Who is John?

‘This [diary] may possibly live when I am dust and ashes’ (V.10, 94r)

John Ward was vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon from 1661-1681. That’s about all we would know about his life, had his collection of diaries not survived over 400 years to end up today in the collection of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC. Continue reading “Who is John?”

X is for XX

wellcome l0027917
Wooden Anatomical Figures: Male and female (female ‘open’ to reveal feotus in womb). anon. n.d..{‘ ‘} Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Ok, so the ‘XX’ in this post’s title is a little tenuous. Early modern people – Ward included – definitely didn’t think of sex in terms of genetics. As we’ve seen in stories about hermaphrodites, gender was not only biological but social, and sometimes hard to determine.

Nonetheless, womanhood was definitely bound up with having a womb, and ward, like most medics of his time, was totally fascinated by this mysterious organ. To early modern doctors, the womb was a fickle and furious beast which had its own agenda and could move around the body. Thomas Bartholin, a contemporary of Ward, wrote in his Anatomy that

[the womb] is an Animal in an Animal, because of its motion. For in carnal Copulation, and when it is possessed with a desire to conceive, it is moved now up and then down, and gapes to receive the Yard, as a Beast gapes for its Food. And sometimes it is moved downwards, to expel the Child and Secondine [afterbirth], with so much violence, that it falls out.

Moreover it is moved with, rejoyces in, and is delighted with sweet smelling things: but it shuns stinking and strong smelling things’

(Bartholinus Anatomy… London: 1663, p. 70)

The womb wanted what it wanted, and could cause terrible problems by shifting around within the body and squashing the other organs, causing sickness and breathlessness. Some physicians, including the famous Jean Baptiste van Helmont, even believed that the womb continued to live after a woman was dead.

These beliefs may seem outlandish, but they informed early modern medicine for well over 200 years. As ever, we can see the ‘trickle-down’ of lofty medical theory reimagined in practical terms in Ward’s diaries. Drawing from physicians such as Nicholas Culpeper, Ward prescribed a range of remedies to get the womb back into its proper place. If the womb was too low, as in a prolapse, it could be lured upwards by applying something sweet to the top of the woman’s head. Conversely,

To hold some sweet things to ye place of conception before ye act of copulation is usefull to [draw the] womb downwards:/ (v7, 7v)

Sex was an especially good way to move the womb around – Ward confidently asserted that

There is nothing better for a married woman in case of ye suffocation of ye matrix yn for ye man to anoint ye top of his yard, with a litle oil of Gilliflowers and oil of sweet Almonds together and so to lie with her for this will assuredly bring downe ye Matrix againe (v7, 20v)

Whether the women suffering with the headaches, fatigue, and breathlessness of ‘suffocation’ would have considered sex with their oiled-up husband to be a good cure is, sadly, unrecorded.

U is for Urine

Last week I was fortunate enough to participate in an evening event at the Museum of English Rural life in Reading. The theme was ‘folk’ and we (myself, Dr Hannah Newton and Amie Bolissian McRae) had a variety of medicinal items on display. The thing that really caught people’s attention, though, were 4 flasks of ‘urine’.

Wellcome L0058377
‘Bed pan, England, 1501-1700’ by Science Museum, London. Credit: Science Museum, London. CC BY

Continue reading “U is for Urine”

S is for Surgery

Warning – not for the squeamish!

brass needle through red cloth button
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It’s no secret that early modern medicine was a pretty grisly business. As a medical historian, you get used to accounts of limbs being hacked off and bladder stones removed, but I must admit that one story from Ward’s Diaries stands out as  more-than-usually toe-curling.

The story started with a dramatic and all-too-believable accident, made worse by a hapless surgeon:

A man coming out of a bed by chanse jolting his legg brush[ed] down on the side of the bed a needle runne up his breech just by his anus: he sent for a Surgion of Abbingdon to pull it out and he catching hold of it with his forceps … but not being able to hold it let it slip and after wards attempting it he thrust it in farther within the cuticula.

Continue reading “S is for Surgery”

Q is for Questions

Something a little different this week (and only in part because nothing begins with ‘Q’). However much I get used to Ward’s foibles, there are some things in his diaries that still have me stumped. I’m going to post a few of these on Twitter and update the post when I get some suggestions. In the immortal words of All Saints – a few questions that I need to know:

Continue reading “Q is for Questions”

P is for Postmortem

Wellcome L0048608
‘Surgeons performing an operation on a woman’s breast in the seventeenth century. ‘ . Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

In one of the first posts on this blog, we saw how Ward recalled – in excruciating detail – attending a mastectomy operation carried out on one ‘Mrs Townsend’ in an attempt to cure her breast cancer. Alas, we know that this surgery wasn’t enough to save her life, because Ward later attended Mrs Townsend’s postmortem.

Postmortems were carried out surprisingly often in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Sometimes they took place to determine if somebody had been murdered. Sometimes they occurred when people wished to prove something unusual or potentially holy about the person – more than one nun was reported to have died with the sign of the cross imprinted on her heart. Mostly, however, it seems that doctors conducted postmortems in order to learn more about the disease process which had killed somebody, and this was the case for Mrs Townsend.

Continue reading “P is for Postmortem”

O is for Opiates

Wellcome B0009102
‘Papaver somniferum ‘ Credit: Dr Henry Oakeley. CC BY

In Ward’s era, illness and medicine could be horrifically painful. We’ve seen how Mrs Townsend endured a mastectomy without anaesthetic; other patients went through amputations and lithotomies (bladder stone removal) while fully conscious. As a medical historian, I’m often asked why surgeons didn’t use opium to knock out their patients. Didn’t they care about their suffering?

Continue reading “O is for Opiates”