Saturday, October 22, 2011

Desperate Measures in the 17th century

In the 17th century if you were ill it was much more dangerous to employ a physician than to use your local herbalist.

The richer you were, the more likely you were to die if you became ill. Not from the disease, but from the treatment! When Charles II became ill, and the best doctors in the country were summoned, a courtier was heard to say, "it is dangerous to have two doctors, to have fifteen is fatal."

No wonder, as the physicians immediately took 16 ounces of blood from him. An emetic of antimony followed, and then a Spirit of Blackthorn purgative, and then a white vitriol enema. The king's head was shaved and blistered and plasters applied to his feet. Is it any wonder he died? The same fate awaited poor George Washington, who was bled of about half the blood in his body before he finally begged to be left alone in peace to pass away, which he promptly did.
(Above) Treatment with a clyster or enema syringe, 17th century.

Fortunately most poor people could not afford the expensive attentions of a physician and relied on a local herbalist or cunning woman to administer plant remedies. Plant remedies were much gentler than any treatment offered by a physician, and so the patient had a much better chance of recovery.

Many of the herbal remedies were from common plants such as nettles which were used to combat anaemia and as a blood tonic. Modern research has shown they are rich in iron.

Nettles were not only used as a pot herb in Spring, but also they could be used to make rope. The fibres were widely used in weaving producing a flax-like cloth, more durable than linen. It was also used as a hair lotion and produced a good yellow dye. The local village herbalist was skilled in all aspects of plant lore.

When I was researching the lady's slipper plant I discovered it had been over-collected in the 17th century because of its use as a nervine or sedative. I also discovered that if taken with alcohol the plant could induce numbness and hallucinations - a very unpleasant cocktail altogether.

But you'll have to read my book to find out what happened to Sir Geoffrey Fisk when he used the herb to try to cure his eczema. The Giveaway to win the book is still open, but hurry, only for one more day! Just click on the Giveaway page.

The lady's slipper
Government and virtues ~
A most gallant herb of Venus, now sadly declined. A decoction is effectual to temper and sedate the blood, and allay hot fits of agues, canker rash and all scrophulous and scorbutic habits of the body. The root drank in wine, is its chief strength, to be applied either inwardly or outwardly, for all the griefs aforesaid. There is a syrup made hereof excellent for soothing restlessness of the limbs, hence oft times goes by the name of Nerve Root.

Vices ~
Be wary of this herb, for surfeit of it calls forth visions, fancies and melancholy. Take it not with strong liquor. If giddiness, sickness of the stomache, dullness of the senses ensue, or drowsiness withal ending in deep sleep, straightway desist. In women and children, safer it being tied to the pit of the stomache, by a piece of white ribband round the neck.


  1. Great post! Even now, you have to be informed about what you are taking and doing for your health. But the science has advanced so much. Thank goodness.

  2. Poor King Charles! Another good reason to enjoy history from the distance of modern medical science.
    And weren't these same helpful, life-saving herbalists the very people from a former blog that get accused of witchcraft for their efforts?

    Interesting! Thank you for posting.

  3. Isn't it funny that doctors today frown upon herbs. I take herbs and I won't go to the doctor unless I'm very sick. I'd rather take my herbs, and once in a while they don't work as well, so then I go to my doctor. But I'm glad times have changed and people are dying because of their doctors.


  4. Hello Debra, Marie and Sophia, thanks for your comments and participation. Good point Sophia, these cunning women were cast as life-savers by some, and life stealers by others. It all depended on where you sat in society.

    Most modern pharmaceutical medicine is actually the synthesized active ingredients of herbs, so the two branches of medicine are not quite as far apart as people might think!

  5. What a fine post! There was good reason that Charles's friend Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester wrote, "I do not love thee, Dr. Fell..."

  6. A very interesting post. Poor old Charles II. I cringed when I read about the treatment administered to him. As you say, no wonder he died.

    I love the saying, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away". If only Charles II had had a bowl of hard green apples handy to pelt the physician with!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.