How far did the sick rely on written communications in looking for remedies in England, 1375-1640?

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How far did the sick rely on written communications in looking for remedies in England, 1375-1640?

        When someone became sick in England between 1375 and 1640 the number of options they had for seeking remedies depended largely on their illness and their resources.  Some of these options centred or relied on written communications, however, others made use of different types.  “Lay people moved easily between the medicine provided by a poor old woman, by empirics and by learned medicine” (Wear 2000).  For nearly everyone though during this period care began at home and was largely the responsibility of the woman of a household.  The means for women in this position to collect relevant information varied from oral tradition and example, to recipe books and even vernacular texts aimed at their readership.  Familial and friendly resources exhausted, a sick person might turn to one of the many unlicensed medical practitioners who frequented towns and the country side.  Remedies could be sought from wise old women to mountebanks, and again, the source of their knowledge, and their means of selling their remedies could sometimes rely on written communications.  ‘Qualified’ medical practitioners might include apothecaries from whom medicines could be bought, though often physicians tried to limit this trade.  Usually a last resort, and only available to a small proportion of the population, was the physician or surgeon.  The extent to which written communication was involved in this interaction varied.  Underlying nearly all of these transactions is a religious element too, with prayer or other religious means providing a hope for a remedy.

        “Women were responsible for most of the routine health care on offer in late medieval England” (Rawcliffe 1995) and in this role “were expected to prescribe for and nurse relatives, friends and neighbours” (Beier 1987).  All women grew herbs in their gardens or in pots, and were supposed to know when and how to use them to make remedies.  For many, health care never went beyond these limits, relying on the knowledge of family and friends for remedies.  This system of health care was applicable to all social classes and women from the poorest, completely uneducated to noble women had to learn the skills somewhere.  Most relied upon “an information network consisting of her mother, relatives, neighbours, medical practitioners and books could often be drawn upon” (Wear 2000) depending on her social standing and literacy.  In most families “herbal lore [was] customarily passed on by word of mouth and practical demonstration from one generation to the next” (Rawcliffe 1995), and thus bypassed any reliance on written communication.  

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For the literate though there were more options.  In their simplest form, recipe books usually took on the form such as those of families like the Blundells of Crosby who owned books to which visitors were invited to contribute, forming a written collection of family traditions or folk medicine (Wear 2000).  As books in the vernacular became more common, larger collections of medical literature could be built up by those who could read and write, and who could afford the books.  Indeed, because “the manufacture of remedies was one of the household skills expected of women, [it was] learned by ...

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