Of sneezing

Claire wanted to know if there were any good poems about sneezing in the 17th century.

Depends what you mean by ‘good’.

But there is Robert Heath (“a sort of average representative of style and time who, sometimes, a little transcends the mediocre”); mildly entertaining if you can take a little anti-Irish/anti-Catholicism: ‘To an Irish-man’ (1650):

When I do sneeze, God blesse you, you do say,
Why not the same when I do fart, I pray?
Are not both sudden ruptures that do make
As with an earthquake the whole body shake?
To break before, at Irish, you do find
To be less dang’rous then to break behind;
Besides, this brings a good report you see,
Why is not this as welcome then to thee?
When I break forward, you (Christ help you) say,
But when I backwards break, you backwards pray.
Pardon me Sir! ’tis my infirmitie,
‘Tis the windcholick that thus troubles me. [via LI-ON]

Did hayfever exist in the early modern period? Presumably, but not under that name. The OED gives first usage of the word in the 1820s, and it doesn’t crop up in EEBO. Still, early moderns did have some interesting ideas about sneezing. It seems to have been thought of as a useful purging action. Hannah Woolley offers us this in The Accomplish’d lady’s delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery (1670?):

60. Against stink of the Nostrils. [no, I don’t know what she means either]

Take Cloves, Ginger, and Calamint, of each a like quantity, boyl them in White-Wine, and therewith wash the Nose within; then put in the powder of Piritrum to provoke one to sneeze: If there be Phlegm in the Head, you must first purge the Head with Pills of Colchie, or of Hieva picra: Or if the stink of the Nose come from the Stomack, purge first. [via EEBO]

But, according to Aristotle’s masterpiece, this might not be such a good idea for virgins.

… such fracture may happen divers ways by accidents, as well as Copulation with Man, viz. By extrordinary straining, violent coughing, immoderate sneezing, stopping of Urine, and violent motion of the Vessels, inforcibly sending down the humours, which pressing for passage break the Ligatures or Membrane, so that the intireness or fracture of this thing, commonly taken for the Virginity or Maiden-head, is no absolute sign of dishonesty; though certain it is, that in Copulation ’tis more frequently broken than otherwise.

Not to mention women trying to get pregnant.

… But when that Act is over, all is not done; for that it may have the better Success, the Husband must not presently separate himself from his Wife’s Embraces, lest the Air should suddenly strike in, and so prevent the happy issue of their Labours: And when the Man departs, the Woman ought to compose her self to all the rest and quietness imaginable, and to avoid heavy thoughts of what may cause any disturbance; and especially she ought to avoid both Coughing and Sneezing, both which are two great hindrances to Conception after the Act of Copulation. [1694 edition, via EEBO]

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2 Responses to Of sneezing

  1. John says:

    “Did hayfever exist in the early modern period? Presumably, but not under that name.”

    The subject is debatable, but I think medical experts think that hayfever is a modern malady which is somehow linked with industrialisation. It first appeared in England, the first industrialised country, and only spread to places like Scotland much later. Modern epidemiology also tells us that prevalence of hayfever is increasing rapidly in all industrialised societies, so it might well be a recent phenomenon.

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