A historian of gender and medicine in eighteenth-century France and England, Lisa Smith (Lecturer in Digital History, University of Essex) has published widely on leaky bodies, pain, fertility, and the household. She is finishing a book on “Domestic Medicine: Gender, Health and the Household in Eighteenth Century England and France”. In addition to developing an online database of the Sir Hans Sloane Correspondence, she is a co-investigator on a crowd-sourcing recipes transcription project. She blogs at The Sloane Letters Blog and Wonders & Marvels and tweets as @historybeagle.
I went a little wild with our Twitter account (@historecipes) on Halloween and ended up tweeting links to stories about magic, supernatural creatures, food and death all day. It was fun–and I learned a lot! If you fancy taking a peek at the dark side of history, here is the round-up of all the links. There’s something here for everyone to enjoy…
Dog-owners: ever wonder about the care of your faithful companions in times past? You’ll be glad to know that animal health recipes regularly appeared in early modern recipe books. Animal husbandry books, such as Henry Bracken’s Farriery Improved (reprinted several times from 1737 to 1792), are another useful source, as I recently discovered while on a dog blogging kick at Wonders and Marvels.* Animal health was considered to be very similar to human health: a matter of imbalanced humours, but in a coarser body. Remedies for dogs hint at the early modern understanding of dog physiology, as well as the canine ‘lived experience’ of common ailments and treatments.
Dogs were considered to have a naturally hot temperament. In the first volume of the 1789 edition, Bracken noted that dogs lack porous skins and the ability to sweat. If the weather was hot or the dog had much exercise, their “circulating fluids” would be heated by the bodily motions and come out of their mouths instead of through their skin. This had dramatic consequences, “insomuch that their very Breath appears like thick smoke”. I can’t help but wonder what manner of dogs Bracken had seen!
The canine hot temperament predisposed dogs to hot diseases. Bracken reported that dogs often contracted venereal disease through over-heating themselves carnally. Fortunately, the canine body was self-cleansing and would purge the problem through frequent urination (1789). A dog’s most useful trick…
The 1790 edition had several remedies for rabies—something seen as a form of poisoning, like venereal disease or snake-bite. Although rabies was a major concern for humans and livestock, dogs were seen as the primary source. Bracken cautioned that not all madness in dogs was caused by rabies, but might be from a worm that came out in hot weather. The white worm, found underneath the tongue, could be easily removed with a large needle.
Bracken provided remedies for other common canine complaints: mange, soft feet, bleeding, convulsions, poison, megrim [migraine], filmy eyes, ticks, lice and fleas, and sore ears (pp. 128-133). Such ailments reflect the daily life of hunting dogs. They pursued their prey through bushes, where dangers such as snakes and ticks lurked. Cuts, bleeding and wounds were common in dogs, caused when they“stake themselves by brushing through the hedges”. Greyhounds, setters and pointers tended to have paws too soft to scrabble over long distances. A simple treatment to toughen the paws entailed washing them in alum water, then an hour later, in warm beer and butter. These were working dogs; however well-treated, they had occupational hazards.
Not all ailments came from work, such as convulsions, megrims or cloudy eyes. The presence of remedies for these problems suggests the emotional and financial value of dogs. Inconvenient chronic problems were tolerated and treated. During a convulsion, the intervention was a matter of common-sense: cool off the dog by dipping its snout into cold water, then give it lots to drink. Other remedies were similar to human ones. For example, the solution for megrims (identifiable by the dog staggering) was to bleed the dog at the base of the tail. In humans, bleeding at the foot would serve to draw the blood away from the head. The eye remedy revealed the care that might be taken with elderly animals. Five or six times, the carer was to dip a fine linen cloth into vitriol and spring water, squeeze it, and “gently” wash the dog’s eyes. This should be done twice a day.
The recipes suggest some of the physical effects of the treatments. The remedy for mange included washing the dog in a liquour of boiled urine and tobacco stalks, followed by a daily breakfast of fresh butter and flour of brimstone. Bracken stressed that the dog would die if it licked itself. A treatment for “deep holes” reveals how carers kept dogs from worrying at wounds before the invention of the head cone. First, the wound needed to be tented with linen dipped in fresh, warmed butter. This should be changed daily and washed with milk. In between changes, it was important to tightly bandage the tent over the wound to keep the dog from pulling it off.
Other remedies were just painful. For bruised joints, the dog needed to be muzzled, presumably to prevent biting, during the application of oil of spike and oil of swallows. When putting oil of turpentine on a fresh wound, the dog’s mouth should be secured as the oil would give a “violent smart” for a moment. Treatments for humans were also often painful, but those patients were less likely to bite.
Small wonder modern dogs dread going to the vet. They’ve probably evolved to avoid our medical care.
It is rare to find a manuscript from the early 15th century that combines folk remedies with religious iconography and a royal heritage to boot – even more rare is to find one that has been heavily defaced.
Such a manuscript exists in the Archives and Manuscripts collection at the Wellcome Library – MS.5262. Lara Artemis, former conservator here at the library, uncovered the manuscript as part of her MA in Medieval History. In the process, she unpeeled the layers of what turned out to be a fascinating and possibly unique insight, not only into medieval medicine, but of religious symbolism at a time of particular spiritual turmoil – the Reformation.
Although the dating remains speculative, it is believed to be from around the early 15th century partly because of the dedications within. There is proof of its 16th century ownership in the form of ‘Andrewe Wylkynson Surgeon’.
More intriguing is the fact that it belonged to Henry Dyngley of Worcestershire who died in 1589 and came from a line of staunch Catholics and rural famers working as doctors. Dyngley married Mary Neville, the daughter of Knight Sir Edward Neville who not only held a long list of prestigious roles within the court of Henry VIII, but who descended from Edward II and Queen Isabel of England in the 13th century. Isabel was a keen patron of medicine and was famously paranoid about her health. It is no suprise then to find the health regimen, a sweet wine tonic, is dedicated to her at the end of the manuscript.
Equally fascinating is the manuscript’s association with oak. Not only is it bound in oak but the religious images feature oak trees and acorns in all but one. Traditionally a pagan symbol, the oak was re-interpreted by Christians to represent Christ, a symbol of endurance and strength in the face of adversity. Given the possible date of the manuscript, and the significant damage to the religious images only, suggests this manuscript is a rare survivor of Henry VIII’s iconoclastic reformation when vast quantities of religious materials were destroyed in a Protestant bid to rid the country of any visible signs of Catholicism.
Why did the iconoclast stop at the religious images only? The explanation seems to be clear: this was too useful a manuscript full of day to day ‘quick health fixes’ that would have been invaluable to a well-to-do family like the Dyngley’s. This was an era where university educated medical practitioners were in short supply, particularly in rural areas and folk remedies proved invaluable.
The practical recipes include how to reduce the swelling of the scrotum: “Who so hap ache or swellynge In his balloke” – the solution, a poultice from pounded barley and cumin mixed with honey applied to the offensive area. Another common but potentially harmful ailment was a skin disorder which is described ‘Who so hap pe wilde fire…”, in other words, ergotism, also known as St Anthony’s fire. This was a reaction to ergot fungus in barley meal, a common source of food in the medieval period, which famously caused bewitchment. The suggested cure involved applying cooked and strained leeks to the face in addition to white wine, rye meal, and eysel. Ergot contained a chemical that made sufferers go beserk, largely because it caused gangrene and eventual loss of hands, feet and fingers. If not treated, and it rarely was in the Middle Ages, the poisoning led to the sensation of being burned at the stake. St Anthony’s association with the ailment comes from the monks of the Order of St Anthony who achieved relative success at treating victims. To fund their charitable work, the same monks reared swine which partly explains the presence of the pigs in the image of St Anthony within the manuscript.
Saint Anthony is the first to appear in the front of the manuscript. While the oak trees, acorns (traditional fodder for pigs and many other birds and animals), and a deer (another sign of conception, growth and thereby health) are clearly visible, the rest of the saint is clearly scrubbed out. If it were not for the red liturgical colour (for martyrdom) of his robe and the presence of the pig (a common attribute), his identity would remain a mystery. Although further investigation is necessary to establish any underlying drawing that may have been obscured, as well as dating evidence, it is clear that this, and the other religious images, have been destroyed quite deliberately.
He is followed by St James who chops down an oak tree with his bare hand (presumably to reveal the medicinal properties of the bark), St John the Baptist, also with an oak tree and, this time, rabbits (possibly to suggest the Christians and the persecuted church, or at least Christians fleeing temptation), and lastly, a Bishop.
While St John is left off lightly by the iconoclast, mysteriously, the Bishop gets the worst treatment leaving only the 2 candles either side visible, symbols of Christ’s divine and human natures.
The manuscript also includes catchword illustrations, possibly charms that were copied and cut into a piece of bark (no doubt oak) of apple peel and placed on the wound as a health-inducing charm.
The manuscript offers a fascinating glimpse of medieval medical practice in English history. From ailment to treatment, it provides a practical medical resource to the practitioner, through both its scholastic and its ‘folk’ medical content. Further research is clearly needed to establish just how unique this manuscript is, more evidence of why it was partially destroyed and, if others exist like it.