Stiffen the Sinews: An Alternative Guide to Wellbeing.
The phrase ‘stiffen the sinews’ first entered popular consciousness in 1599, when William Shakespeare’s Henry V galvanised his countrymen on the eve of a fictional battle of Agincourt. Frankly, the bard should have known better, given his own son-in-law, John Hall, was a practising physician. Stiffening those fibres connecting muscle to bone is a sure-fire way of tightening up under pressure.
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So what other misguided advice might a road rider have received from an Elizabethan team doctor? A wealthy cyclist might have called upon the College of Physicians, whose practitioners operated under licence and who drew up astrological charts to arrive at diagnoses and administer medicine. (‘Take every full moon’ was a common dose for prescriptions.) The poorer members of the peloton had to make do with a ‘barber-surgeon’, who did pretty much what it said on the tin. Road rash might require no more than a haircut but a compound fracture called for bones to be set. Without anaesthetic.
For general maladies, you might engage the services of an ‘empiric’, a local quack who first required a urine sample. If you were too sick to deliver it yourself, you could always send a messenger, who then had the job of describing the symptoms on your behalf. Urine was a big deal back then, with whole treatises dedicated to the subject. Physicians categorised urine into 20 colours — including ‘lemon yellow’, ‘leek green’ and ‘raven black’ — each associated with different illnesses. Clinical investigations routinely included tasting the sample.
The most famous empiric of the period was Simon Forman, whose 40 journals constitute the earliest surviving medical records in England. (And who, as a regular patron of London’s Globe Theatre, attended original productions of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale).
Widely read, Forman often acted as his own guinea pig. As a child, he contracted the plague and not only survived but believed he had done so thanks to ‘strong water’, his mother’s secret brew containing a wicked cocktail of spices. Forman himself relied on more than quackery. He realised, for example, that having endured the plague once he was unlikely to catch it again. Whenever London was struck by an outbreak of the disease, Forman remained in the city while other physicians sought sanctuary in the countryside. His journals make compelling, if gruesome reading; the removal, for instance, of more than 80 ‘worms’ — most likely maggots — from a patient with tuberculosis.
The best way to avoid a dubious diagnosis was not to get sick in the first place. To this end, Elizabethans put great store by the four ‘humours’, elemental fluids they believed existed in the body and which needed to be balanced for both physical and mental health. First popularised in ancient Greece, these fluids were ‘blood’, ‘yellow bile’ (also known as ‘choler’), ‘phlegm’ and ‘black bile’. The dominance of a particular humour could significantly affect health and temperament. For example, an abundance of the blood humour led to a positive outlook, while too much phlegm left patients short of energy. Choler was the main humour in angry people, and black bile lead to bouts of melancholy.
The four humours also possessed qualities relating to the elements directly, such as heat and cold, or wetness and dryness and these too required balancing. A yellow bile patient who was ‘choleric’, for example, was believed to be too hot and dry and thus required medicine that was cold and wet. Food was another way of achieving equilibrium, spices to provide heat, or sweet food to cure dryness (sugar was believed to contain moisture). Excessive bad humours could also be ‘purged’, extracted from the body by drawing out blood, usually at the ankle, the lowest part of the body. Roughly the spot where a cyclist’s leg warmers meet their socks, in fact, so if you’ll just hold still…