11 April 2009
Elizabethan Medicine in the Age of Shakespeare
The Elizabethan era, also known as the age of Shakespeare, refers to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558 - 1603). Unlike the new found passion for art and culture during this English Renaissance, including. the expansion of Elizabethan theatre and Shakespeare's new style, the advancement of medicine fell far behind. (Rowse 2000) This lack of interest in medicine and research in Shakespeare's England directly contributed to the short lifespan of her people. Men lived to an average age of 47, and approximately forty per cent of children died. This existed during some of the worst times in history, as typhoid fever and the Bubonic plague were rampant. World travel and exploration brought back diseases like smallpox and syphilis, which could easily be passed from person to person by physical contact, or drinking and eating. These afflictions came about unknowingly without the benefit of research on causes, or treatment or cure. The Bubonic Plague, known as the Black Death, produced high fevers, headaches, sweats, chills, congestion, extreme stomach pain, cramping, and eventual death. It was spread by fleas and transmitted by rodents, as was typhoid fever. Wealthy Elizabethans ate almost all meat and suffered from gout. Malnutrition and lack of vitamins in the poorer classes, caused scurvy, toothaches and severe gum disease. Because medicine was so basic, solutions to physical problems relied on superstition,
luck, magic, herbs and potions. Anemia, rheumatism, arthritis, tuberculosis and dysentery. were common. Elizabethan women could easily die in childbirth, and influenza was common. Sexually transmitted diseases, such as syphilis, were also prevalent. (Lace 2005) The most followed medical theory during the Elizabethan era was Galen's teachings that living things were composed of "humors", or bodily fluids called Phlegm, Blood, black bile, and yellow bile. Each humor was thought to have its own characteristic; the phlegm cold and wet, blood hot and wet, yellow bile hot and dry, and black bile cold and dry. Levels of these fluids defined personality. High levels of blood in a patient, called sanguine personality, could be described as passionate, amorous, joyful, and kind. Phlegm, defined a cowardly, unresponsive, and simple person. Yellow bile meant choleric people who were stubborn, vengeful, impulsive, and irritated. Black bile meant depression, sadness and melancholia. If the humors were equal, a person was healthy. Practices such as bloodletting stemmed from this theory. The second theory, the Doctrine of Signatures, from the Bible, stated that God gave man lower creatures to use for sustenance, labor, and to use as ingredients in medicine. The third theory, astrology, said that signs and planets determine the severity and duration of an illness. The teachings of Aristotle and Hippocrates were so popular that doctors believed if the planets were out of line, sickness would follow. A fourth theory stated illness is a foreign presence in the body. For example, an exorcism is necessary for the relief of mental illness. The fifth theory used chemistry, whereby pure substances and non-organic materials such as mercury. were used for treatment. The sixth theory dealt with magic. An important benefit of Elizabethan medicine was the confirmation of the placebo effect.
Elizabethan physicians also believed that gemstones held medicinal powers. Garnets were believed to reduce sorrow, topaz and jacinth to diffuse anger, emeralds and sapphires to soothe the mind. The treatment for the Bubonic plague was warm butter, onion and garlic, or a combination of tobacco, arsenic, lily root and dried toad.' Herbs such as rose, lavender, and sage were used for headaches, and stomach ailments were treated with wormwood, mint, and balm. Lung problems...
Cited: Brown, Ivor. Shakespeare in His Time. London: Nelson Ltd., 1967.
Bynum, W F., and Roy Porter. Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine. London: Routledge, 1993.
Davis, W.S. Life in Elizabethan Days: a picture of a Typical English Community at the End of the Sixteent Century. London: Harper , 1930.
Holmes, Martin. Elizabethan London. London: Praeger, 1969.
"Medicine, Renaissance." The World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia. 1995 Ed.
McGrew, Robert E., comp. Encyclopedia of Medical History. McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1985.
Picard, L. Elizabeth 's London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London, St. Martin 's Griffen, 2005.
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