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Dear Reader #130

Dear Reader,

My latest translation by Nelmari, the Afrikaans version of Sam’s Song. Available soon 🙂

My latest genealogy article appears on page 48 of the Seaside News.

Another scene familiar to my London ancestors, High Street, Camden Town, c1890.

This week saw the longest game in World Chess Championship history, 136 moves. Eventually, Magnus Carlsen’s rook, knight and two pawns proved too strong for Ian Nepomniachtchi’s queen. Carlsen currently leads the fourteen game series 4 – 3.

Arranging our Christmas decorations with the usual suspects 🌲

I’ve traced the Gadsden branch of my family back to 1086 and the Doomsday Book. At that time the name was recorded as Gatesdene. The family were living in Hertfordshire. Maybe they arrived with William the Conqueror, or shortly after. That said some sources suggest that the name Gadsden has English origins relating to ‘valley’.

A page from the Doomsday Book

The early Gadsdens were well-to-do, landowners who relative to the times enjoyed comfortable lifestyles. For most branches of the family this pattern continued into the nineteenth century.

The Gadsdens mixed with the nobility and moved in royal circles. An example: John of Gadsden was a physician to Edward II and Edward III, the first Englishman to hold that appointment. John wrote a book, Rosa Anglica, the first English textbook on medicine, which compiled the medical knowledge of his age. 

It is believed that John of Gadsden was familiar with the method of distilling fresh water from saltwater. This process, desalination, was thought to be a modern discovery.

Some of John of Gadsden’s contemporaries regarded him as a genius, the ‘brightest man of his age’. He was a philosopher, a philologist, a poet, he was skilled at manual operations and bone-setting, and he was a great oculist. He was skilled at physiognomy and wrote a treatise on chiromancy. A great dealer in ‘secrets’, he also performed ‘miracles’.

John’s greatest skill was in concocting ‘receipts’, potions. However, some people doubted his wisdom and regarded him as a superstitious quack. His doubters accused him of ‘laying baits’ for the delicate, the ladies and the rich. 

When small pox afflicted Edward II’s son, the future Edward III, the king called for John of Gadsden. John’s ‘prescription’ was to dress his patient in scarlet and ensure that everything about the sickbed was made of scarlet. John worked on the ‘sympathetic’ concept, which stated that the colour red cured inflammation. Quackery or not, the king’s son duly recovered ‘without a mark on his face’.

John wrote his book, Rosa Anglica, while resident at Merton College, Oxford. The source of his material stemmed from the Arabians and the moderns ‘who had written in Latin just before him’. His book was an encyclopaedia of all his potions and it offers an insight into the medical practices of the day, as applied to the nobility and common people.

The preface to Rosa Anglica

John wrote ‘Rosa Anglica, or Practical Medicine From Head to Foot’, between 1304 and 1317. His book contained four tracts on urine (a key to medieval medical diagnosis and treatment). The original manuscript was owned by All Souls College, Oxford, a leading centre of medical studies in Europe during the fifteenth century.

In his preface to ‘Rosa Anglica’ John wrote, ‘Just as the rose excels among flowers this book excels among textbooks on practical medicine.’ Clearly, he didn’t suffer from undue modesty.

John found time to be prebendary of St Paul’s. He also held theological posts at Chipping Norton and Chichester. Chaucer knew of him and mentioned him as the ‘Doctor of Physik’.

So, was John of Gadsden a genius or a quack? I suspect that he was a bit of both. Here’s an example of his quackery, a cure for toothache. John recommended that you should extract a tooth by smothering it with the fat from a dead green tree frog, cow dung or partridge brain. For the tooth to grow back, you should apply the brain of a hare to the gums. Clearly, this was nonsense and liable to do more harm than good. Yet, editions of his book were published in 1502 and 1595, and for centuries read throughout Europe.

A dentist with silver forceps and a necklace of large teeth, extracting a tooth c1365.

Many of John’s methods were based on superstition while others were crude. However, whether through luck or good judgment he formed a formidable reputation. 

John was a man of his time. Thankfully, over the centuries we have made advances in medicine. But we should also consider that future generations will look back on us and reckon that some of our methods were based on quackery and that they were crude.

As ever, thank you for your interest and support.

Hannah xxx

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