Nor practize snuffingly to speake,
for that doth imitate
The brutish Storke or Elephant
yea and the wralling cat.
- Richard West, The Booke of Demeanor, 1619
It’s that time of year again – leaves are changing, there’s a crispness to the air, and if you’re like me, you’ve spent at least part of it clutching a steaming mug of tea and a pile of Kleenex, and hoping that Sudafed you just took kicks in quick. Sort of you know, like this:
Yes, autumn is well documented as an amazing season here at Plimoth Plantation, and while there are indeed sundry and diverse wonderful things happening now at this time of year, the change in weather also brings with it something rather unpleasant: sickness.
Coughs, colds, allergies, or as Richard West put in the 17th Century, “snuffling in the nose when you speak,” the change of seasons brings it all. And if you work outside while being surrounded by schoolkids with grabby hands and runny noses, there’s no escaping. Every year brave Interpreter after brave Interpreter succumbs to their annual round of Pilgrim Plague, and I’m sure our managers dread the phone calls every morning that say another one of our dear colleagues won’t be making it in today.
So sure we know what to do for a cold in this day and age – CVS, aisle 4 – but what about the real Pilgrims? Because people get stuffy noses no matter the century, right? Of course they did, which Richard West again advised not to wipe “Upon thy cap..Nor yet upon thy clothes…not with thy fingers or thy sleeve,” but rather to use a “handkerchiffe, provided for the same.”‘
And while there definitely wasn’t Nyquil in the 1600s, there was still the Mary Poppins cure – Gervase Markham recommended in his book A Way To Get Wealth that one should take “a spoonful of sugar” with a drop of Aqua vitae (a kind of distilled liquor) for a “cough or cold but lately taken.” And after one took that concoction? Why, then you were to “so cover you warm in your bed.” (Some things it seems, really do never change):
The idea of being in a warm place while having a cold would have been particularly important to a 17th century person, as the doctrine of “humors” was still prevalent at the time. Humors were four fluids which made up the body – blood, choler, phlegm and melancholy – and each had certain qualities which corresponded to the elements. Like air, blood was thought to be hot and wet, while melancholy was cold and dry, like earth. On the other hand, choler was like fire – hot and dry – and phlegm was like water, cold and wet. People were usually born with a certain disposition to creating one humor the most, which gave them their unique constitutions and personalities. But good health was achieved by keeping one’s humors in the proper proportions and good balance – meaning that to rectify something cold you needed something hot (Duh).
Thus Philip Barrough’s 1624 advice for a cough caused by a cold makes perfect sense, saying that it “shall be cured by the remedies that can make them hot.” He advises that one should “let the neck be wrapped about with warm wool,” and that the ill person in question should be kept in “a hot house” and treated with “hot ointments” (Get the idea?):
The inability to get warm certainly proved a problem for the Pilgrims in 1620, who were forced to still live for a time on the Mayflower even after it arrived in New England, in November no less. It was written in Mourt’s Relation that “cold and wet lodging has so tainted our people, for scare any of us were free from vehement coughs” and that wading through water to reach land “brought to most, if not to all, coughs and colds…which afterwards turned to scurvy, whereof many died.”
The moral of the story? Try to keep warm and dry this season kids! (Which will hopefully be easier for you, since you don’t have to live on the Mayflower.) And if all else fails, you’ll always have one of these to tuck yourself into:
Well, that and CVS.