Book Review: “Pustules, Pestilence and Pain: Tudor Treatments and Ailments of Henry VIII” by Seamus O’ Caellaigh

51reJRJpGeLThe everyday life of those who lived in the past has been an area of fascination for those who study any period in history. We often wonder what it was like to dress like a person in the court of Henry VIII or Elizabeth I, what their diets were like, and how they interacted with one another, either in the royal court or as commoners working everyday to make a living. One of the areas that is always mentioned is the health of a monarch. In the case of the Tudors, when we speak of health, many look to Henry VIII as he had a lot of different medical conditions and accidents that affected his life. What was 16th century medical practices like? How did doctors treat their patients in the time of the Tudors? This has been an area of Tudor life that has not received much attention.  That is until now. Seamus O’ Caellaigh gives us an in-depth look at the treatments fit for King Henry VIII from the doctors who actually treated the king in his book, “Pustules, Pestilence and Pain: Tudor Treatments and Ailments of Henry VIII”.

In order to show us what the world of 16th century doctors would have been like, Seamus O’ Caellaigh decided to look at one of the most well-documented rulers of the time, Henry VIII, but it provided its own unique challenges.

The medical staff of Henry VIII of England left gaps in the medical history of the king. While it is possible that the records have just been lost or destroyed, it is very likely that Henry VIII’s physicians did not keep records of what they did to treat Henry, possibly for their own protection. I approached the filling of these gaps by first finding references to his illnesses in letters from his court and from first-hand accounts, recorded in biographies, written by courtiers and staff. Next, I analysed works written by Henry’s physicians to determine what Tudor physicians would have done to treat the various illnesses. Using the works of Henry’s medical staff, I recreated some of the identified treatments, and I examined the ingredients to look at the history of their uses through early medical texts, and at the harmful effects that could have happened because of our knowledge now of modern medicine and science. This book is a case study of a person over a period of time, not only to present possible treatments for an infamous ruler, but to humanize a science and open a window into the world of Tudor medicine. (O’Caellaigh, 1).

Authors and historians have often written about Tudor medical treatments and illnesses in their books, but O’ Caellaigh takes it a few steps further. He looks at the treatments, giving us, the reader, the actual texts that the physicians wrote in its original form. Now for those of us who cannot read the Latin phrases or Tudor English, O’Caellaigh includes a translated version of the texts on the next page. He also includes origins of the different medicinal ingredients and why the physicians used the ingredients in the treatments. It is fascinating to read about the different ingredients like wild lettuce, lead, rose oil and sulfur, since they seem like odd ingredients to use in medicine. Modern readers may have no clue what these ingredients would have looked like, which is exactly why O’Caellaigh included photographs of what each treatment looked like and how it might have been applied.

This book may be small, but it packs tons of information, both written and as pictures, inside its pages. Before I read this book, I knew about the different ailments and illnesses, but I really had no clue about how the physicians would approach the illnesses and ailments in order to treat them. This book is a fantastic introduction into the world of Tudor medical treatments and Tudor physicians. Seamus O’Caellaigh was able to make a complex topic, Tudor medicine, and make it easy to understand and rather fascinating to study. If you are interested in Tudor medical treatments, I highly recommend you read Seamus O’Caellaigh’s book, “Pustules, Pestilence and Pain: Tudor Treatments and Ailments of Henry VIII”.

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