The image of the early modern apothecary shop, with its shelves of labelled jars and bottles behind a counter and the apothecary moving between customers and their stock, is a neat encapsulation of the way that new, global products were incorporated into English medicine between the late-sixteenth century and the late-eighteenth century.
It was the inclusion of these new medicinal botanicals, imported from the Americas and across the world, into existing systems of organisation based upon early modern herbals that made these products familiar and thus acceptable for consumption. Later they would also be incorporated into European (meaning Diderotian or Linnaean) systems of classification, further familiarizing them in the ‘old world’. The skilful navigation of these organisational systems, represented by the labels on medical containers, and the knowledgeability and trustworthiness of the apothecary within their shops were key to the acceptance and increasing consumption of these materia medica.
Apothecaries sought to materially represent this organisation and encyclopaedic knowledge through the tin-glazed earthenware drug jars which lined shelves behind the counter where prescriptions were made up. Doing so allowed them to visually and materially communicate their knowledge of, and mastery over, ‘newly discovered’ botanical products, and through that knowledge ensure the confidence of their patient when consuming the medicines which they compounded.
Initially the names of the materia medica which the apothecary stocked were not visible to the customer. Earlier drug jars, and those in more rural shops, would have been unlabelled albarelli with a small paper label affixed to the string keeping parchment or bladder lids in place. Later jars, however, had abbreviated Latin names of their contents painted within cartouches on their surfaces which would have been prominently displayed to the apothecaries’ patients. Whether or not individual customers read or understood Latin, the fact that all the simples (individual medicinal ingredients) in their medicine were labelled in this same way demonstrated that they were categorised and understood, at least by the apothecary, within the same system of medical and botanical knowledge as the more familiar simples from Britain and Europe whose names were on display in the same way. Examples of drug jars labelled with ‘new world’ simples are extant in museum collections. The below example from the collection of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust was used to hold an electuary of sassafras which was derived from a North American tree.
This spring I had the good fortune to visit Kingsbridge, a small market town in South Devon. The town sits on a steep hill overlooking the many-branched estuary, and it is home to The Shambles (or market arcade) with five Elizabethan granite piers, and a seventeenth-century grammar school (now an excellent little museum).
Of course I popped into the church – St Edmund King and Martyr on Fore Street was largely rebuilt in 1414, then restored and extended in 1849 and 1896. What caught my eye there was an inscription on a tablet just outside one of the doors of the church, which inspired a twitter thread which in turn has become the basis of this post.
What does this rather colourful epitaph mean, and what can it tell us about the early modern world? Continue reading →
Long before writing became a skill that every child was expected to learn, all sorts of people still scribbled away.
Some men and women did so for mostly practical reasons – keeping track of their finances, corresponding with distant family and friends, or preserving successful recipes for future use. Many others wrote in order to monitor the state of their soul or to record godly wisdom preached at the pulpit. A few tried to create texts that told the story of their life in more self-consciously ‘literary’ ways, sometimes even aiming for eventual publication.
Scholars have long used such ‘personal’ sources to study the early modern period, often mining them for information about topics that are more rarely documented in ‘official’ archives. More recently, a growing number of researchers have turned to analysing such sources as texts in their own right, seeking to understand how and why these writers wrote. The study of ‘life-writing’ and manuscript culture is now a well-established academic field, with excellent studies of the process of writing diaries, letters, financial accounts, sermon notes, commonplace books, and so on. As you’ll see from even the very abbreviated bibliography below, there is no lack of interest in early modern writing practices.
Thanks to the efforts of several tireless groups of scholars and students, there are also some great online resources cataloguing and illuminating such sources, such as the Perdita Project, Early Modern Letters Online, and – for a more recent period – Writing Lives. These often build on the more traditional lists and catalogues created by William Matthews, Heather Creaton and others. Laura Gowing has now started a crowdsourced handlist of early modern first-person writing in print. As a result, we now know about hundreds of writers who would otherwise be forgotten.
However, I think there is more that can be done. In a new article on ‘Writing History from Below’ in early modern England, I tried to use material from some writers who have received little or no scholarly attention yet, focusing in particular on those who lacked substantial wealth or education. Why did they decide to write chronicles and gather archives? What did they select to preserve for posterity? How did they tell the story of their lives and their communities? Continue reading →
This guest post comes from Danae Tankard, a Senior Lecturer in Social and Cultural History at the University of Chichester. It follows on from Mark’s recent post on ‘Material Culture from Below’ and further demonstrates the potential of court depositions for examining the material culture of the lower orders in early modern England – here, their clothing. It provides an introduction to Danae’s broader body of work on the clothing of the rural poor in seventeenth-century England. You can follow Danae @morley1640.
Yet with that and such like words I made shift to buy me some clothes, and then I went to church on Sunday, which I never could do before for want of clothes to go handsome in. My father being poor and in debt could not provide us with clothes fitting to go to church in (so we could not go to church) unless we would go in rags, which was not seemly.
This passage is taken from the autobiographical writings of Edward Barlow, the son of an impoverished husbandman, born in Prestwich in Lancashire in 1642. Written retrospectively when Barlow was a thirty-one year old seaman and had learned to read
Barlow leaving home: in ‘rags’?
and write, it describes the period leading up to his first departure from home aged twelve or thirteen. Since his father could not afford to indenture him as an apprentice, Barlow worked for his neighbours, harvesting and haymaking and carting coal from the local coal pits, for which he received ‘but small wages’ of about two or three pence a day. By making ‘shift’ he was able to buy himself some clothes to ‘go handsome in’ to replace the ‘rags’ that he had worn before. The significance of these new clothes in Barlow’s account is that they allow him to attend church, something he could not do before ‘unless [he] would go in rags, which was not seemly’. His description of his clothing as ‘rags’ may be an exaggeration but it enables Barlow to express his sense of shame at having nothing decent to wear to church. However, Barlow does not want just any clothes: he wants clothes ‘to go handsome in’. In other words, he wants to look good. Continue reading →
I went to a conference, and all I got was this lousy blog post.
That’s right, this is one of those blog posts thought up whilst staring pensively out of a train window on a journey home from three days at a wonderfully stimulating and sociable conference – in this instance, on ‘Gender, Power and Materiality in Early Modern Europe’, at the University of Plymouth. Back in April. Of 2016. Still, better late than never.
Gloves: they fit the conference theme
I signed up for said conference, despite my lack of familiarity with the field of early modern material culture studies, to try out a paper on the spatial division of labour in rural England, 1500-1700, based on material coming out of the Women’s Work Project. The paper went well enough, and over the course of the conference as a whole I learnt a huge amount about the material culture of the period, and about the sophisticated methodologies used by the reflective practitioners of material cultural history. It whet my appetite for the study of material culture. But it also left me hungry for more of a particular type of material culture history – one focused on the common people of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In what will come as no surprise to readers of this blog, I wanted more material culture ‘from below’.
The conference offered a rich diet of papers focused on the gentry and aristocracy of early modern Europe, but was light on the material things that populated the worlds of their social inferiors. Not for the first time as a social historian I found myself experiencing ‘modernist envy’, as my mind turned to examples of research into the material culture of the working class in the industrial age – Ruth Mather on working class homes in the period 1780-1830; Julie-Marie Strange’s focus on ‘father’s chair’ as a way into the domestic relationships of the Victorian working class; Carolyn Steedman’s wonderful essay on the meanings of a rag rug. And how about the insights into working class material culture to be gleaned from Lark Rise to Candleford? Continue reading →