My intent is to allow the reader to walk down the lanes of old London (before it burned to the ground in the Great Fire of 1666) and feel as if you are actually there. You can smell and touch the nuances of London. You'll know what it's like to work your way through the City and its the conflicting laws where religion played in important part of everyday life. So sit back and enjoy the ride.

Oh, and then there's my French Revolution novel.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

17th century Medicine by Katherine Pym

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While researching my 1660 novels, I come across some very interesting information. The most unique is medicine. Even though the cures were most often worse than the disease, from journals of the time people gave their healers an optimum of trust.

At the beginning of the 17th century, Barbers and Surgeons were in demand, but by the end of the century, Physicians took over the bulk of medicine. They were even allowed to enter the birthing chamber.

A Surgeon at work

London Air:
A few great thinkers felt the ‘airs’ in the city were toxic, and a cause for the many illnesses that plagued the environs. To remove the vile odors that poisoned the city, one suggested a barge be filled with freshly cut onions and transported downriver to the sea. The stink would follow the onions like a cloud of bees after their queen.

Another custom was to leave peeled onions on the ground for several days, soaking up nearby illnesses. Herbs scattered in doorways and window sills were popular to keep fevers from entering the house. Pomanders filled with spices were shaken by men and women in crowded halls, streets and markets.

In 1664 Amsterdam suffered from the ravages of the bubonic plague. It was only a matter of time before it sailed the North Sea and found its way to London. Superstition and false treatments (expensive too) ruled the day.

During the London plague of 1665, an edict stated the lanes must be swept of cats and dogs (killed & immediately buried), for they could carry the deadly scythe. Tobacco kept the plague at bay, and was smoked or chewed. Children were whipped if they did not pull on their pipes. Burning brimstone helped, and discharging a musket or pistol in the house cleaned unwholesome air from the premises. Many wore lucky charms around their necks.

Piss Pot Science: a diagnosis of illness by looking at someone’s urine. The patient can be within reach or elsewhere. It was diagnosis by proxy.

A Barber at work
Barbers pulled teeth. They could also bleed a customer, i.e., leech blood to balance the fluids and cool dark bile within the body. To be bled a cup of blood would cost you five shillings. Barbers were not allowed to do surgery, but they often disregarded this rule.  

A medicine: A draught of wormwood (absinthe) with white wine and sheep’s trittles (dung) were infused together. Then the apothecary would add powdered eggshells to the mixture. My sources did not state what this would cure. 
More meds: drugs that came from the apothecary could have these ingredients in them—moss, smoked horses’ testicles, May dew, and henbane.

Other cures:
When in bed and fearful of getting ill, have someone tie your hands under the covers.  
The king’s hands held sacred cures. When he touched you, your scrofula would be cured. Touching an executed man’s hand would also cure scrofula, and other ailments.
Rub veal lard on injured parts of your body.
It was good to tie a newly dead pigeon to a patient’s foot. This released poisons from the affected person through its feathers into the dead bird’s body. 
One must sing and dance before the victim of a tarantula bite
If you have the pox (syphilis), you will not get the plague.

Things to do & avoid:
Sweet potatoes bring on wind and lust.
Wear a cloth on the belly to keep from getting cold.
Carry signs of the zodiac to ward off the plague.

A green winter (warm) will cause illness.
Do not eat fruit during a warm summer. It will give you a deadly fever.

The sale of fruits was prohibited during plagues. L. Riverius, in The Practice of physic (1672), said, “In summertime crude humors breed... by eating of fruits, and over much drinking which being mixed with choler do breed bastard Tertians.’” (a type of malarial fever)

Mercury was used for almost everything, especially syphilis.
Turpentine (altered pine sap) was formed into syrups and pills. Easily obtained, it was a solution to many problems.  
Cut a sick child’s hair, put the strands between two pieces of bread; then give it to the first dog you see. This will cause the child’s illness to transfer into that of the dog.
Tobacco also kept tuberculosis (consumption) at bay. Initially called the ‘white plague’, TB gained prevalence during the 17th century. Thomas Willis came to the conclusion all lung diseases would mutate into consumption. He blamed this on the higher intake of sugar and acidity in the blood.

A Barber pulling a tooth
Charms & Good Luck pieces:
Grey cat’s skin-remedy for whooping cough
Key attached to rope wards off witches
Coins brings wealth
Iron pyrite covered acorns prevents lightning strikes.
Hares foot cures the colic. When it is made into a glister of honey and salt, it “purgeth the guts of slime & filth.”

Due to a large amount of meat in the 17th century diet, constipation was an issue. People would set aside a day to purge, take a physic and sit near the potty-chair. When things got bad, you’d resort to a clyster or enema.

One enema recipe: ale, a fair amount of sugar, and butter. Recipes such as this or warm water in a plunger would be inserted into the anus. Not so different from this day and age, but God only knew what was in the ‘warm water’, which came either from the conduits along Cheapside, or more than likely, the Thames, a stink-pot of offal and sometimes a receptacle for dead bodies.

Women’s illnesses:
In the mid-16th century, a physician described the green sickness an ailment of virgins. Young women would suffer from lethargy and dietary changes. By the late 17th century the disease was considered a hysterical woman’s ailment. A man would be the source of the cure, though and have sex with the suffering (chaste & virginal) woman.

Another male diagnosis on the subject of women’s heath was the wandering womb. The physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia said the womb was “’an animal within an animal,’ an organ that ‘moved of itself hither and thither in the flanks.’” The womb would bang into all sorts of internal organs, and sometimes, even make its way into the brain, pushing aside grey matter. To get the woman with child was the only cure for it would force the womb back to its proper place. If the woman was celibate or a virgin, so much the better.  

Treatment for Mental Maladies.  One was to strap a poor fellow to a board and place his head into an oven constructed like a large beehive. With a large hole for the head, other holes were drilled around the top of the beehive structure. The fire within would purge the bad humors from the brain and make one well again, if he survived the fire and smoke inhalation. 

Another  treatment was to drill hole(s) in the skull to release bad bile. Sad business, that.

Many thanks to my notes collected over the years,
Culpeper, Nathanial, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, and

For more information on 17th century London, please see The Barbers & Jasper's Lament


  1. Nutmegs were believed to prevent or cure the plague, hence their astronomical price in the 17th century. There was also a saying about syphilis - "One night with Venus means a lifetime with Mercury!"

  2. Nutmegs were believed to prevent or cure the plague, hence their astronomical price in the 17th century. There was also a saying about syphilis - "One night with Venus means a lifetime with Mercury!"

  3. Very informative, Katherine! Thanks so much for joining in. I'll beware of going crazy to avoid the cure.

  4. I really enjoyed this post and I have tweeted it...
    Marilyn Watson

  5. Excellent post, Katherine. As a modern Londoner I can't help noticing that some of these old wives tales are still abroad today - for example the one about the green or 'warm' winter. When the UK was hit by bitingly cold weather for the first time this year I lost count of the people who said to me, 'that's good, don't want no horrible warm winters. Very bad for you, they are.'

    1. Thanks for your response Jennie. I always love your informational tidbits. :D