Insomnia, Infertility, & Insanity: A 16th c. English Book of Medicinal Preparations

Boorde, Andrew (ca. 1490-1549)

The Breviarie of Health wherin doth Folow, Remedies, for all Maner of Sicknesses & Diseases, the which May Be in Man or Woman. Expressing the obscure termes of Greeke, Araby, Latin, Barbary, and English, concerning phisick and chirurgerie. Compiled by Andrew Boord, Doctor of phisicke: an English-man. Now newly corrected and amended, with some approued medicines that neuer were in print before this impression, & are aptly placed in their proper chapters, by men skilfulll [sic] in phisicke and chirurgerie.

London: by Thomas Este, 1598


Quarto in 8s: 19 x 14.6 cm. 123, [5]; 27, [1] leaves. Collation: A-Q8; A-C8, D4

SIXTH EDITION (1st ed. 1547), the final 16th c. edition.

An unusually fine, unsophisticated copy, with broad margins and the occasional deckled edge, stab-stitched and bound in a contemporary stiff vellum wrapper (small section of upper cover gnawed. By happy accident, the vellum wrapper has come loose, allowing unimpeded inspection of the sewing structure. Very light marginal foxing to fore-edge of first two lvs., fore-margin of title a bit rumpled, small rust spot on a few lvs., else excellent. “The Second Book” has a separate dated title page, foliation and register.

An Elizabethan edition (and the last of the early editions) of this popular book of remedies, written by the English physician and traveler Andrew Boorde. In his prefaces, he emphasizes that no man or woman should practice medicine unless they be properly educated. A physician must have Grammar to understand what he reads, Logic to discuss and define truth from falsehood, Geometry to weigh and measure his drugs and potions, and above all, astronomy, “to know how, when, and at what time every medicine ought to be ministered”. “He that hath not the aforesaid sciences, shall kill many more than he shall save." In his Prologue to Physicians, Boorde rails against what must have been the far-too-common practice of ignorant persons “enterprising to meddle with the ministration of physick”, relying on books that they are not educated enough to understand, and practicing medicine “by speculation”.

Boorde began his medical studies in 1528, after being released from his vows as a cloistered Carthusian monk. He traveled widely and frequently, first as an itinerant medical student and later as a physician. From 1532 to 1534 Boorde was abroad conferring with medical men in Orléans, Poitiers, Toulouse, Wittenberg, and Rome. He also made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia and met surgeons at the university there. In 1535 Thomas Cromwell sent him to Europe again “to test continental opinion of the divorced king” in France, Spain, and Portugal. In 1536 he was practicing medicine in Glasgow but by 1538 he was traveling again, this time to Jerusalem via Italy. Settling at Montpelier upon his return, Boorde began writing several works on astronomy, health, diet, and his travels. Returning to England in 1547, he published his “Breviarie of Health”(ODNB)

Boorde’s “Breviarie” is an important source for our understanding of physicians’ knowledge of and attitudes towards women’s sexuality, reproduction, and anatomy in Early Modern England. Boorde prescribes fertility medicines (and remedies for impotency), treatments for women who have contracted venereal diseases from men (who had themselves contracted them from “harlots”); he describes the “fine veins” (not the hymen) that break, causing bleeding “when a maid doth lose her maidenhead”. There are also individual entries for specific parts of women’s anatomy, such as the breasts (where he discusses problems with lactation), uterus (post-partum issues are addressed), and genitalia, where Boorde emphasizes sexual activity as the culprit of many diseases: “Vulva is the Latin worde. In Greek, it is Histira. In English, it is named a woman’s secret member… and there may breede many diseases” many of which “come by lying with an unclene man or men, or lying with unclene women.”


In his chapter on preventing miscarriage, although he mentions “many receipts of medicines, potions, and laxatine drinkes” that cause “abhorsion”, he dares not provide preparations or specific ingredients, lest “any light woman should have knowledge by the which willful abhorsion may come of the multitudenesse of the flowers of a woman.” 


When discussing the “falling down of the matrix” (i.e. uterine prolapse), Boorde explains that the most common cause is improper positioning of a woman during labor. He asserts that this is most often due to an “unexpert midwife” and takes the opportunity to propose a process for certifying midwives:

“Every midwife should be presented with honest women of great gravity to the Bishop as a sad (i.e. serious) woman wise and discreet, having experience and worthy to have the office of a midwife. Then the bishop with a council of a doctor of physick ought to examine her, and to instruct her in that thing that she is ignorant, and thus proved and admitted is a laudable thing, and as this were used in England there should not halfe so many women miscarry, nor so many children perished.”(The Extravagants, fol. 16)

An insane woman brought to Rome for exorcism:

When describing one of the four general types of madness, “demoniacus”, which Boorde says is caused by the possession of the devil and is “worse than the maniac”, he relates an experience from his travels. He witnessed an insane German woman brought to Rome, caged within an iron enclosure that surrounded a marble pilar, purported to be that to which Christ was bound when presented to Pilate and “to the which pyller, all those that be possessed by the devyl, out of dyvers nacions be brought thither, such persons be made there whole.” It took twenty men to put the struggling woman within the enclosure, into which an Italian priest ventured to perform the exorcism. The priest pronounced his abjuration of the demon, inquiring “Thou devyl or devyls… for what cause thou doest possess this woman?” Boorde, frightened and unnerved by the woman’s answer, fled. “What words were answered I will not write, for men wil not beleve it, but wolde say it were a foule and great lye, but I dyd heare and I was afrayd to tarry any longer, lest that the devyls shulde have come out of her, and to have entered into me.” In assessing whether it was the pilar or the priest that effected the cure, Boorde suspected it to be the latter.

“From the medical point of view, the ‘Breviary of Health’ is Andrew Boorde's most important work, a sort of handbook of domestic medicine after the fashion of the Regimen of Salerno. Although it was the first medical book by a medical man originally written and printed in the English language, it was not the first effort of its kind. In 1534 Sir Thomas Elyot had published his Castel of Health, and had incurred the wrath of physicians for doing so.

“The ‘Breviary of Health’ consists of 384 short chapters, with an appendix called ‘The Second Booke, named the Extravagantes’, of 73 chapters. Some curious remedies are mentioned. For ‘Defnes’, we are to ‘take the gall of a hare and mix it with the grece of a Fox and with black wool instil it into the ears’; for ‘Dronkennes’, ‘drink in the morning a dish of milk’; for ‘Squint or Goggle eye’, ‘put nothing into the eye but the blood of a dove’. To counteract fear, ‘use mery company and feare nothing but God’. Some of the treatment is more heroic. The cure of Itching is to ‘prepare a good payre of nayles, to scratch and claw and tear and rend the skin, that the corrupt blood may run out’. There is an equally drastic treatment of Quinsy; it is worth quoting in full: ‘Angina is the Latin word, Sinachi the Greek word. It is an impostum in the throat which doth stop up a man's wind or breath, and doth come of rheume descending from the head or vaporous humours ascending from the stomacke. A Remedy: Take a litle piece of Pork or Bacon and tie about it a strong thread and let the patient swallow it and by and by pull it out again. Be sure to hold fast the thred and pull it out quickly.’ In another chapter we learn that sleeplessness comes of ‘studying or musyng too much on some matter in the which some persons doth wade too farre, bringing themselves into fantasies’. The remedy is leaves of lettuce laid on the temples.

“No less than twenty kinds of fevers are described, with curious names, erratic fever, tetrach fever, and putrefied fever, besides the more familiar quartan and tertian. The second book of the Breviary, or Extravagantes, contains several chapters on examination of the urine, or water casting, as it was called. Boorde wisely remarks that ‘the best doctour of Physicke may bee deceived in an urine.’” (Douglas Guthrie, M.D., The "Breviary" and "Dyetary" of Andrew Boorde (1490-1549), Physician, Priest and Traveller, in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, Vol. XXXVII, 507, p. 25 ff.)

ESTC S106810; STC 3378