Pain and Hunger

Tom Shippey

  • Health for Sale: Quackery in England 1660-1850 by Roy Porter
    Manchester, 280 pp, £19.95, August 1989, ISBN 0 7190 1903 6
  • Popular Errors by Laurent Joubert and Gregory David de Rocher
    University of Alabama Press, 348 pp, $49.95, July 1989, ISBN 0 8173 0408 8
  • Bread of Dreams: Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Europe by Piero Camporesi, translated by David Gentilcore
    Polity, 212 pp, £19.50, May 1989, ISBN 0 7456 0349 1
  • Poisons of the Past: Molds, Epidemics and History by Mary Kilbourne Matossian
    Yale, 190 pp, £18.00, November 1989, ISBN 0 300 03949 2

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. The thought casts a new light on the side-remark of Chaucer’s Northern student in the Reeve’s Tale: ‘Oure maunciple, I hope he will be deed, Swa werkes ay the wanges in his heed’ – I expect he’ll die, the teeth in his head hurt so continuously.

In such circumstances, fiction or fact – and one should add to them all the cases of compound fractures, slipped discs, trapped nerves and other currently painful but non-life-threatening ailments – anyone living before at least the 19th century would probably have thanked God, and paid hard cash, for the services of a really experienced tooth-drawer or bonesetter. Some people, it’s said, learnt to pull teeth out with their fingers alone. It must, or it ought to have been, a prized skill. But at this point the shadow of the medical profession falls over the whole speculation. For centuries if not millennia, if you couldn’t read, write or preferably talk Latin, you were a mere ‘empiric’; and the fact that you could pull teeth or set bones without inflicting appalling agony was beside the point. You were a mountebank, a charlatan, a quack. In Health for Sale Roy Porter studies, amusingly and alarmingly, the theory and practice of ‘fringe medicine’ up to the dawn of modern surgery and pharmacology. What was a ‘quack’? he asks. How could you tell one from a doctor, other than by demanding to see his degree?

The irony obviously is that it was not so easy, at least if you were interested in results. Joshua Ward (1685-1761) was widely regarded as a quack, and drawn as such by Hogarth, along with the Epsom bone-setter Sally Mapp, in The Company of Undertakers. But he put back George II’s dislocated thumb when the licensed physicians were all telling the King he had gout and was just going to have to put up with it. The third of Hogarth’s ‘undertakers’, John ‘Chevalier’ Taylor (1703-72), seems to have been an evident crook, who boasted of his success at seducing patients, talked what he called the ‘true Ciceronian’ (i.e. always ending every period with a verb), may have been the death of Bach and certainly did nothing for Handel. Still, he clearly removed a lot of cataracts; he had a steady hand and a sharp knife; there is something horrid in his own account of how he cured a noble lady of a drooping eyelid, she calling out while he operated, ‘You hurt me! you hurt me!’ he replying, ‘Remember lady, beauty! beauty!’; but it is hard to see that he was doing anything more than many a respectable but basically business-orientated plastic surgeon now.

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