Goat’s Dung, Mummified Flesh and Vomiting… This is what passed for state-of-the-art health care in Shakespeare’s day. The authors of new book ‘Maladies & Medicine: Exploring Health & Healing 1540-1740′ reveal six stomach-emptying (sometimes quite literally so) cures from early modern England

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By Jennifer Evans and Sara Read

In William Shakespeare’s time, the concept of the four humours dominated ideas about the body. The humours were fluids: blood, choler, melancholy, and phlegm, which needed to be kept in equilibrium in order for the body to stay healthy. Illness was usually, although not always, understood as an accumulation of excess or a corruption of one of these fluids.

For the most part, medical treatments were gentle ones designed to restore balance by drawing out ill humours and purging the body of excess. Remedies might also balance out the body by counteracting the effects of diseases. For example, cooling drinks might reduce the heat of the body caused by fever. Shakespeare’s own son-in-law, Dr John Hall, husband of his elder daughter Susanna, practised these mainly conservative cures in the first instance for many illnesses. So, in one case he prescribed a double-folded linen cloth filled with butter to be placed on the side of an elderly lady with stomach ache.

Not all remedies were pleasant though, particularly not when viewed from our modern perspective. Practitioners could resort to drastic means of purging the body, or could prescribe medicines that contained unappetising ingredients. Here are six remedies you would probably want to avoid today…

Blisters

Many practitioners thought that raising blisters on the skin was a good way of drawing out unwanted humours and therefore disease. An anonymous treatise from a 1577 book recommended the notoriously dangerous green flies known as cantharides (actually not flies at all, but small iridescent beetles) which, we’re told, were easily available from the local apothecary shop. These w‪ere placed in a mortar with vinegar and some breadcrumbs to make a paste, which was applied to ‘the sore place, that is, where the most grief is’ for around seven hours. Once dry, it had to be teased off with the tip of a knife. After the skin blistered it had to be burst and, as the author explained, ‘with your finger thrust out the water softly’. The problem with blisters was that while the ‘the pain of the disease is gone’, the patient then had to heal from the new sore.

Bloodletting

Imagine if you felt poorly and your doctor prescribed cutting open a vein in your arm or ankle, with a lance and no anaesthetic, to remove some of your ‘excess’ blood. The amount of blood removed was dependent on the condition. Because blood was considered to be a ‘hot’ humour, phlebotomy was often used to take heat from the body in the case of fevers. It wasn’t recommended to be used on children, fortunately, since all their blood was needed to help them grow. Doctors didn’t let blood willy-nilly. As one sixteenth-century physician (who published a book as ‘A. T’ in 1596) instructed, before letting blood you must consider ‘the age of the patient, the complexion, the time of the year, the region, the custom, the strength, and the vehemence of the disease’. Not all bloodletting was done by cutting into the body. As many people know, an alternative was to apply leeches to the skin.

Induced Vomiting

Most people today hate being sick, as they did in the past. One early doctor, Philip Barrough described in his 1583 medical guide how unpleasant feelings of nausea came from ‘a naughty and wicked motion of the expulsive virtue of the stomach’. But this innate urge to eject things was put to good use in early modern times, when emetic medicines that caused patients to be sick were a routine cure. Vomiting was also used to ward off ill health. John Clarke, an apothecary, took ‘a vomit’ once every month or six weeks as a preventative against all manner of infirmities. He wrote that if everyone did the same then it would save 20,000 pounds of tobacco which was currently being used by people as a medicine. Clarke described how to make a posset that would bring up a great quantity of phlegm and other corrupt humours, leaving you feeling clear headed and very well.

Mummified Flesh

In Shakespeare’s time, remedies composed of multiple ingredients could also include some rather unappealing components. A text published a few decades later (in the 1650s) claimed that many
medicaments are taken out of a Live Man, or from a dead man. From a live man, we have Hairs, Nails, Spittle, Ear-wax, Milk, Seed, Blood, Menstrual Blood, Secondines, Urine, Dung, Lice, Wormes, Stones of Bladder & Kidneyes, &c. From a dead man, Skin, Fat, Scul, Brain, Teeth, Bones Mummy

Preserved human flesh (mummy) was found in several medicines including an unguent to staunch blood recommended in a 1605 medical text by Christoph Wirsung, a German physician. Dead men’s flesh didn’t always have to be put into a medicine. Many people waited at the gallows in the hope that they could have their boils and swellings stroked with the hanged man’s hand, which was thought to have healing properties.

Breast Milk

In early modern notions of the body, breast milk was created from menstrual blood, which was diverted after the birth of the child to the breasts where it was ‘concocted’ into milk. It was thought to have healing properties. William Copland’s Treasurie of Health suggested that ‘The yolke of an egge, mingled w[ith] Rose water, bran, & womans milk’ was a good medicine to assuage pain and to drive unhealthy humours out of the body. While Thomas Vicary’s English-mans Treasure recommended a mixture of wormwood, plantain, rose water, breast milk and egg white to heal bloodshot eyes.

Animal Dung

It wasn’t just parts of the human body and its products that were used in medicines. Plasters sometimes contained rather pungent components. Dung, usually from a cow, formed the main component of several plasters recommended to ease swelling. Andrew Boorde’s Breuiary of Health, for example, suggested a remedy made of goat dung and honey. Christoph Wirsung’s medical text suggested a plaster of bayberries mixed with goat’s dung to ease the dropsy, a disease characterised by watery swelling of the stomach.

Jennifer Evans is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Hertfordshire
Sara Read is Lecturer in English at Loughborough University

Their new book Maladies and Medicines: Exploring Health and Healing, 1540-1740 is out now, published by Pen and Sword Books.

Vsit the authors’ blog: earlymodernmedicine.com

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