Review ID: CBB171299537

Review of "Misery to Mirth: Recovery from Illness in Early Modern England" (2020)


In Misery to Mirth, Hannah Newton addresses a topic that has attracted remarkably little attention among historians of health and medicine: recovery from serious physical illness. Drawing on a wide range of sources, from vernacular medical writings and physicians’ casebooks to patients’ diaries and other ego-documents, she looks at how men and women (mostly from the upper-classes), physicians and families perceived, dealt with and experienced convalescence and recovery, in England between the 1500s and the early 1700s.The book begins with a thorough analysis of how contemporary medical practitioners—and many patients with them—understood the process of healing. Newton’s detailed discussion of commonly accepted ideas about how Nature and medicine worked together to concoct, to mobilise and finally to expel the morbid matter that caused the illness from wherever it accumulated in the body is a welcome addition to work on ordinary medical practice and its guiding principles, which, as her analysis shows, were frequently much more complex than conventional summaries of early modern Galenic textbook medicine would have it. Looking then more specifically at the process of convalescence, she highlights the outstanding role of regimen, of governing the six non-naturals as a major means of restoring health. She also identifies a little known but important therapeutic measure that linked illness and convalescence: the ‘final purge’. Physicians and patients, she finds, agreed that a last gentle purge was essential, once the actual disease seemed vanquished. This purge would clean the body of any residues of malignant matter that might still be hiding in it and thus forestall relapses and future diseases.

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