The archives in Durham contain witness testimonies of a confrontation between two Newcastle women in 1608. Elizabeth Waister and Alice Fetherstone were both married, both from Ryton and consequently known to each other.
While standing at a bread stall at Newcastle market, Alice accused Elizabeth of jumping the queue and purchasing the last of the “good white bread”. This accusation unleashed a torrent of invective, which included Elizabeth’s claim that Alice was:
“…a slut that did shit in her cooking pot…”
Alice fired back with an even more poisonous barb, referring to a stillborn child Elizabeth had delivered years earlier:
“Thou art a poisoned, jaded whore… God had sent [you] one example [of your whoredom] and perhaps he might send another.”
Elizabeth subsequently sued Alice for defamation but the outcome of this case is not recorded.
Christopher Wirtzung was a prominent German physician of the late 16th century. Wirtzung’s medical guide, The General Practice of Physicke, was written in 1598. It was translated into English in 1619 and subsequently became popular in Britain.
Much of Wirtzung’s medical advice is standard for its time. For example, Wirtzung attributes earache and deafness to “worms, fleas and little creeping things” that hatch and grow in the ears. To conceive a male child, Wirtzung suggests sprinkling one’s meat with a powder, made by drying and grinding:
“…the stone [testicle] of a bore hog being two years old, and the pizzle [penis] of a shag, shaven… two pairs of fox stones and 50 or threescore  sparrow brains… the pizzle of a bull and… cloves, saffron, nutmeg and rosemary.”
For women struggling with unwanted hair on the face or body, Wurtzel suggests the following homemade depilatory:
“Take a pint of wine, drown 20 green frogs therein, or as many as can be drowned therein, then set the pot 40 days in the warm sun… Afterwards, strain it hard through a cloth, anoint the place therewith where you take away the hair…”
In 1743, a Flemish explorer and writer published A Natural History of Greenland, having spent time there some years earlier. Hans Egedius begins with an account of Greenland’s climate, terrain, natural resources and fauna. He then turns his attention to its human inhabitants, mentioning their proclivity for wife-swapping:
“They have riotous assemblies in which it is reckoned good breeding when a man lends his wife to a friend…”
Egedius also records a list of bizarre medical treatments allegedly used in Greenland, such as this response to intestinal worms:
“When their children are troubled with worms, the mother puts her tongue up the [child’s] fundament to kill them.”
And their unique approach to childbirth:
“They hold a piss-pot over the women’s heads whilst in labour, thinking it to promote hasty delivery. They seldom [deliver] twins, but often monsters.”
In 1694, Scottish doctor James McMath published The Expert Midwife in Edinburgh. McMath’s book was one of several guides to pregnancy and childbirth available at the time. Its content is mostly unremarkable, filled with medical advice that was standard for the time. McMath’s flowery writing style, however, sometimes bordered on the absurd. He refused to include an anatomical description of the female genitalia, out of “modesty and reverence to nature” – yet likens pregnant women to “tender vessels” on a “long and perilous voyage [on] rough and rocky seas”.
Even more strange is McMath’s account of the best time for conception, when:
“…the blood of the courses [menstrual fluid] is of a florid bright colour and smelling like marigolds.”
Writing in The Diseases of Women with Child, first published 1688, French doctor Francois Mauriceau provided comprehensive instructions for breastfeeding children. In the chapter titled ‘Directions for choosing a nurse’, Mauriceau took aim at red-haired mothers and wet nurses:
“The necessary conditions in a good nurse are usually taken from her age, the time and manner of her labour, the good constitution of all the parts of her body, and particularly of her breasts, from the nature of her milk [and] from her good manners…”
She must not be red-haired, nor marked with red spots… She ought to have a sweet voice to please and rejoice the child, and likewise ought to have a clear and free pronunciation, that he may not learn an ill accent from her, as usually red-haired [women] have.”
Mauriceau went on to advise that wet nurses should not have “a strong breath” or “stinking nose” or “bad teeth”. “Her breasts ought to be pretty big… but not big to excess” and “not flaggy and hanging”. And again, she must not have red hair, for:
“Their milk is hot, sharp and stinking, and also of an ill taste.”