Maladies and Medicine: Exploring Health & Healing, 1540-1740 by Jennifer Evans & Sara Read Maladies and Medicine: Exploring Health & Healing, 1540-1740 by Jennifer Evans & Sara Read

Maladies and Medicine: Exploring Health & Healing, 1540-1740 by Jennifer Evans & Sara Read Maladies and Medicine: Exploring Health & Healing, 1540-1740 (2017) is an always informative, often fascinating, at times wince-inducing look at the various illnesses diagnosed in in the early-modern period, as well as their various treatments, although both “illnesses” and “treatments” can be misleading terms, given that not all such sicknesses were actual ailments and that the vast majority of treatments not only didn’t do much for the sufferer but may have (in the case of mercury treatments, for instance) made things far worse.

Authors Jennifer Evans and Sara Read open with a general overview of medicine of that time, discussing the belief in bodily humours, astrological medicine, the impact of religion, how gender affected diagnosis, and the division of the medical community into physicians, surgeons and apothecaries. The rest of the book is divided up into several general sections: Head Complaints, Abdominal Maladies, Whole Body Ailments, and Reproductive Maladies, with individual illnesses each given typically 6-7 pages of description, though it varies from ailment to ailment. The list of “maladies” includes migraines, palsy, toothache, kidney stones, cancer, diabetes, gout, scurvy, smallpox, the plague, the “virgin’s disease,” infertility, and venereal disease, along with a number of others. At the end, the authors recognize that even this lengthy list is only a partial one of those that could have been covered, and while some are of obvious importance (the plague, the pox), choosing which ones to detail and which to ignore is somewhat arbitrary.

Each individual section describes the various symptoms, the many ways of diagnosing the illness, and the often varied and legion methods of treatment. Some of the treatments will be familiar to the general lay reader — bleeding, leeches, amulets and charms — while others might be more of a surprise if not an outright shock, such as taking a puppy that has been “cloven in two parts through the midst of the back” and laying it atop the “afflicted joints.” Evans and Read bolster their claims with numerous quotations from primary documents — medical texts, letters, diaries, and the like, along with a number of illustrations.

The presentation is smooth and clear throughout and while aimed at the lay reader in terms of vocabulary and syntax, the tone is clear but serious, the language neither academic nor elevated, but also not conversational, and there’s little to no humor (i.e. not the approach, say, of a Mary Roach or Bill Bryson). But for the serious lay reader, one interested in history or doing research for some writing set in the time period, Maladies and Medicine is an excellent resource.

Published in 2017. Maladies and Medicine offers a lively exploration of health and medical cures in early modern England. The introduction sets out the background in which the body was understood, covering the theory of the four humors and the ways that male and female bodies were conceptualized. It also explains the hierarchy of healers from university trained physicians, to the itinerant women healers who traveled the country offering cures based on inherited knowledge of homemade remedies. It covers the print explosion of medical health guides, which began to appear in the sixteenth century from more academic medical text books to cheap almanacs. The book has twenty chapters covering attitudes towards, and explanations of some of, the most common diseases and medical conditions in the period and the ways people understood them, along with the steps people took to get better. It explores the body from head to toe, from migraines to gout. It was an era when tooth cavities were thought to be caused by tiny worms and smallpox by an inflammation of the blood, and cures ranged from herbal potions, cooling cordials, blistering the skin, and of course letting blood. Case studies and personal anecdotes taken from doctors notes, personal journals, diaries, letters and even court records show the reactions of individuals to their illnesses and treatments, bringing the reader into close proximity with people who lived around 400 years ago. This fascinating and richly illustrated study will appeal to anyone curious about the history of the body and the way our ancestors lived.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.