Hannah Newton – keynote speaker at this year’s Congress of Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research – gives readers a taste of what to expect from her upcoming talk:

Horrible histories are not just for young readers: adult historians also seem to have a penchant for painful tales of disaster and distress. This is especially apparent in the realm of medical history, where it has sometimes been implied that before the birth of modern pharmaceutics, disease and doctors left you either dead or disabled, and the complete recovery of health was so rare that it barely existed as a concept.


Figure 1: Jacket illustration of Misery to Mirth: Recovery from Illness in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2018): A Woman in Bed, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, c.1647; presented to the National Galleries of Scotland by William McEwan; accession number NG827. The woman, who looks as though she is recovering from a serious illness, props herself up in bed, and looks out through the bed-curtains, her face full of hope and expectation. Sitting up was regarded as one of the first milestones on the road to health.


A foray into the diaries and letters of early modern patients and their families reveals a happier history, however. Scattered amidst heartrending accounts of suffering and death, are joyful recoveries. In 1652, 11-year-old Martha Hatfield from Yorkshire was diagnosed with ‘Spleen-wind’, a disease characterised by ‘violent vomiting’ and ‘rigid convulsions’. For nine months, her family was ‘continually under sadnesse, and their sleep broken’; they longed for God to ‘ease…her pain, [so] that [their] eares…might not be filled with such dolefull cries’. One December evening, Martha suddenly felt strength returning to her body. She ‘rejoyced…with laughing’ and ‘clasping her armes about her [mother’s] neck’ in an embrace. The next morning, Martha ‘took some food without spilling’, and told her parents she’d had ‘a very good night’, not waking till 7 o’clock. Later that day, her older sister Hannah, who had been ‘very tender of her’ during her illness, ‘took her up, and set her upon her feet, and she stood by herself without holding, which she had not done for three quarters of a year’. Over the following weeks, Martha ‘encreased in strength’ beyond ‘all expectation’, and finally announced, ‘me is pretty well, I praise God…I am neither sick, nor have any pain’. A day of thanksgiving was arranged to celebrate Martha’s recovery. One of the guests recalled that the sight of Martha coming ‘forth into the Hall to…welcome us…was wonderfull in our eyes, so that our hearts did rejoyce with a kind of trembling’.


Figure 2: Posset cup, 1650-1700; Science Museum, Wellcome Images, reference: L0057146 (CC BY 4.0). Posset was a thick liquid food made from warm milk, ale, sugar, and spices; it was given to patients to restore strength after illness, and may have been the ‘food’ taken by Martha Hatfield during her convalescence.


Martha’s story inspired my interest in the history of recovery not only by revealing that this outcome of illness was thought to be possible in early modern England, but by showing that descriptions of getting better have the potential to shine light into practically every corner of life in the past. In times of health, people were often too busy to remark on such things as breakfast routines, family relationships, and bodily sensation; in severe sickness, they were usually too unwell to be able to do so. But, the transformation from sickness to health propelled all the normally unnoticed facets of human existence to the forefront of people’s minds and personal writings. What an exciting prospect for the social historian!


For patients like Martha, recovery was a ‘happie motion’ from anguish to elation, a trajectory marked and measured by a number of key milestones, such as sleeping through the night, eating solid foods, and standing unaided. Convalescents enjoyed the blissful ease of abated suffering, and cherished the freedom and sociability that came after a spell in the ‘lonely prison’ of the sickchamber. Ultimately, the clue to the experience of recovery lies in the word itself: the verb ‘recover’ means to re-possess. Patients re-possessed not just their physical faculties and ease, but all the other things they loved about life of which they had been deprived during sickness, such as visiting friends and strolling in the fields.


The patient’s relatives and friends usually underwent a similar alteration of feelings during recovery, as we saw with Martha’s family. Known as ‘fellow-feeling’, this sharing of experience was physical as well as emotional, since loved ones often claimed to share the patient’s pain during illness, and ‘sweet ease’ upon recovery. A sensory explanation was offered for this type of empathy: the sounds and sights of the patient’s ‘deep-fetched groanes’ and ‘sad lookes’, followed at last by cheerful laughter and smiles during recovery, ‘pierced the hearts’ of onlookers, and sparked feelings resembling those of the patient.


Although recovery was mainly a joyful occasion for patients and their loved ones, there could be a gloomier side. Getting better sometimes took ages, and of course, not everyone made a full recovery. Many patients and relatives were ‘tremblingly afraid’ of relapse, and worried that the smallest action – even combing one’s hair – could rekindle sickness. Occasionally, convalescents wished their illness could have continued longer, so as to excuse them from certain duties. The usually devout London woodturner Nehemiah Wallington (1598–1658) confessed that after an acute sickness in 1652, ‘I could be content to have bin longer sicke that it might have exsempted me from the house of God’.


Figure 3: Shaky handwriting of Sarah Cowper during her son’s ‘shaking fits’, c.1713; ‘Diary of Dame Sarah Cowper’, vol.7, p.271, Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, MS D/EP/F35. This diary entry is material evidence of fellow-feeling: Cowper links her shaky handwriting to her son’s shaking fits, as well as to her own illness, palsy (weakness with tremor).


Despite these downsides, the overwhelming impression is that recovery was the cause of great jubilation for patients and their families. I hope this finding will rebalance and brighten our overall perception of early modern health, thereby encouraging what the emotions scholar Darrin McMahon has called a ‘positive turn’ in the health humanities at large. I look forward to sharing this research at the Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research in Leeds this September.


Hannah Newton is a Wellcome Trust University Award Holder at the University of Reading, where she is investing the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations of the early modern sickchamber. She is author of the award-winning book, The Sick Child in Early Modern England (OUP, 2012), and has recently published a second monograph, Misery to Mirth: Recovery from Illness in Early Modern England (OUP, 2018). Misery to Mirth is the subject of Hannah’s keynote talk at this year’s Congress of the Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research.










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