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  • Writer's pictureO&E Researchers

Stepping into the Sickchamber: Objects and Illness in Early Modern England

Updated: Jul 17, 2020

by Hannah Newton

My first plane journey was a trip to Crete with my family at the age of eleven. I remember this holiday well because I ended up spending most of it sick in bed! Strangely, I don’t recall much about the illness itself: instead, my memories centre on the things in the room. The curtains were beige, with dark brown circles hooped together confusedly. A clock with thick numerals ticked obtrusively. On the table, a spoonful of gloopy jam, laced with crushed up antibiotics, balanced over a mug, and an activity book lay open, its pictures blindingly bright. Through the open window drifted the sharp scent of chlorine. All these perceptions contributed to that indescribable, yucky feeling of illness.

Holiday snap of the author as a child, recuperating from croup in the shade. Photograph supplied by the author.

Many years later, this memory was awakened when I read a passage from a seventeenth-century sermon by the Oxfordshire clergyman Robert Harris (c.1581–1658). He observed that during illness, ‘those senses & parts’ which bring the healthy man comfort, ‘occasion the sick man trouble’: ‘the sight of his cupps, glasses [and] boxes makes him sicke, the smell of his meates[,] [makes him feel] sicke, the taste of his drinkes[,] sicke, the least noyse offends him, the…ayre pierces him,…his bed tyres him, his chaire troubles him’. Harris concluded, ‘poore man, hee is not well, and therefore nothing is well about him; he is sicke, and so all the world is made of sicknesse to him’.

This vignette draws attention to an intriguing, and yet rarely acknowledged feature of sickness in early modern England, its tendency to radically alter the patient’s perceptions of the things around them. Serious illness transformed what normally would have been objects of satisfaction and comfort – soft mattresses, shiny drinking vessels, and resonant clocks – into sources of distress. This was because disease was found to ‘assault’ the patient’s sensory powers, the link between bodies and objects in early modern thinking.

Jan Steen, oil painting of ‘The Doctor’s Visit’ (c.1661-2), Wellcome Collection, CC BY 4.0.

I discussed this phenomenon at the University of Manchester’s Affective Artefacts seminar series. The talk sought to transport the audience imaginatively into the early modern sickchamber, a space that has not received much explicit historical analysis, by investigating the patient’s sensory and emotional perceptions of five key objects: a medicine bottle, mattress, clock, bedcurtain, and sheets. The ultimate aim was to reveal the mutual benefits that can be gleaned from bringing into dialogue the twin fields of medical and material history: for the latter, the research sheds fresh light on the meaning of disease in this period – it was conceived as a dis-possession, a taking away of one’s capacity to appreciate one’s possessions. For material culture studies, the study offers a potential solution to the challenge of the silence of many historical records on ‘everyday objects’. Confined to the sickchamber for a stretch of time, the attention of the sick inevitably came to rest on the things around them, eliciting comments which would have rarely been voiced in health.

The next day, Sasha Handley and Stefan Hanß kindly arranged for me to go behind the scenes at Manchester Art Gallery, where I was able to view some early modern objects in real life.

Hannah Newton examining a posset cup, which is held by the archivist, Jennifer McKellar, at Manchester Art Gallery. Photo supplied by Prof. Sasha Handley.

The first item was an ornate bedcurtain from c.1680-1730, a canopy which would have hung around all sides of the bed, and was supposed to protect the sleeper from cold drafts. Although beautifully decorated with colourful foliage, it’s unlikely that the sick would have been able to derive much pleasure from such sights, owing to the darkness of the bedstead. A rare insight into life inside this curtained space is provided in the meditations of the natural philosopher Robert Boyle (1627-91): during a violent fever, he observed the ‘Dim light of the Candle’ through a small gap in the curtains. Suddenly, this light ‘considerably increas’d’, which made him suspect that ‘twas…a Thief’ in the room. Sticking out his head between the curtains, he found, to his relief, that it emanated instead from a fault in the tallow candle, which had caused it to blaze in an ‘irregular way’. The curtains had acted as an ocular obstacle, making Boyle feel vulnerable and alarmed; the fever may have been partly responsible for his delusion, with the heat affecting his imagination and vision.

Detail from a bed curtain, 1680-1730, at Platt Hall, Manchester Art Gallery, accession number: 1986.488. Photograph supplied by Prof. Sasha Handley.

Drug jar, 1679, made from glazed tin, Manchester Art Gallery, accession number: 1947.727. Photograph supplied by author.

The other object which most struck me was a blue and white tin-glazed drug jar from 1679, a vessel designed to store medicinal potions; the winged angel symbolises God’s healing power, which he imbues into herbs. Patients’ sensory reactions to such vessels are occasionally recorded in contemporary medical texts. The Durham physician William Bullein (c.1515–76) commented that many patients have such ‘fearful eies’, that ‘it no lesse gr[i]eveth the[m] to behold or see the vessel, in which the pocion is kept…, than to [actually] drinke the same…bitter medecine’. Bitterness was thought to be a sign of the drug’s efficacy, which promoted the evacuation of ‘bad humours’, the cause of disease in contemporary theory. Owing to the perceived sympathy between the sensory organs, the eye felt sorry for the tongue, knowing that it would soon have to taste the ‘loathsome potion’, perceptions which in turn occasioned emotional suffering.

By examining real artefacts alongside patients’ accounts of sickness, I have come to a clearer understanding of an essential tenet in material culture studies: the idea that objects are ‘not just passive social constructs but rather active and dynamic forces’, which powerfully shape our emotional and bodily experiences of the world around us, or in this case, the sickroom. My thanks to Sasha and Stefan for giving me this opportunity!

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24 juin 2019

Your choice of the Jan Steen painting is a really good example of the Renaissance understanding of the role of the senses during sickness. Laurinda Dixon in Perilous Chastity has identified many aspects (erotic paintings, preoccupied husband, Cupid, etc.) to identify lovesickness (or sexual frustration) but the most interesting object is the charcoal burner with the piece of string hanging from it. This Dutch underskirt warmer was once blamed for overheated wombs (uterine furor) but here it is evidence of the treatment of fumigation to the young patient, whereby a piece of burnt string is held to the nose to repel the disordered womb in what is usually known as suffocation of the mother. This practice dated back to Hippocrates.…

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