District 186 || District School Sites || Teacher Resources

Elizabethan England

Medical Beliefs and Practices

by Lia Ramsey

D. Pedro: Sigh for the tooth-ache?
Leon: Where is but a humour of a worm?Through all thy veins shall run
A cold and drowsy humour.
This is undation of mistemper'd humour
Rests by you only to be qualified;
Then pause not; for the present time's so sick,
That present medicine must be minister'd.

These lines from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing give a brief glimpse into the world of Elizabethan medicine. The beliefs, practices, and medical problems of the sixteenth century were very different from those of today.

One of the most common beliefs during this time concerned the humours. It was believed that four humours or fluids entered into the composition of a man: blood, phlegm, choler ( or yellow bile), and melancholy ( or black bile). According to this belief, the predominance of one humour over the others determined a person's temperament as sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, or melancholy. Furthermore, they believed that too much of any of them caused disease, and that the cure lay in purging or avoiding the peccant humour, as by reducing the amount of blood by cupping or reducing the bile by means of drugs.

Epidemic diseases became more common in the sixteenth century. Among them were typhus, smallpox, diphtheria and measles. Scurvy also increased in frequency. During this time leprosy became rare.

In children there were epidemics of plague, measles, smallpox, scarlet fever, chicken pox, and diphtheria. Many children were abandoned, especially infants with syphilis (it was feared they would pass it on ). Dental disease sometimes caused death, and congenital and acquired blindness were also common for the children.

In the sixteenth century syphilis continued to be common. The favored treatment was with mercury or guaiac. Gonorrhea became even more common. These two venereal diseases were directly responsible for the stopping of communal baths, which were the only convenient means of personal hygiene.

Elizabethan medical treatments were quite varied. The first effective remedy for ague (malaria) was a plant derivative from Peru called cinchona. It cured quickly and acted specifically on only a certain kind of fever. The belief in fever as a general manifestation of unbalanced humours received a severe blow. It was then felt that each fever could be different diseases.

For an earache, a common remedy was to put a roasted onion in the ear. To cure a stye, a person was supposed to rub his eye with the tail of a black tomcat. Captain Cook kept his sailors healthy from scurvy by giving them lemon juice, a source of much-needed vitamin C.

For mental illness, Jean-Baptiste Denis extended the new technique of transfusing blood to the treatment of mental patients. When arterial blood of lambs was injected into the venous system, the patients seemed to recover. This method was stopped when a patient died.

Large scale preventative measures for epidemic diseases did not come about until over a hundred years later. In 1764, Dr. Clarke inoculated against smallpox with the virus of the disease itself. The doctors discovered that if people had one slight attack of small pox, later they were immune to the disease. In 1776, people who contracted cowpox seemed to be protected from smallpox.

The physicians of the Elizabethan period were men of good education. Their degrees were generally taken abroad and were then incorporated at Oxford or Cambridge. A very thorough examination had to be passed before licenses were granted for practicing in the metropolitan area. The college was less severe about licenses to practice in the country.

Ambroise Pare, an army physician, discovered the effectiveness of hygiene on wound healing. One night after treating many gunshot wounds with boiling oil, he ran out of oil. Many soldiers' wounds were uncared for, so Pare simply cleaned and dressed their wounds and went to bed. The next day he awoke to see that the wounded treated with oil were feverish and in pain, while the ones cleaned and dressed were sleeping and doing well. As Pare's fame grew, his story was made common knowledge, and boiling oil was no longer used on the battlefield. Pare also reintroduced the ancient method of stopping hemorrhage by using ligatures. He influenced many practitioners to abandon the cauterizing irons.

In 1616, physician William Harvey studied of the circulation of the blood and disproved the existing notion that the heart was merely a fountain of supply. For the first time he demonstrated the real action of the heart and the course that the blood took through the arteries. Other physicians had suggested this explanation, but Harvey was the first to demonstrate it.

Jan Baptista Van Helmont believed that fever was not due to an excess or unbalanced humours but represented a reaction to an invading irritating agent. He declined to use bloodletting and purging and rejected their supposed value in restoring the humoral balance. He used chemical medicines and improved on the use of mercury.

In conclusion, Elizabethan medicine was very different from our present day practices and beliefs. Furthermore, the medical problems of the sixteenth century were very different from those of our own time.

See also "Elizabethan Medicine"

Works Consulted

Andrews, John F. William Shakespeare: His World, His Work, His Influence. Canada: Collier MacMillian, 1985.

This book was very interesting in finding information on the subjects of medicines and sanatation.

Chamberlin, E.R. Everyday Life in Renaissance Times. London: B.T. Batsford LTD, 1967.

This book proved to be interesting as well as helpful in finding information on medical beliefs. I found the chapter titled " The Violent World" most useful in my research.

Davis,William Stearns. Life in Elizabethan Days. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1930.

This book gives a great history of the life of Elizabethan days. I found the chapter entitled "Concerning Plagues, Physicians, and Funerals" to be very helpful in finding information on how the plagues were treated.

*Lyons, Albert S. and R. Joseph Petrucelli II. Medicine: An Illustrated History. New York: Harry N. Abrams,1987.

This book discusses various ways and procedures by which diseases were treated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The chapter titled "The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries" was very helpful.

Pearson, Lu Emily. Elizabethans at Home. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1957.

This book has useful information mainly on pages 409,410,413,and 475. These pages discussed beliefs and curses for ailments.

Williams, Penry. Life in Tudor England. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd,1969.

This book I found useful for information about the diseases and their treatments. The chapter I used was titled" Doctors, Diseases and Diet", pages 100 - 119.

* Source for visuals

 

Historical Figures and Events /Everyday Life /Arts and Architecture /
Shakespeare and His Theatre/About this Site / Links