Fart catchers and Duck F***ers! The world of 18th-century slang

Often, whilst searching for sources in the archives, you come across something that you would perhaps never usually have found. This week was no exception. Whilst looking through Georgian books for evidence of bad posture I had a chance encounter with a rather unusual book –James Caulfield’s Blackguardiana or dictionary of rogues, bawds, pimps, whores, pickpockets, shoplifters etc (London: 1793).

Title page to 'Blackguardiana'

The stated aim of the book was to identify and catalogue the most notorious villains of the day, together with illustrations but, along the way, to provide ‘anecdotes, flash terms and cant songs’ all of which was ‘Intended to put society on their guard against Depredators’. It also sought to help unwary foreign travellers by equipping them with enough knowledge to guide them through the often-puzzling diversity of the English language. The book was fairly pricey, costing one guinea, and few copies were printed.

Arranged alphabetically, the book takes us through a huge range of terms, spanning over 250 pages. There’s not room here to go through the lot, but some specific examples will be enough to get a flavour of the whole thing! Many, for example, are general terms covering a range of aspects of daily life. We learn that to ‘Sham Abram’ is to pretend to be ill. Someone who ‘casts up their accounts’ is vomiting, while someone ‘in their altitudes’ is drunk. A wife scolding her husband was offering him a ‘dish of rails’! To be hungry was to have ‘a long stomach’.

Image from Joanne Bailey's excellent blog -https://jbailey2013.wordpress.com/2013/11/14/embodying-marital-behaviour-in-the-eighteenth-century/
Image from Joanne Bailey’s excellent blog -https://jbailey2013.wordpress.com/2013/11/14/embodying-marital-behaviour-in-the-eighteenth-century/

Interesting along the way are the various slang names for occupations. A maid might be referred to as an ‘Abigail’, while a servant in general was known as a ‘fart catcher’ because of their habit of walking behind their masters. A parish clerk might be referred to as an ‘Amen Curler’, while an innkeeper could be a ‘bluffer’.

Golf_caddy

An eighteenth-century 'punk'!
An eighteenth-century ‘punk’!

Perhaps reflecting the general lack of love for the medical profession, medical practitioners do not fare well in slang terms. According to Caulfield to ‘talk like an Apothecary’ meant to spout nonsense ‘from assumed gravity and affectation of knowledge’. A long bill might be termed ‘an Apothecary’s bill’ while ‘Apothecary’s Latin’ was ‘barbarous’. The reasons why are unclear, but an army or navy surgeon might be known as either a ‘crocus’ or ‘crocus metallorum’.

The phrase ‘that’s the Barber!’ was ‘a ridiculous and unmeaning phrase in the mouths of common people, signifying their approbation of any action, measure or thing’. A midwife was a ‘rabbit catcher’ while a surgeon’s assistant laboured under the name of the ‘loblolley boy’, named after the gruel often doled out to the sick. Before we feel too sorry for the medics, spare a thought for the person who looked after the poultry aboard ship, who was colloquially referred to as the ‘Duck F**ker’!

Insults naturally feature quite prominently. A ‘beastly, sluttish woman’ might have the name Fusty legges’ levelled at her. A drunk person was a ‘pogy’. A punk, according to Caulfield ‘was a little whore’, while a ‘sad, ignorant fellow’ was regarded as a ‘looby’.

As well as name-calling the dictionary gives us some insight into the language of crime. To ‘give someone his bastings’ was to beat them up, as was to give them a ‘rib roasting’. A burly ‘puff guts’ waving a knife at you might threaten to ‘let out your puddings’, whilst if a highwaymen instructed you to ‘tip off your kicks’, it was advisable to remove your trousers (kicks) immediately. If you were ‘kimbawed’ then you had been cheated, Any unfortunate man who was ‘bastonaded in his bawbells’ was likely to have been the recipient of a hefty punch in the testicles!

Image from www.oldbaileyonline.org
Image from http://www.oldbaileyonline.org

Again, unsurprisingly, a great deal of space is reserved for sex! A woman ‘riding St George’ was ‘uppermost in the amorous congress’. Two bodies engaged in sex were referred to as the ‘plaister of warm guts’. A man putting his ‘plug tail’ into a woman’s ‘dumb glutton’…or worse still her ‘pratts’ , was engaged in practices against which the stricter clergy would certainly object!

There are, however, many familiar phrases. ‘Against the grain’ is used to denote something that someone does against their will. ‘Riff raff’ were ‘low, vulgar people’ while busy shopkeepers were said to be doing ‘a roaring trade’. Someone talking too much might be told to ‘Shut your potato trap!’ – from which the more common ‘shut your trap’ probably derives. Someone who could not make a choice was ‘in a quandary’.

It’s perhaps easy to see these as humorous examples of eighteenth-century trash talk. Many of them are extremely funny and often surprising. They even still have something of the power to shock. But in terms of historical value they are incredibly important in offering a window into the often-earthy common language, spoken by ordinary people. Our view of eighteenth-century manners and politeness has been created and reinforced through things like literature and advertising and gives us the polite speak of literate elites. Caulfield, however, takes us to the village inn as well as the salon, and lets us hear some of the choice slang, insults and names that were perhaps closer to the daily speak of individuals.

Now, ‘Teddy my Godson’, away before I ‘let out your puddings’!

The Great Georgian Snuff Debate

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

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

glindoni_henri_gillard-gallant_taking_snuff~OMccc300~10287_20140205_LFEB14_1072

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

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

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

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

Snuff takers

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

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

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

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

George_IV_Silver_Hunting_Snuff_Box_1b

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

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

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

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

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

Woman taking snuff

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

“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.