“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.

The English Priest’s Powder: A 17th-century quack doctor’s advertisement

The marketing strategies of 17th and 18th-century quack doctors are now familiar territory. As Roy Porter’s outstanding book Quacks did so well to bring alive, early modern Britain was a vibrant medical market, a panoply of colourful characters and dubious remedies. They were, to use Porter’s phrase, “a ragtag and bobtail army of quacks”.

Taking advantage of the newly-available cheap print, quack doctors produced reams of advertisements to peddle their wares. Ranging from brief, straight to the point details to more sophisticated means of selling, quack doctors were often skilled wordsmiths; in many ways they needed to do something to stand out from the crowd. With so many different medicines and vendors jockeying for position, they needed to be innovative. This might include elaborate descriptions of the virtues of their medicine. They often included testimonials from those who, they claimed, recovered through the use of their pill or potion. They might use imagery to embellish their advertisements. Occasionally, though, some particularly innovative strategies can be found. One of my favourite is the clever tool of selling without appearing to sell. One of the ways this was done was by disguising the advertisement in the form of a book. A case in point is the engagingly titled Riddles mervels and rarities: or, A new way of health, from an old man’s experience, published in 1698 by Thomas Mace.

Title page from 'Riddles and Mervels' - availble on EEBO (copyright)
Title page from ‘Riddles and Mervels’ – availble on EEBO (copyright)

At first glance this appears to be a typical ‘self-help’ book, a genre popular in the period. In his opening preamble, Mace sets out his philosophy that age and experience are better than any university-trained, licensed physician. Anticipating howls of derision from the faculty, Mace acknowledged that “I am no physician either by education, graduation, licence or practice’. And yet, he argued, a man like himself of 80 years knew his own body better than any young man of 20 or 30 who had merely spent 5 years reading books in a university. Compelling stuff!

The first hint that all might not be as it first seems occurs early on with the inclusion of the following:

“TO Prevent all Frauds, know, That This Rare Power, known by the Name of the English PRIEST’S-POWDER, is to be had No where but at These few Places Following, viz. By the Author (Tho|mas Mace) at his House in St. Peter’s Parish in Cam|bridge, near the Castle; And at Mr. Daniel Peachcy’s in St. Buttolphs Parish there: And in London, by Mr. Adam Mason at his House in Old Bedlam near Bishops|gate; And by Mr. William Pearson, Printer, at the third Door in Hare Court in Aldersgate-street near the Meet|ing House; And by Mr. John Vaughan, Milliner, at his House in Grivil-street near Hatton Garden; and by Mr. Will. Benson in the Old Baily”

Indeed, advertisements in ‘proper’ books were not unusual, but the alert reader will no doubt note the name of the creator and seller of the powder…one Thomas Mace – the man who claims to be no physician. Disguised within an ‘explication of the title page’, the sell goes on…

Universall-Physical-Me|dicine, for all sorts of Constitutions, and all sorts of Maladies, Sicknesses, and Diseases, is a Chymical Prepar’d Powder which for some late years past I have Publish’d in the Name of the English PRIE                         T’S POWDER, and which it self is never to be Taken, either Inwardly (as Physick) nor Ap|plyed Outwardly to any Wound, Sore Scab, Bruise, Swelling, Pains, Aches, Head-Ach Rheumetick-Sore-Eyes, &c. All which, and many more, tis most Ad|mirably good for.) I say, it is never (it self) to be us’d or Apply’d (as Me|dicine) But (only) a lycture, which It sends forth, into some Certain Li|quors; into which it is to be Infus’d, for some certain Hours: And Those Li|quors, (Retaining its Virtue) are only to be us’d; And (as Physick) are to be taken, into the Body, in the way of Potion; […]ther for Vomit, Purge, Glister, or Sweat; But in the way of Chirurgery, are only Outwardly Applyed, by Washings or Bathings &c.

As the book progresses, it seems to revert to the ‘every man his own physician’ style. Mace assured the reader that his intentions were honourable and that he only wished to “Accommodate the Meaner sort of Men; but more especially the Poorest of all, who stand most in Need of Help and Comfort in their Sicknesses, seeing no Great and Skillfull-Physicians, will so much as look after Them, or scarce think of their Miseries; so that many Thousands live in Misery; Languish and Dye, for want of That which every ordinary House keeper might Easily Purchase, and not only have the Benefit of it for himself and his whole Family, during his Life, in all common Sicknesses, and Disea|ses, but might also be assisting to all his Poor Sick Neighbours round Him”

There follows a discourse on the Philosopher’s stone, including several pages of what can only be described as vernacular poetry. A short stanza should suffice:

MUch Talk has been of The Philosophers-Stone,
From Ages past; That by its livge alone,
‘Twould turn Inferiour Metals into Gold.
A Glorious Worder sure, if True; but Hold!
Where is’t? Who has’t? we no such Thing can see;
‘Tis surely Folded up in Mystery

There is even a page of music to allow the reader to literally sing the praises of the remedy!

EEBO (Copyright)
EEBO (Copyright)

But the next sections of the book, although clothed in a discussion of the miraculous effects of the philosopher’s stone, are in fact a shining example of pure quack rhetoric. On first glance it seems that Mace is merely reporting the effects of the ‘philosopher’s stone’ on a range of conditions. But, looking more closely, his ‘priest’s powder’ has been cunningly woven into the narrative. A clue comes in the title to his first section – “The admired use of this powder (or stone)”…which one is more prominent?!

The real clincher comes in the “Eight eminent stories” of the power of the “powder (and stone)”.  Ranging from the dying man who could not sit upright but recovered almost as soon as he had taken the powder, to the cured leper, to the woman suffering from yellow jaundice, whose “foul, corrupt stomach” was poisoning her food, all were miraculously brought to recovery not only by the mysterious priest’s powder but by the personal intervention of the ubiquitous Thomas Mace…who, as he was no physician but knew his own body, clearly just happened to be passing!

This was selling by not selling. The reader, perhaps expecting a list of cures and remedies for all ailments, and lulled by the promise of being able to cure themselves of all maladies without the need for physicians, surgeons or apothecaries, was instead subject to stealth marketing. Mace provided everything about his powder, including where to buy it and how to use it, but disguised it in a discussion of the ‘Philosopher’s stone’ to try and locate his ‘Riddles and Mervels’ as a scientific discourse. Clearly this was an advertisement, but it shows the innovation of medical retailers, and the lengths to which they went to sell their goods. Little is known about Mace. By his own admission he was an old man, but was he someone with a genuine concern for his fellow man, or just another medical entrepreneur, out to make a fast buck. You decide.

Appreciating the doctor in early modern Britain!

What was the position of the practitioner within the seventeenth-century community?  How did people regard both them and the services they provided? It has often been said that doctors were unpopular. It was, after all, the local doctor’s prescriptions that commonly made you either violently sick, gave you diarrhoea or otherwise left you similarly disadvantaged or distressed. ‘Damn the Doctor’ ran the title of one seventeenth-century satire. Advice given to Lord Herbert about his health in 1681 suggested that he “never see a damn’d doctor again as long as ye shall live”. According to the poet Bernard Mandeville, “Physicians value fame and wealth/above the drooping patient’s health”. Were doctors really disliked that much?

L0022226 'The poor doctor and the rich patient. 'You are very ill!'(Courtesy of Wellcome Images)

In fact, there is much evidence to show that people appreciated the services of their local practitioners. This was, remember, a world of sickness. Danger lurked in bad airs, unwholesome environments, noisome streets, unwashed bodies and verminous bedding. It has even been argued that most people felt ill in some way for most of the time.  The local doctor was by no means the answer to all of this; but, (s)he was one weapon in the continuing war waged upon sickness and disease.

It is difficult to access ‘ordinary’ people’s views about practitioners. One way we can do this is through their testimonies in prosecutions, giving a rare chance to hear the actual voices of patients. But, obviously, these only tell us of cases that had gone wrong. Finding testimonies to practitioners who had obviously done well is more challenging. One possible way to do this, though, is through the surviving records of community testimonials to the skills of their local practitioner.

For some doctors, to achieve some level of legitimacy (perhaps more for themselves than their patients) meant obtaining a licence to practice from either the Royal Colleges, the Archbishop of Canterbury or one of the various diocesan bishops. In theory, and indeed in law, all physicians should have obtained a licence, but this was neither practical nor easy to enforce beyond London and its surroundings. Nevertheless, one aspect of applying for a licence was providing some sort of proof of good, charitable or successful practice in a particular neighbourhood.

V0010971 A couple of country folk consulting a decrepit doctor, a ser

(Picture courtesy of Wellcome Images)

When David Davies of Llangurig applied for a licence to practice from the Bishop of Bangor in 1749, no less than three local vicars testified that the “said David Davies is a very usefull person in his neighbourhood, has performed several cures in surgery, and (as far as we are judges) we think him a person worthy to be licens’d”.  (National Library of Wales MS Bangor Episcopal B-SM-2).  The supporters of Richard Davies of Llanynys stressed that he was a “person of good character” and “hath performed several cures in surgery”. (NLW MS Bangor Episcopal B-SM-3). When Benjamin Powell of Brecon applied for a licence in 1708, a list of local parishioners supported his application, stating that he was “a p(er)son who is commendably instructed both in the art of Phisick and Chirurgery and is very much Experienced in both the sayd arts, as being one who hath undergone and p(er)formed severall great and desperate cures”. (NLW, Church in Wales Diocese of Llandaff episcopal 1, MS 1194).

It is worth mentioning too that it was not only men, nor ‘orthodox’ practitioners who could rely upon the support of their communities. In fact, where an unlicensed practitioner faced prosecution, the people of Ledbury in Herefordshire intervened and petitioned the Bishop of Hereford to try and save her from prosecution:

“Sir,

The bearer is an honest poor woman of ye parish of Ledbury, who is as far as we are informed, cited into your court for practising surgery. She sometime ago cured a pauper of our parish who had at that time seven small children of a sore breast, without any prospect of reward; and ye parish, hearing of ye service she had done them, ordered ye overseers of ye poor to give her five shill: wch is ye only act of this nature of we can hear she ever did. This matter being so very malitious, we request the favour she may be discharged. She is very poor therefore we hope it may be with as little expence as possible…” (NLW Bodewryd (2), MS 380)

In terms of financial gain, not all doctors were out to fleece their patients. It was not uncommon for practitioners to tailor their bills towards the financial means of their patients. A poor patient might even be treated free, or for a few pennies; a wealthy yeoman might have to spend a few shillings. Also, the local parish authorities could intervene to either bring a practitioner to attend to a sick parishioner or, alternatively, send a parishioner to a large town to secure the services of a well-known or well-respected doctor.

It is worth mentioning too that early-modern people had perhaps a different level of expectation with regard to what the doctor could do. Today, we go to the doctor and expect to be diagnosed – instantly – and sent on our way with a prescription for a ‘cure’. This worked slightly differently in the seventeenth century. When people went to the doctor, they engaged in a two-way dialogue to agree diagnosis and secure a receipt or preparation. Once this was obtained it is questionable whether the early-modern patient expected to be cured. Rather, they hoped to be cured but, if this didn’t work, there were plenty of other doctors and receipts to try – often gleaned from friends and neighbours. If they did recover, naturally they might attribute that recovery to the doctor and his preparation. This would then be retained for future use as a ‘probatum’ (proven) remedy. In this sense, the doctor might easily escape sanction if his cures failed, as the patient was only using his services as one of a range of options in any case.

Before we write off early-modern practitioners as figures of distrust, dislike or ridicule, it’s worth remembering that they were often valued members of a community whose efforts to help their fellow parishioners were appreciated. Often treating the poor for free, and providing an important source of medical knowledge and goods, they offered some degree of comfort in a world where sickness was ubiquitous.

Norovirus and the reporting of epidemics through history

This winter has already witnessed an unprecedented increase in cases of Norovirus – the so-called ‘winter vomiting bug’. For some reason, across the globe, the infection has spread with increasing virulence and also lingered longer than normal in parts of the world now moving from spring to summer.  Norovirus is an especially durable and adaptable virus. It is perfectly suited to what it does; spreading from person to person either through airborne contact with minute particles of vomit, or through surface contact with the virus…on some surfaces it can last for up to two weeks. Given that I have a pathological phobia of vomiting, this one is the stuff of nightmares!

In Britain, the Health Protection Agency is the public face of public health and is charged with providing a virtual barometer of sickness. Their website contains a list of the current maladies doing the rounds and, in the case of flu and norovirus, weekly updates on the numbers of the stricken. The site also contains tips on how to prevent the spread of the virus and some advice (if little comfort) to those who have already succumbed.

To my mind, the information on the HPA website is extremely reminiscent of the information disseminated to the public in past times of epidemic disease – say the seventeenth-century plagues. It strikes me that authorities throughout history have had to balance the need to provide practical details of encroaching sickness with the need to avoid spreading panic. The language of sickness reporting in fact has a long history, and show remarkably similar patterns.

The reporting of the numbers of sufferers, for example, is something that was certainly an important element in the way the Great Plague of 1665 was reported. In seventeenth-century London, the so-called ‘Bills of Mortality’ gave a weekly update on deaths in the city, in the form of a published pamphlet. Information for these pamphlets was gleaned from the ‘searchers of the dead’ – people (often women) who were employed to examine fresh corpses to discern the cause of their demise. Their diagnoses were diverse. In one bill dating from 1629, the causes range from predictable conditions such as measles, cold and cough and gout to other, stranger, ones such as ‘teeth and worms’, ‘excessive drinking’ and ‘suddenly’!

As the plague increased though, the Bills of Mortality became rapidly dominated by these numbers, and Londoners pored over the pages every week to gauge the seriousness of the situation. News of the contagion was a regular topic of conversation and people were eager to learn if things were getting better or worse. The newly burgeoning cheap presses of the mid seventeenth century went into action, with everything from treatises on the causes of the plague to ‘strange newes’ about the latest outbreaks or figures and even popular cures.

The authorities were clearly worried about the danger of epidemic sickness, and took measures to try and limit its spread. One of these was to try and restrict popular gatherings such as fairs, to try and prevent the disease running rampant. This Royal proclamation from 1637, for example, entreated people not to attend the popular Sturbridge Fair that year, the king ‘Forseeing the danger that might arise to his subjects in generall”.

So, the authorities published the numbers of sufferers, took preventative measures against the spread of contagion and, in general, maintained a dialogue with the public, updating them on disease types, currency and potential ways to avoid them. The popular press also served to stir up fears, however, and perpetuated public dialogue about infection. Disease and health have always been topics of conversation but, in times of contagion, they tend to become more concentrated, and people become more engaged in dialogue about them.

Fast forward to 2013 and it is remarkable how similar the situation still is. The HPA website, for example, gives a weekly update on numbers of norovirus sufferers, not only in terms of clinically-reported cases, but of an assumption that for every reported case there are a further 288 or so unreported cases – people who simply decide to stay home and self-medicate. Indeed, at the present time, people are being actively discouraged from attending doctors’ surgeries, and hospital wards are being closed to the public. The impression is one of a wave of contagion breaking over the British Isles and, for me at least, one that is coming to get me!

There is indeed a fine line to tread between reporting facts and sparking panic. When SARS first emerged, there was a great deal of information (and misinformation), with various ‘experts’ calling it variously a massive threat to humanity, or simply the latest in the processional line of epidemics to afflict humankind.  A few years ago, a virtual global panic was instigated by the apparent mutation of avian flu, or bird flu. This outbreak made ‘pandemic’ the buzzword of the late 2000s and, again, much space was devoted (and indeed still is to some degree) on educating people on what it is, who has got it, and how to avoid it. In 2005, a UN health official warned that bird flu was capable of killing 150 million people worldwide. According to Dr David Nabarro, speaking to the BBC at the time “”It’s like a combination of global warming and HIV/Aids 10 times faster than it’s running at the moment,”. The World Health Organization, perhaps seeing the potential panic that this could cause, immediately distanced itself from the comment. The fact that the outbreak was ultimately relatively mild emphasises the problem that epidemic disease causes for health officials. How to alert people without scaring them?

None of this is helped by the press who, like their seventeenth-century counterparts, are keen to give the largest mortality figures, or emphasize the spread of diseases. In June 2012, for example, Reuters were still warning that a global bird flu pandemic could happen at any moment.  http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/06/21/us-birdflu-pandemic-potential-idUSBRE85K1ES20120621

The same pattern is now happening with the norovirus – although clearly this does not carry the same levels of danger. Here we are talking about contagion, rather than mortality.  Let’s take the headline on the Western Mail newspaper of 20th December though: “Norovirus: Now more wards are closing as hospitals in Wales hit”. The breathy style of this banner line emphasises its rapidity, not just a straight report, “NOW” it’s coming. What purpose do these reports ultimately serve? Put another way, why do we need to be told? Logically, if preventative measures are possible then it makes sense to tell as many people as possible. But often this is not the purpose of newspaper copy in times of sickness which, to me, almost seems at times to be deliberately provocative.

The answer seems to be a deeply-set human interest in sickness, ultimately linked to our own mortality. Even in this apparently scientific and modern age of medicine, there are still many things which are incurable, and many diseases which have the ability to wipe us out at a stroke. It is this uncomfortable reality which perhaps continues to fascinate and frighten us. We live in an age of control, but some things are still beyond our control, and it is perhaps this innate fear of disease – of our own transience – which makes these headlines ultimately so compelling.

Medicine by Post: A 17th-century doctor’s directions

Medicine in pre-industrial society was loosely structured. Finding a possible practitioner to minister to your ailments wasn’t difficult; they were virtually ubiquitous. From village tooth-drawers, bonesetters, diviners and wise women across to trained, apprenticed or licensed physicians, the range of potential choices for the early modern patient were legion. And yet, this very ubiquity often serves to mask the most basic element in these encounters; what actually happened. What did the doctor say or do? What was the relationship like between treater and treated?

Early modern doctors could not necessarily command authority. Unlike today, where we go to the doctors to find out what it wrong with us, the seventeenth-century patient effectively self-diagnosed. They told the practitioner what the complaint was, and expected them to prescribe accordingly. In Galenic medicine, people knew their own humoural constitutions and largely determined – through their own knowledge and by reference to others – what this problem was.

Nevertheless, the doctor could claim to have esoteric knowledge about how the body functioned. As far as learned physicians were concerned, while the sufferer might well know what was wrong with them, they did not have the necessary understanding of the body to be able to treat it safely. It was therefore only the trained and licensed physician who was qualified to treat the sick properly…at least that was the claim of the trained and licensed physician!

One means through which we can get an idea of the early modern equivalent of the ‘doctor’s appointment’ is through the occasional letters written to patients by practitioners after such encounters. One such letter I encountered during my PhD research, and is located at Glamorgan Record Office, MS D/DF V/202. It is a letter from 1628 addressed to a ‘Mrs Bridges’ but is (extremely frustratingly) anonymous, since the last portion of the letter is missing. Below is my transcription:

‘For Mrs Bridges

When yow come home yow may begin with the Physick wch yow have from hence so soon as yow will: taking it in a manner following, Provide the like Possetale as you did here. To a reasonable draught of that Posetale yow may put two spoonefull and an half of the opening wine. Mix them and put a little sugar to them to relish them: and so drinke it in the morning fasting. Walke, or use some good exercise after it for the space of an hour and halfe, and fast after it for the space of three howers: then make a light meale of boyled meate. The like yoe may do a little before foure of the clock in the afternoons and observe the like course.

But because your body will be apt to be bounde upon the use (of) this physick, therefore I have set you down some syrupes in a glasse, wherof I would have you to take three spoonefull mixed in the former draught any morning when you please.

And, the day after that the full course of the opening wine is finished I would have you take five spoonefulls of the syrupes to a draught of the former posetale and so drinke them warme. And two houers after take a draught of warm thin broth. And at any time when you are costive you may use a suppositorys made with honey and salt boyled to a height and put a little fine powder of Aniseeds and fenell seeds to it when you make it up.

Be carefull in your diet. Eat noe meatte but flesh as is of an easy digestion: as mutton, veale, lambe, capon, chicken or the like: Avoide all raw salletts, or fruites: But for sallets use capers washed in warme water. And sallett of broome budds, or Asparagus or the topps of young hopps are good. Or Cowslipp flowers candiyed and mixed wth a little vinegar. Or rosemary flowers wth a little vinegar and sugar.

I am afrayd your body will not endure the use of wine: but if you use any Let it be onely a draught of mulled claret wine with a sprigg of rosemary, and sweetened wth sugar, and take it in the middle of your meale.

All salt meates and baked, or spiced meates are nought for you: and milk or milky meates are worse.

Yow must endeavour to be cheerefull and avoyde all passions of fear, anger or melancholye.’

There are a number of interesting elements to this letter. Firstly, it is clear that Mrs Bridges visited this practitioner. The letter itself is virtually a follow-up to the appointment, containing some record of the encounter but, more importantly, a full set of instructions and directions for her recuperation. This suggests that the face-to-face encounter was one stage in a process. Where, today, one generally leaves the doctor’s surgery armed with a prescription, this encounter was holistic, and involved a further stage. Put more simply, the ‘appointment’ didn’t end when Mrs Bridges left the physician’s premises. This, too, is an important point. In this case – somewhat unusually – she has visited the doctor, rather than the other way around. He mentions her returning home, and also the physic he sent ‘from hence’.

Also noteworthy is the emphasis upon lifestyle, much of which would seem familiar in today’s health-conscious society. Here, the advice is to eat certain foods at certain times, and then in moderation, to ‘be carefull in your diet’ and, crucially, to stay cheerful, stoic and calm. It is worth noting too that the practitioner is ‘afrayd’ that Mrs Bridges’ body would not tolerate wine, although he did leave the door slightly open for the odd tipple.

In early-modern parlance, this was known as ‘regimen’. As surprising as it might seem, given their seeming predilection for dangerous or disgusting remedies, this was a very health-conscious society. Good health was something to be cherished and maintained. It was far better to prevent illness than to treat it. Mrs Bridges’ practitioner took pains to understand her humoural makeup, and based his comments directly upon this. Medicine, in this sense, was individualistic. It is one of the many contradictions of humoural medicine that a remedy meant for one individual should not theoretically have treated another. In practice, people shared and accrued recipes vigorously.

But what this letter gives us most is a little window into the consultation process itself. It gives us some insight into the processes of consulting a practitioner, albeit at probably the upper reaches of society. Bearing in mind that the vast majority of people couldn’t write, the very fact that this letter survives marks it out as exceptional. As more of these fascinating documents are uncovered, we may start to learn more about the early modern doctor’s ‘appointment’, at other levels of society, and with other types of practitioner.

What is a ‘remedy collection’?: Recording medical information in the 17th century

What exactly is a ‘recipe collection’? The most obvious answer is something like the example shown below, a formal ‘receptaria’ book of medical receipts and remedies. In the early modern period, and across Europe, these types of collections were fairly common, and especially in wealthier households. These were often carefully constructed documents, containing indices and sometimes containing groups of remedies according to various types of remedy, or parts of the body. In many ways these were the high-end of domestic medicine.

But were such formal collections necessarily representative? In other words, did everyone (or at least everyone capable of writing remedies down) collect their medical information this way? No. As a great deal of recent work by historians including Elaine Leong, Sara Pennell and Michelle DiMeo, Anne Stobart, Lisa Smith, Sally Osborn and others is revealing, the committal of recipes to paper was often a complex process.  (See also the fantastic recipes.hypotheses blog  and Twitter feed @historecipes)

For a start, paper was an expensive commodity in the early modern period. It could often be bought easily enough; apothecaries often sold reams or ells of paper, as did other retailers from merchants to haberdashers. But it was nonetheless quite costly. Unlike today, where scribble pads and notebooks can be bought for pennies, the buying of paper, or a bound book of notepaper, would have been something out of the ordinary, especially for those on low incomes.

The recording of remedies was an expedient and often pragmatic process.  Remedies usually spread firstly by word of mouth, with people passing on their favourite receipts to friends, neighbours and acquaintances. As Adam Fox’s work on early modern oral culture has shown (Oral and Literate Culture in England, 1500-1700 (Oxford: Clarendon, 2000)) people had a strong ability to commit information to memory, and this made sense at a time when the majority of the population couldn’t read or write. Nevertheless, for those wishing to record the remedy accurately for future use, there was a need to do so quickly, and often using whatever was to hand.

As such, many ‘remedy collections’ are little more than assemblages of roughly scribbled notes, sometimes on torn bits of paper, sometimes on the back of unrelated documents, and sometimes even including a variety of other information on the same page. In fact, the very survival of many remedies is probably attributable to the fact that they have been incorporated into other, non-medical, documents.

Nevertheless, the recording of remedies in certain types of document was often a more deliberate decision. In Wales, for example, there were several instances of medical remedies being written on notepaper purloined from a church. In one sense this was pragmatic and reflected the simple availability (and probably abundance) of paper, given the needs of the church to keep records. But some were written inside church documents. In parish registers, for example, it was not uncommon to find receipts. A common example was that of a ‘receipt for the biteinge of a mad dogge”, often originally attributed to the register of Cathorp Church in Lincolnshire, but which seemed to move around the country. An example of the remedy, occurring in the Monmouthshire church of Llantillio Pertholey, can be seen here: http://www.peoplescollectionwales.co.uk/Item/7637-a-recipe-to-cure-the-bite-of-a-mad-dog-llanti

In another sense, though, putting remedies in amongst religious verses, as often occurred in commonplace books and notebooks, was a way of allying the remedy to the power of religion. If it was next to God’s word on paper, perhaps it would have more power?

Above all, for the remedy to be of any use, it had to be easy to find when needed. Some, for example, kept remedies within the pages of their business ledgers. Here, the regimented layout perhaps suited ease of future reference. But perhaps most common was to keep remedies within the pages of personal sources. Many diarists noted down examples of favoured remedies, especially when they had suffered from an ailment and attributed their recovery to the taking of a particular remedy.

Commonplace books, notebooks and copy books were also common places for the jotting down of useful information, and could be easily referred to if needed. It was not uncommon to put remedies within pages of miscellany, including accounts, quotes, poetry and family records, locating it firmly within the context of ‘useful’ information. Many literate families also kept letters. Health was a regular topic of conversation amongst letter writers, and it was common to fire off a few missives seeking potential remedies from within one’s social network. When a reply duly came, here was a ready-made receipt that could be kept without needing to write it down again. Prescriptions and directions from practitioners might be especially prized as they represented a virtual consultation, specially tailored to the recipient’s humoral constitution.

One often-overlooked method, however, were medical almanacs. It’s worth looking at a typical example of how these sources could be used. Cardiff Public Library MS 1.475 is a small memoranda book dating to around 1708, and seemingly originating from London, with the names John and Elizabeth Price prominent. A little list of family notes inside the front cover reveal a touching and tragic tale.

“February 10th 1708/9

Married then to the pretty, the charming Mrs Elizabeth Price by the Rev’d Dr Typing of Camberwell.

My daughter Anne was born the 17 of April 1712 about twenty min(utes) after eight in the morning and baptised the 1. of May

She was a very beautifull, lovely child but God was pleased to take it May 3. 1712”

Much of the document, however, is actually drawn on the reverse side of copies of almanacks. These were part-astrological, part-magical and part-news documents which contained everything from prognostications and predictions to religious dates, weather information and medicine. The first almanac in this document is ‘Merlinus Liberatus, being an alamanack for the year of our Blessed Saviour’s Incarnation, 1708…by John Partridge, student in Physick and Astrology at the Blue Ball in Salisbury Street in the Strand, London”. Partridge was clearly an entrepreneur; the very next page of his almanck is dedicated to ‘Partridges Purging Pills, useful in all cases where purging is required”!

A second almanac pasted into the book is “The Country Physician; or a choice collection of physic fitted for vulgar use: Containing 1) a collection of choice medicaments of all kinds, Galenical and Chymical, excerpted out of the most approved authors 2) Historical observations of famous cures collected out of the works of several modern Physicians 3) A Cabinet of specific, select and practical chymical preparations in two parts, made use of by the Author, by W. Salmon M.D”

This sort of document was a cheap means of buying a ready-made remedy collection, complete with the latest thinking and couched in terms of the layman. There were many self-help volumes of family physick available, but these cheaper almanac and chapbook style documents were easier to read and easier to keep. It is also clear that the spaces on the back of pages were useful places to note down other remedies as they accrued.

For example, the Prices noted down a number of receipts on the back pages, including a receipt “To prevent a return of the ague”, another for the “dead palsy”, including mistletoe, oak and saffron, and another for “flushings in the face”.  Here, then, the printed and the written remedy intertwined to become a completely distinct and individual family collection. In many ways this was as formal a collection as a ‘receptaria’, and probably included many of the same sorts of remedies, but in a different form.

The recording of remedies, and the idea of a ‘remedy collection’, therefore, shouldn’t necessarily be limited to a single, formalised and regimented document. These were organic documents, sometimes constructed carefully, but often just growing as collections of rough notes. Remedies might be deliberately placed within documents, or they might be the result of a roughly-scribbled note. Equally, people might keep ready printed or written remedies, and simply add their own notes as required. In this sense, there is no single ‘remedy collection’ document; instead, there are a myriad different ways in which people collected remedies.

Concocting Recipes: The early modern medical home.

It has long been argued that the early modern home was a medical hub. And, in many ways, so it was. Sickness was first and last a domestic experience. It was almost always treated in the home and, given the range of potential conditions, the presence of one or more sick members of the family was doubtless a fairly regular occurrence.

In the main, it was women who were expected to take responsibility for medicating the household.  Women were assumed to be natural carers, and also to have acquired some skill in the preparation of medical recipes, and their application, by the time they reached the age of consent to marry. There were books dedicated to schooling literate women in the art of physick, many including what was effectively a ‘starter’s collection’ of remedies to enable them to treat a large number of common conditions. Indeed, medicine was part of the wider role of ‘housewife’, and ‘huswifery’ meant looking after the inhabitants, as well as maintaining the living space.

The role of men in household medicine is far less defined. There were, for example, no books specifically written to help men cope in the case of domestic illness. And yet they clearly did cope. Diaries, such as those by Phillip Henry of Broad Oak in Flintshire, and Robert Bulkeley of Dronwy, Anglesey, both note sickness episodes of their wives, and suggest that they played a part in caring for them. It is also clear that men played a part in the acquisition of ingredients, often keeping records of where they found herbs for sale cheaply, or which apothecary they regularly purchased from. In this sense, medicine still fitted in to the patriarchal male family role, since it involved a broader input into the physical care and support of the family.

One question that remains largely unresolved, however, is that of how well equipped the early modern home was to cope with sickness. The contents of domestic recipe books suggest not only that a very broad range of skills were needed to be able to concoct remedies, but also that a range of equipment would also be necessary. How well equipped were ‘ordinary’ homes to meet these needs?

One body of sources that lets us peer back inside the early modern home are probate records. When a person died, the probate process often required a list of their household contents to be made to allow their estate to be valued. For the study of the material culture of this period, these sources are incredibly valuable. They are, however, often frustratingly vague, and all depends on the diligence of the individual surveyor. For example, a detailed record might list every individual possession, room by room, including furniture, ornaments, valuables, but also sometimes even book titles and foodstuffs held in storage. Much depended on the intrinsic value of the goods; if they had a resale value, they might be worth including. In less detailed inventories, however, a whole room might be listed under a single entry, with a generic term like ‘household stuff’.

In terms of medical items, this causes a problem. Things like herbs and, perhaps, individual jars of ointments or medicines were too impermanent to list, so don’t appear in the inventories of ‘ordinary’ households and very seldom even in elite household inventories. Equally, finding any equipment that can be definitely be classified as ‘medical’ is problematic, since many had dual usage. Nevertheless, it is still worth speculating based on available evidence, to see if any hints about the material culture of domestic medicine can be gleaned from these sources.

Whilst writing my PhD thesis, to try and address this question, I looked at over 1300 inventories from 82 parishes in the county of Glamorgan in South Wales. I decided to look for two items of equipment in particular – the pestle and mortar, and the brewing still. Many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century self-help books extolled the virtues of a well equipped kitchen. For the seventeenth-century medical writer Thomas Brugis, top of the list of items desirous for those people wishing ‘to compound medicine themselves’ were ‘a great mortar of marble and another of brasse’. A long list of other items were included, from ‘copper pannes to make decoctions’, ‘glasses for cordiall powders’ and a range of medical implements. The popular medical author Gervase Markham, also entreated his idealised English housewife to ‘furnish herself of very good stills, for the distillation of all kinds of waters…for the health of her household’, and the emphasis all round lay firmly with a well-equipped kitchen, able to minister autonomously to sick family members within a household.#

As a baseline test, over 91% of the inventories contained at least one item of kitchen equipment, including pots, pans, crocks and so on. Overall, the suggestion was that the vast majority of homes had at least the ability to concoct basic remedies. As Elaine Leong has recently noted, for example, boiling was needed in around 20-30% of early modern remedies.

But what of more specialised equipment? The results were interesting. Out of 1248 inventories, only 148 (11%) had listed a pestle and mortar. Before 1635, there were no occurrences whatsoever, and a peak of ownership didn’t seem to occur until the early eighteenth century. Whilst this figure of 11% should definitely be taken as a bare minimum to allow for inevitable under-recording, this still seems surprisingly low. What was also clear, though, was that the item was more common in better-off households, and also in urban areas. The pestle and mortar would have been a basic utensil for grinding herbs and spices into powder. Whilst not owning one certainly can’t be used as evidence to say that a home wasn’t ‘medical’, its lack of appearance is still noteworthy.

Turning to the ‘still’ or ‘limbeck’ the results were even more striking. A still was a multi-purpose item, which could be used for home brewing, as well as the distillation and fermentation of substances for medical recipes. It has recently been calculated that around 10% of remedies required a still in this period. Despite this, the Glamorgan inventories yielded a total of only 41 references in 1248 inventories, giving an average of less than 3%. Here again, ownership was general limited to wealthier households.

[A full statistical analysis, including comparisons with other Welsh counties was included but, for the sake of brevity, it’s not detailed here. See Alun Withey, Health, Medicine and the Family in Wales, 1600-1750 (Swansea University, Phd Thesis, 2009)]

It is also worth noting (albeit perhaps unsurprisingly as noted earlier) that no inventories contained any reference to medical remedies, ingredients or substances, and only a bare few contained items which could be construed as ‘medical’, such as a blood dish in one home, and a ‘nurseing chayre’ in another.

What do these results tell us? They certainly don’t tell us that early modern homes did not manufacture their own medicines, nor that they were incapable of doing so. Even the most basic of utensils could be used in this process, and the majority of homes possessed these.

They also don’t reveal much physical evidence of medicine, such as a ‘storehouse’ of remedies or ingredients, but this is, in many ways, entirely logical. Medicine was transitory and pragmatic. Recipes were often concocted as and when needed. Some, like ointments, could last for years and be kept, but many were too impermanent to keep. Also, just because they weren’t listed, doesn’t mean they weren’t there. Whilst some historians are beginning to question the extent to which each household physically grew its own herbs, it’s plausible that many did.

But what is also interesting is the availability of ingredients for remedies in even the smallest rural shops. People could purchase exotic herbs and spices from their village shop, as well as compound remedies such as plague water and Venice Treacle. It is entirely possible that the extent to which domestic production was intertwined with the medical marketplace has yet to be appreciated.

In any case, there is a need for more studies into the material culture of early modern domestic medicine. If the early modern home was indeed a medical hub, a wider study should give us a broader understanding not only of what medicines people used in their homes, but how they made them.

Reviving the ‘apparently dead’ in Georgian Britain

In the course of my research, I often come across great sources which, although they might not be directly relevant to what I’m looking for at the time, make great ideas for future topics. One that I encountered recently, while looking into the history of steel surgical instruments, was the following:

Charles Kite, An Essay on the Recovery of the Apparently Dead (London: 1788) containing “A Description of a Case of Pocket Instruments for the Recovery of the Apparently Dead”.

The question of whether it was possible – and indeed ethical – to revive the dead was certainly a hot topic towards the end of the eighteenth century. On the one hand, an increasing interest in the possibilities created by scientific and technological advances was increasingly rendering the impossible possible. This was the age of technological innovation and artisanal skill. Industrial luminaries such as Benjamin Huntsman, Josiah Wedgewood, James Watt and Matthew Boulton were all investing massively in new technologies, and their creations – from steam engines and pumps to everyday household items – were themselves heralding a new age. Scientific societies offered prizes to inspire would-be inventors to create useful products. Useful, in this case, often meant something that could advance agricultural or military prowess. But, with the creation of the Royal Institution, and an emphasis upon experimentation, endeavours towards the advancement of science for its own sake were also promoted. Science, it seemed, had the potential to unlock many of the mysteries of life and the universe…even death.

On the other hand, however, there was still a lingering tension between science and its relationship with religion. Could, and indeed should, man interfere in the natural processes and cycles of life. In many ways he already did. At the most basic level, medicine itself sought to prevent or delay death, or at least to palliate symptoms. There was some degree of uncertainty about when death actually occurred, and how to discern the point beyond which revival or resuscitation was possible.

Charles Kite’s book was part of a new interest in the question of death, approached from a scientific and essentially detached point of view. Among the types of death that men like Kite were interested in preventing were those caused by drowning. There was, indeed, even a whole society dedicated to the subject!

Accidental drowning represented a large percentage of causes of death, whether by accident or intention. It was also recognised, however, that this was a state that had the potential to be reversed. The opening sentence of Kite’s book reveals something of attitudes towards death by drowning.

“THAT the principle cause of the want of success in the recovery of the apparently dead, is the length of time that elapses before the proper remedies [my emphasis] can be applied, will admit of no doubt. It is equally certain, that this too frequently depends on circumstances wholly out of our power to prevent: but it is no less true, that cases terminating unfavourably often occur, to which, if proper and timely assistance could have been given, it is extremely probable they might have had a more fortunate conclusion”

It is firstly interesting to note that death is something potentially to be “remedied”; this immediately places it out of the metaphysical and into harsh corporeal reality. It is reversible. But more importantly, as Kite recognised, time was of the essence. If speedy assistance could be rendered, then more people could be saved.

The answer, as Kite saw it, was a device that could restart the respiratory process. Such devices were already in existence. In 1775, one “Dr Cogan” had contrived an apparatus and brought it to the attention of the Royal Society. According to Kite, “it soon came into common use and has remained so until the present day”. The problem, though, was one of size. Cogan’s apparatus was unwieldy and the delay in moving it from place to place often meant that the patient was dead (properly dead!) by the time it arrived. It involved, for example, an ‘electrical machine’ which was too impractical to use in the field and could not be scaled down. This image of the proposed apparatus highlights the problem!

Kite’s answer was a set of ‘pocket-sized’ instruments that could be carried from place to place with more ease, reducing the delay and thus raising the chances of successfully reviving the drowned person. Standard practice involved taking blood from the jugular vein of the patient but, depending on the length of time they had been in the water, getting blood from their rapidly deteriorating venal system could be tricky. The solution was to use Kite’s handy small instruments along with anything else at hand – even coffee cups – to draw off the requisite amount of blood, which was seen as the first stage in the process of revival.

Secondly, and more interestingly, though, was the recognition that the “suspended action of the lungs” had to be reversed. This was “of the utmost importance in our attempts to recover the apparently dead, let the original cause be whatever it might”. But how was this to be achieved?

Kite suggested an elastic tube, about twelve inches long, which had an ivory or silver mouthpiece, or bellows, attached to a conical screw. The other end had an ivory appendage to allow it to be passed into the deceased’s nostrils.  One person was to be stationed at the head of the body to insert the tube into the nose, and then to blow air “with force” through the tube. It was the job of the other person (the “medical director”) to keep the deceased’s mouth closed whilst also maintaining pressure on the windpipe to ensure that the air went into the lungs, rather than the stomach.

What is essentially being described here is artificial respiration. Perhaps less conventionally, however, Kite recommended the use of tobacco as a stimulant to further jolt the person back to life. This could be administered either as smoke passed through the tube and into the lungs, or passing it in solution to the stomach.

What can we learn from this source? Firstly, it highlights the sometimes remarkably ‘modern’ attitudes towards the body, and of reviving the dead, thought about and adopted by eighteenth-century medical practitioners. The application of sustained scientific enquiry into the body, together with the knowledge gained from anatomical studies was beginning to have a profound effect on medicine; some see this as the change to a ‘medicalised’ view of health and the body.

Secondly, though, it is a fascinating glimpse into an eighteenth-century medical treatise, written by a practitioner for practitioners. The sharing of essential knowledge, the questioning of accepted truths and the willingness to test new theories all come together to make the eighteenth-century a rich and absorbing period in the history of medicine.

Medical practice in early modern Wales – revision time!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Constructing the Sufferer (part 1)

I’ve always been interested in the ways that people construct narratives of sickness, and the sickness persona. I was watching a comedian recently who brought up the subject of the ‘phoning in sick’ voice; the slightly husky, weak and tired tone people adopt when they have to convince the boss that they really are ill, and not having a ‘duvet day’. One day there’s going to have to be a study of the language and art of phoning in sick – stuff like having been ‘up all night’ being ill, ‘really don’t think I can make it in today’, ‘see how I feel tomorrow’ are all stalwarts. But sufferers have always constructed and deployed sickness in some measure. When I was researching for my book I looked at petitions by the sick poor in the seventeenth century, written to try and convince the parish authorities to give them money.

Consider this example written to a wealthy lady in Cardiganshire in the eighteenth century – the spelling is original. (National Library of Wales, MS 182D)

“Madam Lloyd, by submission to your Honour, my little grand Child whome I nurs’d since he was a year old, happen to fell sick, this day fortneight (sic), and had been very low, I hope that he begin to recover. He is longing for rosted meat that ever he had in my cottage, and I sure that he cannot distinguies between any sort of rosted meat. If your honour please to send a bit, or order me to wait for it, I will be very glad and in so doing you will add to the obligation of your honest old shoemaker, and your most humble servant, John Jenkin, alias, little shoemaker”

Here, we have the heart-wrenching tale of a sick [and presumably orphaned] child, desperately ill and longing for something substantial to eat. The writer of the letter appeals to the charitable nature of ‘Madam Lloyd’, but it is interesting to note the language used, of the humble, honest old shoemaker, trying to use whatever personal connections he has to secure something for his grandchild.

Others appealed to the charitable nature of people in their surrounding areas to provide support or relief (National Library of Wales, MS 434B):

“To all faithfull people to whome it doth appeare or may concerne, 3rd October 1656

Whereas John Owen, being a poore ould man borne and breed in the parish of Llanfydd being grievously troubled with a disease…that he is not able to travel and seeke or get his bodily foode & sustenance by reason it is broken out in several places of his body, the quantity of seven or eight places…so beseeching all good and charitable people out of charitie to commiserate his distressed state to bestow their benevolence towards payment to the churgeon…”

Another, Mary Jones of Llandenny, petitioned the parish to offer her support as her husband had fallen sick for ‘five quarters of a year’ and was ‘sick now’. Unable to raise the money herself to feed her family, and facing eviction from her cottage on the waste by the Duchess of Beaufort “to punish the poor man in spite and malice’, Mary was forced into desperate measures.

It is interesting to note, though, that although occasionally such letters were written by the parties involved themselves, they were more often written by an amanuensis – someone who knew the people involved but had more skill in writing. These notes are usually deliberately constructed to emphasise the individual’s suffering. They often highlight the symptoms and use emotive language to highlight the particular suffering.

The reasons for this are clear; the petitioner wanted and needed money, and thus needed to convince the authorities that their need was special. They make interesting reading not just for the language of sickness, but for the ways that it could be deliberately deployed.

I think there could be another post to follow on the ‘heroic sufferer’, but enough for today!