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Elizabeth I preferred her magician to common roguish quacks

Posted in Historical articles, History, Magic, Medicine, Royalty, Superstition on Monday, 3 March 2014

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This edited article about medicine first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 576 published on 27 January 1973.

Quack dentist,  picture, image, illustration

A quack might have tried to slip a worm into the sufferer’s mouth and then pull it out again, claiming that it had been the worm that caused the toothache, by Angus McBride

We have seen how the virulent plagues which devastated Europe in the Middle Ages led to an enormous increase in the number of travelling medicine-men. These “quacks” (from the Dutch “quacksalver,” who was a person who wandered the country selling salves and medicines) roamed England, shouting their wares at markets and fairs. Generally speaking, they had scant medical skill, but there is little doubt that they, at least, offered hope in an age when doctors were few.

The 14th century had slipped away unmourned and men rejoiced in the warmth and security of the Tudor Renaissance. A revolution in medicine was beginning and the first volleys were being fired in a campaign that was to weaken – and ultimately remove – the power and influence of the quacks.

An early attempt had been made in 1423 by the Guild of Physicians to ban “all quacks and empiriks and the knavish men and women who do presume to practise some sort of Physick.” The trouble with this awe-inspiring and thunderous pronouncement was that there was no real way that it could be implemented. So, the quacks continued their work unchecked.

The Reformation, with its reappraisal of traditional religious values, brought a virtual end to the selling of holy relics – alleged to have miraculous healing powers. When exposed to the chilling light of reason, many of the revered objects were simply absurd. Typical of many was the phial – reputedly containing the blood of Christ – that had led to many wonderful cures at Hales in Gloucestershire. On examination it was found to contain nothing more than the blood of a goose, renewed at weekly intervals.

In 1542, the official surgeons had abused their privileged position to such an extent that King Henry VIII produced what became known as the “Quacks’ Charter.” It pointed out that the folk-healers and quacks often did more good and had more skill than some of the recognised doctors. Also, they served the poor better and often charged them less.

Not many people nowadays actually like going to the dentist, but try and imagine what it must have been like in Tudor times. If you went to one of the many fairs, a rogue of a tooth-drawer might well try and slip a worm into your mouth and then take it out again, claiming it had been the worm that was causing the toothache.

If that did not work, you could try another booth, where a different quack – to the accompaniment of loud music and illuminated by smoky rush lights – would tap your teeth with a small bone hammer. When he found one that did not ring true, he would simply reach in with a strong fore-finger and thumb and tug it out! Primitive, but it probably worked quite well. Infected teeth could, quite literally, lead to death. Queen Elizabeth I suffered from this and, it was alleged, her rotting and poisoned teeth probably hastened her end.

Seventeenth century England saw an increase in the power and wealth of orthodox doctors. For instance, one of them, Sir Theodore Mayerne, died in 1655 and left £140,000 – a positively astronomical sum for those days. An ironic situation arose out of the competition for the country’s rich patients. In an effort to gain the gentry’s guineas from each other, doctors resorted to sales methods more dubious than any quack.

No account of quackery and the mystic belief in magical medicine of the period can be complete without mention of “King’s Evil.” This was an unpleasant skin disease called “scrofula” which could, it was believed, only be cured by the laying on of hands by the reigning monarch. Henry VIII, for instance, went to extraordinary lengths to turn the cure into a spectacle with the giving of a gold coin to hang round the neck of the sufferer.

Charles I was a firm believer in his Divine Right to heal and once carried out a quite unique cure. Sufferers from scrofula had to be actually touched to be cured but, on one occasion, the crush of people was too great for this to happen. The King simply cried out: “God bless thee and ease thy malady.” Miraculously, the man was instantly healed. This is probably the only case in history of remote-control medicine. Even the most outrageous quack would not have had the nerve to lay claim to have such powers as that.

Sadly, this well-intentioned Charter did more harm than good. Although it gave a seal of approval to the medical underworld, it also opened the floodgates to a torrent of totally unqualified rogues to pretend medical knowledge to make an easy penny. This torrent included many a “fat-bellied priest” dispossessed by Henry’s closures of the monasteries.

Two of the leading opponents of the quacks were the Puritan, John Halle, and the best of Elizabethan surgeons, William Clowes. Halle was a bitter enemy of the quacksalvers, calling them “pedlars, tinkers, rat-catchers and very vagabonds”, and having many a “sturdy rogue” whipped out of town at a cart-tail for practising dishonest medicine. For pure invective it is impossible to find any better than this quote from one of Clowes’ lectures on the subject of quacks. They don’t make insults like this nowadays! “Yea, now it is apparent to see how Tinkers, Tooth-drawers, Pedlars, Ostlers, Carters, Porters, and Horse-leeches, Idiots, Apple-squires, Broom-men, Bawds, Witches, Conjurors, Soothsayers, Rogues, Rat-catchers, Runagates and Proctors of Spittle Houses (this was an early type of fever infirmary, from which we get our word “hospital” – “house spittle”) with such like rotten and stinking weeds which daily abuse both physic and surgery, having no more knowledge in this art than hath a goose.”

Europe was entering a period of dreadful persecution of anyone suspected of being in league with either witches or wizards. Fleeing the horrors of the rack and the stake, many French, Dutch and German quacks came to the relative safety of England – to the great annoyance of the native practitioners.

An indication of the heights that a necromantic (sorcerous) surgeon could reach can be obtained by a glance at the career of Doctor Dee. A known wizard and dabbler in the Black Arts, he nevertheless came to the eminence of medical adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. He claimed to have discovered the Elixir of Life, buried at Glastonbury Abbey. Sadly, it availed him little, as he died in 1608 in the greatest poverty.

One danger peculiar to the quack at this time was that of execution if he accidentally killed one of his “patients” Real doctors were generally exempt from punishment if their bungling resulted in death.

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