A very bad doctor

Some days, there you are in the archives wondering if it’s time to go home yet (for the 20th time since the coffee break), and then you turn a page and you get something to make you fall off your chair. Even though (for once…) nobody died.

It starts with a letter from a Flintshire JP, Thomas Hanmer, to the Chief Justice of Chester, Sir Richard Lewkenor, who’s about to open proceedings at the October 1607 Great Sessions in Denbighshire.

Now, it seems that a certain William Jones, a surgeon of Chirk (Denbighshire), has been bound over to appear at the Great Sessions (I don’t know what for yet; I’ll see if I can find out later). But Hanmer’s letter is about an apparently unrelated matter in Flintshire.

Jones, says Hanmer, “did undertake the dismembring of a foote from a poore woeman” in Hanmer (in Flintshire), which was paid for by the charity of a number of local people. But “ymediatlye after the finishinge of the said cure the said Johnes gotte the poore woeman wth child, whereof not long since she hath byne delivered”.

Then we have the petition of the woman herself, Elinor Evans of Hanmer, with a fuller version of the story. It really doesn’t get any better. She had been a maidservant, dependent on working for her living. But she had injured her ankle about 4 years earlier, and turned to William Jones for treatment. This cost 30 shillings, which she had been too poor to pay herself and she had had to get assistance from friends and neighbours. But Jones,

having undertaken the chardge of curing the same greef and after having receaved his money or most parte thereof neclected his busynes in mynistring any thing to the said greef and absenting hym self for loking unto the same so as in a short tyme yor said peticioners legg and bonn did putrifye and petrishe…

And so in the end she had to pay him even more money to amputate the foot. And while he was neglecting her foot, he was not, sadly, neglecting other parts of her: he “did so perswade & entise yor said peticioner to yeald & consent to his leud and fleshly desyre that he begatt her with child”.

Then he had refused to take responsibility for the child, and since the birth had been “lurking from place to place” to avoid being arrested and made to appear before magistrates in Flintshire. But she had learned that he was bound to appear at Denbigh Great Sessions, and hoped that the judge would order him “to accept of his said child”.

Perhaps most shocking to modern sensibilities, there’s no particular comment, by either Elinor or Thomas Hanmer, on Jones’s behaviour as a doctor seducing a patient. The language used to speak of the sexual relationship – the man ‘enticing’ and persuading the woman to ‘yield’ – is conventional enough, regardless of the social status of and relationship between the man and woman concerned. (Although in early modern culture women in general were represented as sexually voracious and even predatory, actual sexual activities – like the language of sex – always seem to be described in terms of male activity and initiative.)

Elinor makes a point of noting that Jones was a married man, which may well be intended to emphasise his immorality; but that piece of information might not have really helped her cause that much, given that she did not suggest that she had been unaware of the fact. Many early modern single mothers similarly petitioning courts were able to arouse sympathy as women betrayed by lovers who had broken promises of marriage. (According to researchers, although illegitimacy rates were low in the early modern period, pre-marital sex was far more common than we might imagine – however much moralists might have condemned it – and it was not at all uncommon for brides to be pregnant.) But since divorce was almost impossible to obtain, that explanation was not going to be available to Elinor.

The key concern here was economic, rather than sexual morality: to force William Jones to pay for the child’s upkeep, and that fits into a wider pattern. The main focus of nearly all references to poor unmarried mothers that I’ve come across in the Denbighshire secular courts was to ensure that as far as possible parishes did not have to bear the burden of raising their children (through the poor rates). Occasionally unmarried mothers were sent to the house of correction, but that seems to be unusual. I did find one reference in the 1660s to an unmarried mother being made to do penance in church – but that was in fact a note of a punishment that had been separately imposed by the ecclesiastical authorities. Again, the secular court’s primary concern was with getting hold of the father and making him support his child. (Some things never really change…)

So far I haven’t had time to see if I can trace what the Great Sessions judge decided to do in William Jones’s case. If I find any answers, I’ll let you know.

This entry was posted in Early Modern, Research. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to A very bad doctor

  1. Fascinating stuff. I wonder when medical ethics first began to include the doctor’s personal relationship with his patients. There was certainly a concept of medical ethics during the period in question, but it pertained mainly to the doctor’s vow to heal and do no harm rather than to his personal relationships.

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