Friday, May 24, 2013

Chapter 13 God and My Right -- Tudor medicine

It's kind of odd how often I'm talking about this subject and never intend to, but most people in the Tudor period didn't live past their late 30's. King Henry VIII died at the age of 55, and that was considered ancient by their standards. This is why so many married so young at the age of 13 and some even younger. They popped out as many babies as they could because there was a high infant mortality rate. It wasn't uncommon for a woman to give birth 13 times and have only 4 of those children survive into adulthood.

Why was it like this? Medicine back then was woefully inadequate as we well know. Doctors bled patients regularly to restore the "humours" as they called them. It was believed if the good and bad humours were out of balance, illness would prevail. A lot of their beliefs on how to keep the humours in check were built on superstitions obviously.

Such as a man needed to release his seed regularly or he would fall into bad humours. This is why it was considered the norm and a good idea even that when a man's wife became pregnant that he take on a mistress. Heaven forbid he jack off and take care of the job himself. No, that just wasn't what you needed to do to keep the good humours in check. You needed a woman to release your seed into.

They also believed that if you bathed too much in a bath, submerging the skin for long periods of time, it would open the pores and let disease in, so they took a lot of what we refer to as sponge baths. Henry VIII was a visionary though and was one of the first kings to invent what we now have as a modern day shower. He even had engineers that figured out how to make hot water tanks that attached to his showers. See why I love this man so much. Genius.

As soon as one bathed, it was requisite they wrap themselves in a giant sheet and sit before the fire. Women with long hair were meticulous about having a servant go through their hair with a lice comb and make sure their hair dried completely so they would not catch cold and die. They used perfumes to mask the smells from not fully bathing as often as we do today.

Now, what if you did fall ill? The sweating sickness is a classic case of what happened. Too few physicians (though they couldn't stop it and probably did more harm than good anyway) and not enough money to pay them. Each town had one or more of what they referred to as a wise woman. She was similar to a midwife in some ways but she attended to those that were ill in the village by making herbal tinctures, poultices, teas, infusions and so on. She was almost an apothecary of sorts, and would go from house to house to help those in need. This was a person very much looked up to and trusted by the community to handle the more regular illnesses that would take place, not deal with plagues like the dreaded sweating sickness that would pop up every decade or so and wipe out hundreds and thousands of people.

If this is the case, and medicine was so lousy, how did Henry last so long when his brother died at age 15? He was paranoid is one of the answers, and if he saw that a virulent disease was spreading he literally ran for his life. He had 17 manners and would remove every 4 to 6 months to a different one. Many of them were out in the country where he could easily hunt sport and get some fresh air. If he left in haste by horse and landed in one of his more secluded, smaller homes, he was safe from the outside world. He could take a limited number of servants and pretty much quarantine himself until it had passed. That is exactly what he did when a really violent outburst of the sweating sickness hit in 1528. Anne Boleyn and her brother George contracted it and Henry would not see her until she was well again. He took Catherine of Aragon, basically his estranged wife at the time, and fled with her even though he was in a full fledged relationship with Anne, and they hid out in one of his country manors. He sent Anne one of his most prominent physicians, and both Anne and George were one of the few to survive the disease (one of Anne's own personal ladies-in-waiting was one of the first to get it and she died within hours of contracting it). It's even believed that this is the very disease that killed Arthur, Henry's older brother and had even struck Catherine at that same time when she was married to his brother, though she also clearly survived.

Henry was obviously a very healthy man. He was athletic and solid, very physical with all the sports he was involved in and he was very aware of disease around him. One of the things he noticed as king was that the sanitation issues led to illness. Before he was king, cooks, servants, and everyday people at court would dump refuse in the moat around the castles. Every time someone used the garderobe (a latrine basically) it dumped into the moat as well. It killed the fish and stank to high heaven. Nobody wanted to be around it and it encouraged nasty vermin like rats to take up residence. So he had all the moats drained, cleaned and banned any dumping at all in them. He even had the garderobes regularly scoured along with the drains to keep things flowing well and to keep disease from striking. He had the moats restocked with fish and made sure it stayed clean. He had the plumbing hooked to travel under the castles and dump directly into the river. Now you know why the Thames was brown, stank like rotting corpses and anyone that traveled on it burned incense and wore herbs on their doublets or coats--so they didn't have to smell that offensive river.

He also noticed that men would urinate all over the castle walls. Outdoors and indoors. This had to stop. So he had red crosses painted at various points along the walls to discourage this since no one wanted to desecrate a cross and pee on it, and he had urinals placed in the walls along all the outside court walls and in the gardens so men would stop moving aside their codpieces and peeing wherever they were. It worked. I'm telling you--this man was genius.

Okay, so now we know sanitation drastically improved (and actually didn't see any new advances after Henry for a thousand years in England) but what of broken bones? Well, when I did the research there really wasn't a lot to go off of so I had to use my imagination. We do know that when Henry had that horrible jousting accident with Charles Brandon that basically made him lame for the rest of his life and contributed to his later morbid obesity, his leg most likely snapped. He was in a coma for a short period and over the years, off and on that leg would get sores that would open, puss would drain and it would shoot out bone splinters. This suggests that the bones probably weren't set right and that he had diabetes so the wounds couldn't ever completely heal. He had to walk with a cane for the rest of his days and there were even periods of time when it would fester and he'd be in so much pain, he'd have to be carried around in a chair by his servants. It's said he even devised some sort of primitive wheel chair at one point. Wow. So clever...

I don't know if they had such things as casts or splints back then. I'm assuming they did have some way of wrapping and immobilizing broken bones but there's just not a whole lot of information to go off of. Sorry, I wish I knew more, but unfortunately I don't have the time to delve deeply into that topic.

I am grateful, however, that Henry did what he could by being observant and seeing that better sanitation would make big improvements in the health of his subjects at court. That's a man that knew it was his responsibility to direct change and he did it even if it meant huge renovations on his many properties.

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