Monday, March 09, 2009

Question from Caitlin - Resources for Tudor medicine

Hi, I'm a senior at High school (17) and am working on a History research project based on Tudor Stuart times. I have chosen to focus on medicine. Part of the assignment is to form our own comprehensive questions and I have come up with these:

1. To what extent did doctors affect the lives of people of different classes during Tudor Stuart times?
2. What was the significance of the role of doctors and medicine in society during Tudor Stuart times?
3. To what extent did one's health affect their daily lives?

These haven't been approved by my teacher yet (q. 3 isn't very good) But I was wondering if they are (more or less) comprehensive enough?
-Where I can find resources specifically focusing on medicine in Tudor times? I have already read one short history of Medicine, about the four humors.
-Where could I find sources on diagnosis and treatment of illnesses, and the role of doctors?

Thanks for any help!


Tudorrose said...

The answer to Q1.Only the rich would have had a doctor.As the poor wouldn't have been able to afford a also there was no national health service as it didn't exsist then.An if both classes were entitled to a doctor the effects would have been no different.
The significance of the role of the doctors and medicine was to treat infected patients.But the medicine of the time didn't work.An there deffinately wasn't any any illness it would prevent you from doing certain things.The Tudors wouldn't have been able to do very much if they were ill.The same goes for people of today.It's just it would have been worse for the Tudor person as the medical knowledge of what is known today wasn't known back then.A person then would have had to put up with what ever illness they had and sometimes that would have meant pain. Or even death in certain circumstances.But the person of today would be better off in more ways than one.Medically being one of them.
You can find recsources in books and online.
I know of a book that you could read as I have it.It is called Horrible historries.The Terrible Tudors.By Terry deary and Neil tongue.The book lists different Tudor treaments and what every treatment was used for.It's only one section in the book though that is dedicated to medicine.The rest of the book is about other things surrounding the tudor period.I think your questions are comprehensive enough.Yes.I suggest looking in the library and the internet.You can buy books online abut the Tudor period at affordable prices.Try Amazon.New from site or a seller.But if buying from a seller make sure you read his/hers feedback.Because some of them are dodgy.If they have good feedback buy.If not don't. P.S when does your project have to be handed in by?

Colleen said...

I actually think question 3 is a very good one - in my opinion, people's health would have had a huge effect on their daily lives! Most worked the land in some way or another, which was very physically demanding. If they were ill they couldn't work, and if they couldn't work they couldn't eat.

Considering how little they knew about the way their bodies worked, and how the vast majority of people living in Tudor England had no access to medical "help", most were lucky to survive childhood, if they even managed to do that, which many did not.

djd said...

I read recently that opioid medicines were in fact available in a rough form during Tudor times. I don't remember where I read it, but am wondering if anyone knows if this is true. I have often cringed when thinking about Henry and his many painful ailments without having any relief from pain medicine.

kb said...

You might want to take a look at the following

It's the health page from the Compendium of common knowledge over on the Elizabeth 1 web site. It's quite useful.

This is an interesting area of history that is getting more and more attention under the broader term 'History of Science'.

There are some references to court doctors that you will find in various books about the Tudor-Stuart courts. I strongly suggest you go to that section of the library or bookstore and start looking through the indexes for references to illness, medicine, doctors, health, smallpox, plague, ague (a general term for some illnesses).

You also might want to consider if you are going to include midwifery in your definition of doctors and health. At the time midwives and doctors were two completely different things but today we consider both part of the broader medical community.

Pauline Croft has written on the health of the Cecil family. It might be a bit dense to wade through but check with the research librarian at your school for help in tracking this down. She discusses the health of the immediate Cecil family who were elites. He was a principle secretary minister to Elizabeth I. But she also discusses the health of the broader household including those 'below stairs' a bit.

Good luck with your project.

Bearded Lady said...

Hi Caitlin,

I may be able to give you some direction for your questions. First, I think you need to define “doctor” in the hierarchy of medical practitioners because Tudor people had several different options if they were sick. They really would not have used the word doctor.

At the top of the hierarchy were trained physicians who only the very wealthy could afford. These people studied in a university for up to 10 years learning how to proscribe medicine and perform simple operations.

Below them was the apothecary who sold herbs and spices to treat common ailments. These were the people that most of the middleclass and nobility would visit if they were sick. An apothecary would learn their trade by working a few years as an apprentice.

Below them were the surgeons who basically specialized in chopping off limbs. Before Henry VIII separated the two groups, surgeons were lumped with barber-surgeons who also removed limbs, cut hair and yanked out rotten teeth.

Below them were the midwives who treated the peasant class. Midwives were very skilled in mixing herbs and of course assisting with childbirth.

For Question 3, again you need to narrow your focus because it greatly depends on what class of people you are discussing. For example, the average life span of nobility was much greater then someone of the peasant class. Perhaps a better question would be what diseases and illnesses they faced on a daily basis – ie. Sweating sickness, TB, plague, small pox. Etc

Lastly, I would try to have an open mind on how effective Tudor medicine was in treating illness. Much medicine was useless against disease, but there were tons of cures that did work. Example: Tudor people used willow bark to ease pain. Today, we take the chemical derivative of willow bark and sell it as “asprin”. Leeches of course worked. Surgeons used rose oil to heal wounds which helped flesh wounds heal faster. They also had painkillers like mandrake root and poppies. (although some patients did not always wake up!) They used foxglove for heart conditions which we use today except we call it digitalis.

These cures may not have worked as well as our modern day antibiotics, but they did help to some degree and are the basis of our modern medicine.

Marilyn R said...

Hi Lara
I sent the prescriptions before for someone else – hope the copied text travels ok.

Hi Caitlin,

I am sure if you contact some of the following they might send you information about Tudor medicine.

The Wellcome Trust, London - one of the world's major resources for the study of medical history.

The Royal College of Physicians, founded by Henry VIII in 1518. (Physicians were more highly thought of than surgeons, who performed surgery as someone else read the procedure from an ancient book. Try Googling the word ‘Galen’ and see what comes up.)

The Royal College of Surgeons, founded by Henry in 1540 as the Company of Barber-Surgeons.

The Science Museum ( which says of the Barber- Surgeons:
"Many would have no formal learning, and were often illiterate. The red and white pole which is still used to identify a barber’s shop was originally intended to reflect the blood and napkins used to clean up during bloodletting. This treatment was one of the main tasks of the barber-surgeon, as well as extracting teeth, performing enemas, selling medicines, performing surgery and, of course, cutting hair."

One of the best and most entertaining sources of information on Tudor/Jacobean medicine is "Dr. John Hall’s Select Observations on English Bodies". Dr. Hall was married to Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna and was the local doctor for the Stratford-upon-Avon area, although he had such a good reputation that he travelled far and wide to the homes of the gentry and aristocracy. His beautiful house, Hall’s Croft, with its surgery can still be visited.

Hall's patients seem almost always to be cured by him; if they pass away a few weeks later he usually puts it down to a completely different cause from what he had been treating!

An interesting line of enquiry might be to find out if some of his prescription ingredients are used in modern medicine.

Travelling on horseback aggravated the condition called haemorrhoids, now commonly known as piles, and Hall tells us that he himself was suffering from this condition. As you probably know, the doctors believed that the body of a poorly person had to have its balance restored, so we get the odd idea of people with tooth ache being(apparently) cured by the use of strong purges(laxatives),and often the cures involved making the patient vomit as well; there was also the opening of a vein to bleed the patient, which in a poorly person must often have done more harm than good, quite apart from the danger of infection.

Part of Hall’s cure for his own piles was to have a live pigeon cut open and applied to the soles of his feet to draw down the humours. Leeches were also applied to the haemorrhoids, and it is interesting that today the use of leeches is making a comeback in modern medicine.

Most of Hall’s cures are complicated and last for a number of days, so here are a few extracts from some of them.

The cure for “Mr Winter, aged 44, who was cruelly tormented with the Worms and Feaver” included adding to his food a powder containing coral, pearl, harts-horn, fragments of rubies and one leaf of gold. His bad cough was cured with syrup of poppies and maidenhair. He had also been purged with a laxative, “with which there came forth many dead Worms, with stinking Excrements”. He was cured in three days.

Robert Sartor, aged 34, of Stratford-upon-Avon, had a very bad nosebleed, which wouldn’t stop. "It was stopt as followeth: I caused tents to be made often dipped in frogspawn in March to be put up his nostrils." The bleeding stopped within half an hour.

For jaundice he used ten worms washed in white wine and then boiled in water until thick, some of this was administered in soup. The same patient was given also the juice of goose dung.

A nobleman with a very bad throat was given a concoction made from a bird’s nest – straw, dung, insects, etc, - which had been boiled down into a paste and which he had to keep in his mouth.

It is interesting to see how he describes his patients, being always very deferential to the aristocracy, but he appears to have treated all levels of society with equal care and concern. Presumably the poor would have to rely on traditional herbs and concoctions brewed up at home - if they had a home .....

Hall's 200 case notes with modern transcription and discussion can be found in "John Hall and His Patients – The Medical Practice of Shakespeare’s Son-in-law", by Professor Joan Lane of Warwick University and the Wellcome Trust; it is published by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford. I know the manager of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Bookshop and he says they have it in stock; anyone interested in the Tudors and Stuarts would find this book an entertaining read.

Hope this helps. Good luck with the assignment.

Marilyn Roberts

Marilyn R said...

It's a long time since I resd Dr. Hall's case notes, and I have to admit I'd forgotten that he treated paupers as well. He himself was a very well-educated and well-connected gentleman.

Details of the book I mentioned earlier:

The Medical Practice of Shakespeare's Son-in-Law
By Joan Lane with Medical Commentary by Melvin Earles

"John Hall, William Shakespeare's son-in-law, was an eminently successful Stratford physician of the early seventeeth century. His surviving medical case notes for the years 1611-35 describe how he treated 155 patients of all classes, from aristocrat to pauper, the majority within a 15-mile radius of Stratford. He recorded symptoms, medications and the outcomes of his attentions, providing a rare picture of provincial medical practice in Stuart England as well as interesting details on persons close to Shakespeare.

This new edition comprises a facsimile of an early printed version of Hall's Select Observiatons with facing commentary on patients and their treatments. This, and an extended introduction, concentrates on identifying the patients Hall attended (two-thirds are given detailed profiles for the first time) and interpreting and explaining Hall's treatment in the context of medical practice in his time."

Joan Lane, MA, PhD, FSA, formerly a Wellcome Research Fellow, is Senior Teaching Fellow in modern British, local and medical history at the University of Warwick. She has contributed numerous articles to books and journals and is the author of Apprenticeship in England, 1600-1914.

Melvin Earles, MSc, PhD, FRPharmS, studied history and philosophy of science at University College, London. He has contributed articles to books and journals on the history of pharmacopoeia and medical prescribing.

ISBN 0 7509 1094 1 378pp Sutton Publishing

£14.99 paperback 1996

Tudorrose said...

You could get this book cheaper at Amazon.Or Abe books.They sell cheap books too.I think £15 pounds is a bit expensive for a book.

Caitlin said...

Wow, that's a lot of responses! Thank you so much. I've managed to skim through your comments.
Bearded Lady, thank you for the suggestion about question three. You've helped me formulate it better.

I am unsure if I'll be able to find the Medical Practices book in the library. Hopefully I can. I live in New Zealand, and anything ordered off of Amazon takes at least two weeks to get here and the research is due next Monday. So unfortunately, I can't do that.

When I have more time later tonight, I will read through them more thoroughly. But really, thank you for all of your help.

Would you all mind if I printed this page as proof of my 'taking initiative', which is part of the assignment? It will be easier for me to read, as well.

Lara said...

Caitlin, print out whatever you need. Good luck with the project!

Jim said...

I have seen also a 32-pg. picture book meant for young adults: ISBN 0750219580 "A Look Inside A Tudor Medicine Chest" by Brian Moses, illus. by Adam Hook, publ. by Wayland Publ. Ltd., 1997. It has a list for "further reading", & contains amusing period Tudor remedies...for one, the use burnt, pulverized mice heads to scour one's teeth. Yum.