It used to be that we couldn’t trust what we found on the internet. There are still certainly many cases where that is true, but there are now some very helpful blogs and websites out there that are well researched and documented. As my current interest is medicine in the early modern period (which was almost exactly the same as medicine in colonial New England), I have found some blogs that tie right in. They are written by experts in the field and are well documented.
Early Modern Medicine is written by Dr. Jennifer Evans, lecturer in history at the University of Hertfordshire. Her research interest is medicine, the body and gender in early modern Europe. Recent blog posts covered topics ranging from treatment and beliefs about the heart and heart maladies, rheumatism and humors, and using unicorn horns to treat poison. Other experts in the field often post as well. On her blogroll page, she has a nice listing of related sites. She is on Twitter at @UniofHerts
The Recipes Project: Food, Magic, Science and Medicine is written by an international group of scholars interested in recipes. Recent posts include medicine as an exact science (using specific measurements so ingredients work in harmony rather than cancelling each other out), examining social networks using maps and documents to examine how recipes are collected for a 17th century manuscript, and a 17th century cure-all recipe. The Recipes Project can also be found on Twitter and Facebook (see the About page) and they had such interesting entries that I was distracted from blog writing for a while. They also have a further reading page.
Hx: Medical Historia is written by Paul Middleton, a medical historian. Recent posts include early treatments for insomnia, the magic of the mythical unicorn horn that is included in many recipes, and sarsaparilla. He can also be found on twitter: @Paul_Middleton1
What are some of your favorite well-researched blogs to add social history context to your genealogical research?
I was looking for something to read one night when I was home for Christmas and came across this book. I have really become interested in quilts since I first discovered Jennifer Chiaverini’s Elm Creek series. These novels set in the current day, but with strong historical themes, provide an easy to read and rich history of quilts.
I was fascinated by the way the author pulled together a story about individual women involved in the Mormon migrations from the quilt(s) that they made. In the introduction she explains that she wants to tell the story of women using material culture. This is relatively new field of study focusing on the study of the role and meaning of historical physical items, such as quilts, that still survive. Cross carefully defines the qualifications for inclusion in her study, without any preconceived notions of which items will be included. Inclusion criteria included traceable history of the quilt from when it was made to the present, as well as the time periods and activities in which a woman must have been involved in with the Mormon church and migrations in the 19th century.
The most interesting part of the book is how she studies each quilt and the woman who made it. She gives the name of the quilt pattern, along with a brief history of the pattern and any distinct characteristics of the quilt. A photograph of each quilt is included. She then gives a brief history of the woman who made it.
While none of my ancestors are highlighted in the book, by reading through the biographies of the women and histories of the quilts, I am able to get a strong sense of what it was like to be a female Mormon pioneer in the 19th century. The photos and description of the quilts provide a reminder that this was a real person, not just a name and date on a piece of paper, that made these.
How have you used material culture historical studies in your genealogical research?
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! I hope you all enjoy lots of family time this holiday season. I will be finalizing an interview with my dad about his childhood and updating the transcription. I also plan to put up some more posts about my life as part of “The Book of Me, Written by You.” What are you plans for genealogy/social history over the holidays?
This year I finally did something I have wanted to do for years: I attended the Harvest Dinner at Plimoth Plantation. For those not from this area, Plimoth Plantation is a living history village set in the year 1627. The interpreters each take on the role of one of the people that lived in the village in 1627 and do not break that role.
Plimoth Plantation offers Thanksgiving dinner as well as a harvest dinner. Since the harvest dinner is closest to what the Pilgrims would have eaten, and I wanted an authentic experience to bring me closer to my ancestors who lived during that time period, I chose the harvest dinner.
It was a bitterly cold day and I braved the village just to get myself in the mood and to have some sympathy for my ancestors who didn’t have the warm clothes that I have. The buildings were drafty.
The dinner was wonderful. Lots of meat and fish. My favorites were a rice pudding and a cabbage dish. I don’t usually like seafood, but the mussels were delicious. We even had some of the interpreters providing entertainment and conversing with us. The full menu can be found here. Recipes can be found in the Pilgrim Seasonings blog written by Kathleen Wall of Plimoth Plantation.
It was a wonderful experience and I am glad I was able to “walk” in the shoes of my ancestors. What experiences have you taken advantage of that allowed you to walk in the shoes of your ancestors?
I recently listened to a fascinating podcast. Marian Pierre Louis interviewed Michael Bell about his book “Food for the Dead” which focused on a specific treatment for tuberculosis treatments in the 1800s. At the time, there were not any effective treatments and it was terrifying to watch loved ones suffer and literally waste away as the disease ravaged their body.
Michael explains it better than I can so you should definitely listen to the podcast. What I took away though was that people believed that evil spirits could inhabit the bodies of family members or neighbors who had recently died. They believed that some of these spirits could then feast on blood of the living.
If you think of the symptoms of consumption this makes sense. During the final stages of the disease, people would cough up blood. They would also have difficulty breathing–it often felt like there was a big weight on their chest. In the morning the patient would wake up complaining of someone sitting on their chest during the night and there would be blood on the bedclothes.
Once they had identified a likely corpse which the evil spirit inhabited, the corpse was exhumed and the heart was examined for evidence of blood. If blood was found, many believed that was evidence of the evil spirit. The heart, and sometimes the entire body, was burned so that the spirit was destroyed. Sometimes the sick patients would breathe in the smoke or drink the ashes as both were felt to be purified and could help purify the person who was ill.
As we look back, this seems a very strange practice. My favorite part of the podcast was when Michael talked about what he wanted readers to take away. He said, “Let’s not be so judgmental of our ancestors. It’s easy to look back at them from the perch of the 21st century.” The following is a paraphrase of his comments. While we have the benefit of scientific knowledge, we are not any smarter than our ancestors. They were pretty smart too. He encourages us to have empathy and gives the example of cancer in our day. Do we know the cause or a cure for cancer? We have some knowledge, but not enough to prevent it or always successfully treat it. When people have tried all that modern medicine can provide and the prognosis is not good–what do people do? They often look into alternative medicine or other therapies. They don’t want to give up on their loved one and want to try everything possible to save his or her life.
I love how he explained this because I think it is so easy to cast judgments on our ancestors. But judging our ancestors does absolutely nothing to help us better understand them. Rather, trying to understand what they did and why they did it leads us to a greater understanding as well as greater sympathy.
You may know that I have been working on a transcription of a handwritten collection of medical recipes from the 1600s that will be the source document for my thesis. I finally finished the 2nd pass through of transcription this week after working on it for at least 18 months. Accomplishing this milestone made me think back to why I was interested in this in the first place.
Several years ago I took a class in world history. After searching around for a topic for the term paper, I finally decided to write about medical advice and recipes for treatment of gynecological and childbirth issues in medieval England. I was surprised to find that suggested treatments for the gynecological issues were often right-on according to modern technology, at least if you think like a women in medieval England. It was believed that menstrual blood could be toxic if it built up in the body. Therefore, having a regular period was of high priority. Poor diet, however, often caused irregular periods and pregnancy could not be known until movement of the fetus was first felt several months after conception. Many of the herbs they used are known abortifacients (causing abortion) and others are known to restart a stalled period. While no doubt some women purposely caused abortions, others took these herbs without knowing they were pregnant. In any case, whether a woman was pregnant or not, by taking these herbs she achieved the desired result of restarting the period. (The treatments for childbirth issues on the other hand seemed very strange and superstitious to me).
Before this, I thought that medieval medicine was based on ignorant and unhelpful theories. Thankfully I have come a long way in adjusting my attitude to culture and beliefs in earlier time periods. In any case, this jump started my interest in social history, of which medicine is still an important part.
What caught your fancy and got you started in researching social history?