Norwich Entertainments – Part IV: Surgeons on stage

Brodie Waddell

On the 8th of March, 1679, the Norwich Mayor’s Court ordered that

Mr Robert Bradford hath liberty to erect a Stage in the usual place to sell medical Druggs, & performe Chirurgicall Cures and he hath Lycence to doe this for the space of 3 weeks.¹

Medicine was big business in early modern England. Historians have shown us that the ‘medical marketplace’ was extensive and expanding, with many people we might now call ‘healthcare entrepreneurs’ earning a living by providing their services to eager consumers.² The fact that, as every schoolchild knows, ‘medicine’ in this period was as likely to hurt or kill as to cure does not seem to have dissuaded many patients.

Peddler with apothecary bottles (17th c.). Source: Larsdatter.

That being the case, it should hardly surprise us that Mr Bradford would seek a licence from the civic authorities to hawk his ‘Druggs’ from a public stage in what must have been the centre of the city. This was a good spot to set up if he hoped to make a few shillings by attracting a sizable crowd of customers for his various elixirs.

But what about performing ‘Chirurgicall Cures’? On a stage? How can we explain this?

Well, here too was a medical product, often deadly, that was becoming increasingly prominent in the public sphere over the course of the early modern period. As Lindsey Fitzharris has explained, and repeatedly shown in her ‘casebooks’, surgery was changing:

After the Restoration, … chirurgeons broke from their medieval role and began participating in important medical debates. Their advocacy of ‘practical’ medicine and experimentation distinguished them from their university-educated counterparts, the physicians, and helped elevate their role in the medical marketplace.

Were Mr Bradford’s staged surgeries examples of this new-found public role? I’m inclined to think that they were. For, in many ways, they fit rather well with the rest of my (very limited) knowledge of the history of medicine and science.

William Hogarth, Four Stages of Cruelty, IV: The Reward of Cruelty (1751). Source: Wikimedia.

Training in anatomy, for example, was partly accomplished through the dissection of executed criminals, which was hardly as public as the Norwich market place but still a collective event.

One wonders how much surgery on living patients happened in places open to ordinary passers-by. Given that most 17th-century surgeons were actually barber-surgeons, splitting their time between haircuts and blood-letting, many of these operations may have happened in their shops, with other customers, companions and onlookers present. It surely would have helped to have a few spare strong arms nearby to hold the patient in an age before ansthesia.

Even today, surgery is rarely a very ‘private’ activity. Although we no longer stop at a bustling salon for a quick amputation, we still sometimes end up in an ‘operating theatre’, watched by a crowd of nurses, interns and medical students.

Was Mr Bradford’s surgical ‘stage’ a historical oddity? Or just a sign of things to come?

[See also Part I, Part II and Part III]


¹ Norfolk Record Office, NCR Case 16a/25, f. 42

² For examples, see Mark Jenner and Patrick Wallis (eds), Medicine and the Market in England and its Colonies, c.1450-c.1850 (2007), or even more recently Patrick Wallis, ‘Exotic drugs and English medicine: England’s drug trade, c.1550-c.1800’, Social History of Medicine, 25:1 (2012), pp. 20-46.

1 thought on “Norwich Entertainments – Part IV: Surgeons on stage

  1. Pingback: Surgical Spectators – Early Modern Medicine

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