During the Middle Ages, the practice of surgery and medicine was carried out by the clergy but at the beginning of twelfth century, Pope Alexander III banned them from performing any procedures that involved blood. As blood-letting remained a popular treatment for a wide range of illnesses, the clergy turned to their barbers. Barbers traditionally worked in the monasteries, keeping the monks clean-shaven at all times, as decreed by Pope Urban II a hundred years earlier. The barber-surgeon provided a range of services such as tooth extraction and minor operations as well as bloodletting.


The barber’s pole was originally a symbol of the pole the patient held in their hand during bloodletting, the brass ball at the top of the pole symbolising the bowl used for collecting the blood or for holding leeches. After treatment the bandages were washed and wrapped around the pole to dry, giving it the traditional striped pattern.

The Black Plague of the 14th and 15th centuries had a devastating effect on the number of university-trained physicians (with a doctorate) and in 1540, Henry VIII united the Company of the Barbers and the Fellowship of Surgeons with a royal decree, the Company of Barber-Surgeons, to alleviate the shortages. (Even today, a hospital doctor loses his or her ‘Dr’ title and becomes ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’, ‘Ms’ or ‘Miss’ once he or she has acquired higher surgical qualifications.) With no formal training, many barber-surgeons resorted to quackery, and discord between the barbers and the surgeons increased, which explains Dr Argyll’s antipathy towards barber-surgeon Mr Barker in The Red and the Scarlet.


However, advances in surgery had gradually improved, pioneered by innovators such as Ambroise Paré. Originally apprenticed to a barber, this famous Frenchman served as army surgeon for thirty years, pioneering and inventing a range of procedures, in particular the treatment of war wounds. When his book Les Oeuvres was published in 1575, his ideas spread across Europe and respect for surgeons began to build until, in 1745, the surgeons finally dissolved their centuries-old partnership with the barbers to become the well-respected profession they are today.


The Forgotten Battle

Left: Battle of Blenheim, 1704 Right: Battle of Waterloo, 1815
Left: Battle of Blenheim, 1704
Right: Battle of Waterloo, 1815

Throughout my time at Blenheim Palace, I was intrigued that the Battle of Blenheim was overshadowed in English history by the Battle of Waterloo. Not infrequently visitors thought the famous tapestries showed the Duke of Wellington fighting the French whereas they show the Duke of Marlborough fighting the same foe a century earlier. Visitors were far more interested in Winston Churchill (who was born at Blenheim Palace) than in his ancestor, John Churchill who won the ‘glorious victory’ on the fields of Bavaria at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Winston himself tried to set the record straight, believing that  John Churchill’s defeat of the armies of Louis XIV in 1704 changed the axis of power in Europe more dramatically than the defeat of Napoleon.

Marlborough and Wellington are both regarded as brilliant generals but Wellington always seems to steal the march. The poet Robert Southey in 1796 wrote an anti-war poem about a skull found by children in the fields of Bavaria, highlighting the pointless human sacrifice.

Mawkish Edwardian illustration of Southey's poem 'After Blenheim' from the Children's Encylopaedia.
Mawkish Edwardian illustration of Southey’s poem ‘After Blenheim’ from the Children’s Encylopaedia.

In fact, the death toll at Blenheim was half that of Waterloo, a battle Southey praised in a later poem written in 1816. And the sacrifice at Blenheim was certainly not in vain. The victory destroyed Europe’s belief in the invincibility of the French, saved Vienna from invasion and stopped the expansionist policies of Louis XIV.

In his history of the British army, John Fortescue wrote that Marlborough, like Wellington, ‘was endowed with a strong common sense that in itself amounted to genius’ but thought that ‘there was a bond of humanity between Marlborough and his men that was lacking in Wellington,’ and yet Wellington remains in the national consciousness and Marlborough is all but forgotten.

Left: 1st Duke of Marlborough Right: 1st Duke of Wellington
Left: 1st Duke of Marlborough
Right: 1st Duke of Wellington

It’s a puzzzle. The two generals shared other attributes: they were both handsome men, although perhaps Wellington’s more contemporary look captures the nation’s imagination better than Marlborough’s (the Brian May wig doesn’t help). Another reason may be that the history curriculum in this country tends not to focus on the early part of the eighteenth century. But my favourite reason was put to me by a visiting historian. He reckoned Waterloo was more famous because it was an easier battlefield for tourists to visit, standing just outside Brussels, and because it had a catchy name that people remembered.

Smallpox and the Gothic

hill01_3607_05Horace Walpole is credited with coining the term ‘Gothic’ in 1764. The Castle of Otranto was subtitled ‘A Gothic Story’, warning the reader that his tale was from a darker age, one of barbarity and cruelty. In his ‘attempt to blend the two kinds of romance: ancient and modern,’ he believed he had created ‘a new species of romance. I was at liberty to lay down what rules I thought fit for the conduct of it,’ – a gloomy setting, a sense of imposing doom, disturbing visions or dreams, melodrama, women in distress or threatened by powerful men. Those rules still play out, restyled through the centuries to appeal to the reading public of the day and make it relevant for the times. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein contains many of those elements although she uses science as the driver. Danny Boyle’s starting point for his production of Frankenstein was his research into a time when ‘the age of science begins.’

Caricature by the English artist James Gillray: The Cow-Pock or the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation! (1802). The word 'vaccination' comes from the Latin 'vaccha' for cow. Jenner's treatment did not use the live smallpox virus but the virus from the milder cow pox which also produced immunity in humans.
Caricature by the English artist James Gillray: The Cow-Pock or the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation! (1802). The word ‘vaccination’ comes from the Latin ‘vaccha’ for cow. Jenner’s treatment did not use the live smallpox virus but the virus from the milder cow pox which also produced immunity in humans.

The Red and the Scarlet is set at a similar pivot, the dawn of the age of enlightenment. Doctors were beginning to distrust a system of medicine based on the humours, which had guided medical practice for centuries. Treatments compromised survival among the rich (read Sir Charles Scarborough’s account of the death of Charles II) and more enlightened physicians were studying folklores to find new cures.

If the enjoyment of the Gothic comes from an acting out of irrational fears in a safe environment, smallpox offers the perfect subject. It is the only human disease ever to be completely eradicated from the world’s population and yet, despite advances in modern medicine, the horror of sickness, of things erupting from the body, of disfigurement and pain still grips us.

The Gothic tradition is continually evolving: Emily and Charlotte Brontë pitted a new type of damsel in distress, one that rises victorious from male oppression: the feisty Cathy in Wuthering Heights and the strong, intelligent Jane Eyre. In this century, Stephanie Meyer  repackaged the genre in the form of vampire Edward Cullen, an ‘Edward Rochester with fangs,’ according to clinical psychologist Dr Cecilia d’ Felice. Cullen is a man who threatens the heroine but also arouses feelings of sympathy, a longing to heal his wounded heart. D’ Felice believes that at that same time as harbouring these more lofty emotions, the teenage girl subconsciously wants to be chased and caught, absolved of the responsibility of controlling her desires.

Literary critics may be snobbish about the Gothic genre but it remains perennially popular with well respected authors creating gripping narratives within it: Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898), Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938), Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1979) and Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger (2009).

Apothecary Box

apothecary boxEighteenth-century physicians carried their medicines in these beautiful boxes. This one is made of mahogany and would very probably have been taken on campaign because it has brass carrying handles. There are double opening doors that lock as well as a secret compartment. When the cabinet was open, it gave access to a clasp on the front right hand side. When this was pulled out, a compartment at the back slid out. It was used for storing poisons.

As well as the bottles, the cabinet contained a pestle and mortar, a set of scales made of brass with iron weights, a metal funnel and a measuring tube. The drawer handles were made of ivory.

Elizabeth Alkin


The Battle of Scheveningen, 1653 by Jan Abrahamsz Beerstraaten

This was the final battle in the First Anglo-Dutch War, a conflict that resulted in another first – the establishment of casualty reception stations. Throughout history, war has driven advances in medicine and surgery but it also brought dramatic changes to the status and condition of women. As early as the middle of the seventeenth century, Elizabeth Alkin was working with Dr Daniel Whistler to establish reception station for the injured returning from the war with the Dutch. These reception stations were based in Portsmouth and East Anglia and were the forerunners of the flying hospitals that the First Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill, set up in Europe during the War of Spanish Succession.

Unfortunately, the status of women in 1653 was not high enough to provide a surviving image of Elizabeth Alkin, only one of the physician, Dr Daniel Whistler.

(c) Royal College of Physicians, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) Royal College of Physicians, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Death of Charles II

charles_IIWhen Charles II of England lay dying from a convulsion which attacked him while shaving, the medicos of that day left no stone unturned in helping him along to the Great Beyond. First, he was bled of a pint of blood. Then his shoulder was cut and eight ounces more of blood was extracted by cupping.

Then followed an emetic, a purgative and another purgative. Next, an enema in which they used antimony, sacred bitters, rock salt, mallow leaves, violet, beet root, camomile flowers, fennel seed, linseed, cinnamon, cardamom seed, saffron, cochineal and aloes. This enema was repeated. In two hours, another purgative was given.

Death of Charles II. At the age of fifty-five, Charles suffered an apoplectic fit while shaving. He died four days later but may well have survived without the medical intervention of the day.

The King’s scalp was then shaved, and a blister raised on it. They gave him next sneezing powder of hellebore root; they sought to strengthen his brain by giving him powder of cowslip flowers. Purgatives were frequently repeated. He was given drinks of barley water, licorice, sweet almonds, white wine, absinthe, anise seed, extracts of thistles, rue, mint and angelica. When these did not cure him, they gave him a poultice of burgundy pitch and pigeon dung, to be applied to his feet. More bleeding, more purging; they added melon seeds, manna, slippery elm, black cherry water, extracts of flower of lime, lily of the valley, peony, lavender and dissolved pearls. When these did not do the trick, they went at it with gentian root, nutmeg, quinine and cloves. When this failed, he was given forty drops of extract of human skull. Then they forced down his throat a rallying dose of herbs and animal extracts. Then some powdered bezoar stone.

Alas, after an ill fated night His Serene Majesty was so exhausted that all the physicians became despondent. And so, more active cordials, and finally pearl julep [a heart tonic] and ammonia, were forced down the royal patient’s throat. Then he died.

(From a description by Sir Charles Scarburgh)