Sunday, 16 February 2014

“Exercise is a Mighty Great Mistresse” (1581)

My brain is being inundated with images of men and women so physically fit that they seem to be capable of defying physics.  A 15 year old girl who can wrap her leg around her neck and spin like a top on a sheet of ice.  A 41 year old man who chooses to hurtle down an icy, winding path at breakneck speeds.  Ski jumpers who fly.  Hockey players playing through pain.  I can’t even imagine the mental and physical discipline necessary to ski for almost 50 kilometres then somehow muster up the energy to sprint the last 100 metres

The link between physical fitness and health is an obvious one to make – interspersed with images of these supermen and women there are a number of advertisements supporting a “healthy active lifestyle” that involves 60 minutes of physical activity per day.

In my last blog entry, I noted that some early modern medical writers thought that walking too much could cause gout, while too much horse riding could cause an unhealthy extreme fatigue.  Aside from those negative associations, the early moderns had much that was positive to say about exercise that strikes a rather modern note. 

What is exercise and why do it?

Not “every softe mouynge exercise, as Gallen sayeth, by yt that is something vehement,” wrote Christopher Langton in his 1547 treatise.  A leisurely stroll, then, would not make the cut.  The word “vehement” was used by several authors to describe the intensity to which one should aspire.  Moderation seemed to be the key – both too little exercise and too much exercise was deemed dangerous or unhealthy.

Exercise was linked inextricably to health.  Langton argued that “exercise, yf it be discretely mynistred, preuayleth much to the defence of health.”  A few years later, John Caius wrote that exercise was necessary to create “lustye” and “helthful” bodies.  Stephen Hobbes’s Enchiridion Medicum quoted Hippocrates, Ovid, and other ancient authorities, stating that a “great part of the preseruation of the health of mans body doth consist in due exercise and rest; for both these are necessary both to the body and the minde.”[1]

For Langton, exercise would strengthen the body, allowing one to “endure to labor the bettar, and also perfourme theyre action more easely.”  It would increase one’s natural heat, thus aiding in digestion, and even help purge the body of harmful humours or “excrementes.”  The Enchiridion, too, makes these arguments, and suggested that, like water, a body that did not move (or, in this case, exercise) would inevitably putrefy. 

Histoires Prodigieuses, by Pierre Boaistuau.  The early moderns saw obesity as a problem.  Pictured, the story of an obese king who tried to extract his fat using leeches.  Via @wellcomeimages
A lack of exercise would lead to an unhealthy body and a predilection to disease.  Caius wrote that “sitter artificers” could not get exercise by their occupation.  A more pointed comment by Gideon Harvey 150ish years later stated that those “educated to professions” were likely to have sedentary – and thus unhealthy – lifestyles.  As an anonymous mid-seventeenth century author wrote, “in any stirring industrious course of life, for the most part they live longer and healthier then those who use a sitting restful life.” 

When should one exercise?

No swimming after dinner!

Turns out kids have been told this for millennia.  Author after author appealed to ancient authority.  In 1588, a physician named Thomas Cogan, wrote that “Hippocrates teacheth vs playnely, saying.  Let labour goe before meate. Whose authoritie Galen following, sayth, We must  begin the preseruation of health with labour, after that take meate, drincke, and so foorth.” 

It was best to exercise, Cogan continued, when “the time approcheth to eate againe.”  The key, as most authors attested, was to exercise on an empty stomach.  Exercise after a meal was thought to increase the body’s natural heat too much, thereby decreasing the body’s ability to digest and gain proper nourishment from the meal. 

Langton argued that exercise post meal would spread “euyll humors” throughout the body while a Dr. Baily suggested in 1616 that “vapours” would be stirred and ascend to the head. 

How could you know for sure that your food was digested enough for exercise?  You’d know, Langton wrote, when “the vryne waxeth yelowe” or, according to Cogan, it was of “temperate colour.”  

Incidentally, one was to “disburden” themselves of both urine and feces before exercise to avoid the excrement spreading to the rest of the body.  The same anonymous text noted that while exercise post-meal was to be avoided, it was good to simply stand or walk slowly.[2]

Not following this advice, Cogan wrote, would lead to corrupt humours and boils breaking forth from the skin.

Everard Maynwaringe suggested in 1683 that the morning would be the best time of day to exercise.  The rising sun would also raise “the spirits of Men” and encourage them most to action.  Clearly Maynwaringe was one of those morning people.

Certain times of year were also deemed especially good for exercise.  A 1692 almanac, for example, suggested that the summer was an excellent time to “exercise the body with moderate walking.”  Makes sense.  Wouldn’t want to walk around in the dead of winter or the rains of spring! 

What kinds of exercise are best?

John Caius (1552) believed that the English could exercise heartily and should “ runne after houndes and haukes, to shote, wrestle, play at Tenes and weapons, tosse the winde balle, skirmishe at base…and vaughting upon an horse.”  For women, he suggested specifically bowling.

Richard Mulcaster, in 1581, suggested that a variety of activities was beneficial – running for the whole body, dancing for the stomach and legs, riding for the stomach, and even loud reading, for the arteries, blood, and spirit.

A number of these exercise  "how to" books were published in the 17th century.
Thomas Brugis suggested especially tennis as an exercise for the whole body.  While horse riding was good to strengthen the stomach, and walking and running to strengthen the thighs.

Cogan, too, praised tennis as an exercise that was inexpensive to play and would exercise “all partes of the body alike, as the legges, armes, niche, head, eies, back and loynes, and delighteth greatly the minde, making it lusty and cheereful.”  No other form of exercise, he claimed, would provide the same benefit.

Not everyone was a huge fan of tennis.  William Gratarolus, while acknowledging its health benefits, believed that tennis was “not conuenient for such as be graue personages and men muche busied with waightie affaires” because “it is hurtefull to the head by reason of often stowpinge.”  Likewise, wrestling and dancing were thought to be best for those who were not “sage Magistrate[s]…or serious Student[s].”  Riding, he believed, was a much more stately exercise.

Caius warned that some exercises such as “castinge of the barre and camping” were apt to cause leg injuries and should be avoided.

How much exercise is enough?

Alright, so you’ve decided to go for a run or a brisk walk about 4 hours after your last meal.  When is enough?!  After all, you want the exercise to be worthwhile and, you know, not lead to gout.  Langton suggested that you continue exercise only until “the bodye swellethe, and waxinge read, beginne to swete all ouer.”

Thomas Brugis, likewise, wrote  that one should “exercise till the body be florid, sweat begin to flow, and motion nimbler.”

The anonymous mid-seventeenth century text was much more specific about the matter.  Those who were overweight with phlegmatic bodies should exercise much whereas those with “dry slender bodies” needed only “easie exercise.”  These should stop once flushed and sweaty on pain of consumption.

Alright, I did it. Now what?

Gentler exercises.  That’s right, Mulcaster suggested a cool down “reduce the body by gentle degrees, to the same quietnesse in constitution, wherein it was, before it was so moved.”

Then, rest.  Langton believed that one must rest after exercise because “yf it be not taken in his tyme, filleth ye body full of sicknes.”   

And on that note, it’s time for some gentle yoga well suited to my already sore muscles and constitution as a “sitter artificer.”

Let me know what you think here and on Twitter – I’m @medhistorian.

Works Cited:

Anon. The Skilful Physician, London: printed by Thomas Maxey for Nath. Ekins, 1656.

Dr. Baily, Treatises Concerning the Preservation of Eie-Sight, Oxford: printed by Joseph Barnes, 1616.

Thomas Brugis & Ellis Pratt, Vade Mecum, London: printed for B.T and T.S., 1689.

John Caius, A Boke, or Counseill Against the Disease, London, 1552.

Thomas Cogan, The Haven of Health, London: printed by Thomas Orwin for William Norton, 1588.

Guilielmus Gratarolus, A Direction for the Health of Magistrates, London: printed by William How for Abraham Weale, 1574.

Gideon Harvey, The Vanities of Philosophy and Physick, London: printed for W. Turner, 1700.

Stephen Hobbes, Enchiridion Medicum, London: printed by Henry Ballard for George Potter, 1609.

Christopher Langton, A Very Brefe Treatise, London, 1547.

Edward Maynwaringe, The Method and Means of Enjoying Health, London: printed by J.M. for Dorman Newman, 1683.

Richard Mulcaster, Positions Wherein Those Primitive Circumstances Be Examined, Which are Necessarie for the Training, London: printed by Thomas Vautrollier for Thomas Chare, 1581.

[1] I found the mention of exercise’s mental benefits to be most exciting!
[2] This latter advice seems to be from Avicenna.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

There And Back Again or, Would Hackney Coach Be A Better Way to Travel?

This blog post should be entitled “there and back again the unexpected and annoying journey” but I thought it would be too long.  As some of you know, my teaching gig is a 4ish hour commute away.  Each Wednesday I leave home at 7am, get to campus by 11:30ish, hold office hours and teach for roughly 5 hours, then begin the 4 hour trek back.[1] 

This [past] Wednesday, however, the trek took a little bit longer than usual and I didn’t make it in to teach my classes.  In fact, as I write this, I should be teaching Burke and Herder and Pushkin!  I should be watching my undergrads act out scenes from Onegin!  Instead, due to a car accident and subsequent highway closure, I’m somewhere on the back roads of Deseronto, Ontario staring at the very long line of trucks ahead. 

In *knew* this was going to be a less than stellar trip when I heard “Mummy! Mummy!  Mummy! I pooped!” from the toddler sitting a few rows back.

In any case, all this (and my lack of internet access plus the herd of horses I can see frolicking in the snow) inspired me to reflect on travel and journeys in the early modern period.  Okay, they probably traveled a lot faster than this bus’ current speed, but it was far slower and less comfortable than the level to which we’re accustomed.  Would a hackney coach be more comfortable?  Would an early modern person have made better time on horseback than my bus?  Would I die if I appropriated one of these horses and made a dash for it?[2]

These burning questions led me to some interesting finds on travel by coach, by horseback, and on foot.

By Hackney

Hackney coaches and carriages were, essentially, horse-drawn vehicles for hire.  They first appeared in London in the early seventeenth century and had, by 1623, gained no small number of customers.  John Taylor’s 1623 work The World Runnes on Wheeles castigated these coaches for hire as encroaching on the monopoly of his guild – the Company of Watermen.  For Taylor, the hackney ushered in all the world’s ills.  He was very careful, however, to assure readers that “I doe not enveigh against any Coaches that belong to Persons of worth or qualitie,  but onely against the Catterpiller swarme of hyrelings; they have undone my poore Trade.” 

Title page of Taylor's The World Runnes on Wheeles.  Note the not-so-subtle use of the devil.
Coaches “who like the Grashoppers or Caterpillers of Egipt have so over-runne the land, that we can get no living  upon the water; for I dare truly affirme that every day in any Tearme (especially if the Court be at Whitehall) they do rob us of our livings, and carry 560 fares daily from us.”

Taylor also saw the coach as encouraging poor health in England’s gentry and nobility.  These, he wrote, “would ride well mounted (and sometimes walke on foot)…Then men preserv’d their bodes strong and able by walking, riding and other manly exercises.”  Hackney coaches, then, were a detriment to not only his trade, but to the very health of the people!

Samuel Pepys had much to say about his travels by hackney coach.  By 1660, hackney coaches were so numerous, that it took a royal proclamation to lower their numbers from over 2000 to 400.  Despite this, Pepys noted that it was still quite easy to hire a coach to return home.

Pepys was of two minds with regard to the coaches.  They were pretty much a cheap, convenient option that came at the price of his dignity.  On Friday, 15 November 1661 he noted that the coach horses were “so tired, that they could not be got to up the hill, though al the street boys and men did beat and whip them.”[3]  Not only that, he sometimes had to share his hackney with common people![4] 

Nevertheless, the coach was convenient when the weather was poor and allowed him to read during the journey. 

By the mid-1660s, Pepys saw increasingly the hackneys as inconvenient, lower class, and a vehicle for disease.  The plague, it was thought, could be spread by sick passengers and  when hackneys were hired as funeral coaches.  As Pepys wrote in 1665, the hackney “is become a very dangerous passage now-a-days, the sickness increasing mightily.” 

By 1667, despite forming a relationship with a hackney coachman who he hired frequently, Pepys was ready to build his own stable, coach-house, and own his very own coach.

“I have a mind to buy enough to build a coach-house and stable; for I have had it much in my thoughts lately that it is not too much for me now, in degree or cost, to keep a coach, but contrarily, that I am almost ashamed to be seen in a hackney, and therefore if I can have the conveniency, I will secure the ground at least till peace comes, that I do receive encouragement to keep a coach, or else that I may part with the ground again.”

By Horse

Pepys’s diary is wonderful resource.  In 1659/60 he recorded riding with Mr. Pierce “set forth about seven of the clock, the day and the way very foul.”  The two men rode from Scotland  Yard to Foulmer (which he claims is 6 miles from Cambridge) in terrible weather.  At this point, Pepys noted that they stopped for the night as his “mare being almost tired.”  The next morning they continued their journey via horse back, arriving in Cambridge by 8am.  

This journey, of just over 95 kilometres or 60 miles, according to Google Maps, should be roughly an hour and a half drive – perhaps 2 hours and 15 minutes in the poor weather conditions Pepys mentioned.  Yet, for comparison, it took Pepys and his companion a whole day’s journey, plus an overnight rest, and a brief ride the next morning.  A dear friend looked at me in horror when I asked what that would be like.  Her response was a single word – “chafing.”

So, it seems, my decision to not abscond with a horse and ride from Deseronto to Kingston was a good one.  At roughly 60 kilometres or 40 miles away in -25 Celsius (-13 F) with high winds, blowing and falling snow, I would likely never have arrived!

Riding, as John Taylor had noted, was a good exercise.  By the end of his journey, both Pepys and his horse were likely exhausted.  Luckily the early moderns had recipes for that!  Nicolas Culpeper recorded that “A good handfull of the hot biting Arsmart put under a Horses Saddle will make him travel the better, although he were half tired before.”  

Arsmart or Water Pepper from Elizabeth Blackwell c1739.
Culpeper, it seemed, was not particularly interested in the welfare of the horse.  Arsmart or water pepper (persicaria hydropiper) is an irritant that burns skin upon contact.  A handful of the herb under a horse’s saddle would likely annoy the horse rather than refresh it.

Lodwick Rowzee, a doctor in Kent, also believed that horseback riding was healthy.  In 1632, he wrote that after taking the water at Tunbridge, it was best to ride, rather than walk, home.  “Sitting upon your horse, the inward parts, as the muskles of the belly, the guttes, and the stomacke it selfe are thereby borne vp and ontracted, and by the jogging of the horse moderately stirred, and so consequently your water will be the better digested.”

The century previous, Andrew Boorde warned that horseback riding could be too much exercise:

“Werynes doth come many waies…it may come thorowe ridinge vpon an euyll horse, or syttynge in an euyll sadle and specially whan the horse is galled on the backe, or spore galled, than the horse is as wery of his maistrr, as his maister is wery of him.”

Luckily, there was a remedy:

“Fyrst after labour and werynes, ease & rest is the best medicine…and if it do come thorowe ridinge vpon an euyl horse or sadle, lette him neuer ryde in no sadle nor vpon no horse, geldynge nor mare, nor other beest, and he shall neuer be wery nor galled for suche matters.”

Such excellent common sense!
On Foot

With horseback and hackney coach out of the question, walking, perhaps, would be safer.  Alas, walking had its own dangers as Pepys related on 26 October 1664:

“Going out to find my coach, I could not find it, for it was gone with the rest; so I fair to go through the darke and dirt over the bridge, and my leg fell in a hole broke on the bridge, but, the constable standing there to keep people from it, I was catched up, otherwise I had broke my leg; for which mercy the Lord be praised!”

Thankfully, it seems, this was a colder sort of day or Pepys would have been at risk for gout!

As an anonymous medical treatise stated “And some by much travell on foot in hot eather may have the Gout by reason of a hot distemperature procured unto the feet by overmuch travell and heat.”  The explanation was that “much walking and travell on foot…draweth a deflux to the feet.”

Culpeper and John Pechey both recommended the leaves and bark of the alder tree (much better than the water pepper plant!) for weary walkers.  Culpeper wrote that “the Leaves put under the bare feet gauled with travelling are a great refreshing to them.”  While Pechey recommended that the leaves be put into shoes to ease pain and weariness.

Alder via Wikipedia Commons
A last travel refreshment tale recorded by John Josselyn:

“The Rattle Snake, who poysons with a Vapour that comes thorough two crooked Fangs in their Mouth; the hollow of these Fangs are as black as Ink: The Indians, when weary with travelling, will take them up with their bare hands, laying hold with one hand behind their Head, with the other taking hold of their Tail, and with their teeth tear off the Skin of their Backs, and feed upon them alive; which they say refresheth them.”

Wednesday was a long, long travel day.  Alas, the bus – regardless of how long it took – was still superior to the early modern options! 

Any tricks to make your travel days more comfortable?  If so, let me know here or on twitter!  I’m @medhistorian.

[1] Said trek back always involves a pit stop at some terrible fast food restaurant.  I deserve it after 8+ hours of travel. 8 hours on a plane could get me to London, UK - this is 8 hours on a combo of bus and subway.
[2] Research unnecessary to answer this latter question.  The answer is obviously yes.
[3] Pepys did not seem much affected by the abuse of said horses.
[4] He proudly noted that he did not speak to an “ordinary woman” the whole way to London, but rather read his book as long as he could.  Not making eye contact and staring at a book/newspaper/e-reader/phone long before subway travel.


Andrew Boorde, The Breviary of Helthe, London, 1547.

Nicolas Culpeper, The English Physician, London: 1652.

John Josselyn, New-Englands Rarities, London: printed for G. Widdowes, 1672.

P.D.H, Gutta Podagrica: A Treatise of the Gout, London: printed by Thomas Harper, 1633.

John Pechey, The Compleat Herbal of Physical Plants, London: printed for Henry Bonwicke, 1694.

Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys.  (I especially recommend the online version run by Phil Gyford at

Lodwick Rowzee, The Queenes Welles, London: printed by John Dawson, 1632.

John Taylor, The World Runnes on Wheeles: Or Oddes, Betwixt Cards and Coaches, London: printed by Elizabeth Allde for Henry Gosson, 1623.