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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Receipt Chest

Object 52 - Take a closer look at this beautiful medicine chest, held in the collections at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Peter Hewitt

Number 52 in our series of 100 Objects from Shakespeare’s world was contributed by Peter Hewitt working on his PhD at the University of Birmingham's Shakespeare Institute.

Medicine Chest
SBT 2001-5. Dimensions (H, W, D) 220mm x 420mm x 285mm.

This particularly fine parquetry chest was made during the second half of the 16th or early 17th century, probably by a German immigrant craftsman in Southwark, London.

The inlay of holly and black bog oak is closely associated with the work of German and Dutch craftsmen based in London, whilst the beautiful printed wallpaper used to line the lid probably dates to around 1590.  The chest has nine drawers, thirteen compartments, five wooden pots (a further two are missing), and even a secret compartment.

The lining bears a stylized pomegranate, a symbol of regeneration and healing, but also from 1518, a symbol widely used by the College of Physicians.  This may explain the chests’ origins – was the design selected by a wealthy London physician to illustrate his affiliation with the College?

Another printed source suggests a slightly different view, whilst reinforcing the chests’ professional medical associations: an illustration from the 1596 treatise A prooued practise for all young chirurgians by William Clowes, shows a contemporary surgeons chest. The similarity to our object is startling – the squared compartments, the lock-plate, the nest of drawers protected by a hinged panel, even the ‘E.R’ and Royal Garter on the lid are present.  In this print, the chest represents the entire body of knowledge and practical skill of the surgeon and is imbued, via the royal monogram, with the authority of Elizabeth herself.

Medicine Chest view open
View showing the internal compartments

However, a closer reading of the object suggests a different interpretation.  A consulting physician had little use for chest like this; a urine flask, his principal tool, would not fit into any of the compartments here — even the smallest flasks are too large for these small drawers.  Similarly, the chest does not have space for the vast array of tools outlined in Clowes’ treatise (William Clowes, A prooued practise … (1596) pp. 133-136, 140-141); neither is it portable — there are no handles to aid transportation like those in the illustration.

It has been presumed (until very recently) that early modern medical authority was invested in a hierarchy of physicians, surgeons and apothecaries, professions which seldom, if ever, allowed for female participants (Rebecca Laroche, Medical Authority and Englishwomen’s Herbal Texts, 1550-1650, (Farnham: 2009), pp. 1-10).  Whilst this is strictly true, most early modern patients were fully aware of Helena’s ‘good receipt’ – recipes passed on by word-of-mouth and jotted down in manuscript form.  Printed books, including Hannah Woolley's The Accomplish'd lady's delight (1675), and manuscripts such as Lady Fettiplace’s receipt book (c. 1604) attest to this culture of ‘receipts’ – but extant medicine chests from the early modern period are usually associated with the medical professions or male humanist intellectuals with a passion for collecting rare medical materials.

Medicine Chest lid detail
Detail showing the decoration in the lid of the box

This chest, on the other hand, is probably more suited to a fashionable household where it would have had pride of place.  The small compartments are ideally suited to the ‘kitchen physic’ used in these ‘receipts’ – household herbs such as lavender, vervain and camomile.  If the chest was readily accessible by the household (the lock is much later addition), this might explain the ‘secret’ compartment, which possibly contained poisonous substances or precious items such as red or white coral.

This suggests how a focus on printed matter (the iconography of the lining and the surgeon’s manual) can both inform and mislead our interpretation of objects. The fixed categories of professional medicine can obscure the historical reality of ‘local’ traditions of healing.  This object raises questions about the separate categories of experience we tend to impose onto life in the past; it reminds us to explore the practical and conceptual links between food and medicine, professional expertise and lay knowledge, as well as masculine and feminine roles.  As Shakespeare’s Helena shows, medical knowledge was not the preserve of men only, and this chest allows us to glimpse how women took care of themselves and their households in Shakespeare’s lifetime.

We were able to acquire the chest with support from The Art Fund.

COUNTESS: But think you, Helen,
If you should tender your supposed aid,
He would receive it? he and his physicians
Are of a mind; he, that they cannot help him,
They, that they cannot help: how shall they credit
A poor unlearned virgin, when the schools,
Embowell'd of their doctrine, have left off
The danger to itself?

HELENA: There's something in't,
More than my father's skill, which was the greatest
Of his profession, that his good receipt
Shall for my legacy be sanctified

(All’s Well That Ends Well, Act I Scene III)