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Curing the Plague 17th Century Style

Through this and other blogs we hope to share some of the many thousands of books in our Library.  

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Curing the Plague 17th Century Style

Posted By : Emily Naish Friday 11th December 2020

Through this and other blogs we hope to share some of the many thousands of books in our Library.  This particular blog was written by Ken Smith, a volunteer for Salisbury Cathedral Library.  Ken initially wrote this blog in February 2020 just before the Covid-19 pandemic developed, in retrospect his choice of book seems rather appropriate.

Curing the Plague and Other Illnesses 17th Century Style

Amongst the other gems in the Cathedral library collection, is “Praxis Medicinae or the Physician’s Practice”, which it claims, contains all inward diseases from the head to the foot.

Title Page from Bruele the Physician's Practice Salisbury Cathedral Library

This slightly battered quarto volume was written by Walter Bruele and printed in London in 1639. Originally published in 1579, this work was re-printed at least 68 times over the following two centuries.  It reflects the medical beliefs current at that time.  The preface tells us that the volume will…explain the nature of each disease with the part affected and also the signes, causes and prognostiques, and likewise what temperature of the ayre is most requisite for the patient’s abode…with directions for the diet he ought to observe together with experimentall cures for every disease…

There are a variety of ailments described including  Aurigo (the yellow jaundice), kidney stones, choler, collicke, panting of the heart, the French pox, dropsie, the night-mare, stopping of the womb, the King’s evill, plague, phrensie, swelling of the spleen, wormes and giddiness, to name a selection.

Table of Diseases from Bruele the Physician's Practice Salisbury Cathedral Library

For example, the plague is caused outwardly by some cause viz. by corrupted or putrid exhalations, sometimes by unburied dead carcasses or human or animal excrements…sometimes by standing pools which stink above measure.

Sometimes, it is caused by the influence of the starres and then it is the immediate hand of God and it is properly called the pestilence. When it is caused by outward causes it is called a pestilent feaver or plague.  The infectious ayre first gets into the heart sucked in thither by the breath, because the ayre is subtile and thinne and apt to get into the pores. First this ayre doth infect the vitall spirits and then the radicall moysture and at length the whole substance of the body. 

Description of the Plague from Bruele the Physician's Practice Salisbury Cathedral Library

Suggestions are given for its cure.

How to cure the plague from Bruele the Physician's Practice Salisbury Cathedral Library

Of “wormes”, the book tells us that It is evident that wormes may breed in many parts of the body; for they breed in rotten ulcers, in teeth, in eares and kidneys. Wormes do also breed in the bowels which are called Lumbrici or belly-wormes.

Melancholy is described a kinde of doting without a feaver arising from a melancholy humour, which so disturbs the seate of the minde, that those affected speake and doe things repugnant to reason, and that with feare and sadnesse.

The book explains that the signes of Melancholy are feare and sadnesse, evill thoughts without any manifest cause, for vapours arising from the black choler doe darken the minde and the braine is, as it were, clouded all over …

Suggested cures for Melancholy included appropriate diet: Let his diet be such as are moyst, as hens, chickens, capons, veale, or partridges, a small quantity of broth is good.

Raysons, sweete cherries, prunes, soft apples wherewith mixe a little sugar. His drinke must be the creame of huld barley with a little cynamon and seede of Annis, white wine mixed with water, whey but that of goat’s milk is best.

Let violent motion be avoided, riding, sayling, walking, swimming in an artificial bath is good.

If the patient doe not sleepe well….all disquietnesse of minde must be banished, and they must be recreated with musicke and delightfull song.

Medicines include...the juyce of Fumitory, violets, maydenhaire, of odiferous apples, the juice of Borage… Vomit doth much good, if the effect be of long continuance, the liver vein of the left arm must be opened….and if the disease be stubborne, a vein in the forehead must be opened…

Melancholy Cure Page 1 from Bruele the Physician's Practice Salisbury Cathedral Library


Melancholy Cure Page 2 from Bruele the Physician's Practice Salisbury Cathedral Library

One of the “Averters” for the easing of headaches include...a sneeze of bastard pellitory, pepper, oyle of Beaver’s stones…the juyce of marjoram, Betony, Hogsbread, mustard seed, etc.

All of the prognoses and cures are based on the theory of the four humours. This states that all people have specific proportions of four liquids (blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm) and that many illnesses are caused by an imbalance of these humours.  Most of the treatments were based on the idea of re-balancing the humours. This involved the use of emetics, purges and bloodletting to expel the excessive humours.

The author, Walter Bruell, would probably have been a practising physician at this time. As the treatments he gives indicate, his patients would have been the better off in society. Ingredients such as poultry, partridges and wine were quite beyond the purchasing power of most ordinary people in the mid seventeenth century.

Reading through the descriptions of disease and the cures suggested, does make me very glad that I live with the medicine of the twenty-first century rather than that of the seventeenth!