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What Disease Hast Thou?

The common cough and cold spread quickly in the winters of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. John Hall, married to Shakespeare's eldest daughter Susanna, was the only physician in Stratford-upon-Avon and prescribed medicine that contained ingredients such as liquorice and opium.

FALSTAFF: What disease hast thou?
BULLCALF: A whoreson cold, sir, a cough, sir.

(King Henry IV, part II 3.2)

Winter brings with it lots of things to be celebrated: Christmas and New Year, seasonal food, parties, and idyllic snowy scenes (as long as you don’t need to travel). However, here within the Collections department at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust we have been plagued with a less favourable winter tradition – coughs and colds.

Osias Dyck
'A Doctor Casting the Water', a painting by Osias Dyck, about 1660. Shakespeare Birthplace Trust collections.

The commonness of the cold was no less so during Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Today we associate the illness primarily with the head and chest, but in the seventeenth century the illness was associated with body fluids and could attack any part of the body. Samuel Pepys, the seventeenth century Member of Parliament, who kept a detailed diary between the years 1660 and 1669, frequently described pain during urination as being due to a cold (Lucinda McCrey Beier Sufferers and Healers: the experience of illness in seventeenth-century illness, 1987). Perhaps the patient in Osias Dyck’s painting A Doctor Casting the Water was suffering from a cold.

For this post I thought I would take a look at a couple of the treatments for coughs and colds that Shakespeare’s son-in-law, the physician John Hall, prescribed. Hall, who was married to Shakespeare’s eldest daughter Susanna, was the only physician in Stratford-upon-Avon. He prepared two notebooks of his case notes with the intention that they be published. They were purchased and translated from Latin by Dr James Cooke who published them in 1657, 22 years after Hall's death, as Select observations on English bodies, or Cures both empericall and historicall performed upon very eminent persons in desperate diseases.

Isobel Sadler
The case of Isobel Sadler in John Hall's 'Select Observations on English bodies'.

Case number 105 looks at Isobel Sadler who, at the age of 60, “laboured with a grievous cough, with difficulty of breathing and loathing of meat”. The effects of the medicine prescribed by Hall seems pretty severe, with “seven vomits and twelve stools”, however she was apparently “much eased” afterwards. She was also prescribed a pill containing liquorice and an eighth of a grain of opium to suck at bedtime.

Similarly in case number 51, he treats Elizabeth Sheldon of an urgent cough with a lozenge that contained opium, seeds of white henbane, and barley sugar.