high as the fifth or sixth highest cause of death!

As with many aspects of early modern medicine, prevention was better than cure, and a range of techniques were used to keep teeth clean. One method to whiten teeth was to make a mixture of vinegar, honey and salt, add it to a cloth and rub vigorously…but not enough to make the gums bleed. For daily maintenance things like rubbing the teeth with tree bark or chewing herbs such as parsley offered ways to get problematic bits out of the teeth, or to sweeten the breath. The toothbrush did not appear until the end of the eighteenth century in Britain, being an imported fad from France. People were thus forced to use other means.

Once toothache had taken hold, a large body of remedies existed to try and relieve the pain. The popular author Gervase Markham recommended taking daisy roots, stamping them in a cloth before adding salt and liquid, putting this into a quill and ‘snuff it up into your nose’.

Remedies for toothache seem to have attracted some fairly dangerous substances. Mrs Corlyon, author of a domestic remedy collection dating from 1606 advocated boiling sliced henbane roots in vinegar, then heating the roots from underneath to cook away most of the moisture, before holding one of the slices between the teeth until the remaining liquid dripped onto it. Henbane, also known as ‘Stinking Nightshade’ is poisonous and can cause hallucination and some severe psychoactive effects!.

tooth drawer

Another remedy, this time from the commonplace book of a Welsh gentleman, Phillip Howell of Brecon, c. 1633, appears even more risky. His remedy involved taking 3 drams of mercury, grinding it on a stone and putting it into a glass bottle. The patient then needed to drop some of the mercury ‘granules’ into the afflicted teeth 3 times a day over two or three days ‘and it will kill the worm and the tooth ache and never troble you ageine’. The patient should take care, cautioned Howell, not to swallow any of it, but spit it out. An early mercury filling…but potentially offering bigger problems than the toothache.

As is also common, remedies did not necessarily have to be applied to the body part afflicted. One recipe for toothache involved putting some ‘Burgamy pitch’ onto leather, sprinkling some nutmeg over it and then applying it to the soles of the feet.

If you had loose teeth and wanted them to stay in your mouth, then Markham suggested first letting some blood through the gums, before taking hartshorn or ivory and red pimpernel (a type of the herb saxifrage), bruising them together in a linen cloth and then laying the cloth to the teeth, promising that this would ‘fasten the teeth’. He neglected the rather vital instruction of how long the patient should do this for however!

Removing teeth was obviously problematic…and painful. Recognising this, some medical writers turned to medical preparations to loosen teeth without the need to forcibly pull them. ‘To Draw Teeth Without Iron: Take some of the green of the elder tree, or the apples of oak trees and with either of these rub the teeth and gums and it will loosen them so as you may take them out’.

If the worst came to the worst though, a range of practitioners were ready, willing and able to pull the offending tooth out. Whist there were no specific dentists, specialist tooth-drawers were often on hand to do the job. Some advertised their services, emphasising their skill in removing teeth without pain. In the 1760s, R. Maggerrus advertised his services in the Public Advertiser as an ‘Operator for the Teeth’ having an ‘infallible method’ and ‘cureing the poor gratis’.

But there were other less obvious candidates. Blacksmiths often ran a lucrative sideline in tooth-removal; they had the upper body strength to pull the offending tooth out, together with the metal instruments to deal with any stubborn ones. Travelling mountebanks criss-crossed the country offering to cure symptoms. Robert Bulkley, a 17th-century Anglesey diarist, noted that he had paid one such figure a penny to cure his toothache. Two days later the mountebank was long gone, but Bulkeley still had his toothache.

Tooth extractor

Perhaps the day of the ‘regrowing tooth’ is not far away and, for many, this will be a relief. Next time you grin for the camera, though, spare a thought for our ancestors…and offer up a silent prayer that you live in an age of relatively pain-free dentistry!

“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.

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.

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!

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!