“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?


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.


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

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


Negotiating a pay rise – 18th-century style!

In my last post I talked about letters from medics who were seeking jobs. Another second day in the archives yesterday yielded another crop of prospective employees, some of whom this time didn’t even know if there was a vacancy, but applied for it anyway. But another aspect of employment that we don’t often get a glimpse of in the past is that of pay-bargaining.

What happens when, after several years of work, you feel that you’re no longer getting paid what you deserve? Actually there are whole websites devoted to the etiquette of negotiating a pay rise with your boss. There is always the union to fall back on if it all goes wrong. How, though, did people do this for themselves. It was a tricky process. Don’t ask and you risk being stuck with your menial salary. Push your luck and you might end up by offending your employer and losing your position.

A letter from Dr Cockayne, surgeon-apothecary at the Bamburgh infirmary, gives us a brief insight. It’s 17th October 1782, and the doctor has been employed at the Infirmary for a little over six years. Up until now he has been paid regularly but on an ad hoc basis for his attendance on Wednesdays and Saturdays. In the ten years since its opening, the infirmary has witnessed a massive jump in from 206 in 1772 to 1500 in 1782. Small wonder that Dr Cockayne felt a little underpaid! His letter to the Reverend John Sharp reveals the delicate path he had to tread. He began on safe ground:

“Honoured Sir,
I hope you will pardon my boldness in addressing you upon this occasion, nothing but the consciousness of my own insufficiency, and your known candour, and continual kindness shewn to me upon every occasion could ever have induced me to ask so great a favour. At the same time it meets with your Disapprobation that alone will be sufficient to make me think no more of it.

It is now five years since by your kind patronage I was appointed surgeon to your dispensary. I hope during that time I have not neglected my duty but endeavoured to discharge my trust to the best of my abilities. The duties of the dispensary have continually increased year after year, and the vast number of patients admitted this year will shew to every one its great utility and at the same time the increas’d [need] and trouble so great an increase of business must necessarily give me.

If these considerations are of any weight, the favour I am going to ask will not I hope be look’d upon as presumptuous in some addition according to your better judgement in my salary. It was my duty to beg your advice upon this matter. I intended several times to have spoken to you of it when I was at the castle, but had always found myself incapable without some previous notcice to you of my intention. I therefore take this opportunity of addressing you.

I believe entirely upon your goodness and wisdom as to the fitness of my Request which if gained will be an addition to the many undeserved favours already confer’d upon me and a meanes of making me happier and easier in life. If not, I am content and shall still retain for ever a greatfull sense of your goodness in the mean time I beg leave to subscribe myself, honoured sir, your obliged humble servant, W. Cockayne.”

This was a skilful piece of negotiation and the relationship between employer and employed is interesting here. In the first paragraph, for example, he indulged in a little ego-stroking but was swift to mention that he would stop at once if he thought that Dr Sharp would be aggrieved. Sharp is almost a paternal figure, whose approval is continually sought.

Then he moved on and set out his grievances, pointing out the strains that the sheer volume of extra patient numbers had put upon him. The last part of the letter called for humility- and Cockayne had it in spades. Without “wishing to be presumptuous” and relying on Sharp’s “better judgement” Cockayne almost slipped in the fact that he wanted more money. Arguing that he had effectively been too afraid to ask in person, he tried to gain Sharp’s sympathy for his plight. If he got his money, Cockayne would he “happier and easier in life”. If not, he would “still retain a sense of your goodness” and would continue in his role regardless. Clever. But did it work?

No…at least not at once. For several years afterwards Cockayne continued on his ad hoc salary until, in 1785, he was granted an annual salary of £85 – a not insubstantial sum. Interestingly, though, he remained on that salary until at least 1810, the only increment being the addition of an extra 10 shillings in the 1790s – hardly enough to make a material difference.

So another story of the twists and turns of employment for medical practitioners in the eighteenth century. Who knows what other little gems are lurking in the archives.

17th-century remedies and the body as an experiment

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading between the lines: reconstructing lives from parish registers

I’ve recently returned from a research visit to Ruthin archives to look at the Denbighshire parish registers. The purpose of the visit was to trawl through every one of the hundreds of parish register transcriptions, looking for medical practitioners. With two bookcases full of volumes, each containing many individual registers, this was always going to be a long task. The registers for the town of Wrexham alone took two days, and monotony soon sets in when faced with page after page after page of names and bare information.

Parish registers are commonly the domain of genealogists and family historians, perhaps researching their own family history. Through the popularity of television shows like Who Do You Think You Are researching your own family tree has never been so popular, aided by the growing availability of source material online. Historians too are making use of parish registers. In aggregate they can reveal a whole range of demographic information, allowing assessment of long and short term population changes, marriage, birth and death patterns and so on.

But parish registers are generally deficient in detail, and even more so the further back in time you go. In the register of marriages in the seventeenth century you may get no more than the names and locations of both parties. The same for births. The burials registers give you name and parish, and sometimes the name of the father if the deceased was a child. In some cases occupations are given, but unevenly and sometimes selectively. So much depends on the diligence of the parish notary. As such, individual registers are generally unsatisfactory as qualitative evidence for the lives of individual people. If, however, as I was able to do, you search through a large number of records, then it is often surprising what extra information is able to be gleaned. In fact, the marginal comments made by the register creators often contain nuggets of extra information that can reveal much not only about their own prejudices, but of wider attitudes in society.

Parish registers were legal documents. As such they were deliberately formulaic and only required the bare minimum of information. With no legal reason or administrative need to add in anything else, many notaries didn’t bother. But it is the very fact that extra comments were not necessary that renders them more interesting.

One thing that becomes clear is the disapproval levied against anyone who was perceived to have transgressed in some way. Some women in the Denbighshire burials registers, for example, were obviously held in low regard by the local clergyman. Several entries appear with the appellation ‘harlot’ written in the margin, ‘whore’ and even one recorded as being a ‘wich’.  Here was an indictment of loose morals writ large and preserved forever in legal documents. Whoever wrote these remarks was making a definite statement and was fully aware of the stain that they were forever putting against these parishioners names. Being ahistorical for a moment, it is sad to reflect that perhaps these women’s only appearance in the record is coloured in this way. Perhaps the worst (or best) example I have come across is poor Barbara Roberts, buried in Denbigh in 1832 and, according to the vicar, “The dirtiest woman in the neighbourhood”!

There is an obverse to such pejorative comments though, and this is the sometimes laudatory comments that could be made. Those who left money to the parish poor or were well known for their good deeds might forever be bestowed with comments such as ‘a well liked body’ or ‘a person of good repute’. Here again we can encounter glimpses of personal affiliations. It is no coincidence that gentry and other clergy were often well reported in parish registers!

Accidents and other notable or lamentable deaths were often remarked upon and these are often touching in their brevity. ‘An infant died on the road in the arms of its mother’ is a typical example which says so much but also so little. Registers are full of drownings, deaths in fires and other accidents that reflect the dangers of hard rural lives, belying any depictions of a romantic rural idyll. People who were extremely old (‘110 by common repute’) were likely to be remarked upon, as were women like Jane Reece of Holt in Denbighshire who died aged 58 in 1696 “pregnant for the 100th time”.

Even occupations were not free of the individual foibles of recorders. In some parishes certain occupations might be recorded where others were ignored. This might mean that weavers or glaziers might be recorded while apothecaries or barbers could go unremarked. This is only one of the frustrating problems facing anyone looking for occupational data. ON the other hand they can throw up surprising little quirks. In Denbighshire alone I found evidence of three ‘Aquavitae’ men,  in different parishes, all of whom were known only by their first names and who had died on the road. These were travelling salesmen selling what was a semi-medicinal strong brew. Of no fixed abode they probably succumbed to the harsh life of travelling. Given what they were peddling this seems a fitting case of ‘Physician heal thyself’.

Registers can be frustrating documents but they are often well worth spending time with. By reading against the grain it is possible to learn much about early modern life, as well as the characters of individual clergy as they wrote their sometimes barbed observations. I think that more qualitative work on early-modern registers is badly needed.

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.