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Pain and Hunger

Tom Shippey, 7 December 1989

Health for Sale: Quackery in England 1660-1850 
by Roy Porter.
Manchester, 280 pp., £19.95, August 1989, 0 7190 1903 6
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Popular Errors 
by Laurent Joubert and Gregory David de Rocher.
University of Alabama Press, 348 pp., $49.95, July 1989, 0 8173 0408 8
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Bread of Dreams: Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Europe 
by Piero Camporesi, translated by David Gentilcore.
Polity, 212 pp., £19.50, May 1989, 0 7456 0349 1
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Poisons of the Past: Molds, Epidemics and History 
by Mary Kilbourne Matossian.
Yale, 190 pp., £18, November 1989, 0 300 03949 2
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... What would you do if you had toothache, in a world of pre-modern dentistry? Those of us who have suffered a weekend of it can probably imagine (in the end) getting a friend to pull the tooth out with pliers. But what if the tooth was absessed? Or impacted? An impacted wisdom tooth growing sideways underneath the other ones? Can one imagine cutting into the gum – no X-rays to tell you where to cut, of course – and levering it out, very probably bit by bit? Anyone who has had this done under modern conditions will not like to think about such treatment under premodern conditions: but then, what was the alternative? Some of the root-rotted teeth found in archaeological excavations make one wonder whether it was possible to die just from pain ...

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