Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Scotland’s Early Literature on Healing Waters, 1580-1636

Karen Jillings

[1]  This essay offers a philological analysis of the five texts that comprise the extant early Scottish contribution to balneological literature, a new genre of medical writing in the later sixteenth century which discussed the composition and consequent medicinal benefits of various mineral wells, springs and spas throughout much of Europe. It will trace the ways in which physicians reflected through their writing their shifting alignment from the scholastic to the empiric scientific paradigm that characterised contemporary intellectual medicine. With this came an increasing emphasis on the value of observation and experience rather than theory in making therapeutic recommendations, and the concurrent preference for recent as opposed to classical or medieval authorities. The Scottish authors used a number of strategies identified by philologists as being employed in contemporary English medical writing to convey this — including the use of knowledge verbs and of the active voice in discussing experimentation — and in so doing they demonstrated their inclusion in the contemporary intellectual climate. Writers of hydrotherapeutic literature were challenged in their subject matter by a number of issues. The first of these was the evidently unpredictable effects of their chosen water source, which could operate at odds with Galenic humoural theory and which they explained through the introduction of an occult quality that, while inexplicable, was fundamental to the therapeutic efficacy of the waters’ mineral contents. The second was the necessity, for professional and confessional reasons, of distancing their chosen waters’ source from those spring and spas — over six hundred in late medieval Scotland (Todd 2000: 140) — that had a traditional reputation for healing grounded in the pre-Christian veneration of water, many of which had gained a subsequent association as a site of miraculous cures through the intervention of particular saints. It is contended that while the Reformation did not alter this fundamental belief in the therapeutic powers of Scotland’s healing waters, those medical professionals who authored promotional literature on certain spas, springs or wells sought to emphasise a site’s recent discovery or resurrection and in so doing distance it from former associations with the miraculous. This was no means a process of intentional secularisation of the waters, as God remained the agent of their curative properties. Rather, the advent of Protestantism propelled these writers to recast the waters’ healing powers as originating from the natural, as distinct from the supernatural, and their efforts in so doing ‘were by no means incompatible with a pious providentialist outlook’ (Walsham 2011: 432). Finally, the essay will also draw attention to the breadth of other written genres that this small, but significant body of early Scottish medical literature embraced.

[2]  In 1552 the Venetian publisher Tommaso Giunta had written to Francesco Frigimelica, professor of medicine at Padua, requesting a description of the therapeutic benefits of the baths at nearby Abano. Frigimelica had duly obliged and his contribution formed part of Giunta’s publication the following year of a ground-breaking encyclopaedic work detailing most of the surviving literature to date on the subject of medicinal waters. This compendium, entitled De balneis omnia quae extant, called for a renaissance in the regulated practice of hydrotherapy. Readers were urged, in the words of one contributor, ‘to confirm and perfect ancient medicine not only in words, but in use’ by restoring and visiting the baths so favoured by the ancients (Palmer 1990: 15). Treatises and pamphlets reflecting the continental revival of learned interest in the therapeutic benefits of mineral waters proliferated in the decades that followed, a period defined by the medical historian Roy Porter as a ‘chronological watershed’ in the perception and utilisation of water as therapy (Porter 1990: x). This new form of literature encompassed four intermeshed themes: it was at once topographical (in its discussion of the subterranean origins and physical location of water sources), medical (in its didactic explanation of their therapeutic efficacy), alchemical (in its description of the extraction and analysis of the waters’ mineral contents) and promotional (both of the writer and his successful appropriation of the waters’ curative properties, and of the town, locality or region in which the water source was situated).

[3]  Within the British Isles learned interest in mineral waters both at home and abroad was first articulated with the publication in 1562 of the second volume of the English botanist William Turner’s herbal, adjoined to which was his description of ‘the natures and properties | as well of the bathes in England as of other bathes in Germany and Italy | very necessary for all seik persones that can not be healed without the helpe of natural bathes’ (Turner 1562: title page). This was followed a decade later by separate texts discussing the waters of Buxton and Bath, both authored by the physician John Jones and both published in London for William Jones, making them the earliest waters texts to be printed in England (1572a; 1572b). Then in 1580 came Robert Lesse’s A brief view of all baths (1580), which was modelled on Gabriele Falloppio’s lectures on mineral waters given at Padua in 1556 and published posthumously in 1564.

[4]  Another balneological text was printed in 1580, probably by John Ross’s Edinburgh-based press, this one entitled Ane breif descriptioun of the qualiteis and effectis of the well of the woman hill besyde Abirdene ([Skene] 1580). Though unattributed, its author was Gilbert Skene, a physician and former mediciner (or professor of medicine) at King’s College, Aberdeen. Though he had been operating a private practice in Edinburgh since 1575, he clearly retained links with Aberdeen and did not relinquish the mediciner’s manse in the grounds of the university until over a decade later (Anderson, 1893: 35). His authorship of the short treatise can be inferred from a number of internal features including detailed firsthand testimony about the effects of the well’s waters observed during the preceding four years, and an obvious familiarity with both the city and the spa itself ([Skene] 1580: A2r-A2v, A3r-A3v). The Descriptioun of the well of the woman hill is significant as only the second vernacular medical text to be printed in Scotland, the first having been a plague treatise also written by Skene and published by Robert Lekpreuik in 1568 (Skene 1568). Indeed, aside from this plague handbook and a treatise on tobacco written by another waters author, William Barclay, and printed in 1614 (Barclay 1614), the five works on mineral waters discussed in this essay form the sum of Scotland’s early vernacular printed medical output. Not only are they therefore of considerable bibliographical importance, but also they provide an ideal corpus of literature by which to analyse the extent to which changing linguistic styles reflected the emerging scientific paradigm within Scotland’s early printed medical discourse community. In line with the exponential rise in the publication of vernacular waters texts in England from the early seventeenth century, the three waters treatises subsequent to Skene’s were issued in 1615 (William Barclay’s discussion of Aberdeen’s well (Barclay 1615)) and 1618 (during which year two texts were published in quick succession, both dealing with a spring at Kinghorn in Fife (Barclay 1618; Anderson 1618)). After a gap of almost two decades the heirs of Andro Hart printed a text on St Peter’s well at Peterhead by Andrew Mure, a medical student at Aberdeen’s King’s College (M[ure] 1636).

[5]  The therapeutic uses of water, whether hot or cold, were many — bathing in it, drinking it either on its own or as part of a herbal tincture, pouring it from a height on the patient or applying it topically to the afflicted body part, and the European medical literature on waters variously drew attention to these methods. The three Scottish waters sources were perceived to share a number of features: each produced cold water, whose curative benefits were gained through being drunk. Skene’s Descriptioun of the well of the woman hill followed his plague treatise and preceded other Scottish waters texts in being produced to meet the demand from an increasingly literate society for accessible information on personal healthcare. Readers wanted to be more knowledgeable when they discussed medical matters with their physician and vernacular medical literature made an important contribution to the relationship between practitioners and those they attended (Slack 1979: 260). While Latin retained its status as the ‘international language of scholarship’ (Wear 2000: 40), vernacular texts provided a more accessible alternative to the existing corpus of Latin copies of medical works by both Greek and Arabic authorities in circulation among the elite. Scotland’s early waters literature was produced in the aftermath of ‘an explosion’ in vernacular text production that occurred throughout England and Europe and, with regard to the field of science, ‘medicine was in the vanguard’ of this (Pahta & Taavitsainen 2004: 11). The following philological analysis indicates that the vernacular waters texts produced in Scotland during the later sixteenth and first half of the seventeenth century reflected, to varying extents, the shifting paradigms regarding science, medicine and investigation into the workings of nature taking place within the various European intellectual discourse communities.

[6]  A survey of the impact of humanism on medicine in Renaissance Scotland concluded that the movement arrived in the northern nation ‘relatively late’ and ‘was seasoned from the start with a certain relish of experience and a willingness to adopt continental novelty’ (Keller 1990: 98). This was arguably the case in terms of medical education, negligible as it was, with the curriculum of Aberdeen’s King’s College (for much of the sixteenth century the only Scottish university to provide foundational instruction in medicine) being modelled on that of Paris, where many of its personnel also studied. Humanist thought was becoming evident in medical faculties across Europe, manifested through a desire to shun medieval expositions of classical texts in favour of a return to the use in teaching of new, direct translations of the texts themselves (Jillings 2008: 33). The medical school at Paris was particularly notorious in this regard and by the later sixteenth century was a ‘stronghold of Galenism [which] viewed Hippocrates and Galen with quasi-religious fervour’ (Wear 1995: 254). The medical syllabus that Gilbert Skene followed at King’s in the 1540s ‘reflected elements of emerging humanist thought’ influenced by the then mediciner Robert Gray’s own education at Paris and Skene’s subsequent medical training at Louvain was undertaken at a time when the movement was a relatively recent arrival there (Jillings 2008: 35-36). As the earliest of the waters treatises to be written, and being published some thirty-five years before the next text, his Descriptioun of the well of the woman hill most clearly betrays the remnants of adherence to medieval interpretations of classical works, as well as the humanist resurrection of ancient texts themselves, in its discourse on the waters’ properties and therapeutic efficacy. Skene liberally cited the writings of ancient authorities, namely Celsus, Aetius, Galen and Hippocrates, as well as the medieval expositions of Avicenna, to support his assertions about the mineral and metallic contents of the Aberdeen well. Such deference to established authority has been identified in recent historical linguistic studies as a prominent feature of earlier medical texts, particularly the use of classical anecdotes which, it has been noted, ‘serve to lend an aura of learning to the writings’ (Taavitsainen 2011: 268). Skene’s references to specific chapters and passages both justified his assertions and demonstrated the extent of his knowledge of such varied works (e.g., ‘as wrytis Celsus lib. 2. Ca. 12’; ‘as sayis Auicen lib. 2. Tract. 2. Ca. 59’ (1580: A2v, A3r)).

[7]  Historical discourse studies have highlighted the dichotomy between the citation of ancient and medieval authorities, who represented ‘received knowledge from scholasticism’, and references to the ‘advocates of new knowledge by observation’ (Taavitsainen 2009c: 54). Developments in natural science and medicine during the sixteenth century by pioneers such as Paracelsus led to a shift from an emphasis on the second-hand theory garnered from classical authorities to a greater reliance on first-person experience based on personal observation. Those texts produced during the late medieval period have been defined as scholastic (typified by ‘authority-based knowledge’) and those of the early modern period as empiric (characterised by ‘observation-focused knowledge’) (Hiltunen & Tyrkkö 2009: 68). Recent historical linguistic analyses of medical writing published in England have demonstrated a clear change in textual features such as writing style and use of language in line with the evolution of the scientific methodologies underpinning them. Empiricism engendered a ‘different way of writing about science and medicine’ among the emerging discourse community, with the ‘crucial’ time in the evolvement of medical writing being the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth century (Taavitsainen 2009b: 193). Each of the four authors, therefore, studied and/or taught and wrote during a seismic intellectual shift, one in which the Renaissance humanist reliance on classical authorities was being superseded by new ways of interpreting the human body that foreshadowed the scientific revolution of the later seventeenth century.

[8]  A significant changing feature of medical writing indicative of this new approach is discernible in references to knowledge, particularly concerning ancient authorities. Scholarly analysis of historical traditions of knowledge has defined that of the medieval period as gnostic, by which knowing is centred on the knower, and that of the early modern period as epistemic, by which the articulation of knowing is centred on the known (Bates 1995: 3). The gradual replacement of the gnostic tradition of knowledge with the epistemic represented ‘the first major shift of the scientific paradigm’ (Hiltunen & Tyrkkö 2009: 77), as the emphasis moved from an acceptance of the mere assertion of knowledge to demonstrable proof of that knowledge. The seventeenth-century Scottish waters texts reflect this changing approach. Each references classical authority, though with significant variance, and there is a far greater emphasis on personal experience than that asserted by Gilbert Skene in his discussion of Aberdeen’s well. In his own discussion of those waters the continentally-trained, north-east native William Barclay, who boasted that he had ‘spent many yeeres vnder the discipline of the most learned Physicians of France’ referred only twice to an established authority, namely Hippocrates, and conveyed his adherence to the importance of experience by citing numerous instances of his own observations both in Paris and elsewhere (1615: A8v, A4r, A6r, B2r). Furthermore, in his discourse on the spring at Kinghorn written three years later and printed by Andro Hart (who had also printed his previous two treatises), Barclay cited no particular authorities and again implicitly acknowledged the importance of his own experience in establishing the waters’ contents and effects (e.g., ‘this water is experimented to bee verie aperitiue’; ‘from the effectes I prooue it to be Tinne’ (1618: A6r, A5v).

[9]  The Edinburgh physician Patrick Anderson (whose own discussion of the Kinghorn spring was completed exactly two months later and issued by royal printer — and rival to Hart — Thomas Finlason) was explicit about his views on the importance of empiricism, subtitling his work ‘[the spring’s] admirable and new tryed properties, so far foorth as yet are found true by Experience’ (1618: title page). Anderson, an ‘old Parisien acquentance’ of Barclay (Anderson 1618: C3v), deliberately evinces the breadth of his knowledge: his citations, given in a number of languages, are extensive and detailed, and his references particularly varied. While he cites both classical and medieval authorities including Galen, Dioscorides and Avicenna, the majority of his references are to more recent or contemporary works, reflecting a familiarity with European exponents of empiricism including Jean Fernel, Peter Monau, Bernard George Penot and ‘that famous & learned Empyrick [Martinus] Rulandus’ (1618: D2r). The last of the writers under consideration is Andrew Mure, who composed his treatise on the well at Peterhead while a student of King’s College, Aberdeen during the ‘high point of medicine as a university subject’ there (French 1983: 140). Like Anderson, Mure also incorporated quotes in a variety of languages: these tended to be interspersed throughout his own commentary and were largely unattributed, though he did name-check a number of literary rather than medical writers (specifically Pliny and Guilliaume de Salluste Du Bartas, the Hugenot poet who visited James VI’s court in the 1580s). It is notable that Mure’s treatise above any other concentrated on specific alchemical experimentation and analysis, following the Paracelsian tradition. Moreover, he made very little reference to individual classical authorities: Pliny and Hippocrates are mentioned a handful of times and, on the few occasions others are acknowledged, this is done in collective terms (‘the ancients’; ‘the ancient Philosophers’ (M[ure], 1636: B4r, B6r)). This perhaps reflects the fact that his was the latest treatise to be written, at a time when empiricism was entrenched in some sectors of medical practice.

[10]  As a sub-genre of medical writing, texts discussing the therapeutic efficacy of mineral waters provide a particularly interesting case study for analysing the extent to which writers were influenced by the shifting scientific paradigm from the scholastic to the empiric tradition. This is because investigation into the medicinal benefits of such waters exposed the fallibility of the traditional preference for making therapeutic recommendations that were grounded in theory rather than observation and experience. All writers struggled with the unpredictable nature of the waters they wrote about. In common with other contributors to early hydrotherapeutic literature, the Scottish writers discussed the waters’ effects on the body in accordance with classical humoural theory, with the maintenance of humoural equilibrium essential to an individual’s wellbeing. Phlegm was the bodily humour believed to correspond to the element of water, as each typically shared the properties of being cold and wet. Those patients who had an excessively phlegmatic temperament were likely to be of a cold and moist disposition, and to be susceptible to such afflictions as rheumatism, poor digestion and rough skin. In his Callirhoe, or the nymph of Aberdeen rescusitat, William Barclay remarked that this was the case with inhabitants of the north-east of Scotland (where of course both Aberdeen and Peterhead are located), where ‘the ground which they labour, must be colde and moyst’, resulting in ‘Catarrhes, Grauels … Colickes … & such like’ (1615: A3v). In order to counterbalance an excess of cold and wet phlegm the patient was required to ingest a substance that possessed hot and dry qualities, such as the relatively novel and increasingly popular tobacco about which Barclay also wrote (1614). Typically, pure water would be of no use because it too was cold and wet. The mineral or metallic contents of certain waters, on the other hand, affected their qualities and, consequently, the way they operated. Established theoretical principles taught that certain metals or minerals could be expected to produce certain medicinal effects. In his discussion of The cold springe of Kinghorne Craig, Patrick Anderson listed these: vitriol cleansed the stomach, silver was cooling, brimstone healed palsy and scabs, copper cured breathlessness, brass was effective against diseases of the eyes and mouth, and iron and steel opened internal obstructions, particularly those caused by tough, viscous phlegm, and, he believed, it was to be expected that ‘the lyke effects are to bee vnderstude of all springing waters running through the same’ (1618: A3v-A4v).

[11]  To a certain extent such waters did indeed apparently act in accordance with theoretical principles, and in such cases writers keenly cited ancient authorities in explaining the perceived effects of certain minerals and metals on the body. The presence of substances such as iron, vitriol, brass, crystal and gypsum variously in all these waters were agreed by all writers to make each hot in temperament. The resultant health benefits were principally classified as being drying and purgative in accordance with received humoural theory. Gilbert Skene declared that ‘all naturall and pure sweit watter is slaw in passage’, lying heavy in the stomach, deadening the patient’s appetite and making digestion sluggish (1580: A2v). Both he and Barclay agreed that the metallic Aberdeen waters acted as an effective diuretic laxative, with their purgative effects expelling internal obstructions such as stones from the kidneys, abdomen, liver, stomach and bladder ([Skene] 1580: A2v; Barclay 1615: A7r, B1r). Not only could the Kinghorn waters be drunk to expel stones, but also their hot temperament prevented dropsy and had a drying effect on the body’s interior, eliminating ulcers and producing clear, wrinkle-free skin (Barclay 1618: A5v, A6v; Anderson 1618: Av-A2v). Drinking the waters of Peterhead and Aberdeen also produced an unblemished complexion and alleviated dermatological conditions ([Skene] 1580: A2v, A4r; M[ure] 1636: B3r, C4v).

[12]  But the waters posed a challenge to those seeking to explain and analyse their effects. Unlike normal water, mineral waters were seen to work in unexpected ways and have an impact on individuals that did not always fit received theoretical principles in terms of their temperature or putative composition. Skene and Barclay both asserted that although the Aberdeen water was manifestly of cold temperature it was actually hot in temperament due to the presence of iron; despite this, it mitigated the heat of the liver ([Skene] 1580: A2v, A3r, A3v; Barclay 1615: A5r). Anderson, meanwhile, noted that the Kinghorn spring was able to refresh and cool the patient despite containing what he called ‘saltish, nitrous faculties’ (1618: B4r-B4v). Classical writers, who had been frustratingly reticent about the very topic of balneology (Palmer 1990: 14), could clearly not be regarded as ‘absolute authorities in a thorough-going gnostic way’ (Bates 1995: 11; Wear 1995b). Indeed, during this crucial transitional period English medical texts increasingly cited classical writers in terms that drew attention to their ignorance or pointed out their mistakes (Hiltunen & Tyrkkö 2009: 80-81). Of the Scottish writers on waters Mure and Barclay both commented explicitly on the fallibility of ancient authority. Barclay noted in his discussion of The Nature and Effects of the New-Found Well at Kinghorne that learned writers of the past had promoted the regular drinking of typical water, ‘but now a dayes our queasie stomaches are become so tender … that if wee but ones in a yeere taiste water, wee are in danger to catch the Colick’ (1618: A6r). Likewise, Mure, the latest of the authors under consideration, noted Hippocrates’ ignorance of certain ‘violent’ substances, ‘for if he had known the use of cassia, manna, Rubarbe, syrup rosat, &c. he had never mentioned any danger in the canicular dayes’ (1636: C5v).

[13]  In order to explain the waters’ irrational effects all writers acknowledged the presence of some occult quality in the water itself that, although hidden from reason, was emphatically part of nature and fundamental to the way it worked. In line with the rise of the empirical approach in the later sixteenth century attempts were made by various experimental scientists to explain through observation and deduction the intractable workings of mineral waters and other materia medica, naturally-occurring substances with the ability to alleviate or cure ailments, based on the assumption that ‘nature teemed with hidden forces and powers that could be imitated, improved upon and exploited for human gain’ (Eamon 1994: 184-5). Minerals and metals could possess occult powers even though they were not technically alive, for as the pioneering physician and alchemist Paracelsus queried, ‘if they had not life, how could they help Diseases, and restore the decayed Members of the Body, by putting life … in them?’ (1655: 92-93). His contemporary the French physician and natural philosopher Jean Fernel believed hidden qualities to be self-generated, observing that ‘the total substance of a thing … has acquired special powers from itself alone’ (1542 [2005]: 49). These powers were also generated when certain substances such as minerals were combined, which could alter their effects in some insensible way. Patrick Anderson acknowledged that this helped to account for the ability of the salty Kinghorn spring to quench the drinker’s thirst: because ‘a thousand effects in natural causes, may also proceed of contrary qualities: for there be many exceptions even in natural rules, so that sometimes we see by experience … that simples, naturally hot & dry of themselves, by the company of others which cool and refresh, are sensibly felt to execute cold effects’ (1618: Dv). In endorsing and undertaking the experiential methodology that was gradually replacing the theoretical model, the writers contributed to the emergence of ‘a new kind of literature’, which included ‘eyewitness accounts of nature’ that were at odds with the assertions by classical authorities regarding how nature operated (Taavitsainen 2009b: 193).

[14]  To varying extents each of the authors of Scotland’s early waters literature attested to the importance of personal experience through observation and experimentation in corroborating many aspects of the waters, including appearance and taste. This personalised empirical approach tended to be conveyed in English medical accounts by the use of narrative discourse expressed through the first person singular subject (Hiltunen & Tyrkkö 2009: 81), a linguistic style which further conveyed the author’s personal intellect. Just as late medieval authors had used certain verbs to emphasise the infallible knowledge of classical authorities, Skene, Barclay, Anderson and Mure all liberally used phrases such as ‘I affirme’, ‘I prooue’, ‘I confirme’, ‘I think’, ‘I judge’, ‘I say’, ‘I conjecture’, ‘I perceiue’, ‘I find’, ‘I alledge’, ‘I mean’ and, of course, ‘I know’. Each of these was a lexical term employed by early modern medical writers to ‘evoke the concept of knowledge’ (Hiltunen & Tyrkkö 2009: 69). Sometimes the third person was also used, as in ‘for it is found by experience’ (Anderson 1618: A3r). Occasionally the writer used the first person plural (e.g., ‘by common experience in our days we have observed’ (Anderson, 1618: B4v)). This was a deliberate strategy of identification with the intended audience at that moment in the text. This could be the patient, as with the instructions for using the waters laid out by Anderson: ‘What wee shoud obserue, before wee goe to drinck of such Waters’ (1618: D3r). Alternatively the writer might appeal to the fellow professional practitioners who comprised a significant section of his readership, to further emphasise his standing among them.

[15]  The author’s professional credentials were further emphasised by his reporting of positive patient testimony, which attested the therapeutic efficacy of the waters and additionally served to bolster the credibility of the writer’s knowledge- and observation-based assertions. All of the writers were keen to convey the successful outcomes of therapy using the waters, particularly if they had carried out the treatment themselves. Phrases indicative of this include: ‘I haue obseruit in diuerse persounis quha had drunkin the [Aberdeen water] that it … hes cuirit sindrie Hydropicall persounis’ ([Skene] 1580: A3v); ‘I haue seene sundrie men and women cured of great and tedious diseases by vomiting after the drinking of this [Aberdeen] water’ (Barclay 1615: A8r); ‘I haue knowne [the Kinghorn spring] to helpe Sciatick dolours’ (Barclay 1618: A6r); ‘these bee the Physical properties of this fair Spring [at Kinghorn], so far foorth as the diseased haue as yet tryed by experience, & in whose companie I was somtimes present my selfe’ (Anderson 1618: A2v); ‘many gentlemen of good respect can testifie these things to be true, which in this booke, I have written, concerning the medicinall vertues of this fountain’ (M[ure], 1636: To the Reader). Writers further emphasised the infallibility of their assertions about the medicinal effects of the waters by deliberately anticipating objections to their statements and countering them assuredly, often through the use of a question-answer discourse pattern. This rhetorical device is commonly deployed in much English medical writing through the use of named characters that allows the author, in the guise of teacher, to clarify his instruction to his pupil who is, by extension, his reader (Taavitsainen 2009b: 199; Taavitsainen 2009a: 113). While none of the Scottish waters treatises contain this type of question-answer dialogue, both Anderson and Barclay extensively used a questioning format. For example, Barclay justified his assertions about the Aberdeen spa’s efficacy in this way: ‘the second question is, whether this water hath any virtue to cure the hydropsy or not. To which I answer, First that of all remedies this is the surest to prevent the dropsy’ (1615: A8v). Anderson used a similar style: ‘Now … the scaircetie of this metall (as appeareth) is not liklie to communicate such Physicall faculties to this water alone, without some more helpe than the metall. What then? I take it to bee rather a kynd of doulce Nitruse & semi-minerall mixture…’ (1618: Bv).

[16]  In considering the linguistic features of the early waters literature it is important not only to bear in mind that their contents were designed to publicise the therapeutic benefits of drinking the particular waters source, but also to consider the nature of the intended audience and how this information was to be conveyed to it. Waters treatises were of a manageable size (the texts under consideration were between five and twenty-two pages in length), intended as handy reference guides for consultation by both patients and the practitioners who attended them, including the authors themselves. Certain genres of medical text were designed to be read aloud, widening their accessibility beyond their most immediate, literate audience (Murray Jones 2011: 33). Various aspects of the composition of the waters literature indicates that these texts, too, were designed for a similar purpose. Firstly, in common with other didactic texts of the early modern period, they shared ‘the rhetoric of authoritative assertion’ (Glaisyer & Pennell 2003: 9), being written using direct language which often mirrored the scholastic environment, as if the writer (speaker) were orally lecturing the reader (listener). Mure, for example, wrote as if his discourse were to be read aloud, using phrases such as ‘truely I may speak of this source’ and ‘whereof now I have spoken’ (1636: B7v, ‘To the Reader’), while Barclay replaced the act of reading with that of listening: ‘[I will beseech] the Lector onely to heare mee patiently in few tearmes rander thankes to God’ (1615: B2v-B3r). A physician, perhaps even the author himself, could read aloud a waters treatise to a heterogeneous group, and the suitability of the text for this purpose was emphasised by the use of the first person plural as a deliberate strategy of identification. Secondly, the prescribed regimen for using the waters was reserved until the end of each treatise, and in some cases given its own section. This ensured that it could easily be located within the text during the consultative process and that it left an impression on the audience. It tended to be written in a concise, straightforward manner, often in a series of short sentences, providing a simple reference guide for the reader to consult easily, perhaps even at the source of the waters itself. Andrew Mure, however, was alone in following the typical stylistic convention of addressing his readers directly in advising how to take the waters (Taavitsainen 2011), though this section was initially imparted in the third person: ‘He who is to drink of this water … shall come to this Wel in a convenient tyme of the year…’, subsequently changing to direct advice: ‘dine with meats of good digestion’; ‘a day after you leave off the drinking of water, take some other good purgative medicine, resting a day after, then take journey to go whither you list’ (1636: C6r-C7r).

[17]  In prescribing the correct regimen to be used in hydrotherapy, each author emphasised certain important principles that appealed to both scholastic and empiric traditions. Emphasis was placed on the need for a holistic approach to the maintenance of wellbeing through consideration of the Galenic six non-naturals, as well as accounting for other external factors which influenced the patient’s physiology such as the season and time of day as well as gender, age and other considerations specific to each individual. The Scottish authors agreed that the best time to drink the waters was during the summer months between May and September. Medical theory aside, as the ‘fairest and hotest’ season (M[ure] 1636: C5r) this was the most pleasant time of the year to imbibe cold water. It also shows consistency with a tradition of folk custom and belief ‘rooted in pre-Christian veneration of water’ (Todd 2002: 205; Wood 1986), which ascribed healing powers to certain wells particularly at Beltane, or May Day, and throughout the month of May. The advent of Protestantism ‘made little dent in [the practice of] popular “superstitious” celebration’ until well into the seventeenth century (Todd 2000: 126), and the continued frequenting of wells, many of which retained pre-Reformation associations with particular saints, was criticised by Protestant Kirk elders and medical writers alike. The former were incensed by what they regarded as the idolatrous and superstitious practices of their parishioners, and session and presbytery records into the 1650s are littered with attempts to clamp down on such behaviour, albeit with varying degrees of conviction (Todd 2002: 204-209, 219-220). These efforts demonstrate the significance of the perceived origins of mineral waters’ healing powers for the credibility of their therapeutic efficacy. Belief in miraculous cures derived from offerings to Christ, the saints or ancient holy days was seen as superstitious and therefore condemned, whereas cures interpreted as arising from the waters’ divinely-ordained natural properties could be accepted, indeed celebrated, when supported by rational, learned medical interrogation and explanation.

[18]  Hence the authors of the early waters treatises were keen to distinguish their particular curative source from the sites of such miracles. Anderson stressed this most starkly, pointing out to his readers that the waters of Kinghorn differed from others in the region: they were ‘not lyk the superstitious or mud-earth Wells of Menteith, or Lady Well of Stratherne, and our Ladie Well of Ruthven, with a number of others in this cuntrie, all tapestried about with old rags, as certaine signes & sacraments wherwith [those who engage in such practices] arle the divell with an earls-pennie of their health’ (i.e., pay with their health to enter the service of the devil) (1618: B3v). Andrew Mure acknowledged that his forefathers had believed that St Peter had imbued the well at Peterhead with curative properties and used to visit it on his feast day, ‘but this is meer superstition, like that of the heathen, who … denominate[d] their rare and medicinall waters from diverse of there gods’ ( 1636: B2r). Instead, each of the authors sought to ascribe the therapeutic powers of their waters not to the supernatural intervention of saints or fairies but rather to the divinely-ordained, if obscure, workings of nature. As Alexandra Walsham has contended, Protestant popular culture sought to reproduce in other contexts the ritual and sacramental ways of alleviating illness undertaken before the Reformation (2008: 228), with the result that former holy wells underwent something of a ‘medical makeover’ through ‘more subtle forms of transmutation’ (2011: 401, 396). The agency of God remained central to the therapeutic efficacy of the wells; authors of waters literature were almost universally clear on this, with many texts structured around a scriptural frame of reference (Anderson being the only Scottish example of this), while Mure regarded the resurrection of St Peter’s well as evidence of God’s good governance in providing society with the resources necessary to enable them to flourish (Walsham 2011: 433).

[19]  Moreover, and rather more prosaically, a concern with emphasising the natural — as distinct from the supernatural — agency of waters may have been driven as much by a desire for professional credibility and control of their therapeutic potential as by the pursuit of a ‘distinctly anti-Catholic agenda’ which Walsham has identified as a fillip to the early promotion of English spas (Walsham, 2008: 216). Each writer emphasised the importance of taking the waters under professional medical supervision, as only a learned physician possessed the necessary knowledge to prescribe the conditions required to enable each patient, with his or her individual physiological constitution, to maximise the waters’ therapeutic potential. Hence medical writers, as a discourse community, ‘had a vested interest in regulating references to knowledge’ and sought to emphasise their possession of it (Hiltunen & Tyrkkö 2009: 68). Physicians’ self-promotion through their assertion of knowledge in this way also took on a commercial significance, because ‘the reader of a medical book was also a potential patient’ (Hiltunen & Tyrkkö 2011: 49). This claim to a professional and intellectual monopoly over the waters was clearly threatened by indiscriminate and unregulated visits by ill-informed members of the public, particularly when the impetus for such visits came from the continued association of the site with miraculous healing, rather than from seeking cures recast as being derived from divinely-ordained nature harnessed and directed by a learned medical practitioner.

[20]  In addition to taking the waters only during the summer months, patients were ideally to drink the prescribed amount in the morning, having first prepared the body with appropriate purgative medicines and a diet designed to prevent a melancholic temperament. The precise amount to be consumed depended on the nature of the ailment but was always to begin with a minimal quantity that could slowly be increased as required. Between drinking each cup the patient was advised to walk around, taking care not to work up a sweat. The therapeutic use of the waters could be continued for up to fifty days or, as Mure suggested, ‘so long as the disease requireth, or affaires can permit’ (M[ure] 1636: C7r). On returning home the patient was to continue modifying his lifestyle correctly to prevent the beneficial effects of the waters from being undone. ‘Live temperatly a long time’ advised Mure, ‘in a clean, pure, wholesome aire to breathe on: eating meats of good digestion to suffice nature, not greedie appetit’, and ‘flee perturbations of the minde’ (1636: C7r-C7v). The persuasive combination of first-person testimonies, sound theoretical principles and an acknowledgement of the waters’ occult yet powerful properties were intended to convince the reader of their therapeutic efficacy.

[21]  While the utility of the waters texts for most readers lay in the detailing of the waters’ medicinal benefits and instructions for their harnessing, this form of literature fulfilled a number of additional functions. Though none of the authors wrote at great length about experimental methodology for analysing the waters’ mineral contents, their almost incidental references to distillation, boiling and sediment analysis imparts a degree of alchemical knowledge, if not instruction. Scotland’s early waters literature reverses the paradigm of experiment description, wherein the passive voice became the favoured means by which to describe well-worn procedures of experimentation (Gotti 2011: 213). Skene, author of the earliest waters text, was alone in passively noting that ‘gif the watter of this notabill Fontaine be builzeit it becummis of mair blak cullour’ (1580: A3r). The later authors tended to use the active voice to describe their experiments, which would have helped to convince readers of the credibility of their observations. Of all the authors Mure, the latest writer under consideration, most consistently uses the active voice in reinforcing his own experimentation (e.g., ‘wee have used all kynd of tryalls for examination of the Petrean water; and have found (as we are able to demonstrate) that these waters carry with them the tincture of vitriol…’ (1636: B3v). In this particular case, his use of the third person would have further reinforced his own authority as well as his identification with the empiric tradition.

[22]  The waters literature also helped to promote the locality in which the particular source was situated. Through favourable comparisons with famous waters in Europe writers aimed to attract visitors to their own source and perhaps by extension to the area. The authors of waters texts tended to write as local specialists, as was the case with Skene and Barclay writing about the Aberdeen well, or at the behest of a local patron, as was the case with Barclay’s treatise on the spring at Kinghorn, which was written in the form of a letter addressed to the Earl of nearby Dunfermline. Skene identified much commonality between his Aberdeen waters and the Roman sulphur springs of Aachen, while Barclay likened them to the then-popular waters of Forges in Normandy both in mineral composition and curative effects ([Skene] 1580: A4r; Barclay 1615: A5r). Mindful of the usefulness for himself, his patron and the locality of garnering a favourable reputation for the well at Peterhead, Andrew Mure declared it to be comparable with the best German spa waters, and to far excel those English sites located at Knaresborough and Tunbridge Wells (1636: B2r). Skene described the Aberdeen spa as ‘ane ornament and ane publict utilitie to the Realme & Burgh’ (1580: A2v), while Barclay declared that it blessed not only the city itself but also the surrounding territory ‘with a treasure of health’ (1615: A4r). Inhabitants of each locality were also written about in glowing terms: Skene declared those living in Aberdeen, itself ‘ane of the maist ancient and renounit Burghis of this Realme’, to be ‘maist ciuile, honest, and politicall’ (1580: A2r), while Barclay believed them to be ‘more delicatly trained vp’ than those living in the Highlands (1615: A3v). Not only did such flattery help to curry favour with local readers, but it also made the area more attractive to farther-flung visitors. This was another of the many strategies that this essay has shown were used by the authors of Scotland’s early waters literature to persuade their audiences of the worth of both the writer himself and the waters he described.

[23]  The foregoing discussion has drawn attention to a number of features identified by historical linguistics as being indicative of an adherence within Scotland’s early medical discourse community to the shifting scientific paradigm from the scholastic to the empiric in the sixteenth and earlier seventeenth centuries. The linguistic features typical of scholasticism are ‘very different’ from those associated with empiricism, and reflective of ‘the underlying methodology and philosophy of science’ (Taavitsainen 2009b: 187). As with English medical writing during this liminal period, analysis of linguistic patterns within Scotland’s waters treatises reveals the changing nature of medicine. These include the diminishing recourse to classical authorities, particularly among the seventeenth-century authors, and a concurrent rise in assertions of knowledge based on first-hand testimony. An empirical approach is also evident in the use of the active rather than the passive voice, which reflects the way knowledge was increasingly evaluated in light of personal observations and methodology rather than through reliance on the established theory of a third party (Hiltunen & Tyrkkö 2009: 77).

[24]  Several of the authors used one final strategy to appeal to their audiences: namely, the incorporation into their treatises of other written genres aside from straightforward medical instruction, which situated their texts at the ‘interface of literary and non-literary writing’ (Taavitsainen, 2011: 256). Andrew Mure included a poetic eulogy on the well at Peterhead, with verses that name-checked mythological characters including Hebe, Jove and Hermes: ‘O holy, peerlesse, rich preservative! / Whether wert thou the strange restorative, / That suddenly did age with youth repaire? / And made old Aeson younger than his heir?’ (1636: B7v-B8r). His use of rhyming couplets, which were ‘easy to memorise and to follow when read aloud’ (Taavitsainen 2011: 269), would have helped his audience to appreciate the panacea-like efficacy of the waters he described. Seeking to connect with his readers through a familiar medium, Patrick Anderson incorporated biblical passages to emphasise God’s role in creating mineral springs for mankind’s benefit, including this from the Book of Wisdom: ‘When they were thirstie they called vpon thee, and thou gaue them water out of the high Rock, and their thirst was quenched out of the hard stone’ (1618). This inclusion of biblical verses forms ‘the best evidence for the fact that medical and scientific instruction was aimed at a wide and heterogeneous audience’ (Taavitsainen 2011: 268-9). Indeed, the influence of various literary styles confirms what Taavitsainen has described as the ‘dynamic picture’ of early modern medical writing (2011: 270), of which Scotland’s early literature on healing waters formed a small but significant part.

Massey University


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