Healing Words

The Printed Handbills of Early Modern London Quacks

by Roberta Mullini (Author)
©2015 Monographs 264 Pages


During the English Restoration, London unlicensed health carers printed handbills as the easiest way to advertise their medical practices. In order to increase our awareness of irregular medical practitioners as a cultural phenomenon and examine their language, two collections of handbills have been transcribed. The study analyses the lexicon used to address readers, the traits of orality in written communication as well as the places where proprietary medicines were sold. Furthermore it looks closely at the visual impact of some handbills and the role of anti-quack satire at the end of the seventeenth century.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Plates
  • List of Tables
  • List of Abbreviations
  • A Note on Quotations and References
  • Preface
  • The Chapters
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1 The Historical Context
  • Selling Medicines in Early Modern Times
  • The English Situation
  • Sixteenth-Century Charlatans in Italy and England
  • Medicine in Seventeenth-Century London
  • Printing to Sell
  • Quacks’ Handbills and Popular Medicine
  • 2 A Corpus-based Approach to the Language of Quacks
  • The Two British Library Collections
  • The Structure and the Format
  • The Handbills as a Corpus
  • Information from the Handbills
  • Booksellers and Coffeehouses
  • Stationers and Others
  • Addresses
  • Cures
  • Dosages and Prices
  • Other Types of Information
  • 3 Common Complaints in Corpora from the Medical Domain
  • Words for Poor Health Conditions
  • What the Londoners Suffered From
  • The Scurvy and the Pox
  • The Green Sickness
  • Melancholy: A Disease of the Well-Off?
  • Physicians about Melancholy
  • Concordances
  • Concordances of MELANCHOLY in EMEMT, “Materia medica”
  • Concordances of MELANCHOLY in the Handbills Corpus
  • 4 How Quacks Addressed their Audience
  • Harangues, Handbills, and Title Pages
  • Speaking and Writing
  • Axiological Communicative Markers
  • The Results from the Concordances
  • High-frequency Words
  • Low-frequency Words
  • Orality in Harangues or Speeches
  • As if it were a Summary
  • Quacks to their Readers
  • The Use of Pronouns
  • How to Appear Pious and Charitable
  • A Question of Professionalism
  • 5 Quacks and the Media
  • Capitals, Italics, and Images
  • Fonts
  • Hands and Asterisks
  • Images and Decorations
  • John Russel, Professor of Physick
  • Venus and the French Pox
  • Print and Anti-Quack Satire
  • Waltho van Claturbank: A Labyrinth of Dates and Data
  • The Anti-Quack Medical Literature
  • The Parody of Quacks’ Handbills
  • The Haines Case
  • 6 Three Case Studies: Men, Women, and a Courtier
  • Two Generations of Italian Irregular Practitioners
  • Medical Professional Language in the Winter Family
  • General Terms
  • Which Diseases and What Anatomy?
  • Targeting Women
  • “Ladies, Beauty is a Blessing of God” (C112f9[125])
  • “A most delicate Oyntment to anoint the Face” (551a32[24])
  • The Bendo Affair
  • “To ALL Gentlemen, Ladies, and others”
  • Conclusion
  • Appendixes
  • Appendix A
  • Transcription of C112f9[77]
  • Transcription of 551a32[112]
  • Transcription of C112f9[117]
  • Transcription of 551a32[139]
  • Appendix B
  • Topography of the Coffeehouses Mentioned in the Handbills
  • Coffeehouses Positioned in William Morgan’s Map
  • Appendix C
  • List of the Volume Titles Utilized in Chapter 4 (Adapted from the ESTC)
  • Appendix D
  • “The Harangue, or Quack Speech of T. Jones at York” (D. G., Harangues, pp. 19–22)
  • Appendix E
  • “Pharmacopola Circumforaneus or The Horse Doctor’s Harangue to the Credulous Mob” (from D. G. Harangues, pp. 13–19), and its ‘Analogue’ in The Character of a Quack-Doctor (1676)
  • Bibliography
  • Primary Sources
  • Secondary Sources
  • Index

| 11 →

List of Plates

| 13 →

List of Tables

Table 3.1: General Terms for Health Problems

Table 3.2: Most Frequent Diseases in the Corpus

Table 3.3: Frequency of MELANCHOLY

Table 3.4: Concordances of MELANC* in EMEMT, “Materia medica” (a selection)

Table 3.5: Concordances of MELANCHOLY in the Handbills Corpus (a selection)

Table 4.1: Lexical Words in Handbills and on Title Pages (a selection)

Table 6.1: Lexical Words in Handbills and in the Winters’ Handbills (a selection)

Table 6.2: Symptoms and Diseases in the Winters’ Handbills

Table 6.3: Anatomical Entries in the Winters’ Handbills

Table 6.4: Lexical Words for Body Parts

Table 6.5: Beauty Products

Table 6.6: Lexical Words in the Cosmetic Field

| 15 →

List of Abbreviations

| 17 →

A Note on Quotations and References

Whenever possible first editions have been quoted. Original spelling and punctuation have always been preserved (only in a few cases have erroneous forms been signalled by [sic]). Quotations from the texts included in the EMEMT CD reproduce the graphical conventions used in it.

In order not to overload the notes, all titles will be shortened in the notes themselves. Full titles are referenced in Appendix C, and in the Bibliography at the end of the volume.

| 19 →


Interest in the development of science in early modern times has been growing in recent decades, particularly in the field of socio-medical studies, perhaps because of our contemporary focus on the body, which has caused scholars to investigate whatever – in the past – can be connected to it. Consequently medicine has become an area of privileged and ever-growing concern, especially when linked to, and seen through, its possible connections either with other sciences or, more specifically, with literature and culture at large. Pre-scientific medicine – or “physick” as it was named in England at least till the end of the seventeenth century – has become a ground where interdisciplinarity is still yielding generously. Investigated in its multifaceted historical aspects, in the relationships with play- and novel-writing, in the psychological effects it produced on people, the progress of medicine has revealed – and is still revealing – how it moulded society and how society was mirrored in scientific thought, including the understanding of gender, cultural and post-colonial tenets. Medicine, after all, deals with human life and death and therefore nothing is more human than the interest it has always aroused.

Medicine, like all other disciplines, has subjects and objects. It is enacted by someone for the benefit of someone else; it is based on theoretical principles, but badly needs experimentation; it uses old and new substances to cure man’s ailments; it tries to prolong man’s life. The fascination of medical studies and of their history, therefore, will always intrigue mankind.

In the following pages, though, the issues dealt with will be very limited when compared with a science that has existed – in its various cultural forms – for thousands of years: my research focuses on the printed ephemera of the irregular medical practitioners who worked in London (according to some critics contrary to them they actually “flooded” the town) between the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. Some of these ephemera (both handbills and pamphlets) are spread in various libraries, but the majority of them is held by the British Library in three collections which assemble them in somewhat random sets. Here the focus will be on two of them only: the first – A Collection of 231 advertisements, etc. The greater part English and chiefly relating to quack medicines, the rest German descriptions of commemorative coins and medals [1675–1715] is shelfmarked 551a32; the second – A Collection of 185 advertisements, chiefly relating to quack medicines. The greater part English, the rest French, German and Italian [1660–1716] – is shelfmarked C112f9. The third set – A Collection ← 19 | 20 → of Titlepages, fragments of printed books and other material assembled by John Bagford. [1528–1715] – will be seldom taken into account, since it mainly collects sundry items, i.e. not medical adverts published by irregular practitioners. Furthermore this third set includes many handbills already present in the other two collections (its shelfmark is Harley 5931).1

All three collections have been used and quoted by scholars studying medical social history, such as Roy Porter, Margaret Pelling, Andrew Wear, Kevin Siena and others, both as foils to regular physicians’ practice and as witnesses of the multifaceted variety of health care in early modern London.2 Never, though, were they taken into consideration as constituting a larger set of texts through which to analyse on the one hand what irregular practitioners wrote about themselves, about their conceptions of illness, their ideas of health care; on the other how they worded their medical practice, that is, their rhetorical strategies aiming at capturing the reader’s attention in what appears to be one of the first forms of printed advertising. In other words, the interest of irregular practitioners’ texts lies in what they contain (with much information about London as well) and how they are written. From them the real language of quacks (as irregular practitioners will be often called in the present research, independently from the negative aura the term has acquired in time, starting exactly in early modern times) is made visible, in spite of the ‘romance’ grown around them especially in the eighteenth century in such works as The Harangues or Speeches of Several Famous Mountebanks in Town and Country, an anthology which evidently sold ← 20 | 21 → well, since it was published in various formats at different times in the same century, though one cannot absolutely be certain of its reliability and truth.3

The language of quacks (or charlatans, mountebanks, or empirics)4 is the specific topic of an article by Roy Porter, but in that work the author considered medical ephemera mainly as a source of historical information, while describing the “language of quackery” with the usual labels deriving from the allegations against irregular practitioners’ “prattle” and “babble”, and their magniloquent and hyperbolic speech.5 In other words, quacks’ printed documents were not seen on their whole as building up a text type researchable as such. In the present work, on the contrary, the two collections 551a32 and C112f9 will be studied in their entirety, but excluding non-relevant documents, in order to find out what kind of information can be retrieved from them, from many points of view. The focus will be on them as a store of linguistic details about quacks’ rhetorical (and performative) attitudes in approaching their targets and selling their remedies, of data about their lexicon especially related to the popular naming of illnesses, of information about their use of print and orality in early modern London medical life.

The texts of the two collections have accordingly been typed, so as to make them into an electronically searchable corpus made of a single specific text type, and analysed by means of a concordancer.6 This has allowed the investigation ← 21 | 22 → of individual keywords on which to construe some interpretative hypotheses. From the corpus, in order to make it reliable and consistent, I have eliminated multiple copies of a single handbill, and other items written in German and in Italian. In the end, the corpus consists of 304 leaflets (plus 12 pamphlets, separately searchable).

Of course other primary sources were added to the handbills, including visual evidence, together with the relevant secondary studies. Among primary sources there will also be included broadsides, pamphlets and publications printed during the time span from the sixteenth to the early eighteenth century, when of interest to the principal topic, i.e. how irregular practitioners used English, both orally and in the written form. Therefore some witnesses of the ongoing war between regulars and irregulars are encompassed, as satirical evidence of the troublesome presence of empirics and of their discourse. Their speech – oral and written – had a double task: it served first to appeal to customers, and then to cure them (or so irregulars said it would). Its healing power passed through the innovative technique of selling medicines by approaching the undifferentiated and anonymous sick orally from a stage or in writing via handbills.

The project aims at furthering the research in the history of medical language, and at possibly filling a gap in our knowledge of early modern irregular practitioners as a culturally relevant social phenomenon.

My approach is interdisciplinary, involving mainly linguistic and cultural (but also gender) studies. Literature (especially drama) will surface now and then, because not only did quacks belong to the cultural panorama of the time span under study, but they were also showmen, playing their own roles on their own public stages.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (April)
charlatans cosmetics advertising London physicians printed medical advertising
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 264 pp., 12 tables

Biographical notes

Roberta Mullini (Author)

Roberta Mullini is Professor of English Literature at the University of Urbino Carlo Bo (Italy). She has published widely on late medieval and early modern theatre and drama. Her present interests also include cultural studies and historical linguistics.


Title: Healing Words
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266 pages