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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Cupping Glass

Object 32 - The cupping glass was a medical device in use throughout the early modern period, and which in fact has origins stretching back to ancient Egypt and China.

Stephanie Appleton

This week's 100 object post was written by Stephanie Appleton, studying for her PhD in History at University of Birmingham.

SBT 2013-1/8 Cupping Glass
SBT 2013-1/8. A cupping-glass, seventeenth-century. Dimensions: Height 70mm. Dia. 65mm, Rim 50mm.

Archbishop Scrope: ‘ … we are all diseas’d/ And with our surfeiting and wanton hours/ Have brought ourselves into a burning fever,/ And we must bleed for it…’

— 2 Henry IV, 4. 1. 54-7

Like last week’s blog from Victoria Jackson, which examines an early modern ointment jar,  my blog this week also has a medicinal theme. Pictured is a seventeenth-century ‘cupping glass’, a medical device which was in use throughout the early modern period, and which in fact has origins stretching back to ancient Egypt and China. The glass has been on display in Hall’s Croft, the home of Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna and her husband John Hall, who was a doctor himself during the seventeenth century.

Medical treatment during Shakespeare’s time was based on the theory of the ‘four humours’ – phlegm, blood, black bile and yellow bile – all of which were considered to be present in the body, regulating one’s health and personality. Each of these humours was thought to correspond to one of the four elements of earth, air, water and fire, and also to a particular season. While the humours should, ideally, be in perfect balance, it was acknowledged that most people either had a natural imbalance, which manifested itself in their personality traits, or that different seasons provoked different excesses which may or may not require treatment, depending on the severity of the symptoms. So while one person might be of a naturally ‘melancholic’ temperament due to an excess of black bile in their body, autumn, for example, was thought to provoke an excess of this humour in those otherwise unaffected, thus causing illness which needed to be remedied.

Shakespeare’s familiarity with the four humours theory and its treatments is demonstrated in the above quotation from his 1597 play The History of Henry IV, Part II. Here Archbishop Scrope uses the humoural system as a metaphor for the cause he promotes: ‘purging’ the country of King Henry IV and his heirs, who he believes have no right to the throne. He refers to the fever which was thought to be produced by an excess of blood in the system, and the corresponding treatment for such illness, which would have been bloodletting. If a physician decided that a patient should be treated with bloodletting, then a cupping glass may have been used to facilitate this procedure. The glass would be heated and then placed on the body, over an incision which had already been made. The air inside the glass would cool, contracting and causing the glass to form a seal with the skin, and this ‘sucking’ action would draw upon the incision, thus promoting the desired blood loss and restoring the balance of the body’s humours.

Cupping remained a key part of European medicinal practice until into the 19th century, but modern advances in medicine and the treatment of diseases means that we now understand the complex workings of the body and no longer employ the ‘four humours’ theory. Nonetheless, cupping is still practised in some countries today (minus the bloodletting) as a therapeutic treatment, to stimulate blood flow and to produce a feeling of relaxation and well-being.