Episode 14: Medieval Medical Mediocrity!

Aaron takes us on a squabby walk down medical memory lane, then Shea tells us that everything ye-olde and gross is new again!

Logo for Episode 14: Medieval Medical Mediocrity!
Logo for Episode 14: Medieval Medical Mediocrity!

Welcome to Interesting If True, the podcast that’s interesting, if not pigeon-friendly. I’m your host this week, Aaron, and with me are:

I’m Shea, and this week I learned that triscuits are the perfect snack if you have ever wanted to eat wicker furniture.

I’m Steve, and I’ve spent the previous 10 days reliving my bachelor days, except that now, I had to take care of two dogs and two cats who really missed my wife and daughter. Feeding them 5 times a day helps. That way they’re always glad to see me.

I’m Jenn, and this week I discovered the perfect example of irony: Eliot Ness, leader of the Untouchables and figurehead fighter for the Prohibition, died relatively young (at 54) and destitute due to…wait for it…complications from alcoholism.

And with that delightful look back at ye-olde things that could kill you miserably… lets dive into a story… if you were a patron. But if you’re not don’t worry, we only reference it once and you can always get in on the joke at https://www.patreon.com/iit for only a buck!

‘Tis Time For Another Rousing Round Of Medieval Medical Mediocrity!

Today’s story comes from the prolific notes of a 17th century “healer,” which was, until recently, untranslated.

To mark a decade of the University of Cambridge’s Casebook Project – a project to revive old manuscripts – scholars translated the notes of Simon Forman and Richard Napier from shitty-doctor-handwriting-ese to legible English.

“The project opens a wormhole into the grubby and enigmatic world of 17th-century medicine, magic and the occult.” ~ Professor Lauren Kassell of Cambridge’s History and Philosophy of Science Department.

And so, without further ado, I give you…

Tawdry Tales of Terrible Triage

(age age age age!)

First, dear panel — which is how I shall henceforth refer to you, because fuck it — should you find yourself suffering from malaise circa 1590, what footwear would best ease your weathered, dilapidated, 16-year-old husk of a body?

That’s correct: Pigeons.

Image of Simon Forman. He was an ugly, ugly man

It was suggested that patients put the bodies of dead pigeons against their own: “a pigon slitt & applyed to the sole of each foote” for health.

Though today’s animal-conscious woo’s settle for onions in their socks but nothing beats a little squab-squish eh?

Simon Forman
Simon Forman

Back to our tail. Simon Forman, a man already so learned that he needed Oxford not… or he couldn’t hack it even in the “maybe pigeons are shoes” era,either way, he dropped out of Oxford.

Choosing to travel for his indefinite spring break, he found himself enjoying London’s famous nightlife. Coupettes (a Champagne Pina Colada Google says people in London stereotypically drink), Spotted Dick, and of course Yersinia pestis, or as listeners might know it: ye-olde European-super-death.

Luckily he cured himself in 1952 and immediately opened his own, unlicensed, medical establishment.

Yes, unlicensed in a time when “pigeon-shoes” was above-board.

Also, he was widely considered a quack in a time when “pigeon-shoes” was advice people not only took but also considered other uses for – like a pigeon tie for stiff neck.

Panel: If Jenn went to see a ye-olde doctor she would surely be diagnosed with Hysteria. What might a hysterical woman complain about?

That’s correct, heart break.

Heartbreak and also family game-night style beatings.

The case of one Elizabeth Church, 46:

“Was much troubled in her mind for one that she had loved long & ago who is now married & she meeting him of late told him that if her old husband dies that then she will marry him, but she meant it not as she told me because that his wife is living. Her husband is 80 years old & does whip her & scourge her black & blue egged on by his child.”

Way to bury the lead Simon…

Of the ills of the “matrix,” his term for the uterus, he wrote women appeared to

“lacke betwen the eyes and the nose & blushe as though she had wept moche.”

Side note: If you’re weeping Japanese tea you should see a real doctor.

Yeah, enjoy that written word joke. That ones just for you dear show notes reader. Just you.

Among his estimated 2000 annual consultations were commoners, courtiers, at least one archbishop, and Mrs. Mountjoy – Shakespeare’s landlady. But why so popular? Because as well as being an accomplished healer, Simon was an astrologer!

In fact, astrology was kind of his whole deal.

Again, Professor Lauren Kassell

“Channeled through the astrologers’ pens are fragments of the health and fertility concerns, bewitchment fears and sexual desires from thousands of lives otherwise lost to history.”

Apparently, when you went to see Simon and Richard – Richard being Simon’s protege Napier, a county rector by day (clergyman) – the pair would read planetary positions as you described your aliments to judge the effects of stellar motions – often called sun or star rays (not to imply they thought of the sun as a star) – on your health.

I guess the whipping and the fun-for-the-hole-family scourgings were asymptomatic… and you know, womany problems or whatever.

Frustratingly, while I joke about “womany problems” according to the study’s estimates over 55% of his patients were women. So, you know, fuck trying to take literally most of your patients seriously right?

Ahh, tradition.

According to Forman the understanding of women’s diseases began with diagnosing pregnancy. If a woman was willing to speak of her sex life he explicitly states in his teachings that she is not to be trusted. Also, if she won’t speak of it all she’s a whore and is, therefore, not to be trusted.

Also the menzies didn’t matter. Nor did tasting her pee – though that is an area where Simon and Robert differed for Robert took getting – and keeping – himself a jar of lady-pee real serious.

The one thing on which they both completely agreed was that only the stars revealed the truth:

“we have throughe longe experiance observed by our astrologie the rulls to be moste true and certaine when we have here set down to judge by.”

That is, if the planets align… and if she has milk in her sin-bags, she might or might not be pregnant. So… you know… out with’em for science!

So Astrology…

The majority of the entries in Forman’s and Napier’s casebooks — some 95% — concerned the moment at which a client consulted them.

This was horary astrology: a type of interrogation in which the practitioner drew up an astrological chart for the time at which a question reached him, whether asked in person or received by letter – Though he often drew figures for both.

While they calculated the zodiac positions as carefully as possible given the time of the event, they typically just used the positions of the planets at high noon.because it’s an exact science.

While I could pull astrology references from the likes of Dante Alighieri (in Paradiso, the final part of the Divine Comedy), or even Plato, I think Sheldon said it best, to paraphrase:

Astrology, the mass cultural delusion that the sun’s apparent position relative to arbitrarily defined constellations at the time of your birth, diagnosis, or per Simon your postage, somehow affects your person.

And if there’s one thing we do know, it’s that Eve “did heckel a snake” and therefore the Moon means women deserve cramps.

He also had 14 recorded cases of pesky diseases only women get — because, remembering that Eve was a snake-whore — women bits cause most diseases and women rightfully get 70% more diseases. Amen.

Moving to the 1570’s things are going well for Forman. As he taught Richard what he called medicine, Simon became a student of the Occult Arts! And why not, he already had Robert, so… young-priest covered eh. Once established as a good witch, he did want successful healers do: franchise! He opened an alternative medical/occults practice in Billingsgate, which is a place near London probably.

And yes, that’s “alternative medicine” when you could diagnose someone with a star chart and a straight face…

Once his new practice was open, he declared himself a Surgeon as well (typically seen as a very different profession at the time).

He soon drew the attention of the Company of Barber-Surgeons (now the Royal College of Surgeons of England) for killing someone. Hard to believe it took this long… I mean, plenty of people he saw died, but this one, he extra killed. He would serve several prison sentences of independent length.

Because prison sucks he objected frequently to being in prison and in 1603 he was both freed and given a license to practice medicine from Cambridge. Because fuck it why not.

There’s actually a game based around this bit of his crazy ass life.

Called Astrologaster from indie dev Nyamyam, the comedy game follows “Doctor” Forman who treats patients by reading the stars. The Astrology is for show though as his real plan is to work his way into communities, gaining patients by word of mouth. By asking people about friends and family he would appear to have knowledge from beyond, convincing them to write him letters of support, the end goal being to win full … “doctorship” I guess.

A business plan used by charlatans, alternative-medicine practitioners, homeopaths, acupuncturists, and perhaps most successfully, chiropractors – fake it ’till others assume you’ve made it FTW eh!

The graphics are fun. Speaking of visuals, panel: You know how sometimes you have the little dark spots in your eyes, the floaties? Yeah, how do you cure them?

That’s right! When “going to bed, put a little ear-wax on the Speck.—This has cured many.” So… rub ear gunk in your own eyes. Yeah.

Panel: The case of Edward Cleaver is of a man consumed with worrisome thoughts. Recently, he’d told someone to “kisse myne arse” so sought a doctor. What, could cause such a terrible illness?

Correct answer: the witchery of a neighbor who suckled a puppy of course.

Ever the Renaissance Man, Simon was also an accomplished pervert. He was well know for pressing himself upon nearly ever woman he met. He wrote of his conquests in his diaries, cataloging them by location… not like, name or whatever. He wrote of having his first sex with his “beloved” on 15/12/1593 at 5pm in London. The next note regarding Mrs. 5pm London, was added four years later reading “she died 13/6/1597.”

Two years later Simon noted having wed the 17-year-old girl who was renting a room from his house in Lambeth. So that’s creepy. Also, he fucked around on her a bunch and all we know about her is that he made her do the house chores.

Panel: One presumes her chores included collecting ingredients. What would you cure with a combination of roses, violets, boiled crabs, and deer shit?

That’s right _The French Disease.” Symptoms included “pox, with boils and itch.” Also called the Italian, Spanish, German, and Polish Disease, it refers to Syphilis. That’s right, an actual set of symptoms, he was bound to get there eventually.

Then, inexplicably, he died.

Among Astrology enthusiasts Simon is known for having predicted his own death. One undefined day he told his wife that he would die the following Thursday night — and he did.

He was in good health all week. Thursday came and instead of gorging himself on steak and that most luxurious of items, water that wasn’t mostly piss and ignorance, he went to do some chores in the boat house and died putting oars away.

Shortly after his death he was implicated in the murder of Thomas Overbury. Having finally killed a man he was described by Sir Edward Coke, Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench as the “Devil Forman,” which sounds pretty bad.

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Old Medicine Show

With crazy medical treatments being created every day I was curious to see if there are any crazy treatments that have lasted the ages and actually work.

I’m sure you have all heard of leeches being used in ye olden times but did you know it’s still being used today? like in hospitals and by real doctors. The treatment dates back to 800 BCE when they were used in bloodletting, a practice believed to cure fevers, headaches and serious illnesses. Today leeches are used to stimulate blood circulation after skin grafts and reconstructive surgery. The leech’s saliva contains enzymes and compounds that act as an anticoagulation agent. The most prominent of these anticoagulation agents is hirudin, which binds itself to thrombins, thus, effectively inhibiting coagulation of the blood.

Leeching might sound primitive but the FDA approved leeches as “medical devices” in 2004 to drain pooled blood after surgery.

Trepanation, you’ve seen this hundreds of times in horror films – the threat of having someone drill a hole into your head is scary enough. But doctors believe the practice actually serves some medical benefit. Dating back to prehistoric times, People in many areas may have thought they were releasing evil spirits from the head, but really they were reducing the damage done by a knock to the skull. The surgeries were used to remove bone shards from the head, stop bleeding on the brain, or reduce internal pressure after head trauma. Some remains had more than one hole in the skull, indicating people not only survived the first procedure, but had it done again many years later. In today’s industry, holes are drilled into the skull to relieve pressure after serious trauma to the brain has occurred. However, making a permanent hole in someone’s head isn’t a safe thing to do, and these days if a doctor makes a hole in a skull they usually replace the bone and patch it up.

We talked about leeches but how about maggots? For some reason I feel maggots are worse. Dating back to ancient times, physicians have used maggots to help clean injuries and prevent infection. Because maggots feed solely on dead flesh, doctors do not need to worry about them feasting on healthy tissue. One study published last year in the Archives of Dermatology showed that maggots placed on surgical incisions helped to clear more dead tissue from the sites than surgical debridement, the current standard of care in which doctors use a scalpel or scissors. Placed in tea bag-like packages, physicians are able to directly apply maggots to wounds, allowing them to work their magic, at least you don’t have to see them work…

Our last medical treatment dates back to 320 BCE and actually is very commonplace today, many of you know people who have had this done. A Cesarean section, more commonly known as a C-section, is one of the oldest known medical practices in use today. The mortality rate for the procedure was once very high, until the 1880s when a technique was developed to minimize bleeding. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one-third of all babies were delivered via C-section in 2012.


I’m Aaron, and I’d like to thank all our listeners, supporters, and my co-hosts.

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Music for this episode was created by Wayne Jones and was used with permission.

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