A history of medicine question

(And not for the squeamish.)

Can anyone direct me to studies that discuss the use of purging in early modern medicine? Or if you can suggest any contemporary medical works that would be likely to cover this, I could check whether they’re in Early English Books Online.

Here’s the story: I have a late 17th-century murder case on my books, where a wife defended herself against charges of poisoning her husband with arsenic by saying that she had been advised to administer it to him as a purging medicine. Her explanation must have been at least superficially plausible at the time, since she was acquitted. I certainly seem to remember having read that early modern people were heavily into purging [note to the uninitiated: stuff that makes you vomit, or has a laxative effect] and did often use pretty nasty substances for the purpose (and they liked their enemas too… no, let’s really not go there). But I don’t really recall where I would have read this, and I don’t seem to have anything helpful on the shelves here at home. So, anyone got any reading suggestions?

For those of you who might find it interesting, I’ll put an extract from the letter that the wife wrote from prison, which was presumably her line of defence at her trial, below the fold. I should add that the woman who had given her this ‘advice’ was herself convicted and hanged for poisoning her own son-in-law at about the same time. (There’s little doubt about her guilt, I think. It’s a really fascinating case.) I am personally a little sceptical about the wife’s protestations of innocence, but who knows after all this time?

I mete with hir one Munday in ye chourtch yard & after renewing of our ould aquantanc shee asked mee how my husband did … shee hard yt [that] hee was very wicked & rude & I said yt hee was not soe but yt hee was as ceevell [civil] as most men but onely when hee had dranke too mutch strong drink … shee asked mee if hee were in good health & if hee had noe distemper with in him self & I said hee had none but only hee did comeplain yt hee had mutch paine in his head & in his bones & limbes & could take littel rest in ye night… but I tould her yt hee was harty & could eat his meat well & shee said yt was nothing & yt hee would grow wors & wors in his distempers unless hee were purdged & vomitted & I said hee would take noe fizike [physic: ie, medicine] then shee said yt shee had a freind yt had directed hir to a way with out mutch cost & yt it would doe him mutch good & make him more temprat and fare better in health & conditiones & I asked hir what it was shee said it was but a small matter & yt I might buy for one penie as mutch as hee had need of then shee named it & I said I shall not remember yt name & shee bad mee aske for a whit[e] thing which was wont to bee put in yt which thay doe yus to give to rats… I said I ame afraid it will doe my huband harme & shee said yt it would not but would doe him mutch good & yt shee had made triall of it one hir former husband & yt it had done him mutch good as long as hee lived…

10 thoughts on “A history of medicine question”

  1. This could be of help, it is the same time period.
    Wax, P. “The origins of analytical toxicology, arsenic detection, and the trials of Mary Blandy and Marie Lafarge” Mithridata Vol. 12, no. 2, iss. 24 (2002), p. 3-4.

    Both of these articles write about purging in 17th and 18th century England and Scotland. Don’t know if they will be helpful.

    Stewart, D. B. “Bleeding and purging : a cure for puerperal fever? Journal of hospital infection Vol. 34, no. 2 (Oct. 1996) p. 81-86.

    Gibbs, Denis D. “Pechey’s purging pills” Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of London Vol. 25 (1991) p. 350.

    And an article about using arsenic for curing asthma

    Cohen, Sheldon G. “Asthma among the famous : Thomas Fowler (1736-1801)” Allergy and asthma proceedings Vol. 17, no. 3 (May-Jun. 1996) p. 163-165.

  2. Thanks, those sound really interesting. (Arsenic for asthma?! Bleeding/purging for puerperal fever – eek.) Confirms the versatility of these treatments, I suppose.

    And I’ve just found an essay by Paul Slack on vernacular medical literature in Tudor England (in Charles Webster, ed, Health, medicine and mortality in the sixteenth century), which looks promising. Our library’s history of medicine section seems to be improving…

  3. This might be too general to be of use, but Lisa Jardine’s book on Robert Hooke (The curious life of Robert Hooke) covers Hooke’s use of purging (which he experimented with a lot). There might be useful tidbits in the references.

  4. I check your blog from time to time, but have never commented.

    You might look at Donne’s _Devotions upon Emergent Occasions_ in particular devotions 19 and 20 which are extended descriptions of purges. This work is generally made up of pretty specific descriptions of physical processes and medical procedures which are then transfered typologically into what you might call the spiritual The interesting thing about this whole text is the way that these (to us) radical physical procedures seem to be really easily textualized so that they can fit into the narrative of sin and redemption (and become an occasion of devotion for others?!)

    When I was doing work on Devotions I found Nancy Siraisi _Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine_ (1990 Chicago) helpful. She discusses purges and their basis in humoral theory.

    Good luck!

  5. Hi Sharon – love the site. I’m currently researching early modern medicine in Wales for my MA, and am hoping to go on to a PhD. Purging was probably the largest part of early modern traditional Galenic medicine. In some ways, it was regarded as a first port of call in treatment since it supposedly cleansed the body and removed any putrid matter, restoring the balance of the humours. I have heard of some pretty radical substances being used for purges, including mercury! By far the best book which I have read is Andrew Wear, Knowledge and Practice in English Medicine, 1550-1680 (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press, 2000. Roy Porter has written a lot about early modern medical practices, and his book ‘Quacks’ is also very good. Reading the extract, it does seem to fit in with contemporary medical ideas in that a “bleeding and purging’ are recommended first, but the woman still seeks the advice of a friend for her husband’s treatment. The immediate circle of friends and family were the most usual source of medical information and it is common to find people trying out various things in a sort of ‘catch-all’ situation. I’ve done a fair bit of research on domestic medical recipe books, and some of the cures they put forward are often bizarre and potentially fatal!I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this was a well meaning accident.

  6. Thanks for that, Alun. Best wishes for your future research too!

    To elaborate a little: I decided to ask the question in part because when I once mentioned this case and the wife’s defence in a conference paper there was a kind of disbelieving snort from somewhere in the audience – and to modern ears it does sound rather strange. As I said, I was a bit sceptical about her innocence, but that reaction bothered me because I was fairly sure that her explanation of what had happened was at least plausible in the context of medical knowledge and practice at the time. (And in the context of the particular piece of research for which I’ve been using this case, whether the wife “really” did it or not is less important than how and why her defence would ring true for her contemporaries so that they could be persuaded that she didn’t do it.) And so, because of all your references and suggestions, in future versions of the paper I’ll be able to show that that was indeed the case.

    So thanks yet again to everyone who’s contributed. You really have been great! (And of course if anyone has anything more to add at any point, comments will remain open, or people are welcome to email me.)

  7. Hi Sharon, That’s a great story! You might have a look at discussions about Paracelsus and the Paracelsians. They used metals and minerals to treat diseases. Also, check contemporary pharmacopoeias and dispensatories to see if arsenic is listed. There are a number that are available through EEBO and ECCO. Antimony, a related semi-metallic substance (see the OED for both antimony and arsenic), was used as a vomit in the period and its use was debated into the 18th century. You might also be interested in some of the letters written to and by Mme de Sevigne in 1676 (the letters are available in several published and translated editions); her family disputed whether or not she should receive treatments of antimony.

  8. Hello,

    Here is a possible source for you:

    Medical Conflicts in Early Modern London: Patronage, Physicians and Irregular Practitioners 1550-1640 (Oxford Studies in Social History)

    by Margaret Pelling, Frances White

    Hardcover: 426 pages
    Publisher: Clarendon Press (5 Jun 2003)
    ISBN: 0199257809
    Amazon prices range from £ 62.62 to £ 140.22 so check it out of a library, if you can!

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