Author: Lisa Smith

Sir Hans Sloane, Abbé Bignon and Mrs. Hickie’s Pigeons

In 1720, Dr. Den. Hickie complained to Sloane about an ongoing dispute with a neighbour:

the Lord of the Manor who is intent upon me as a stranger to do me prejudice & particularly in destroying a few pigeons that my wife has always kept without molestation since first shee bought her estate in this Countrey.

The country in this case referred to France, not just the countryside. Dr and Mrs Hickie had moved to Meulan sur Seine from London. It was “the profes that you have given me of your friendship whilest I resided & practiced in London”, Hickie wrote, that “encourages me to take the liberty of importuning you at present”. Hickie reminded Sloane that the friendship had not been one way, as he had been sending his observations to the Royal Society on Sloane’s directions.

Sloane might not seem the obvious choice to assist with a neighbourly dispute in France, until Hickie specified who is neighbour was: one of the Abbé Bignon’s brothers. By 1720, Sloane and the Abbé had been regular correspondents for over twenty-five years (which Ann-Marie Hansen discusses in another post). Although Hickie had met the Abbé in person and been received upon Sloane’s “acc[oun]t wth a great deal of civility & friendship”, he clearly was not in a position to ask the Abbé directly for assistance. But he hoped that Sloane would intercede with the Abbé on his behalf:

a word speakeing from the Abbé at his Brother is enough to free me from the disturbance that this man designes to give me therefore I hope that you’ld contribute to protect me by your recommendation.

This is a letter that highlights the complicated routes that patronage might take. One could not just approach someone of the Abbé’s standing on a limited acquaintance, especially in France where the rules of patronage were even more stringent than in England. An intermediary was crucial. And who better than the one who had introduced Hickie to the Abbé in the first place?

But… it’s really the dispute over pigeons in this letter that captures my interest.

A rather fine pigeon. From John Moore, A Treatise on Domestic Pigeons (1765). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A rather fine pigeon. From John Moore, A Treatise on Domestic Pigeons (1765). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Pigeons were not just valuable livestock, but one that owners (or “fanciers” as they even called themselves in the 1700s) seemed to hold in great affection. The most common use of pigeons was for food, which provided a steady supply of meat year round. In his Columbarium: or, the pigeon-house (London, 1735),

John Moore argued that pigeon dung was particularly important for fertilizing crops, making medicines, tanning leather and producing salt-petre. The dung was so good that it “challengeth the Priority, not only of the Dung of Fowls, but of all other Creatures whatsoever, on the accont of its usefulness in human Life.” Moore’s chapter on treating pigeon distempers suggests the lengths that fanciers might go to care for their pigeons: special diets, imported ingredients (such as tobacco) and attentive nursing. The attack on Mrs Hickie’s pigeons must have been upsetting for the Hickies on several levels.

Alhough Hickie suggested that Bignon was attacking the pigeons because the Hickies were not local (a natural fear for anyone living in a foreign land), the reasons are likely far more complicated. Whereas there were no regulations on who might own pigeons in eighteenth-century England, French law was very clear–only lords of the manor had the right to keep or kill pigeons. This feudal right was considered to be such a fundamental mark of inequality that it was revoked in the second article of the 4 August Decrees of 1789, which were passed by the National Assembly to settle peasant unrest in the countryside during the French Revolution.

It’s unclear which brother Hickie meant, but all three brothers were firmly entrenched in the aristocracy: Louis was the Major General of the King’s Armies, Jérôme III was the Intendant of Amiens and Armand Roland was the Intendant of Paris. Such men would not have looked kindly upon mere commoners, however well-to-do, keeping pigeons.

Hickie may have been astute enough to spot the need for an intermediary in the dispute, but he had made a classic ex-pat mistake of fundamentally missing an important cultural difference. What would have been a simple matter of bad neighbourliness in England was at the heart of aristocratic privilege in France.

A Welsh Doctor, Sir Hans Sloane, and the disappearing catheter

By Alun Withey

Editor’s note: Alun would like to warn all readers that this post contains some graphic description of a particularly uncomfortable surgical technique…

Woodcut preparatio of patient for lithotomy, 1628. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Woodcut preparatio of patient for lithotomy, 1628. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In 1720, Dr. Alban Thomas was something of a high-flyer. The son of a Pembrokeshire cleric and poet, Alban first matriculated from Oxford in 1708, became librarian of the Ashmolean museum, assistant secretary of the Royal Society and, if that wasn’t enough, obtained his doctorate in medicine from Aberdeen in 1719. At a time when Wales was still a largely rural country, with no medical institutions of its own and fairly poor transport and road infrastructures, these were exceptional achievements for a boy from Newcastle Emlyn.

Also unusual was that Alban appears to have returned to Wales to set up his medical practice; many Welsh practitioners who had trained in Oxford or London chose not to return, choosing the potentially more lucrative market of the larger English towns. Nonetheless, especially in and around the growing Welsh towns, there was still a relatively wealthy Welsh elite to cater for and some, like Alban, positioned themselves to serve the denizens of large estates and houses.

It is clear, though, that Alban still had connections. One of his correspondents was no less a luminary than Sir Hans Sloane, the Irish physician to the fashionable and, indeed, the royal and, later, president of the Royal Society. Surviving letters from Alban Thomas to Sloane suggest that theirs was a fairly regular correspondence, with Sloane acting in an advisory role for particular cases. It is one particular case that interests us here.

In November 1738, Alban Thomas wrote to Sloane regarding a patient, Sir Thomas Knolles of Wenallt, Pembrokeshire, who was causing him concern. Knolles, although “a person of great worth, candour and humanity” was also

a person of very gross habit, of body an unusual size and make and about 20 stone weight with an appetite to his meat but very moderate in his drinking.

Knolles enjoyed exercise but, due to his size, this was often done on horseback.

At some stage, Knolles had become ‘dropsicall’ and suffered from swollen legs. The doctor used a combination of diuretics and tight, laced stockings to countermand this with, he reported, some success as Knolles returned to health, requiring only the odd purge as a ‘spring clean’. About four years previously however Knolles had begun to complain of a swelling in his scrotum, which Alban Thomas assumed to be hydrocele–a condition causing grossly swollen testicles (sometimes treated by injecting port wine into the testicles). After drawing off “about a quart of limpid serum” from the stoic Knolles’ testicles followed by the application of a dressing, and strict recovery routines, the doctor hoped that he had cured the condition for good. This proved to be premature.

When Knolles began to complain sometimes of not being able to pass urine at all, at others a few drops and occasionally losing his bladder control entirely, he took it upon himself to get a second opinion from an unnamed doctor in nearby Haverfordwest. This physician prescribed a ‘Turbith vomit’ which wrought well and even caused Knolles to void a stone about the size of a kidney bean. Rather than being put off by this occurrence, Knolles was encouraged and began to pester Dr Thomas to give him more of these treatments. Unimpressed and undeterred, Thomas decided on a more proactive course. After putting Knolles on a course of diuretic medicines, liquors and balsams for a week he brought in to his consulting room. What happened next highlights the particular horrors of early modern surgery.

Left, Raw's grooved catheter; right, bladder of a male. Engraving with etching. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Left, Raw’s grooved catheter; right, bladder of a male. Engraving with etching. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

When Knolles arrived, Dr Thomas first applied a Turbith vomit, hoping that “so rugged a medicine” would clear the blockage without the need for more invasive procedures. It didn’t. In fact, the symptoms grew worse. It was at this point that Dr Thomas reached for his catheter and introduced it into the unfortunate Sir Thomas’s member. Expecting some resistance, he was surprised to find that the catheter went in without resistance.

On the contrary it seemed to force itself out of my fingers after passing the neck of the bladder as if it was sucked in, which I thought was owing to the pressure of his belly, the crooked end was now upward.

Yes, you read it right. The catheter was ‘sucked’ out of the doctors fingers and upwards further into the bladder! Now, any male readers may want to cross their legs!

In an attempt to probe for the stone that he feared was lurking in the bladder, and to release some water, Dr Thomas decided to turn the catheter around. At this point, the poor patient “cryed out with some violence…TAKE IT OUT I CAN BEAR IT NO LONGER”. Happily for Knolles the catheter came out “with as much ease as it went in without one drop through it or immediately after it”.

Three months later, the patient was still suffering, with the addition of great pain, defying all attempts for his relief. Despite being a “hail, hearty man having good lungs but lyable to hoarseness” and the occasional cold, Alban Thomas perceived him to be a healthy man. His efforts to treat Knolles had so far failed and he appealed to the eminent Sloane to help him “form a right judgement in this case”.

And so we leave the story there. What happened to Knolles is unclear, but the pain of his condition can only have been matched by the pain of his treatment. Suffering a succession of violent vomits, pills, electuaries and, finally, a wandering catheter, it is almost amazing to think that he ever went near Dr Alban Thomas again. Such (uncomfortable) cases remind us of the situation facing patients in the early modern period. For some the decision to see a doctor must have been a balancing act between bearing their illness or facing treatment.

(This post originally appeared on Alun Withey’s blog Thank you to Alun for cross-posting his Sloane story here!)

Checking Tongues in the Eighteenth Century

A bored physician looks at the tongue of an old lady; suggesting the waste of physician's time by hypochondriacs. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A bored physician looks at the tongue of an old lady; suggesting the waste of physician’s time by hypochondriacs. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Miley Cyrus must, by now, have the most photographed tongue in history. My friend Jennifer Marotta recently  sent me this link about the diseases that Miley might pick up or spread by licking sledgehammers, mirrors and so forth. Although Jennifer had asked whether there were any nasty early modern equivalents, I became mesmerized by the sight of Miley’s tongue… and the secrets that it might reveal. Checking the tongue was a crucial part of diagnosis in early modern medicine.  

One of Hans Sloane’s correspondents, Giorgio Baglivi, was an Italian physician known for his work on medical practice. Baglivi, like Sloane, believed in the importance of bedside observation. In The Practice of Physick (1704), Baglivi outlined what a full medical examination should entail: “the Sick Persons Excrements and Urine, his Tongue and his Eyes, his Pulse and his Face, the Affections of his Mind, his former way of living, and the errors he has been guilty of in the way of Conduct” (30).

Physicians, of course, had no way to see or hear inside the human body. Examining the tongue was perhaps the best tool available, as it would provide

“a more certain and naked view of that state of the Blood than any other Sign”.

This included the taste, colour, “and other qualities of the Tongue” (157). In their letters to Sloane, several patients mentioned the state of their tongues.

Tongues were variously described as moist, clammy, or dry. Mrs Conyers, who had stomach pain, wheezing and shivering, apparently had a moist tongue and hands. In 1710, William Derham wrote that his wife had a “moist, & not very white” tongue, but by the following morning the tongue had become drier. Thomas Isted, according to his doctor, suffered from a clammy tongue, as well as sweating and sizy (viscous) blood.

Taste was also an important detail. Mr Campbell, who “had indulged his palate and rarely exercised as his business was very sedentary”, suffered from a foul and dry tongue. This was in addition to terrible urine (“thick and muddy”, “foul and turbid, gray, ropy and tough”) and a “muddy complexion”. The foulness had spread throughout his body.

The colour of tongues was most often described as black or white. In 1720, Dr Allen had several chest and stomach problems that were on the mend, but he also had a “slow fever, a brown but afterwards black Tongue” and low spirits. A “young gentleman” in 1725 had a violent peripneumonick fever accompanied with a “dry black tongue”; his strength was failing so rapidly that the physician did not want to try bleeding the patient. Sir William Thomson, in 1739, had a dry throat and “soon after the edge of the tip of his tongue grew hairy, white and almost transparent”. The physician believed “that an aphthous [blister] crust would creep down the throat and probably pass as a thorough thrush to the anus”. Unpleasant.

These details revealed the body’s interior. As Baglivi noted,

“if the Tongue is moist, so is the Constitution of the Blood; if dry, than the Blood is of a dry inflammatory Nature”.

An acidic taste, for example, revealed an acidic blood, or a salty taste meant salty blood (296). A canny physician could also make a prognosis, based on the evidence. For a patient delirious with an acute fever and a parched tongue (signs of inflamed viscera), the physician should avoid applying blisters, otherwise the patient would likely be “seiz’d with Convulsions before they die” (424). In malignant fevers, “a foul Tongue and trembling Hands are always dangerous in acute Diseases” (165). Black tongues were a bad sign. When a patient had an acute disorder, “a black Tongue is almost always followed by a Delirium” (88). Worst of all, though was a cold tongue: “Death follows soon after” (174).

Although displaying the body is part of the act for many female pop stars, the visibility of Miley’s tongue allows us to see inside her body in a surprisingly intimate way. The good news is, she is at present no danger of a mortal distemper.

The bad news is, her tongue does appear a little white. (Others have provided modern diagnoses here and here.) Baglivi did not mention white tongues specifically, but white-coated blood suggested inflammation of the internal organs. In any case, I sincerely hope that Miley doesn’t develop Sir William Thomson’s creeping thrush.

Lost Letters in the Eighteenth Century

Copies of William Dockwra’s postal markings used in 1680-1682. Credit: Michael Romanov, Wikimedia Commons.

Copies of William Dockwra’s postal markings used in 1680-1682. Credit: Michael Romanov, Wikimedia Commons.

Sending a letter around the turn of the eighteenth century was an uncertain business. Although the Penny Post (1680) had enabled the daily delivery of letters within ten miles of London, letters were generally sent with travellers or servants or, perhaps, by diplomatic channels, over longer distances. As Alice Marples recently hinted, warfare, lost ships, highwaymen, pirates and unreliable bearers were potential barriers to delivery. Hans Sloane’s correspondents, not surprisingly, had much to say on the matter of postal problems–including, sometimes, the letter-writer himself!

The path of sending letters was sometimes complicated. William Fraser forwarded Sloane a letter from Dr Martini in Riga. Fraser had left Martini’s letter behind in Hamburg by accident and had only just received it once more. Any replies were to be directed to Fraser at Robin’s Coffeehouse, which he would then forward to Martini in Riga. Fraser’s letter was undated, so there is no telling how long it took for Martini’s letter dated 20 December 1717 to reach Sloane. Jacob Scheuchzer of Zurich had a detailed back-up plan that he needed when he did not hear from Sloane, despite sending several letters, in 1716. He wrote to John Woodward in England who then forwarded Sloane a copy of the original letter.

This was a wise decision when letters and packages might be lost. Letters sent between countries were especially at risk.  Denis Papin, for example, only learned in 1709 that Sloane had sent a letter to him in France when a mutual acquaintance told him. Johann Philipp Breyne, writing from Amsterdam, was disappointed in 1702 when he discovered that Sloane had never received his letter from Rome, which had included (tantalizingly) a “curious account”. But even letters sent within England might go astray. In April 1702, Abraham de la Pryme, writing from Thorne, was unsure whether or not Sloane had received his last month’s letter about a man bitten by a rabid dog. To make matters worse, the Philosophical Transactions that Sloane had sent him had also not arrived!

Despite the problems, people seem to have trusted the post enough to send valuable items through it. William Sherard reported in 1701 that several prints had arrived from Paris and were at the post office awaiting payment of customs fees. Sherard also promised that his brother, once returned from Paris, would send Sloane some books. John Ray, in 1697, let Sloane know that he had finally received Sloane’s package of flower specimens.

Of course, sometimes lost letters were the ones ignored buried under Sloane’s piles of correspondence. In May 1704, Nehemiah Grew wrote to Sloane about one of Ralph Thoresby’s letters (subject unspecified). Sloane had apparently not yet responded to or returned the letter, despite his promises for over half a year. This, Grew complained, put him in a difficult position. He demanded that Sloane return Thoresby’s letter immediately. Sloane presumably returned the letter and it seems likely that the letter was eventually published in the Philosophical Transactions (1704) as the (delightfully titled) “An Extract of a Letter from Mr Ralph Thoresby, F.R.S. to Nehemiah Grew, Fellow of the College of Physicians and R.S. concerning a Ball voided by Stool”.

Sloane’s lack of a reply to Grew and Thoresby does, however, make me wonder how many of these ‘concerns’ about lost letters were actually Sloane’s correspondents issuing polite reminders to reply— a strategy that is as useful  in the age of electronic communication as it was in the eighteenth century…

October 9 is World Post Day: the celebration of the Universal Postal Union, founded in 1874, which allowed for the development of a reliable international postal service.

For more on early modern letters and post, see James Daybell, The Material Letter in Early Modern England (2012).

A Visit to Seventeenth-Century Jamaica

One of my favourite letters in Hans Sloane’s correspondence is one written by twenty-eight year old Sloane to Sir Edward Herbert on the 17th of April, 1688 (British Library, Sloane MS 4068, ff. 7-9). It’s a lively account of Sloane’s experiences of the new world, including earthquakes and pineapples!

A parodic cosmological diagram showing opposing aspects of the life of colonialists in Jamaica - langorous noons and the hells of yellow fever. Coloured aquatint by A.J., 1800. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A parodic cosmological diagram showing opposing aspects of the life of colonialists in Jamaica – langorous noons and the hells of yellow fever. Coloured aquatint by A.J., 1800. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Sloane had arrived in Jamaica in December 1687, after a three month journey, to be the personal physician of the Duke of Albemarle, Governor of Jamaica. Although Sloane suffered from sea sickness during the journey, followed by a fever on arrival, he had settled into his new surroundings by April. His ailments had been but a trifle—“a little seasoning (as I call it)”—and he had since enjoyed perfect health.[1] The climate, Sloane noted, was also more hospitable than people in England assumed. Mornings and evenings might be hot, but the rest of the day was temperate; “I’m sure”, he wrote, “I have felt greater heat in some parts of France then ever I did here”. 

On the subject of local diet, Sloane wrote that the fruits were not as good as European ones. Pineapples, he thought, were “far inferior” to pippins, but the watermelons were “very good”. The local water was particularly excellent and he insisted that “it has preserved my life I’m sure”. Perhaps it had, since he was in good health—unlike the settlers he treated, such as the Duke of Albemarle and his crony, the Admiral Henry Morgan, whose dissolute behaviour was well-known. Many settlers, Sloane suggested, had “a false principle concerning the climate” and ended up killing themselves “by adding fewell to the fire & drinking strong intoxicating liquor”. Sloane’s letter hints at an underlying belief that whereas intemperate men would find a tropical climate difficult, a temperate man would find it temperate.[2]

Since February, Sloane had come to “dread” the local earthquakes. He described the start of a local quake:  “I finding the house to dance & cabinetts to reel I look’d out at window to see whither people remov’d  house or no”. When he noticed the birds “in as great a concern as my selfe” and another shake occurred, he realised what was happening. He promptly “betook [himself] to [his] heels to gett clear of the house”.  Before he even reached the stairs, the earthquake was over.

Sloane’s later report in the Philosophical Transactions (issue 209, 1694) is less humorous, but provides details about both the earthquake and his life in Jamaica. He was, for example, specific about the timing. Three small shocks occurred at eight in the morning, lasting only a minute. The report also included accounts from across the island. Ships in the harbour felt it, but one man on horseback didn’t even notice. A gentleman on his plantation “saw the ground rise like the Sea in a Wave” as it headed northward. Minor though it was, the earthquake still caused damage. Many houses were “crack’d”, “ruin’d” or lost tiles.

In the Phil. Trans., Sloane also revealed tidbits about his residence in Spanish Town and other Jamaican buildings. Sloane lived in a “high Brick House”. It must have been a good size, as he had to pass through two rooms to get to the staircase to go down. There was apparently a third (or fourth?) floor since “a pair of stairs higher” suffered the most damage from the tremors, with most items on the shelves falling down.

King's Square, St. Jago de la Vega (Spanish Town), c. 1820-1824. Most of these were late eighteenth-century buildings, although as early as 1672, it was a good sized area with 2000 households. Original: Hakewill, (1875), A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica Scan: Internet Archive

King’s Square, St. Jago de la Vega (Spanish Town), c. 1820-1824. In 1672, it was a good sized area with 2000 households. The buildings in this picture date to the late eighteenth century.
From Hakewill, (1875), A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica. Source: The Internet Archive.

The island’s Spanish architecture, in contrast, was very practical: low houses consisting only of ground-rooms, with supporting posts buried deep in the ground. This, Sloane explained, was “on purpose to avoid the Danger which attended other manner of building from Earthquakes”. He noted, for example, that “Inhabitants of Jamaica expect an earthquake every year” and that some believed “they follow their Rains”. Given the frequency of earthquakes in the region and the impracticality of Sloane’s residence, it was a good thing for him that this was a minor one.

While in Jamaica, Sloane did more than collect flora and fauna specimens and treat his patients. He keenly observed the world around him, whether it was the taste of fruit and water or the style of local buildings. Sloane might harshly judge the habits of the settlers, but his 1688 letter reveals an otherwise affable and curious young man who was enjoying his stay in Jamaica, even if he didn’t care for pineapple.

Or earthquakes.

[1] This referred to the process by which Europeans believed they would acclimatize to non-European climates, diseases, foods and waters.

[2] This fits with Wendy Churchill’s argument that Sloane attributed diseases to behaviour rather than to different climates or group complexions: “Bodily Differences? : Gender, Race, and Class in Hans Sloane’s Jamaican Medical Practice, 1687-1688”, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 60, 4 (2005): 391-444.

Note from a Bristol Glassmaker

This weekend, The Sloane Letters Blog celebrated its first anniversary and the recent addition of the 3000th letter to the database! On this occasion, it seems appropriate to reflect on Letter 3000.

Bristol blue glass: unlikely to be the glass in question because it wasn't invented until later in the century. But it sure is pretty! Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, user Arpingston.

Bristol blue glass: unlikely to be the glass in question because it wasn’t invented until later in the century. But it sure is pretty! Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, user Arpingston.

The short letter was written in late October 1727 by a Bristol glassmaker, Jonathan Rogers. Rogers claimed to have discovered a method of glassmaking that would offer “Universall benefit to the state” and asked for Sloane’s assistance in promoting the technique. This sort of request was by no means unusual. People regularly wrote to Sloane asking for favours, such as providing reference letters or assistance with schemes, and offering to share secrets or give demonstrations.

What was interesting about Rogers’ letter, though, was his reference to recently reading a treatise on natural philosophy by Joseph Glanvill (1636-1680). This is what had inspired Rogers to write to Sloane. I wish that I knew my Glanvill well enough to guess what exactly Rogers had read that encouraged him to write to a man so far above his station.

That a glassmaker might read natural philosophy is not necessarily surprising; technical processes and natural philosophy regularly blurred in early modern Europe. But it strikes me as important that Rogers must have been reading widely. Glanvill, who tended towards the religious side of natural philosophy, is not the obvious practical choice for a glassmaker. The reference also suggests that Rogers expected Sloane, as an educated man, to be familiar with the work of Glanvill.

A short letter, perhaps, but one that might tell us something about eighteenth-century reading practices. If only it also told us the secret of why Roger thought his glass could be of “Universall benefit to the state”…

The Back-to-School Edition: Cesque 97

Welcome to the pre-modern blog carnival, Carnivalesque 97! Hosting the carnival has proved a welcome distraction from the busy-ness of a new academic year. It’s given me a great excuse to keep up with my blog reading.

The view from my office at the University of Saskatchewan.

The view from my office at the University of Saskatchewan.

In late summer, the pre-modernist’s mind lightly turns to thoughts of love (and sex and reproduction). Joanne Bailey has a fascinating two-part discussion on the significance of marital beds: “The bed and the emotional landscape of the household” and “Beds, marital sex and adultery“. Beds were at the heart of the household and had many practical and symbolic functions far beyond sex and sleeping. From Jennifer Evans at Early Modern Medicine, we learn about “A Very Sympathetic Husband” in 1691, who experienced the symptoms of pregnancy at the same time as his wife and how the Athenian Mercury explained it. Their marriage bed must have been particularly close. Catherine Rider at Recipes Project shares some “Medieval Fertility and Pregnancy Tests“: what, I wonder, would the sympathetic husband’s test have shown?

The Dittrick Museum Blog has an interesting series on eighteenth-century midwifery, but of particular note are the ones on material history. Brandy Schillace, for example, looks at the myths surrounding and uses of “Mystery Instruments” (forceps) in early modern childbirth. Cali Buckley considers “The Elusive Past of Ivory Anatomical Models” for understanding the anatomy of childbearing. The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice post on “Renaissance Rhinoplasty” might not seem to have much in common with sex, but rhinoplasty fulfilled a need that was directly connected to the spread of syphilis in the early modern world. Not everyone–then or now–could afford the luxury of an eighteenth-century condom, which was recently for sale at Christies

A school master is sitting at a table pointing at some books, at which a young boy is looking and attempting to explain. Etching by J. Bretherton after H.W. Bunbury, 1799. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A school master is sitting at a table pointing at some books, at which a young boy is looking and attempting to explain. Etching by J. Bretherton after H.W. Bunbury, 1799. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

After summer days of wine and roses (or, writing and research), scholars inevitably stumble onto the misty paths of historiography and methodology. In Cesque 96, Until Darwin recommended the series on “The Future of History from Below” at The Many-headed Monster. I’ll recommend it again, as it has continued throughout the month of August with lots of exciting posts. It’s worth reading the whole series, but for the most recent medieval and early modern perspectives, see:

Several posts this month considered the ‘how to’ of studying the past. In “The Divine Rebirth of Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch“, Hasan Niyazi at 3PipeProblem describes step-by-step how a painting was created, destroyed and restored. Ben Breen at Res Obscura provides a useful overview of how to read early modern texts in “Why does ‘s’ look like ‘f'”, while Eloise Lemay answers the question “what do paleographers do?“.

Andrea Cawelti at Houghton Library Blog (“Double Vision“) and Anke Timmermann (“Now you see it? No you don’t! Images in Alchemical Manuscripts“) at Recipes Project offer cautionary tales about how we interpret texts, as they wonder if what they see in their primary sources would have been meaningful to early modern readers.

A depressed scholar surrounded by mythological figures; representing the melancholy temperament. Etching by J.D. Nessenthaler after himself, c. 1750. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A depressed scholar surrounded by mythological figures; representing the melancholy temperament. Etching by J.D. Nessenthaler after himself, c. 1750. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

As we once again hoist our book-laden bags or hunch over student essays, it is perhaps not surprising that we start to think about embodiment. Over at Hooke’s London, Felicity Henderson looks at the scientific and craft methods that Robert Hooke saw and recorded in the seventeenth century (“Artists and Craftsmen in Hooke’s London”, part 1 and part 2). In an article for The Appendix, Mark Hailwood tries to understand how seventeenth-century people would have heard drinking songs–his conclusion might surprise you! (It makes perfect sense to me. I use a football stadium version of La Marseillaise when teaching the French Revolution.) From The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies, we have a tasty experiment in cooking eighteenth-century salamagundi and lemon cheesecake.

On a more theoretical level, Sonja Boon asks us to contemplate what our bodies tell us “about the material [we] were exploring, but also about embodied knowledge”, while Serena Dyer reflects on “Experiencing the Past: Historical Re-enactment as Historical Practice“. Thought-provoking questions–just the way to start the week!

But I’ll end on a lighter note, with some interesting characters and tantalizing tidbits. Did you know that the East India Company set up an army of babies in the late eighteenth century? That there were sixteenth-century Irish Hipsters? And that the earliest known example of Latin writing by a woman was that of Claudia Severa in north England? Or let me tempt you with a “Swan Supper on the Thames“, recipes with “worm-eaten mushrooms” and the significance of “the big bad bean” in Antiquity…

Wishing you all a fine start to the new academic year! May you remain full of beans.

Two school masters are brought to the ground by a rope pulled across their path by pupils on each side of the corridor. Coloured etching by Thomas Rowlandson after himself, 1811. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Two school masters are brought to the ground by a rope pulled across their path by pupils on each side of the corridor. Coloured etching by Thomas Rowlandson after himself, 1811. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Cesque #98 will be held at Medieval Bex in October. Please send your nominations for the next edition here. It’s never to early to start nominating posts.



Carnivalesque: Call for Posts!

A street carnival in Bogotá, with a battle between personifications of medicine and disease. Watercolour by F.-D. Roulin, 1822. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A street carnival in Bogotá, with a battle between personifications of medicine and disease. Watercolour by F.-D. Roulin, 1822. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

During the week of September 7, I’ll be delighted to host Carnivalesque: a round-up of wonderful blog posts–any discipline–on the pre-1800 period. I’ll be celebrating one year of blogging at Sloane Letters and the start of the new academic year.

Carnivalesque runs every six weeks or so. Until Darwin hosted #96 in July, if you want to see the most recent one–or just to catch up with some great posts!

Please send in (lots and lots of) blog posts on pre-1800 topics that have been posted since late July. In addition to excellent posts that you’ve come across on your travels around the blogosphere, please feel free to nominate your own posts for inclusion in Cesque #97.

There is a nomination form, but I’ll also take nominations via comments on this post or email. Read a post… Like a post… Nominate a post!

A Death by Unicorn Horn in 1730

On the 28th of August 1730, Joseph Hastings died after receiving “several mortal Bruises with an Unicorn’s Horn”, wielded by John Williams of St. Andrew’s Holborn eleven days earlier. The assault occurred on a Holborn skittle-ground, witnessed by several local men.

Robert Linsey deposed that Joseph Hastings arrived at the skittle-ground “with the Horn in his Hand, and some old Clothes”. According to the defendent, he had been on his way for a pint of beer when he met a friend who encouraged him to drink a pint of gin instead (to help with his ague). While passing through the skittle ground, Williams picked up the horn and “ask’d the Deceas’d, what he would have for it?” When Hastings replied “it was worth more Money than he had in his Pocket”, Williams contemptuously offered three pence.

    Narwhal tusk. These tusks could grow to several metres in length and were often traded as unicorn horns. Powdered unicorn horns had medicinal uses. Credit: Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images.

Narwhal tusk. These tusks could grow to several metres in length and were often traded as unicorn horns. Powdered unicorn horns had medicinal uses. Credit: Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images.

Hastings unsurprisingly refused, demanding that Williams return the horn. Witnesses testified that Hastings bragged that he had “been bid more Money for that Horn, than any Man at the Ground had in his Pocket”—by no-one other than Sir Hans Sloane himself. Williams called Hastings “a fancy Son of a B – h, and if he spoke two Words more he would knock him down with it”.

At this point, things are a little unclear. According to the defendant, Hastings swore at him “and lifted up his Hand with the Bowl in order to throw it at him”. Williams claimed that he merely pushed Hastings off in self defence and that it was an accident that Hastings fell back onto the stump.

But some witnesses saw Williams as the aggressor. John Drew saw Williams strike Hastings in the stomach with the horn, then push “him on on the Jaw with the end of it”. After Hastings fell onto a stump, Williams again hit him with the horn until someone took it away. Williams then kicked Hastings “upon his Breast, Belly, and Members”. Hastings was unconscious for at least two minutes.

Charles Wentworth, added “That he had never seen so vile and barbarous a Thing done in his Life”. The other men at the skittle ground held Williams back to keep him from following Hastings, who “went away in a very bloody Condition”. Wentworth visited Hastings several times after the attack: his “Head had been broke, and his Head and Face bruis’d in five places” and his genitals “look’d like a piece of Neck-Beef”.

Much of testimony considered whether or not Williams could be responsible for Hastings’ later death. Apothecary Richard Buckley attended the patient on 27 August, noting that the scrotum was discoloured. He thought the cause of death was probably an apoplexy. The autopsy after Hastings died was inconclusive. Although surgeon Mr Smith believed that the injuries were the cause of death, both Noah Sherwood and Henry Hildip did not think that the injuries were severe enough. The deceased had a rupture in his scrotum, but minor bruises and no skull fracture. The real clincher, perhaps, was that several people saw Hastings walking around after his injuries.

For those close to Hastings, Williams’ guilt was obvious. Mrs Hastings provided the sad testimony that her husband had left home in perfect health and returned with a broken head, “the Mark of a Foot on his Face, and a Bruise the side of his Neck and Throat”. Her neighbours, Mr and Mrs Waller, and brother-in-law spoke about Hastings’ continual pain and insistence that, if he died, it was because of Williams’ attack.

The jury acquitted Williams.

In many ways, this is an ordinary tale of a brutal assault with terrible consequences. The case itself, though, gives us a tantalizing glimpse into daily life in Holborn: neighbours who witnessed the attack or helped to nurse the patient, the importance of the skittle-ground in local social life, the use of any weapon that came to hand, the prickliness of each man’s sense of honour, the use of gin as a remedy for ague…

But it is the unicorn horn and reference to Sloane that captures my attention. The fact that Hastings possessed a unicorn horn is intriguing: from where did he get it and for what price? It was clearly valuable to him—and of interest to others, such as Williams. Had he taken the horn out that day with the intention of showing it off to friends, or (perhaps for a small price) to people down at the local tavern? Sloane’s fame, moreover, even extended to skittle-ground skuffles. His name, it appears, was readily identifiable in popular culture with the trade in curiosities, possibly enhancing the value of an asociated object.

A fascination with curiosities was not only for the educated, but was widespread in eighteenth-century society. The unicorn horn tale is just the tip: people eagerly paid to see wild men or bearded ladies and other wonders. But the story also reveals that the wealthy were not the only ones who might have a prized collection of curiosities; those lower down the social scale could, too—even if it was just a single, and singular, unicorn horn.

You can read the records from the trial at The Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online.

A Horrifying Pregnancy and Cesarean Operation in Eighteenth-Century Ireland

A surgeon performing a Caesarean operation on an agonized woman who had apparently been carrying a dead baby in her womb for five years. (Reproduction, 1933, of a woodcut, 1560.) Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A surgeon performing a Caesarean operation on an agonized woman who had apparently been carrying a dead baby in her womb for five years. (Reproduction, 1933, of a woodcut, 1560.) Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

John Copping, the Dean of Clogher, wrote two letters to Hans Sloane in 1738 about a “Caesarian Operation performed by an ignorant Butcher” (British Library Sloane MS 4055, ff. 293-295, ff. 334-338). Copping first heard about the case of Sarah McKinna of Brentram, which had happened four years previously, from another clergyman. He then visited the McKinna family.

Mrs McKinna married at the age of sixteen. She did not menstruate until after marriage and then it took nearly a decade for her to become pregnant. Two months after giving birth to a second child, Mrs McKinna again developed the usual symptoms of pregnancy. The symptoms continued as expected over the next nine months, but then stopped suddenly. Over the next seven years, she had no menstrual periods and was “perpetually afflicted with the most violent Pains” in her abdomen.

At this point, she developed a swollen abdomen and, once more, the symptoms of pregnancy. Seven months into this “uncertain account”, she developed what she thought was a boil about the size of a goose-egg just above her navel, which gave her “very great Pain” and leaked a “watery humour”. A midwife and three or four physicians visited her, but unable to help, “left her as a dying Woman”.

The “boil” then broke:  “from this Orifice started the Elbow of a Child, which hung some Days by the Skin, visible to abundance: At length she cut if off for her own Relief”.* Mrs McKinna sent for local butcher, Turlog O’Neill. By the time he arrived, Mrs McKinna was in “an expiring condition” and “begged him to help her”. He did not do this lightly: “the Man was frightened, and went to sleep”. When he awoke, he acted decisively, giving “her a large Draught of Sack, and I suppose, took one himself”.  

O’Neill “made so large an Incision above and below the Navel, as enabled him, by fixing his Fingers under the Jaw of the Foetus, to extract it”. The hole was, according to Mr McKinna, “as large as his Hat”. O’Neill had to pull the bone “backward and forward to loosen it”. Bad enough. But keep in mind,Mrs McKinna was conscious the entire time, her senses numbed only by the large glass of fortified wine.

After removing the jaw, O’Neill spotted something black inside the hole—other bones. He removed as many as he could, but some remained inside, over time working their way out through the navel or “from the Womb the natural Way”. Each instance caused Mrs McKinna great pain.

According to the story that Copping first heard, Mrs McKinna fully recovered within six weeks and only had a small rupture in the belly. The situation was not nearly so cheery, Copping discovered:“She might be about the House, but she was 15 Months confined to the House”. The hole was still so large that Copping was able to “put a Finger a pretty Way up into the Body”… four years after the operation.

Copping, who had sympathetically described Mrs McKinna’s pain throughout his account, raised a collection so that she could be treated in Dublin.

A horrifying case, but it does tell us much about the eighteenth-century world. While we tend to see the experience of pregnancy as self-evident, it was not always so clear-cut for early modern women. Stopped menstruation was not unusual for women in poor health or who lived in poverty, as Mrs McKinna did. Copping, for example, described the McKinnas as ignorant, with poor speech. Mrs McKinna may have had many of the signs of pregnancy, but such signs could also be interpreted as health problems such as dropsy, especially if no baby appeared. In any case, she had a prior history of irregular menstruation.

Copping’s account highlights the growing demands for better medical and scientific evidence during the eighteenth century. He did not just provide the clergyman’s anecdote as fact, but followed it up with the McKinna family in person. He corrected the clergyman’s version: the woman took nearly ten years, not two, to conceive; the woman did not recover as well as rumour suggested;  the operation did not occur all at once, but in several parts. By the 1730s just being interesting was not enough for a case to appear in the Philosophical Transactions.+

Mrs McKinna and her “putrefied” baby were certainly medical curiosities at the time. Copping, like everyone else, treated them as such. He noted, for example, that he could not send any of the bones to Sloane because other physicians had already taken them. But he did at least act ensure that the long-suffering woman would receive treatment– unlike the vultures who had scavenged bits of the skeleton without even stopping to close up Mrs McKinna’s wounds.

*Fetuses occasionally develop outside the uterus. See here for a recent case.

+Admittedly, the issue in which it appeared had its fair share of odd cases, from monstrous births to odd items in urine.