Balancing the body and consulting the heavens: Medicine in Shakespeare’s time

Medicine in the sickroom
Hyacum, et lues venerea. Stradanus inuent. ca. 1591. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Few Elizabethans were wealthy enough to afford a licensed physician. Instead, they would rely on the knowledge of a local “wise woman,” with her home collection of remedy recipes and medicines. Or, they would send a description of their symptoms (along with a urine sample) to an “empiric,” who might cast an astrological horoscope. Broken bone? Call the barber-surgeon!

Better not to get sick in the first place though, and the first line of defense when it came to health was diet. Elizabethans paid particular attention to how their food interacted with their temperaments, seeking balance in their body, according to the humoral theory dominant at the time.

This Shakespeare Unlimited podcast episode is all about medicine in the era when Shakespeare was writing: who the practitioners were, the involvement of astrology, common medical practices, and balancing the humors.

Our guests are Gail Kern Paster, the Folger’s director emerita, and Barbara Traister, professor emeritus of English at Lehigh University. In this conversation with Neva Grant, they discuss how Elizabethans understood the physical world, particularly the human body and its functions.

MACBETH
How does your patient, doctor?
DOCTOR 
Not so sick, my lord,
As she is troubled with thick-coming fancies
That keep her from her rest.
MACBETH 
Cure her of that.
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?
DOCTOR 
Therein the patient
Must minister to himself.
—Macbeth 5.3

Simon Forman: Medical practitioner and play-goer

Barbara Traister is an expert on the life and work of Simon Forman, whose case notes are the earliest surviving records of an English medical practitioner. Although he did not receive any formal medical training, he developed a reputation for specialty remedies and frequently cast horoscopes for his patients.

Medicine aside though, Simon Forman is also important because he’s the source of the most detailed surviving accounts of seeing plays in this period. His descriptions of four Shakespeare plays he saw at the Globe in 1611 are included in Shakespeare Documented, an online exhibition of primary-source materials about Shakespeare from during his lifetime.

Remedies and receipt books

The Folger collection has a number of receipt (recipe) books filled with handwritten instructions for treatment and prevention. These recipes for remedies would often appear on the same page as recipes for food and drink. Here are a few examples, from the receipt book of Sarah Longe:

Interested in learning how to transcribe early modern manuscripts? Find more receipt books on Shakespeare’s World.

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