Healers in the 17th century

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We are used to a world in which we immediately turn to a doctor if we are sick. This is true only in western society and it is a relatively recent development. In the seventeenth century, the choice of healer for a sick person would not be anything like as clear-cut. There was a wide choice of medical practitioners and, in spite of the efforts of the physicians, there was no established hierarchy. In most parts of England, people had access to what some described as ‘legitimate’ practitioners of which there were three types along with a vast range of unofficial healers.


Of the legitimate healers, Physicians considered themselves to be the elite. They had been trained at university and may have been granted a licence to practise by their local Bishop or a College of Physicians. By the seventeenth century they were trying to establish themselves as the superior medical group and attempting to gain control of all other practitioners. It would be some time before they succeeded. In broad terms, if they were involved in treating an individual, they would diagnose the malady and prescribe treatment, usually to be carried out by a surgeon or an apothecary.


Surgeons and barber-surgeons usually served an apprenticeship and they were the people who would carry out any operations prescribed by a physician. Probably the most common of these was blood-letting (phlebotomy) but it was the surgeons who would wield the knives for surgical procedures. It was this hands-on aspect of the job that physicians used in order to claim superiority over surgeons: physicians claimed to work with their minds while they maintained that surgeons were manual workers like carpenters or smiths.


Apothecaries would also have served an apprenticeship in order to learn about herbs and drugs. They knew how to grow them, where to obtain them, how to process them in order to produce the effective elements and knew how to combine them to produce medicines that the physicians may have prescribed. Probably the most common treatments that an apothecary would have provided were for purging since this was considered a necessary part of most treatment regimes.


While the physicians saw a medical hierarchy on this model, they had to fight to try to establish it in the seventeenth century. It was by no means universally accepted. They tried to create an environment in which surgeons and apothecaries were responsible for carrying out the surgeons’ instructions and even tried to established licencing rights over them. Even so, many sick individuals would go direct to the surgeons and apothecaries.


It has to be said, however, that these ‘legitimate’ practitioners represented only a minority of the healers available to sick people. In addition, there was a huge range of unorthodox healers, known as empirics and including bonesetters, cunning folk (sold herbal remedies, charms & love potions), eye surgeons, itinerants (sometimes known as mountebanks and charlatans), lithotomists (specialists in cutting out kidney stones), midwives, snake handlers (selling cures for snake bites), tooth-drawers and wise-women. None of these would have had formal qualifications but they were seen by many people as being just as legitimate and trustworthy as a university-educated physician. Apart from them, there were clerics such as Richard Napier (1559-1634) who gained a wide reputation for treating mental illness and philanthropists who provided medical treatment for local people. But probably the first stop for medical advice would have been family, friends and neighbours: there was no assumption at the time that medical people knew best. The patients themselves and the members of their immediate circle would have been just as likely to self-medicate and would have had a wide range of books available to help them, assuming they could get access to them and could read.


It is tempting to assume that wealth (or lack of it) would have been a major limiting factor in access to medical treatment but this was not necessarily the case. Clerics and noblewomen usually provided treatment to poor people free of charge while medics in small towns often dealt mainly with poor people. This is not to say that rich and poor had equal access to treatment. Wealthy people could choose whichever practitioner they preferred and may have brought them some distance for a consultation. John Hall was a physician in Stratford upon Avon in the early part of the century and he had regular patients as far afield as Ludlow. In other cases, they would pay for multiple physicians: the Verney family had no less than five treating Mary Verney at one stage. So the wealthy had more choice but it would not be true to say that the poor did not have access to healers.

So the business of deciding who would be most help if you fell ill in the seventeenth century could be complicated. Sadly, none seemed better than the others at treating their patients.