Folías de España

Less Well Known Baroque Stringed Instruments

The Evolution of the Violin Bow:

17th century MEDICINE

In 17th-century Europe people were not aware that disease was spread by germs, and did not think of washing their hands before eating so diseases could spread quickly. People dreaded catching malaria, and cholera (both prevalent in parts of Europe in 17thc. and beyond), which they thought came from a poisonous gas called ‘miasma’ from sewers and cesspits. Doctors still believed the ideas of a Greek physician called Galen. He thought that the body was ruled by four humours, or fluids, which determined what your personality was and how you reacted to various diseases. The four humours were :

  • Blood/Sanguine – hot: fiery personality
  • Phlegm – cold: calm personality
  • Yellow bile – dry: bad-tempered personality
  • Black bile – moist: melancholy personality

In China, plants have been used for medicinal purposes for 4,500 years and some of these were brought to Europe. Many European plants, such as foxglove and marshmallow, were also used to treat illnesses. As well as these, doctors believed in the power of powders said to be made from strange ingredients such as horn from the mythical unicorn, and bezoar stone (made famous again in J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter books), which was claimed to be the tears of a stag turned to stone. Live worms, fox lungs (for asthma), spiders’ webs, swallows’ nests and the skulls of executed criminals were also highly sought-after ingredients.

Leeches are a type of slug-like worm, used for thousands of years to reduce blood pressure and cleanse the blood. A leech placed on the skin will consume four times its own weight in blood, and with the blood the toxins that produce diseases. While the leech is sucking it releases a chemical called hirudin, which prevents coagulation, or clotting of the blood. Fevers were thought to be the result of too much blood in the body: doctors deliberately cut veins or used leeches to release this ‘bad’ blood.

A Frenchman named Ambroise Pare discovered that the best way to treat a wound was not to put boiling oil on it, as had previously been the practice, but instead to apply a cold lotion made of egg yolk, oil of roses and turpentine. William Harvey published De Motu Cordis in 1628, determining the function of the heart & circulation of blood, using dissections and other experimental techniques – a great step forward in the understanding of working of the human body. New medications which became popular included tobacco, coffee, tea, and chocolate: all of them were first used as medicines!

In England, herbal treatment reached its peak of popularity with the publication of the Herbal by Nicholas Culpeper: The English Phystian, 1652. He described and illustrated many plants, and suggested medicinal uses for each plant. One such was the herb Wintergreen, which contains salicin, a natural form of the painkiller. Some advances in medicine came about through treating soldiers and sailors on the battlefield.

By the end of the 17th century, a more clinical and scientific approach to health, based on actual observation, gradually began to appear. This laid the foundations for the much greater medical progress in the 18thc. century and 19thc.

Wintergreen, The English Physitian, Culpeper:
“…Wintergreen is a singularly good wound herb, and an especial remedy for healing green wounds speedily; the green leaves being bruised and applied, or the juice of them. A salve made of the green herb stamped, or the juice boiled with hog’s lard, or with salad oil and wax, and some turpentine added to it, is a sovereign salve, and highly esteemed by the Germans who use it to heal all manner of wounds and sores. The herb boiled in wine and water, and given to drink to them that have any inward ulcers in their kidneys, or neck of the bladder, doth wonderfully help them. It stays all fluxes, and may take away any inflammation rising upon pains of the heart”.

Richard Webb