Without discussing the extent of Shakespeare's technical medical knowledge, the following pages will suffice to show that he was fully acquainted with many of the popular notions prevalent in his day, respecting certain diseases and their cures. These, no doubt, he collected partly from the literature of the period with which he was so fully conversant, besides gathering a good deal of information on the subject from daily observation. Anyhow, he has bequeathed to us some interesting particulars relating to the folk-medicine of bygone times, which is of value, in so far as it helps to illustrate the history of medicine in past years. In Shakespeare's day the condition of medical science was very unlike that at the present day. As Mr Goadby, in his "England of Shakespeare" (1881, p. 104), remarks, "the man of science was always more or less of an alchemist, and the students of medicine were usually extensive dealers in charms and philtres "If a man wanted bleeding he went to a barber-surgeon, and when he required medicine he consulted an apothecary; the shop of the latter being well described by Romeo (v. 1):—
"And in his needy shop a tortoise hung,
An alligator stuff’d, and other skins
Of ill-shaped fishes; and about his shelves
A beggarly account of empty boxes,
Green earthen pots, bladders and musty seeds,
Remnants of pack-thread and old cakes of roses,
Were thinly scattered to make up a show."
Such a man was as ready "to sell love philtres to a maiden as narcotics to a friar."
Bleeding.—Various remedies were in use in Shakespeare's day to stop bleeding. Thus, a key, on account of the coldness of the metal of which it is composed, was often employed; hence the term "key cold" became proverbial, and is referred to by many old writers. In "King Richard III." (i. 2), Lady Anne, speaking of the corpse of King Henry the Sixth, says—
"Poor key-cold figure of a holy king."
In the "Rape of Lucrece" (1. 1774) the same expression is used—
"And then in key-cold Lucrece's bleeding stream
He falls, and bathes the pale fear in his face."
In Beaumont and Fletcher's "Wild Goose Chase" (iv. 3), we read—"For till they be key-cold dead, there's no trusting of ’em."
Another common remedy was the one alluded to in "King Lear" (iii. 7), where one of the servants says—
"I'll fetch some flax and whites of eggs
To apply to his bleeding face."
This passage has been thought to be parodied in Ben Jonson's play, "The Case is Altered" (ii. 4)—"Go, get a white of .an egg and a little flax, and close the breach of the head, it is the most conducible thing that can be." Mr Gifford, however, has shown the incorrectness of this assertion, pointing out that Jonson's play was written in 1599, some years before "King Lear" appeared, while the allusion is "to a method of cure common in Jonson's time to every barber-surgeon and old woman in the kingdom."
Cobwebs are still used to staunch the bleeding from small wounds, and Bottom's words seem to refer to this remedy of domestic surgery—"I shall desire you of more acquaintance, good master Cobweb; if I cut my finger, I shall make bold with you."
Anciently, says Mr Singer, "a superstitious belief was annexed to the accident of bleeding at the nose," hence in the "Merchant of Venice" (ii. 5), Launcelot says—"It was not for nothing that my nose fell a bleeding on Black Monday last." In days gone, it was customary with our forefathers to be bled periodically, in spring and in autumn, in allusion to which custom King Richard II. (i. 1), refers, when he says to his uncle—
"Our doctors say this is no month to bleed."
Hence the almanacks of the time generally gave particular seasons as the most beneficial for bleeding. The forty-seventh aphorism of Hippocrates (sect. 6), is that "persons who are benefited by venesection or purging, should be bled or purged in the spring."
Blindness.—The exact meaning of the term "sand-blind," which occurs in the "Merchant of Venice" (ii. 2), is somewhat obscure—
"Launcelot. O heavens, this is my true-begotten father! who, being more than sand-blind, high gravel blind, knows me not.
Gobbo. Alack, sir, I am sand-blind, I know you not."
It probably means very dim-sighted, and in Nares’ "Glossary" it is thus explained:—"Having an imperfect sight, as if there was sand in the eye." The expression is used by Beaumont and Fletcher in "Love's Cure" (ii. 1)—"Why, signors, and my honest neighbours, will you impute that as a neglect of my friends, which is an imperfection in me? I have been sand-blind from my infancy." The term was probably one in vulgar use.
Blister.—In the following passage of "Timon of Athens" (v. 1), Timon appears to refer to the old superstition that a lie produces a blister on the tongue, though in the malice of his rage he imprecates the minor punishment on truth, and the old surgery of cauterization on falsehood
"Thou sun, that comfort’st, burn! speak, and be hang'd;
For each true word, a blister! and each false
Be as a cauterizing to the root o’ the tongue,
Consuming it with speaking."
We may also compare the passage in "Winter's Tale" (ii. 2), where Paulina declares—
"If I prove honey-mouth’d, let my tongue blister
And never to my red-look’d anger be
The trumpet any more."
Bone-ache.—This was a nickname in bygone years for the Lues venerea, an allusion to which we find in "Troilus and Cressida" (ii. 3), where Thersites speaks of "the bone-ache as the curse dependant on those that war for a placket." Another name for this disease was the "brenning or burning," a notice of which we find in "King Lear" (iv. 6).
Bubukle.—According to Johnson this denoted "a red pimple." Nares says it is "a corrupt word for a carbuncle or something like; and Mr Halliwell-Phillipps, in his "Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words," defines it as a botch or imposthume. It occurs in "King Henry V." (iii. 6), where Fluellen describes Bardolph's face "as all bubukles."
Bruise.—A favourite remedy in days past for bruises was parmaceti, a corruption of spermaceti, in allusion to which Hotspur, in "1 Henry IV." (i. 3), speaks of it as "the sovereign’st thing on earth for an inward bruise." So, too, in Sir T. Overbury's "Characters," 1616 [An Ordinarie Fencer], "His wounds are seldom skin-deepe; for an inward bruise lamb-stones and sweetbreads are his only spermaceti." A well-known plant called the "Shepherd's Purse," has been popularly nicknamed the "Poor Man's Parmacetti," being a joke on the Latin word bursa, a purse, which, to a poor man, is always the best remedy for his bruises. In "Romeo and Juliet" (i. 2), a plantain leaf is pronounced to be an excellent cure "for your broken shin." "Plantain water was a remedy in common use with the old surgeons."
Burn.—The notion of one heat driving out another gave rise to the old-fashioned custom of placing a burnt part near the fire to drive out the fire,—a practice, says Dr Bucknill, 1 certainly not without benefit, acting on the same principle as the application of turpentine and other stimulants to recent burns. This was one of the many instances of the ancient homoeopathic doctrine, that what hurts will also cure. 2 Thus, in "King John" (iii. 1), Pandulph speaks of it:—
"And falsehood falsehood cures, as fire cools fire
Within the scorched veins of one new burn’d."
Again, in the "Two Gentlemen of Verona" (ii. 4), Proteus tells how—
"Even as one heat another heat expels,
Or as one nail by strength drives out another,
So the remembrance of my former love
Is by a newer object quite forgotten."
We may also compare the words of Mowbray in "King Richard II." (i. 1), where a similar idea is contained:—
"I am disgraced, impeach’d, and baffled here,
Pierced to the soul with slander's venom’d spear,
The which no balm can cure but his heart-blood
Which breathed this poison."
Once more, in "Romeo and Juliet" (i. 2) Benvolio relates how—
"One fire burns out another's burning,
One pain is lessen’d by another's anguish;
Turn giddy, and be holp by backward turning;
One desperate grief cures with another's anguish."
Cataract.—One of the popular names for this disease of the eye was the "web and the pin." Markham in his "Cheap and Good Husbandry" (Bk. i. chap. 37), thus describes it in horses:—"But for the wart, pearle, pin or web, which are evils grown in or upon the eye, to take them off, take the juyce of the herb betin and wash the eye therewith, it will weare the spots away." Florio ("Ital. Dict."), gives the following:—"Cataratta is a dimnesse of sight occasioned by humores hardened in the eies called a cataract or a pin and a web." Shakespeare uses the term in the "Winter's Tale" (i. 2), where Leontes speaks of "all eyes blind with the pin and web but theirs," and in "King Lear" (iii. 4), alluding to "the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet," says "he gives the web and the pin." Acerbi, in his "Travels" (ii. 290), has given the Lapland method of cure for this disease. In a fragment of an old medical treatise, it is thus described:—"Another sykenes ther byth of yezen; on a webbe, a nother a wem, that hydyth the myddel of the yezen; and this hes to maners, other whilys he is white and thynne, and other whilys he is thykke, as whenne the obtalmye ne is noght clene yhelyd up, bote the rote abydyth stylle. Other whilys the webbe is noght white but rede, other blake." In the Statute of the 34 and 35 of "Henry VIII." a pin and web in the eye is recited among the "customable diseases," which honest persons, not being surgeons, might treat with herbs, roots, and waters, with the knowledge of whose nature God had endowed them.
Chilblains.—These are probably alluded to by the Fool in "King Lear" (i. 5):—
"If a man's brains were in 's heels, were’t not in danger of kibes."
Hamlet, too, says (v. 1):—"The age is grown so picked that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier, he galls his kibe."
Deformity.—It was an old prejudice which is not quite extinct that those who are defective or deformed are marked by nature as prone to mischief. Thus in "King Richard III." (i. 3), Margaret says of Richard, Duke of Gloster:—
"Thou elvish-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog!
Thou that was seal’d in thy nativity,
The slave of nature and the son of hell."
She calls him hog, in allusion to his cognizance, which was a boar. A popular expression in Shakespeare's day for a deformed person was a "stigmatic." It denoted anyone who had been stigmatised, or burnt with an iron, as an ignominious punishment; and hence was employed to represent a person on whom nature has set a mark of deformity. Thus in "3 Henry VI." (ii. 2), Queen Margaret says:—
"But thou art neither like thy sire nor dam;
But like a foul misshapen stigmatic
Mark’d by the destinies to be avoided,
As venom toads, or lizards' dreadful stings."
Again in "2 Henry VI." (v. 1), young Clifford says to Richard:—"Foul stigmatic, that's more than thou canst tell." We may note, too, how in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (v. 1), mothers’ marks and congenital forms are deprecated by Oberon from the issue of the happy lovers:—
"And the blots of Nature's hand
Shall not in their issue stand;
Never mole, hare-lip, nor scar,
Nor mark prodigious, such as are
Despised in nativity,
Shall upon their children be."
Indeed, constant allusions are to be met with in our old writers relating to this subject, showing how strong were the feelings of our forefathers on the point. But, to give one further instance of this superstition given by Shakespeare, we may quote the words of King John (iv. 2), with reference to Hubert and his supposed murder of Prince Arthur:—
"A fellow by the hand of nature mark’d,
Quoted and sign’d to do a deed of shame,
This murder had not come into my mind."
This adaptation of the mind to the deformity of the body concurs, too, with Bacon's theory:—"Deformed persons are commonly even with nature, for, as nature hath done ill by them, so do they by nature, being void of natural affection, and so they have their revenge on nature."
Drowning.—The old superstition of its being dangerous to save a person from drowning is supposed, says Mr Halliwell-Phillipps, to be alluded to in "Twelfth Night." It was owing to the belief that the person saved would sooner or later injure the man who saved him. Thus, in Sir Walter Scott's "Pirate," Bryce, the pedlar, warns the hero not to attempt to resuscitate an inanimate form, which the waves had washed ashore on the mainland of Shetland. "`Are you mad,' exclaimed the pedlar, 'you that have lived sae lang in Zetland, to risk the saving of a drowning man? Wot ye not if ye bring him to life again, he will do you some capital injury.'"
Epilepsy.—A popular name for this terrible malady was the "Falling Sickness," because, when attacked with one of these fits, the patient falls suddenly to the ground. In "Julius Cæsar," (i. 2), it is thus mentioned in the following dialogue:—
"Cassius. But, soft, I pray you: what, did Cæsar swoon?
Casca. He fell down in the market-place, and foamed at mouth, and was speechless.
Brutus. ’Tis very like; he hath the falling sickness.
Cassius. No, Cæsar hath it not, but you and I,
And honest Casca, we have the falling sickness."
Fistula.—At the present day a fistula means an abscess external to the rectum, but in Shakespeare's day it was used in the more general signification for a burrowing abscess in any situation. The play of "All's Well that Ends Well" has a special interest, because, as Dr Bucknill says, its very plot may be said to be medical. "The orphan daughter of a physician cures the king of a fistula by means of a secret remedy left to her as a great treasure by her father. The royal reward is the choice of a husband among the nobles of the court, and 'thereby hangs the tale.'" The story is taken from the tale of Gilletta of Narbonne, in the Decamerone of Boccaccio. It came to Shakespeare through the medium of Painter's "Palace of Pleasure," and is to be found in the first volume, which was printed as early as 1566. The story is thus introduced by Shakespeare in the following dialogue (i. 1), where the Countess of Rousillon is represented as inquiring:—
"What hope is there of his majesty's amendment?
Lafeu. He hath abandoned his physicians, madam; under whose practices he hath persecuted time with hope; and finds no other advantage in the process but only the losing of hope by time.
Count. This young gentlewoman had a father—O, that 'had!' how sad a passage ’tis!—whose skill was almost as great as his honesty; had it stretched so far, would have made nature immortal, and death should have play for lack of work. Would, for the king's sake, he were living! I think it would be the death of the king's disease.
Laf. How called you the man you speak of, madam?
Count. He was famous, sir, in his profession, and it was his great right to be so; Gerard de Narbon.
Laf. He was excellent, indeed, madam; the king very lately spoke of him admiringly and mourningly; he was skilful enough to have lived still, if knowledge could be set up against mortality.
Ber. What is it, my good lord, the king languishes of?
Laf. A fistula, my lord."
The account given of Helena's secret remedy and the King's reason for rejecting it, give, says Dr Bucknill, "an excellent idea of the state of opinion with regard to the practice of physic in Shakespeare's time."
Fit.—Formerly the term "rapture" was synonymous with a fit or trance. The word is used by Brutus in "Coriolanus" (ii. 1)—
"Your prattling nurse
Into a rapture lets her baby cry
While she chats him."
Steevens quotes from the "Hospital for London's Follies" (1602) where Gossip Luce says.—"Your darling will weep itself into a rapture, if you take not good heed."
Gold.—It was a long prevailing opinion that a solution of gold had great medicinal virtues; and that the incorruptibility of the metal might be communicated to a body impregnated with it. Thus in "2 Henry IV." (iv. 4) Prince Henry, in the course of his address to his father, says—
“Coming to look on you thinking you dead,
And dead almost, my liege, to think you were,
I spake unto this crown as having sense
And thus upbraided it: ‘The care on thee depending
Hath fed upon the body of my father;
Therefore, thou best of gold are worst of gold;
Other, less fine in carat, is more precious,
Preserving life in medicine potable.’”
Potable gold was one of the panaceas of ancient quacks. In John Wight's translation of the "Secretes of Alexis" is a receipt "to dissolve and reducte golde into a potable licour, which conserveth the youth and healthe of a man, and will heale every disease that is thought incurable, in the space of seven daies at the furthest." The receipt, however, is a highly complicated one, the gold being acted upon by juice of lemons, honey, common salt, and aqua vitæ, and distillation frequently repeated from an "urinall of glass,"—as the oftener it is distilled, the better it is. "Thus doyng," it is said, "ye shall have a right naturall, and perfecte potable golde, whereof somewhat taken alone every monthe once or twice, or at least with the said licour, whereof we have spoken in the second chapter of this boke, is very excellent to preserve a man's youthe and healthe, and to heale in a fewe daies any disease rooted in a man, and thought incurable. The said gold will also be good and profitable for diverse other operations and effectes: as good wittes and diligent searchers of the secretes of nature may easily judge." A further allusion to gold as a medicine is probably alluded to in "All's Well that Ends Well" (v. 3) where the King says to Bertram—
That knows the tinct and multiplying medicine,
Hath not in nature's mystery more science
Than I have in this ring."
Chaucer, too, in his sarcastic excuse for the doctor's avarice refers to this old belief—
"And yet he was but esy of despence:
He kept that he wan in the pestilence.
For gold in physic is a cordial;
Therefore he loved it in special."
Once more, in Sir Kenelm Digby's Receipts (A.D. 1674) we are told that the gold is to be calcined with three salts, ground with sulphur, burnt in a reverbatory furnace with sulphur twelve times, then digested with spirit of wine "which will be tincted very yellow, of which, few drops for a dose in a fit vehicle hath wrought great effects."
The term "grand liquor" is also used by Shakespeare for the aurum potabile of the alchymist, as in "Tempest" (iv. 1)—
"Where should they
Find this grand liquor that hath gilded them."
Good Year.—This is evidently a corruption of goujere, a disease derived from the French gouge, a common camp-follower, and probably alludes to the Morbus Gallicus. Thus, in "King Lear (v. 3), we read—
"The good-years shall devour them, flesh and fell,
Ere they shall make us weep."
With the corruption, however, of the spelling, the word lost in time its real meaning, and it is consequently found in passages where a sense opposite to the true one is intended. 1 It was often used in exclamations, as in "Merry Wives of Windsor" (i. 4)—
"We must give folks leave to prate: what, the good-jer!"
In "Troilus and Cressida" (v. 1) Thersites, by the "rotten diseases of the south" probably meant the "Morbus Gallicus."
Handkerchief.—It was formerly a common practice in England for those who were sick to wear a kerchief on their heads, and still continues at the present day among the common people in many places. Thus, in "Julius Cæsar" (ii. 1), we find the following allusion:—
"Brutus. O, what a time have you chose out, brave Caius,
To wear a kerchief! Would you were not sick."
"If," says Fuller, "this county (Cheshire) hath bred no writers in that faculty (physic), the wonder is the less, if it be true what I read, that if any here be sick, they make him a posset and tye a kerchief on his head, and if that will not mend him, then God be merciful to him."—Worthies of England, 1662,
Hysteria.—This disorder which, in Shakespeare's day, we are told, was known as "the mother," or "hysterica passio," was not considered peculiar to women only. It is probable that when the poet wrote the following lines in "King Lear" (ii. 4), where he makes the king say—
"O, how this mother swells up toward my heart!
Hysterica passio! down, thou climbing sorrow,
Thy element's below!—Where is this daughter?"
he had in view the subjoined passages from Harsnet's "Declaration of Popish Impostures" (1603), a work which, it has been suggested, "he may have consulted in order to furnish out his character of Tom of Bedlam with demoniacal gibberish." The first occurs at p. 25:—"Ma. Maynie had a spice of the hysterica passio, as it seems, from his youth; hee himselfe termes it the moother (as you may see in his confessione). Master Richard Mainy, who was persuaded by the priests that he was possessed of the devil, deposes as follows (p. 263):—The disease I speake of was a spice of the Mother, wherewith I had been troubled (as is before mentioned) before my going into Fraunce. Whether I doe rightly terme it the mother or no I know not." Dr Jordan, in 1603, published "A Briefe Discourse of a Disease called the Suffocation of the Mother."
Infection.—According to an old, but erroneous belief, infection communicated to another left the infector free, in allusion to which Timon (iv. 3) says,—"I will not kiss thee; then the rot returns to thine own lips again."
Among other notions prevalent in days gone by was the general contagiousness of disease, to which an allusion seems to be made in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (i. 1), where Helena says,—
"Sickness is catching: O, were favour so,
Yours would I catch, fair Hermia, ere I go."
Malone considers that Shakespeare, in the following passage in "Venus and Adonis" alludes to a practice of his day, when it was customary, in time of the plague, to strew the rooms of every house with rue and other strong-smelling herbs to prevent infection
"Long may they kiss each other, for this cure!
O never let their crimson liveries wear!
And as they last, their verdure still endure
To drive infection from the dangerous year."
Again, the contagiousness of pestilence is thus alluded to by Beatrice in "Much Ado about nothing" (i. 1):—O Lord, he will hang upon him like a disease; he is sooner caught than the pestilence, and the taker runs presently mad." The belief too, that the poison of pestilence dwells in the air is spoken of in "Timon of Athens" (iv. 3):—
Will o’er some high-viced city hang his poison
In the sick air."
And again, in "King Richard II." (i. 3):—
"Devouring pestilence hangs in our air."
It is alluded to also in "Twelfth Night" (i. 1), where the Duke says:—
"O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first,
Methought she purged the air of pestilence!"
While on this subject, we may quote the following dialogue from the same play (ii. 3), which, as Dr Bucknill remarks, "involves the idea that contagion is bound up with something appealing to the sense of smell, a mellifluous voice being miscalled contagious; unless one could apply one organ to the functions of another, and thus admit contagion, not through its usual portal, the nose":—
"Sir Andrew. A mellifluous voice, as I am true knight.
Sir Toby. A contagious breath.
Sir Andrew. Very sweet and contagious, i’ faith.
Sir Toby. To hear by the nose, it is dulcet in contagion."
Insanity.—That is a common idea that the symptoms of madness are increased by the full moon. Shakespeare mentions this popular fallacy in "Othello" (v. 2), where he tells us that the moon makes men insane, when she comes nearer the earth than she was wont. 2
Music, as a cure for madness, is perhaps referred to in "King Lear" (iv. 7), where the physician of King Lear says:—"Louder the musick there." 3 Mr Singer, however, has this note:—"Shakespeare considered soft music favourable to sleep. Lear, we may suppose, had been thus composed to rest; and now the physician desires louder music to be played, for the purpose of waking him."
So in "Richard II." (v. 5), the king says:—
"This music mads me; let it sound no more:
For though it holp madmen to their wits,
In me it seems it will make wise men mad."
The power of music as a medical agency, has been recognized from the earliest times, and in mental cases has often
been highly efficacious. 1 Referring to music as inducing sleep, we may quote the touching passage in "2 Henry IV." (iv. 5), where the King says:—
"Let there be no noise made, my gentle friends;
Unless some dull and favourable hand
Will whisper music to my weary spirit.
Wor. Call for the music in the other room."
Ariel in the "Tempest" (ii. 1) enters playing solemn music to produce this effect.
A mad-house seems formerly to have been designated a "dark-house." Hence in the "Twelfth Night" (iii. 4), the reason for putting Malvolio into a dark room, was to make him believe that he was mad. In the following act (iv. 2) he says, "Good Sir Topas, do not think I am mad, they have laid me here in hideous darkness," and further on (v. 1), he asks," Why have you suffer’d me to be imprison’d, kept in a dark-house?"
In "As You Like It" (iii. 2), Rosalind says that "love is merely a madness, and deserves as well a dark-house and a whip, as madmen do."
The expression "horn-mad," i.e. quite mad, occurs in the "Comedy of Errors" (ii. 1):—
"Why, mistress, sure my master is horn-mad."
And again, in "The Merry Wives of Windsor" (i. 4), Mistress Quickly says, "If he had found the young man, he would have been horn-mad."
Madness in cattle was supposed to arise from a distemper in the internal substance of their horns, and furious or mad cattle had their horns bound with straw.
King's Evil.—This was a common name in years gone by for scrofula, because the sovereigns of England were supposed to possess the power of curing it, "without other medicine, save only by handling and prayer." This custom of "touching for the king's evil" is alluded to in "Macbeth" (iv. 3), where the following dialogue is introduced:—
"Malcolm. Comes the king forth, I pray you?
Doctor. Ay, sir; there are a crew of wretched souls
That stay his cure; their malady convinces
The great assay of art; but at his touch—
Such sanctity hath heaven given his hand—
They presently amend.
Malcolm. I thank you, doctor.
Macduff. What's the disease he means?
Malcolm. ’Tis call’d the evil:
A most miraculous work in this good king;
Which often, since my here-remain in England,
I have seen him do. How he solicits heaven,
Himself best knows: but strangely-visited people,
All swoln and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,
The mere despair of surgery, he cures,
Hanging a golden stamp about their necks,
Put on with holy prayers: and ’tis spoken,
To the succeeding royalty he leaves
The healing benediction. With this strange virtue
He hath a heavenly gift of prophecy;
And sundry blessings hang about his throne,
That speak him full of grace."
This reference, which has nothing to do with the progress of the drama, is introduced obviously in compliment to King James, who fancied himself endowed with the confessor's powers. 1 The poet found authority for the passage in Holinshed (i. 279)—"As hath bin thought, he was enspired with the gift of prophecie, and also to haue hadde the gift of healing infirmities and diseases. Namely, he vsed to help those that were vexed with the disease, commonly called the kyngs euill, and left that vertue as it were a portion of inheritance vnto his successors the kyngs of this realme." Edward's miraculous powers were believed in, we are told, by his contemporaries, or at least soon after his death, and were expressly recognised by Pope Alexander III., who canonized him. In Plot's "Oxfordshire" (chap. x. sec. 125) there is an account, accompanied with a drawing, of the touch piece supposed to have been given by this monarch. James First's practice of touching for the evil is frequently mentioned in Nichols’ "Progresses." Charles I., when at York, touched seventy persons in one day. Indeed, few are aware to what an extent this superstition once prevailed. In the course of twenty years, between 1660 and 1682, no less than 92,107 persons were touched for this disease. The first English monarch who refused to touch for the King's Evil was William III., but the practice was resumed by Queen Anne, who officially announced, in the "London Gazette," March 12, 1712, her royal intention to receive patients afflicted with the malady in question. It was probably about that time that Johnson was touched by her Majesty, upon the recommendation of the celebrated physician Sir John Floyer, of Lichfield. King George I. put an end to this practice, which is said to have originated with Edward the Confessor in 1058. The custom was also observed by French kings, and on Easter Sunday, 1686, Louis XIV. is said to have touched 1600 persons.
Lethargy.—This is frequently confounded by medical men of former times, and by Shakespeare himself, with apoplexy. The term occurs in the list of diseases quoted by Thersites in "Troilus and Cressida" (v. 1).
Leprosy.—This was in years gone by used to denote the lues venerea, as in "Antony and Cleopatra" (iii. 8)—
"Yon ribaudred nag of Egypt,
Whom leprosy o’ertake!
Hoists sail and flies."
Leech.—The old medical term for a leech is a "bloodsucker," and a knot would be an appropriate term for a number of clustering leeches. So in "Richard III." (iii. 3), Grey being led to the block, says of Richard's minions—
"A knot you are of damned blood-suckers."
In "2 Henry VI." (iii. 2), mention is made by Warwick of the "bloodsucker of sleeping men," which, says Dr Bucknill, appears to mean the vampire bat.
Measles.—This word originally signified leprosy, although in modern times used for a very different disorder. Its derivation is the old French word meseau, or mesel, a leper. Thus Cotgrave has "meseau, a meselled, scurvy, leaporous, lazarous person." Distempered, or scurvied hogs are still said to be measled. It is in this sense that Coriolanus uses it (iii. 1):—
"As for my country I have shed my blood,
Not fearing outward force, so shall my lungs
Coin words till their decay against those measels,
Which we disdain should tetter us, yet sought
The very way to catch them."
Pleurisy.—This denotes a plethora, or redundancy of blood, and was so used probably from an erroneous idea that the word was derived from plus pluris. It is employed by Shakespeare in "Hamlet" (iv. 7)—
"For goodness, growing to a plurisy
Dies in his own too much."
In the "Two Noble Kinsmen" (v. 1), there is a similar phrase:
"That heal’st with blood
The earth when it is sick, and cur’st the world
O’ the plurisy of people."
The word is frequently used by writers contemporary with Shakespeare. Thus, for instance, Massinger in "The Picture" (iv. 2), says:—
"A plurisy of ill blood you must let out
Mummy.—This was a preparation, for magical purposes, made from dead bodies, and was used as a medicine both long before and long after Shakespeare's day. Its virtues seem to have been chiefly imaginary, and even the traffic of it fraudulent. The preparation of mummy is said to have been first brought into use in medicine by a Jewish physician, who wrote that flesh thus embalmed was good for the cure of divers diseases, and particularly bruises, to prevent the blood's gathering and coagulating. It has, however, long been known that no use whatever can be derived from it in medicine, and "that all which is sold in the shops, whether brought from Venice or Lyons, or even directly from the Levant by Alexandria, is factitious, the work of certain Jews, who counterfeit it by drying carcases in ovens, after having prepared them with powder of Myrrh, caballine aloes, Jewish pitch, and other coarse or unwholesome drugs." Shakespeare speaks of this preparation. Thus Othello (iii. 4), referring to the handkerchief which he had given to Desdemona relates how—
"It was dyed in mummy which the skilful
Conserved of maidens’ hearts."
And in "Macbeth" (iv. 1), the "Witches' Mummy" forms one of the ingredients of the boiling cauldron. Webster in "The White Devil" (1857, p. 5), speaks of it:—
Have swallow’d you like mummia, and, being sick,
With such unnatural and horrid physic,
Vomit you up i’ the kennel."
Sir Thomas Browne, in his interesting Fragment on Mummies, tells us that Francis the First always carried mummy with him as a panacea against all disorders. Some used it for epilepsy, some for gout, some used it as a stiptic. He further adds: "The common opinion of the virtues of mummy bred great consumption thereof, and princes and great men contended for this strange panacea, wherein Jews dealt largely, manufacturing mummies from dead carcases, and giving them the names of kings, while specifics were compounded from crosses and gibbets leavings."
Nightmare.—There are various charms practised in this and other countries for the prevention of nightmare, many of which are exceedingly quaint. In days gone by it appears that St Vitalis, whose name has been corrupted into St. Withold, was invoked; and by way of illustration Theobald quotes from the old play of "King John" the following:—
"Sweet S. Withold of thy lenitie, defend us from extremitie."
Shakespeare alluding to the nightmare in his "King Lear" (iii. 4), refers to the same Saint, and gives us a curious old charm:—
"S. Withold footed thrice the old; [wold]
He met the night-mare, and her nine-fold;
Bid her alight
And her troth plight,
And, aroint thee, witch, aroint thee."
For what purpose, as Mr Singer 1 has pointed out, the incubus is enjoined to "plight her troth" will appear from a charm against the nightmare in Reginald Scot's "Discovery of Witchcraft," which occurs with slight variation in Fletcher's "Monsieur Thomas" (iv. 6):—
"St George, St George, our lady's knight,
He walks by day, so does he by night,
And when he had her found,
He her beat and her bound,
Until to him her troth she plight,
She would not stir from him that night."
Paralysis.—An old term for chronic paralysis was "cold palsies," which is used by Thersites in "Troilus and Cressida" (v. 1).
Philosopher's Stone.—This was supposed by its touch to convert base metal into gold. It is noticed by Shakespeare in "Antony and Cleopatra" (i. 5)—
"Alexas. Sovereign of Egypt, hail!
Cleopatra. How much unlike art thou Mark Antony!
Yet, coming from him, that great medicine hath
With his tinct gilded thee."
The alchymists call the matter, whatever it may be, says Johnson, by which they perform transmutation a medicine. Thus Chapman in his "Shadow of Night" (1594)—"O then, thou great elixir of all treasures;" on which passage he has the following note:—"The philosopher's stone, or philosophica medicina, is called the great elixir." Another reference occurs in "Timon of Athens" (ii. 1) where the Fool in reply to the question of Varro's servant, "What is a whoremaster, fool?" answers—"A fool in good clothes, and something like thee. ’Tis a spirit: sometime ’t appears like a lord; sometime like a lawyer; sometime like a philosopher, with two stones moe than's artificial one," etc., a passage which Johnson explains as meaning "more than the philosopher's stone," or twice the value of a philosopher's stone; though, as Farmer observes, "Gower has a chapter in his 'Confessio Amantis,' of the three stones that philosophers made." Singer, 3 in his note on the philosopher's stone, says that Sir Thomas Smith was one of those who lost considerable sums in seeking of it. Sir Richard Steele was one of the last eminent men who entertained hopes of being successful in this pursuit. His laboratory was at Poplar.
Pimple.—In the Midland Counties a common name for a pimple, which by rubbing is made to smart, or rubbed to sense, is "a quat." The word occurs in "Othello" (v. 1) where Roderigo is so called by Iago—
"I have rubb’d this young quat almost to the sense,
And he grows angry."
—Roderigo being called a quat by the same mode of speech as a low fellow is now called a scab. It occurs in Langham's "Garden of Health," p. 1.53—"The leaves [of coleworts] laid to by themselves, or bruised with barley meale, are good for the inflammations, and soft swellings, burnings, impostumes, and cholerick sores or gnats," etc.
Plague.—"Tokens" or "God's tokens" were the terms for those spots on the body which denoted the infection of the plague. In "Love's Labour's Lost" (v. 2)—
"For the lord's tokens on you do I see,"
and in "Antony and Cleopatra" (iii. 10) there is another allusion—
"Enobarbus. How appears the fight?
Scarus. On our side like the token’d pestilence,
Where death is sure."
In "Troilus and Cressida" (ii. 3) Ulysses says of Achilles—
"He is so plaguy proud that the death tokens of it
Cry, 'no recovery.'"
King Lear, too, it would seem, compares Goneril (ii. 4) to these fatal signs, when he calls her "a plague sore." When the tokens had appeared on any of the inhabitants, the house was shut up, and "Lord have mercy upon us" written or printed upon the door. Hence Biron in "Love's Labour's Lost" (v. 2) says—
"Write, 'Lord have mercy on us,' on those there;
They are infected, in their hearts it lies,
They have the plague, and caught it of your eyes."
The "red pestilence," referred to by Volumnia in "Coriolanus," (iv. 1), probably alludes to the cutaneous eruptions common in the plague:—
"Now the red pestilence strike all trades in Rome,
And occupations perish."
In the "Tempest," (i. 2), Caliban says, to Prospero, "The red plague rid you."
Poison.—According to a vulgar error prevalent in days gone by, poison was supposed to swell the body, an allusion to which occurs in "Julius Cæsar," (iv. 3), where, in the quarrel between Brutus and Cassius, the former declares:—
"You shall digest the venom of your spleen,
Though it do split you."
We may also compare the following passage in "2 King Henry IV.," (iv. 4), where the king says:—
"Learn this, Thomas,
And thou shalt prove a shelter to thy friends,
A hoop of gold to bind thy brothers in,
That the united vessel of their blood,
Mingled with venom of suggestion,
As, force perforce, the age will pour it in—
Shall never leak, though it do work as strong
As aconitum or rash gunpowder."
In "King John," Hubert, when describing the effect of the poison upon the monk (v. 6), narrates how his "bowels suddenly burst out." This passage also contains a reference to the popular custom prevalent in the olden days, of great persons having their food tasted by those who were supposed to have made themselves acquainted with its wholesomeness. This practice, however, could not always afford security when the taster was ready to sacrifice his own life, as in the present case 1:—
"Hubert. The king, I fear, is poisoned by a monk:
I left him almost speechless. . . .
Bastard. How did he take it? Who did taste to him?
Hubert. A monk, I tell you; a resolved villain."
The natives of Africa have been supposed to be possessed of the secret how to temper poison with such art as not to operate till several years after they were administered. Their drugs were then as certain in their effect as subtle in their preparation. 1 Thus, in the "Tempest," (iii. 3), Gonzalo says of the fiends:—
"All three of them are desperate: their great guilt,
Like poison given to work a great time after,
Now ’gins to bite the spirits."
The belief, also, in slow poisoning was general in bygone times, although no better founded on fact, remarks Dr Bucknill, than the notion that persons burst with poison, or that narcotics could, like an alarum clock, be set for a certain number of hours. So in "Cymbeline," (v. 5), Cornelius relates to the king the queen's confession:—
"She did confess she had
For you a mortal mineral; which, being took,
Should by the minute feed on life, and lingering
By inches waste you."
Pomander.—This was either a composition of various perfumes wrought in the shape of a ball or other form, and worn in the pocket or hung about the neck, and even sometimes suspended to the wrist; or a case for containing such a mixture of perfumes. It was used as an amulet against the plague or other infections, as well as for an article of luxury. There is an allusion to its use in "The Winter's Tale," (iv. 3), by Autolycus, who enumerates it among all his trumpery that he had sold. The following recipe for making a pomander we find in an old play 3:—"Your only way to make a pomander is this,—take an ounce of the purest garden mould, cleans’d and steep’d seven days in change of motherless rose-water. Then take the best labdanum, benjoin, with storaxes, ambergris, civet, and musk. Incorporate them together, and work them into what form you please. This, if your breath be not too valiant, will make you smell as sweet as any lady's dog."
Rheumatism.—In Shakespeare's day this was used in a far wider sense than now-a-days, including, in addition to what is now understood by the term, distillations from the head, catarrhs, &c. Malone quotes from the "Sydney Memorials," (i. 94), where the health of Sir Henry Sidney is described:—"He hath verie much distempored divers parts of his bodie; as namelie, his heade, his stomack, &c., and thereby is always subject to distillacions, coughes, and other rumatick diseases." Among the many superstitions relating to the moon, 1 one is mentioned in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," (ii. 1), where Titania tells how the moon—
"Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound."
The word "rheumatic" was also formerly used in the sense of choleric or peevish, as in "2 Henry IV.," (ii. 4), where the hostess says:—"You two never meet but you fall to some discord: you are both, i’ good truth, as rheumatic as two dry toasts." Again, in "Henry V.," (ii. 3), the hostess says of Falstaff:—"A’ did in some sort, indeed, handle women; but then he was rheumatic, and talked of the whore of Babylon."
Serpigo.—This appears to have been a term extensively used by old medical authors for any creeping skin disease; being especially applied to that known as the herpes circinatus. The expression occurs in "Measure for Measure" (iii. 1), being coupled by the Duke with "the gout" and the "rheum." In "Troilus and Cressida" (ii. 3), Thersites says:—"Now the dry serpigo on the subject."
Sickness.—Sickness of stomach, which the slightest disgust is apt to provoke, is still expressed by the term "queasy;" hence the word denoted delicate, unsettled; as in "King Lear" (ii. 1), where it is used by Edmund:—
"I have one thing, of a queasy question,
Which I must act."
So Ben Jonson employs it in Sejanus (i. 1):—
"These times are rather queasy to be touched."
Sigh.—It was a prevalent notion that sighs impair the strength, and wear out the animal powers. Thus, in "2 Henry VI." (iii. 2), Queen Margaret speaks of "blood-drinking sighs." We may, too, compare the words of Oberon in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (iii. 2), who refers to "sighs of love that costs the fresh blood dear." In "3 Henry VI." (iv. 4), Queen Elizabeth says:—
"For this I draw in many a tear
And stop the rising of blood-sucking sighs."
Once more in "Hamlet" (iv.. 7), the king mentions the "spendthrift's sigh that hurts by easing." Fenton in his "Tragical Discourses." (1579), alludes to this notion in the following words:—"Your scorching sighes that have already drayned your body of his wholesome humoures."
It was also an ancient belief that sorrow consumed the blood, and shortened life. Hence Romeo tells Juliet (iii. 5),—
"And trust me, love, in my eye so do you:
Dry sorrow drinks our blood."
Small-pox.—Such a terrible plague was this disease in the days of our ancestors, that its name was used as an imprecation. Thus, in "Love's Labour's Lost" (v. 2), the princess says:—
"A pox of that jest."
Saliva.—The colour of the spittle was, with the medical men of olden times, an important point of diagnosis. Thus in "2 Henry IV." (i. 2), Falstaff exclaims against fighting on a hot day, and wishes he may "never spit white again," should it so happen.
Sterility.—The charm against sterility referred to by Cæsar in "Julius Cæsar" (i. 2), is copied from Plutarch, who, in his description of the festival Lupercalia, tells us how "noble young men run naked through the city, striking in sport whom they meet in the way with leather thongs," which blows were commonly believed to have the wonderful effect attributed to them by Cæsar—
"The barren, touched in this holy chase,
Shake off their sterile curse."
Suicide.—Cominius, in "Coriolanus" (i. 9), arguing against Marcius's overstrained modesty, refers to the manner in which suicide was thought preventable in olden times—
"If ’gainst yourself you be incensed, we'll put you,
Like one that means his proper harm, in manacles,
Then reason safely with you."
Toothache.—It was formerly a common superstition—and one, too, not confined to our own country—that toothache was caused by a little worm, having the form of an eel, which gradually gnawed a hole in the tooth. In "Much Ado About Nothing" (iii. 2), Shakespeare speaks of this curious belief—
"Don Pedro. What! sigh for the toothache?
Leonata. Where is but a humour or a worm."
This notion was some years ago prevalent in Derbyshire, where there was an odd way of extracting, as it was thought, the worm. A small quantity of a mixture, consisting of dry and powdered herbs, was placed in some small vessel, into which a live coal from the fire was dropped. The patient then held his or her open mouth over the vessel, and inhaled the smoke as long as it could be borne. The cup was then taken away, and in its place a glass of water was put before the patient. Into this glass the person breathed hard for a few moments, when it was supposed the grub or worm could be seen in the water. In Orkney, too, toothache goes by the name of "the worm," and, as a remedy, the following charm, called "wormy lines," is written on a piece of paper, and worn as an amulet by the person affected, in some part of his dress:—
"Peter sat on a marble stone weeping;
Christ came past, and said, 'What aileth thee, Peter?'
'O my Lord, my God, my tooth doth ache.'
'Arise, O Peter! go thy way; thy tooth shall ache no more.'"
This notion is still current in Germany, and is mentioned by Thorpe in his "Northern Mythology" (iii. 167), who quotes a North German incantation, beginning—
"Pear tree, I complain to thee;
Three worms sting me."
It is found, too, even in China and New Zealand, the following charm being used in the latter country—
"An eel, a spiny back
True indeed, indeed: true in sooth, in sooth.
You must eat the head
Of said spiny back."
A writer in the Athenaeum (Jan. 28, 1860), speaking of the Rev. R. H. Cobbold's "Pictures of the Chinese, Drawn by themselves," says—"The first portrait is that of a quack doctress, who pretends to cure toothache by extracting a maggot—the cause of the disorder. This is done—or rather pretended to be done—by simply placing a bright steel pin on the part affected, and tapping the pin with a piece of wood. Mr Cobbold compares the operation to procuring worms for fishing, by working a spade backwards and forwards in the ground. He and a friend submitted to the process, but in a very sort time compelled the doctress to subsist, by the excessive precautions they took against imposition." We may further note that John of Gatisden, one of our oldest medical authors, attributes decay of the teeth to "a humour or a worm." In his "Rosa Anglica," he says—"Si vermes sint in dentibus, ℞, semen porri, seu lusquiami contere et misce cum cera, pone super carbones, et fumus recipiatur per embotum, quoniam sanat. Solum etiam semen lusquiami valet coctum in aqua calida, supra quam aquam patiens palatum apertum si tenuerit, cadent vermes evidenter vel in illam aquam, vel in aliam quæ ibi fuerit ibi posita. De myrrha et aloe ponantur in dentem, ubi est vermis: semen caulis, et absinthium, per se vermes interficit."
Tub-fast.—In years past "the discipline of sweating in a heated tub for a considerable time, accompanied with strict abstinence, was thought necessary for the cure of venereal taint." 1 Thus, in "Timon of Athens" (iv. 3), Timon says to Timandra—
"Be a whore still! they love thee not that use thee;
Give them diseases, leaving with thee their lust.
Make use of thy salt hours: season the slaves
For tubs and baths: bring down rose-cheeked youth
To the tub-fast and the diet."
As beef, too, was usually salted down in a tub, the one process was jocularly compared to the other. So, in "Measure for Measure" (iii. 2), Pompey, when asked by Lucio about his mistress, replies, "Troth, sir, she hath eaten up all her beef, and she is herself in the tub." Again, in "Henry V." (ii. 1), Pistol speaks of "the powdering tub of infamy."
Vinegar.—In Shakespeare's day this seems to have been termed "eisel" (from A.–S. aisel), being esteemed highly efficacious in preventing the communications of the plague and other contagious diseases. In this sense it has been used by Shakespeare in his 111th sonnet—
"Like a willing patient, I will drink
Potions of eisel, ’gainst my strong infection."
In a MS. Herbal in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge occurs "acetorum, ance vynegre or aysel." The word occurs again in "Hamlet" (v. 1), where Laertes is challenged by Hamlet—
"Woo’t drink up eisel? eat a crocodile?"
The word woo’t in the northern counties is the common contraction of wouldst thou, which is the reading of the old copies. In former years it was the fashion with gallants to do some extravagant feat as a proof of their love in honour of their mistresses, and among others the swallowing of some nauseous potion was one of the most frequent. Hence in the above passage some bitter potion is evidently meant, which it was a penance to drink. Some are of opinion that wormwood is alluded to; and Mr Singer thinks it probable that "the propoma called absinthites, a nauseously bitter medicament then much in use, may have been in the poet's mind to drink up a quantity of which would be an extreme pass of amorous demonstration." It has been suggested by a correspondent of "Notes and Queries" that the reference in this passage from "Hamlet" is to a lake Esyl which figures in Scandinavian legends. Messrs Wright and Clark, however, in their Notes to "Hamlet" (1876, p. 218), say that they have consulted Mr Magnusson on this point, and 'he writes as follows:—"No such lake as Esyl is known to Norse mythology and folk-lore." Steevens supposes it to be the river Yssell.
Water-casting.—The fanciful notion of recognising diseases by the mere inspection of the urine was denounced years ago by an old statute of the College of Physicians, as belonging to tricksters and impostors, and any member of the college was forbidden to give advice by this so-called "water-casting" without he also saw the patient. The statute of the college runs as follows:—"Statuimus, et ordinamus, ut nemo, sive socius, sive candidatus, sive permissus consilii quidquam impertiat veteratoriis, et impostoribus, super urinarum nuda inspectione, nisi simul ad ægrum vocetur, ut ibidem, pro re natû, idonea medicamenta ab honesto aliquo pharmacopoea componenda præscribat." An allusion to this vulgar error occurs in the "Two Gentlemen of Verona" (ii. 1), where, after Speed has given to Valentine his amusing description of a lover, in which, among other signs, are "to walk alone like one that had the pestilence," and "to fast like one that takes diet," the following quibble takes place upon the within and the without of the symptoms—
"Valentine. Are all these things perceived in me?
Speed. They are all perceived without ye.
Valentine. Without me? they cannot.
Speed. Without you? nay, that's certain, for without you were so simple, none else would: but you are so without these follies, that these follies are within you and shine through you like the water in an urinal, that not an eye that sees you but is a physician to comment on your malady."
This singular pretence, says Dr Bucknill, is "alleged to have arisen, like the barber surgery, from the ecclesiastical interdicts upon the medical vocations of the clergy. Priests and monks being unable to visit their former patients are said first to have resorted to the expedient of divining the malady, and directing the treatment upon simple inspection of the urine. However this may be, the practice is of very ancient date." Numerous references to this piece of medical quackery occur in many of our old writers, most of whom condemn it in very strong terms. Thus Forestus in his "Medical Politics" speaks of it as being, in his opinion, a practice altogether evil, and expresses an earnest desire that medical men would combine to repress it. Shakespeare gives a further allusion to it in the passage where he makes Macbeth (v. 3) say—
"If thou couldst, doctor, cast
The water of my land, and her disease,
And purge it to a sound and pristine health,
I would applaud thee to the very echo."
And in "2 Henry IV." (i. 2) Falstaff asks the page, "What says the doctor to my water?" and once more in "Twelfth Night" (iii. 4), Fabian, alluding to Malvolio, says, "Carry his water to the wise woman."
It seems probable, too, that in the "Merry Wives of Windsor" (ii. 3), the term "mock-water" employed by the host to the French Dr Caius, refers to the mockery of judging of diseases by the water or urine,—"mock-water" in this passage being equivalent to "you pretending water-doctor!"