Category Archives: Medicine

Arte of Gardening Family Household Medicine

How to Write Secretly

These snippets are from a charming little pamphlet entitled A New BOOK of Knowledge, written anonymously, and printed in 1697. A sort of proto-Mrs Beeton, the selected household advice runs from drawing out splinters, to how to write your name on a knife. What follows are some of the more intriguing entries:

How to Write Secretly: Take Alum, and beat it into a Pouder; then put some into a Sawcer of clean Water, till it dissolve: write with this, and dry it by the fire; so you may dispose of it how you please: but when you would read it, wet the Paper in clean Water, and it will appear of a Blewish Colour. There are divers ways of Writing privately, as with the Juice of Limons or Onions; but this exceeds all in my opinion, by reason the others may be seen before the Light, when dry; but this may not, if thoroughly dry.

To help a Chimney that is dangerously on Fire: Let two or three Persons take a Blanket or Coverlet, and hold it close to the Mouth of the Chimney that no Air may enter, and with a close Board, cover the Top of the Chimney; and the Fire, for want of Air, will soon be Extinguished.

Turkies will become very Fat in a short time, and prosper exceedingly, with bruised Acorns.

To keep Apparel, Hangings &c. from Moths: Brush them several times in the Year with a Brush made of Wormwood Tops, and you may rub them with Wormwood, especially when you discern Moths to haunt amongst the Hangings.

An Ointment to kill the ITCH: Take a pennyworth of Black Soap, and a pennyworth of Boars-grease, beat them together in Water, and anoint therewith when it itcheth.

To destroy Caterpillars: Besmear all the bottom of the Tree with Tar, then get a great store of Ants; put them into a Bag, and draw the same with a Cord unto the Tree, and let it hang there, so that it touch the Body of the Tree; and the Ants being prevented to go from the Tree by reason of the Tar, will want for Food, eat and destroy the Caterpillars, without hurting any of the Fruit or Leaves.

To take Fish: Set a Candle in a piece of Cork, as even as may be with the Water, which will stupify and attract the Fishes to it, so that with a little Hoop Not, upon the end of a Cane or Staff, you may take them with much facility.

To get Ink-Spots out of Linnen: Lay it in Urine immediately after the Ink has dropped on it, and there let it lye all night, and the next day wash it out again; and in so doing two or three times, you will find the Spots and Stains quite out.

To catch CROWS: Take white Pease, steep them eight or nine days in the Gall of an Ox, and lay them in some place where they use to come.

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

Custom Family Medicine Women

His little cheeks are wet

Today’s snippets focus on childbirth in early modern England. The traditional assumption is that for most women, childbirth at this time posed a high risk of death to both mother and child, but recent research suggests that the risk of a woman dying during childbirth at this time was only about 6 or 7%. However there were other risks facing pregnant women, many of which were faced by unmarried and single mothers.

Unmarried women were stigmatised as ‘bastard bearers’ and punished as whores. In 1639, the clerk of an unknown London parish recorded money paid out to ‘the whore and her bastard’, and in some cases single pregnant women were subjected to physical punishment or ordered to spend a year in a house of correction, with or without their babies. In 1599, the Essex justices ordered a Frances Barker to be carted and whipped until her blood flowed for bearing a bastard. Often the authorities tried to force single women in labour to reveal the names of the father, threatening to remove the services of a midwife if she failed to comply. Confronted with this threat, one woman swore that ‘although she should be torn in pieces with wild horses she could accuse none other’, while another woman, abandoned by her wealthy lover, ‘cried woe to the bones of him that ever she knew him, but if he had kept promise with her she would never have betrayed him though she had been racked to death.’

Whether single or married, for most women childbirth took place in a separate, darkened room. Only adult women were permitted to attend. In addition to the midwife, the woman’s female relatives often played a significant role, although an unmarried girl was not allowed to be present. There were many remedies and folkloric treatments available for women to choose from, but essentially the woman underwent the birth of her child with no pain relief of any kind, relying solely on the expertise of the midwife. The midwife was usually a respected member of the community, one whose religion had to satisfy the Church, because should the newborn die before a member of the clergy could arrive, it was the midwife who would be expected to perform a baptism.

Once the baby had safely arrived, there was general celebration, and the midwife was rewarded with presents or payment in cash. The baby was washed and wrapped in swaddling clothes. In aristocratic circles a wet-nurse would be employed to feed the baby, but in most ordinary households, the mother would feed the baby herself. The following is a description of a fortunate aristocratic mother greeting her newborn child:

unswaddle him, undo his swaddling bands, give him his breakfast while I am here… wash him before me, have you clean water?  O my little heart! God bless thee, rub the crown of his head, wash his ears…wash his face; lift up a little his hairs, is that not some dirt I see upon his forehead? His little cheeks are wet, I believe you did leave him alone to cry and weep… How many teeth hath he? Pull off his shirt, thou are pretty and fat my little darling. His thumb and little finger are flea bitten… is there any fleas in your chamber?’

After the birth, mother and child would remain in the birthing room for up to a month, until they attended the churching ceremony organised by the father.  This was a Protestant thanksgiving for a safe delivery; signalling the woman’s status within the community as a mother, and allowing her and her family to celebrate both the birth of a new child and her own survival.

Sources & further reading, Mendleson & Crawford, Women in Early Modern England, Clarenden Press (1998); Liza Picard, Elizabeth’s London, Phoenix (2003)

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved


School of Physick

Nicholas Culpeper was born on 18th October 1616 in Surrey. His father having died only nineteen days before, Nicholas’s mother took her son to live with her father, William Attersole, the rector of St Margaret’s parish in Isfield, Sussex. Nicholas came from a prominent family, one branch of which owned Leeds Castle in Kent. Wakehurst Place in Sussex was the family seat of Nicholas’s father’s family; and Sir John Culpeper (created Baron in 1644) was a royalist who accompanied the future Charles II into exile in France, returning with him in 1660.

William Attersole, a scholarly Puritan, was keen for Nicholas to follow him into the church, and as a result, Nicholas attended Cambridge from 1632, however it was clear that he had far more interest in Astrology and ‘occult Philosophy’. By this time, he had also managed to fall madly in love with a beautiful young woman from Sussex. Unfortunately tragedy struck when, on the evening the two of them had chosen to meet and elope, she was struck by lightning and killed. Nicholas was naturally devastated, and subsequently left Cambridge for good.

Nicholas’s grandfather found him work in London with Mr White, an apothecary practising near Temple Bar. In 1639 Nicholas’s mother died, and a year later she was followed by his grandfather, who, disappointed in Nicholas for failing to enter the ministry, left him a paltry inheritance. Undeterred, in 1640 Nicholas married Alice Field, who brought with her enough of a fortune to pay for a house to be built in Red Lion Street, in the unfashionable district of Spitalfields, outside London’s city walls. Nicholas and Alice went on to have seven children, but only Mary, their fourth daughter, outlived her father.

By 1639 Nicholas was working for licensed apothecary Samuel Leadbetter. Apothecaries did more than just dispense medicine, they often diagnosed illnesses and prescribed remedies; activities which constantly brought them into conflict with the College of Physicians. For most people, the expense of consulting a qualified doctor or surgeon was beyond their means, and a visit to the local, and cheaper, apothecary was the preferred option.

No doubt as a result of the conflict between apothecaries and the College of Physicians, Nicholas was tried and acquitted of witchcraft on 17th December 1642. Then, in 1643, Leadbetter received two warnings from the Society of Apothecaries to stop employing Culpeper as his unlicensed assistant. During the same year Culpeper fought on the side of parliament in the civil war and received a serious chest wound from a musket ball, which probably contributed to his eventual death.

Even by the standards of the day, Culpeper’s political and religious views were radical. He hailed the death of Charles I, and remarked in print of Cromwell’s ascendancy, that people had ‘leapt out of the frying pan into the fire’. He also denounced ‘the monster called Religion’ and committed himself to the service of the sick among the poor and powerless. In 1644, Nicholas established his own practise at his house in Spitalfields. He had many clients, and was determined to enable the poor to help themselves. He began publishing books for their benefit. In 1650 he wrote, ‘My pen (if God permit me life and health) shall never lie still, till I have given them the whole model of Physick in the native language’ (A Physical Directory, 1650).

The College of Physicians was able to maintain its monopoly through the regular publication of the Pharmacopoeia, commonly known as the ‘London dispensatory’. This was in Latin, a language difficult even for some apothecaries, and impossible for the barely literate. Culpeper’s first project therefore was to translate the Pharmacopoeia into English; entitled A Physicall Directory, or, A Translation of the London Dispensatory, it was in print by 1649. He amended it with definitions of terms and explanations of the recipes. The response from the authorities was swift and condemnatory. The royalist news-sheet Mercurius Pragmaticus accused Culpeper of ‘mixing every receipt [recipe] therein with some scruples, at least, of rebellion or atheisme’, and of endeavouring ‘to bring into obloquy the famous societies of apothecaries and chyrurgeons’; and William Johnson, the college’s chemist, asked whether the result was ‘fit to wipe ones breeches withall’.

Nicholas’s books continued apace. He published his A Directory for Midwives (1651), and Semiotica uranica, or, An Astrological Judgement of Diseases from the Decumbiture of the Sick (1651). There were also more translations from Latin into English. But his greatest achievement was his The English Physitian, or, An astrologo-physical discourse on the vulgar herbs of this nation, being a compleat method of physick, whereby a man may preserve his body in health, or cure himself, being sick (1652).


Costing 3d, it provided a comprehensive list of native medicinal herbs, indexed to a list of illnesses, and was set out in a straightforward and accessible style. It was an immediate success. One edition of 1708 was printed in Boston; along with the translated Pharmacopoeia, printed in 1720, there were the first medical books published in North America.

On 10th January 1654, Nicholas died at home in Red Lion Street, Spitalfields, of consumption, aggravated by excessive tobacco smoking, and possibly his war wound. He was only thirty-eight. He was buried in the new graveyard of Bethlem Hospital. His fame outlived him, and his printer issued further posthumous books in Culpeper’s name, with the blessing of his widow Alice.

Culpeper’s importance in the development of medicine in early modern England is beyond dispute. He brought cheap and sophisticated remedies to poverty-stricken illiterate Londoners; and according to a 2009 edition entitled Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, his The English Physician has been continually in print since the seventeenth century, and is thought to be the most widely disseminated secular English text ever to have existed.

Sources: Patrick Curry, DNB; Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, Diana Vowels, Arcturus Publishing (2009)

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

Booze Dining Medicine

A naturall drinke for a Dutche man

More snippets from Andrew Boorde’s A compendious regiment or a dietary of healthe (1547).


Ale is made of malte and water, and they the which do put any other thinge to ale except yeast, barme, or godesgood, doth sophisticate their ale. Ale for an English man is a natural drinke. Ale must have these properties, it must be freshe & cleare, it muste not be ropy nor smoky, nor muste it have no weft nor taile.  Ale should not be drunke under five daies olde. Newe ale is unwholesome for all men. And soure ale and that which doth stande a-tilt is good for no man. Barley malte maketh better ale than oaten malt or any other corne doth, it dothe engendre grosse humours, but yet it maketh a man stronge.

Beere is made of malte, of hoppes, and water, it is a naturall drinke for a Dutche man. And nowe of late daies it is muche used in Englande to the detriment of many Englishmen, specially it killeth those which be troubled with the colicke & the stone & the strangulion, for the drinke is a colde drinke: yet it doth make a man fat, & doth inflate the belly, as it doth appeare by the Dutche mens faces & bellies. If the beere be well brewed and fined, it dothe qualifye the heate of the liver.

Cyder is made of the juice of peares, or of the juice of apples, & other while cider is made of both, but the best cyder is made of cleane peares the which be dulcet, but yet best is not praised in physicke, for cyder is colde of operation, and is full of bentosite, wherefore it doth engendre evill humours, and doth swage to mocke the naturall heate of man, & doth let digestion, and dothe hurte the stomacke, but they the which be used to it, if it be drunken in harvest it doeth littell harme.

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

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