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Healing Words

The Printed Handbills of Early Modern London Quacks


Roberta Mullini

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.
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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.

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