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Stratford’s Apothecary in the Time of Shakespeare: Philip Rogers’ Medical Practice

This is the second of two blog posts focusing on a little-studied figure from Stratford-upon-Avon during the time of Shakespeare: Philip Rogers, an apothecary in the town.

Chris Booth
An apothecary drug jar used to contain a North American medicine (1730)

The Evidence for Philip Rogers’ Occupation

Surviving records relating directly to Philip Rogers and his apothecary business mainly originate with the Court of Record of Stratford-upon-Avon. Rogers appears as both plaintiff and defendant in many cases, suing and being sued to recoup debts which have gone unpaid. The records of Rogers in this court span the period 1596/7-1612/13 and comprise over 50 individual documents. To examine Rogers’ role as an apothecary in the town, I will focus on just two cases.

Valentine Palmes and Gale’s Surgery

The first illustrates the kinds of medical knowledge that Philip Rogers had access to in Stratford in the early 17th century. Four separate documents record elements of the case that Rogers brought to the Court of Record against one Valentine Palmes who Rogers claimed had not returned a book that he had lent to him (SBT, BRU 12/2/2/223; BRU 15/8/84; BRU 15/8/85; BRU 12/2/4/149). It was a copy of Thomas Gale's Certain Workes of Chirurgerie or Gailes Kyrirgery as it is rendered in BRU 12/2/2/223. This volume, first published in 1563, and reprinted in 1586 was the first English language volume on the topic of surgery which was not simply a translation of a continental text. The case against Palmes was brought in 1604/5 and so this means that Rogers was reading a volume on surgery that was at least 20 years old and cared to keep it enough that he sued for its return.

Rogers’ interest in anatomy and surgery would not have been unusual in the early 17th century, as at this time apothecaries were seeking to expand the areas of medicine in which they practised, which already included some minor surgeries (see William Bullein, 1579). In addition to the potential value of this volume to his own practice Rogers would have supplied certain medicines, especially those relating to dental issues or bleeding to the surgeons in the borough. We have records of at least three surgeons in Stratford-upon-Avon from the 1620s: John Nason, Isaac Hitchcox, and Edward Wilkes appear in the records of the Ecclesiastical Court as ‘professors of surgery’ in 1622 (KHLC, U269/Q24).

Rogers’ Medicines

The second case I want to focus on is from 1611. Rogers again is the plaintiff, suing George Agge for failing to pay a debt. Within the documents relating to the case SBT, BRU 12/2/3/314 contains a list of medicines and medical equipment. These had been purchased by Agge on credit and he had failed to pay Rogers in time to stop him suing.

The items which Agge had bought included cassia fistula (the product of a south-Asian plant which was used as a purgative), burgundy pitch (a resin originating from Norway Spruce trees), diagredium (another Asian purgative resin), a syringe, oil of vitriol (sulphuric acid), guaiacum wood (a term for wood from a variety of related trees in the West Indies and North America), sarsaparilla (the roots of a variety of related vines from the Caribbean and Central America), liquorice (root extract of a plant which originates in the Middle East), sassafras (the bark or leaves of one of three deciduous trees native to North America), hermodactilis (wild saffron), aniseed (a southwest Asian spice), confection of roses, Venice turpentine, pills, mastic (gum Arabic), corrosive sublimate (mercuric chloride), tobacco, and cinnabar (mercury sulphide, a bright red mineral).

As is clear from this list Philip Rogers was stocking and selling materia medica from across the world and including chemical medicines such as mercury compounds and cinnabar. The chemical medicines were only partially accepted in medical practice at this time and the North American and Caribbean samples like sassafras and sarsaparilla were imported in limited quantities (Trease, 1964: 95-96; Wallis, 2012). This lack of provision has led to the suggestion that these medicines would be expensive and rare outside of London or other major centres. However, as can be seen from this document and also the town physician John Hall’s casebook, they were available in relatively small market towns, at least ones which were well connected (Wells, 2020). John Hall used sarsaparilla, senna, and a chymical cup to treat Rogers’ daughter Frances in 1621 (Wells, 2020: 162-163, case 198).

Rogers then was a well provisioned apothecary operating at the forefront of pharmaceutical knowledge for the time and was able to provide customers and patients with the latest imported medical ingredients.

Comparing Philip Rogers to his Contemporaries

Though Philip Rogers has been little studied, other provincial apothecaries provide fruitful comparisons to situate Rogers’ practice in the medical marketplace of the early 17th century.

Alun Withey (2011) for example has examined inventories of apothecaries in Wales and found that they were using the same remedies as their London counterparts including imported ingredients. Philip Rogers was working with the latest ingredients and remedies imported from across the world, making him a peer to the knowledgeable and connected rural apothecaries of his time. Patrick Wallis (2008: 32-33) has suggested that for London apothecaries these imported ingredients were used to improve the quality, real or imagined, of the medicines and also to emphasise the knowledgeability and worldliness of the apothecary themselves. This would have been important for apothecaries whose business as medical practitioners was moving further from traditional remedies which were familiar into specialised remedies which could only be produced by professionals who had access to knowledge and valuable materials.

Rogers last appears in the records in 1612/13 and although no record of Rogers’ burial, nor a will or inventory survive, this does not mean that Stratford was without an apothecary. John Courte (or Comte), another apothecary, is recorded in the records held by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust as purchasing a house in the High Street in 1628, at a similar address to Rogers’ alehouse premises (SBT, DR 149/116/13). This succession of two apothecaries suggests that Stratford-upon-Avon probably only had one or two trading at any one time, a quantity which makes sense for a small market town in the Midlands of England at that time, and which emphasises the position Rogers would have held in his community. We have no records of Rogers ever taking on a role within the Corporation or any other civic office in Stratford but he was clearly a trusted member of the community as can be seen when he his chosen to oversee the taking of the inventory of Elizabeth Pretty, Widow, in 1605 (Jones, 2003: i, 232-234). Despite his apparent feud with Shakespeare, he would likely have been known and respected in Stratford-upon-Avon and it is a shame that he is most often reduced to a footnote.

Manuscript Sources

Kent History and Library Centre (KHLC)

Kent History and Library Centre, U269/Q24. (1622-1625). Visitation Book (1622-1625).

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT)

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford Upon Avon Borough, 1370-1942, BRU12/2/2/223. (1604-1605). Valentine Palmer attached to answer Philip Rogers for unlawfully detaining a certain book called Gailes Kyrirgery, valued at 10s.

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford Upon Avon Borough, 1370-1942, BRU15/8/85. (1605-1606a). Jurors' names in the suit Philip Rogers v. Valentine Palmes.

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford Upon Avon Borough, 1370-1942, BRU15/8/84. (1605-1606b). Precept to summon a jury in the suit of Philip Rogers v. Valentine Palmes.

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford Upon Avon Borough, 1370-1942, BRU12/2/3/314. (1611). George Agge summoned to answer Philip Rogers in a debt of 35s 7d.

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Slatter, Son and More, solicitors of Stratford-upon-Avon, 1612-1909, DR149/116/13. (1628-1835). William Colbourne: Slatter, Son and More, solicitors of Stratford-upon-Avon.

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford Upon Avon Borough, 1370-1942, BRU12/2/4/149. ([1605-1606]). Philip Rogers v. Valentine Palmes.

Contemporary Printed Sources

William Bullein. (1579). Bulleins bulwarke of defence against all sicknesse, soarenesse, and woundes that doe dayly assaulte mankinde : which bulwarke is kept with Hilarius the gardener, & Health the phisicion, with the chirurgian, to helpe the wounded souldiours. Gathered and practiced from the most worthy learned, both olde and new: To the great comfort of mankind : By William Bullein, Doctor of Physicke. 1562. London: Imprinted by Thomas Marshe dwellinge in Fleetstreate near unto Sainte Dunstan's Chur. (The Wellcome Library, b30320999).

Secondary Sources and Edited Primary Materials

Jones, J. (Ed.). (2003). Stratford-upon-Avon inventories 1538-1699. Stratford-upon-Avon: Dugdale Society in association with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Trease, G. E. (1964). Pharmacy in History. London: Bailliere, Tindall and Cox.

Wallis, P. (2008). 'Consumption, retailing, and medicine in early-modern London'. Economic History Review, 61(1): 26-53.

Wallis, P. (2012). 'Exotic Drugs and English Medicine: England's Drug Trade, c. 1550-c.1800'. Social History of Medicine, 25(1): 20-46.

Wells, G. (2020). John Hall, Master of Physicke: a casebook from Shakespeare's Stratford. Manchester: Manchester University Press in association with The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Withey, A. (2011). '"Persons That Live Remote from London" Apothecaries and the Medical Marketplace in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Wales'. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 85(2): 222-247.

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