We are pleased to introduce the final post in the Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover, byIvana Bicak. Ivana’s latest research project, funded by the Wellcome Trust and conducted at the University of Exeter, explored early modern satires of experimental medicine in Spain.
In the sixteenth century, new medicinal plants from America entered Spain. Apart from transforming the medical practice of the time, these novel products had an immediate impact on the literary landscape, particularly satiric poetry. The witty verses of Spanish satirists offer us a unique view into how these experimental medicines were perceived by the contemporaries. The satires of exotic drugs such as guaiac and sarsaparilla underline the acceptance and familiarity of the newly discovered materia medica, as described by Christopher Booth in his recent post ‘The World in a Jar.’
After Christopher Columbus returned from his famous voyage in 1493, a terrible disease struck Europe, transforming human bodies into decomposing masses of pustules, broken bones, bald heads, and missing noses. The epidemic of highly contagious syphilis spared no one, sowing destruction from seedy brothels to shiny courts, from Spain to England.
In a desperate search for a remedy, many different treatments were tried. One of the more ingenious prescriptions included applying a freshly cut chicken or pigeon to the ulcerated penis, as per advice of the papal physician Gaspar Torella. Most physicians and patients, however, turned to mercury, a long-standing cure for skin diseases. This heavy metal was not exactly the happiest solution as the severity of its side effects frequently surpassed that of the disease’s symptoms. Thanks to its potent corrosive properties, mercury acted much more as a poison than as a cure. If the patient did not lose their nose due to syphilis, mercury made sure their teeth fell out.
The arrival of the new American medicines in Spain was therefore eagerly welcomed in the hopes of relieving the suffering of syphilitic patients across European borders. American anti-syphilitic plants flooded European medical markets. Among them, guaiac wood and sarsaparilla achieved immense popularity. As a result, they were exported from Spain to other European countries.
Around ten o’clock on the evening of 30 May 1626 in Westminster, Thomas Powell, accompanied by a constable and watchman, arrived at the door of John Bonner with the pretext of asking for his landlord. Many ‘injurious wordes’ were made against Bonner and he was assaulted in his lodging. Powell, in a most ‘furious and barbarous manner’, then compelled the constable, watchman and others to take him to the local gatehouse.
Bonner gives his account of the incident in a petition to the Westminster Quarter Sessions in 1626, and states that Powell was acting on a grudge that had been conceived against him in his shop the Saturday before the incident. Bonner asked the Justices to take action against Powell and his associates, as he possessed no warrant and had wronged his ‘bodie and good name’. Bonner based this on the understanding of ‘most of the parishe’ that he had, as a ‘professor of phisicke’, willingly worked to cure ‘upon 500’ people of the plague in the 1625 epidemic. Bonner’s petition suggests that the experience of plague might be used as a currency of sorts to further the cause of the petitioner, in much the same way that poverty was made explicit and given focus when seeking poor relief.
One ill-fated day, sometime around the middle of the seventeenth century, ‘an old servant to a person of honour’ was bitten on the back of his hand by a monkey. The surgeon called to treat the man, ‘forbad him wine’ to reduce inflammation. But the next morning the old man complained of a sleepless night, feeling ‘faint and sick’, and that ‘his Wound was the least of his ailment’. After his patient swooned, and claimed he ‘could not live without Wine’, the surgeon finally relented, and allowed him to return to drinking ‘as he pleased’. As it turned out, this entailed a ‘Quart’ of wine every morning but, soon after, the wound healed, and the patient was cured.1
This story was just one of many medical case histories that Richard Wiseman, ex-civil war surgeon and personal practitioner to Charles II, included in his lengthy tome on surgery, published in 1676. He went on to explain that some heavy drinkers should never be forbidden wine and that with ‘Dunkerker’ sailors he could ‘scarce ever cure any of them without allowing them Wine’. Wiseman cited the saying ‘a Hair of the same Dog’, and admitted that his readers ‘may laugh’ at him for ‘pleading’ for these drinkers but, as he put it, ‘I hope you will consider I am a Water-drinker’.2 There is so much of historical interest to unpack in this short passage that it is hard to know where to begin. To start with: Whose monkey was it? And were monkey-inflicted wounds so common that this warranted no comment?
We are pleased to introduce the latest post in the Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover, by Katie Fellows. Katie had her doctorate awarded from St Peter’s College, Oxford, at the end of last year. Her thesis examined the early ecclesiastical career of Rodrigo Borgia before his election as Pope Alexander VI in August 1492. (Twitter: @KatieFellows1)
Since the Synod of Reims in 991, pontiffs have at times found themselves portrayed closer to the devil and the diabolic than the godly. Why is this and why has such an idea found representation in a number of different forms?
This idea reveals a lot about the popular sentiments of the time and the growing tide of discontent towards the papacy. Dissatisfaction stemmed from a number of different factors including unpopular policies, nepotism, avarice, simony and sexual misconduct. Whilst researching my doctoral thesis on the Catalan Rodrigo Borgia’s early ecclesiastical career, I was struck with how popular these ideas were, particularly in explaining his election to the papacy in August 1492.
Contemporaries openly voiced their dissatisfaction at another Catalan pontiff who promoted his kinsmen to both religious and secular offices ahead of Italians. Similarly, his religious beliefs were questionable with contemporaries claiming he was either a Marrano or a Jew. This, along with Alexander’s relative tolerance of the Roman Jewish population and the Jewish migrants who arrived after being expelled from the Iberian Peninsula at the turn of the sixteenth century. In 1515, an anonymous pamphlet argued that his election was due to a pact with the devil and that as a Moor or a Jew and that he did not possess the morality to withstand the devil’s temptation. As Nathan Johnstone argues, from the eleventh century onwards the ‘Devil had become a focus of Christian discourses of scapegoating and othering’. It is therefore not hard to see how images such as the one in this article were created.
Another possible explanation for such images were the tensions following the earlier French invasion (1494–1498) of the Italian Peninsula and the ongoing tensions between King Louis XII of France and Alexander. From contemporary letters to cheap broadsides and even a Jacobean play, these examples have helped form the Black Legend of the Borgias.