Mountebanks and Medicine

By Thomas Frost

Mountebanks—a name derived from the Italian words monta in banco, mounting a bench—were, in company with their attendant zanies, or “Merry Andrews,” a popular class of public entertainers down to the earlier years of the present century. Their chief object, however, was not to provide a free entertainment, but to dispose of their nostrums to the crowds which the entertainment brought together. Andrew Borde, a medical practitioner at Winchester, who obtained a more than local reputation, enjoying the distinction of being one of the physicians of Henry VIII., is said to have been the original “Merry Andrew.” The story of his life is full of interest, and furnishes some curious information concerning the manners of his age and his class. Mr. George Roberts, who supplied Lord Macaulay with much material for his “History of England,” relates that Borde was a man of great learning, and had travelled on the continent. He made many astronomical calculations, which may not unfairly be supposed to have been for the purposes of astrology. He was a celibitarian and an ascetic, drinking water three times a week, wearing a hair-shirt next his skin, and keeping the sheet intended for his burial at the foot of his bed. As a mountebank, he frequented fairs, markets, and other places of public resort, and addressed those assembled in recommendation of his medicines. He was a fluent speaker, and the witticisms with which he interspersed his lectures never failed to attract, obtaining for him the name of “Merry Andrew.”

Mountebanks flourished on the continent as well as in England, and the Belphegor of the dramatist had many prototypes in Italy and France. Coryat, a little-known writer, who made the tour of Europe at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and published a narrative of his adventures and experiences, gives a good account of the mountebanks he saw at Venice. “Twice a day,” he says, “that is, in the morning and afternoon, you may see five or six several stages erected for them.... These mountebanks at one end of their stage place their trunk, which is replenished with a world of new-fangled trumperies. After the whole rabble of them has gotten up to the stage,—whereof some wear vizards like fools in a play, some that are women are attired with habits according to that person they sustain,—the music begins; sometimes vocal, sometimes instrumental, sometimes both. While the music plays, the principal mountebank opens his trunk and sets abroad his wares. Then he maketh an oration to the audience of half-an-hour long, wherein he doth most hyperbolically extol the virtue of his drugs and confections—though many of them are very counterfeit and false. I often wondered at these natural orators, for they would tell their tales with such admirable volubility and plausible grace, extempore, and seasoned with that singular variety of elegant jests and witty conceits, that they did often strike great admiration into strangers.... He then delivereth his commodities by little and little, the jester still playing his part, and the musicians singing and playing upon their instruments. The principal things that they sell are oils, sovereign waters, amorous songs printed, apothecary drugs, and a commonweal of other trifles. The head mountebank, every time he delivereth out anything, maketh an extemporal speech, which he doth eftsoons intermingle with such savoury jests (but spiced now and then with singular scurrility), that they minister passing mirth and laughter to the whole company, which may perhaps consist of a thousand people.” The entertainment extended over two hours, when, having sold as many of their wares as they could, their properties would be removed and the stage taken down.

Jonson, in his comedy of “Volpone,” presents a scene showing a mountebank’s stage at Venice, and the discourse of the vendor of quack medicines has a remarkable resemblance to the oratory of the “Cheap Jacks” of the present day, of which old play-goers may remember hearing a very good imitation in the drama of “The Flowers of the Forest.” Says Jonson’s mountebank: “You all know, honourable gentlemen, I never valued this ampulla, or vial, at less than eight crowns; but for this time I am content to be deprived of it for six: six crowns is the price, and less in courtesy I know you cannot offer me. Take it or leave it, however, both it and I am at your service! Well! I am in a humour at this time to make a present of the small quantity my coffer contains: to the rich in courtesy, and to the poor for God’s sake. Wherefore, now mark: I asked you six crowns, and six crowns at other times you have paid me; you shall not give me six crowns, nor five, nor four, nor three, nor two, nor one, nor half a ducat. Sixpence it will cost you (or six hundred pounds); expect no lower price, for I will not bate.”

Returning to the mountebanks of our own country, we find in the accounts of the Chamberlain of the Corporation of Worcester for the year 1631 the following item:—

“They yeald account of money by them received of mountebanks to the use of the poor 58s. 9d.”

It is suggested by Mr. John Noake, however, that these mountebanks were riders or posturers, and that the amount was the charge made for the permission accorded them to perform in the city. Later in the century, the eccentric Earl of Rochester, on one occasion, played the mountebank on Tower Hill, and the example was followed by more than one comedian of the next century. Leveridge and Penkethman, actors well known at Bartholomew Fair for many years, appeared at country fairs as “Doctor Leverigo and his Jack-Pudding Pinkanello,” as also did Haines as “Watho Van Claturbank, High German Doctor.” The discourse of the latter was published as a broadside, headed with an engraving representing him addressing a crowd from a stage, with a bottle of medicine in his right hand. Beside him stands a Harlequin, and in the rear a man with a plumed hat blows a trumpet. A gouty patient occupies a high-backed arm-chair, and an array of boxes and bottles is seen at the back of the stage.

“Having studied Galen, Hypocrates, Albumazar, and Paracelsus,” says the discourse thus headed, “I am now become the Esculapius of the age; having been educated at twelve universities, and travelled through fifty-two kingdoms, and been counsellor to the counsellors of several monarchs. By the earnest prayers and entreaties of several lords, earls, dukes, and honourable personages, I have been at last prevailed upon to oblige the world with this notice, that all persons, young or old, blind or lame, deaf and dumb, curable or incurable, may know where to repair for cure, in all cephalalgias, paralytic paroxysms, palpitations of the pericardium, empyemas, syncopes, and nasieties; arising either from a plethory or a cachochymy, vertiginous vapours, hydrocephalus dysenteries, odontalgic or podagrical inflammations, and the entire legion of lethiferous distempers.... This is Nature’s palladium, health’s magazine; it works seven manner of ways, as Nature requires, for it scorns to be confined to any particular mode of operation; so that it affecteth the cure either hypnotically, hydrotically, cathartically, poppismatically, pneumatically, or synedochically; it mundifies the hypogastrium, extinguishes all supernatural fermentations and ebullitions, and, in fine, annihilates all nosotrophical morbific ideas of the whole corporeal compages. A drachm of it is worth a bushel of March dust; for, if a man chance to have his brains beat out, or his head dropped off, two drops—I say two drops! gentlemen—seasonably applied, will recall the fleeting spirit, re-enthrone the deposed archeus, cement the discontinuity of the parts, and in six minutes restore the lifeless trunk to all its pristine functions, vital, natural, and animal; so that this, believe me, gentlemen, is the only sovereign remedy in the world. Venienti occurite morbo.—Down with your dust. Principiis obsta.—No cure no money. Quærendo pecunia primum.—Be not sick too late.”

The mountebanking quack flourished in great state in the first half of the last century. “A Tour through England,” published in 1723, gives the following account of one whom the author saw at Winchester:—“As I was sitting at the George Inn, I saw a coach with six bay horses, a calash and four, a chaise and four, enter the inn, in a yellow livery, turned up with red; four gentlemen on horseback, in blue, trimmed with silver: and as yellow is the colour given by the dukes in England, I went out to see what duke it was; but there was no coronet on the coach, only a plain coat-of-arms on each, with this motto: ARGENTO LABORAT FABER. Upon enquiry, I found this great equipage belonged to a mountebank, and that his name being Smith, the motto was a pun upon his name. The footmen in yellow were his tumblers and trumpeters, and those in blue his merry-andrew, his apothecary, and his spokesman. He was dressed in black velvet, and had in his coach a woman that danced on the ropes. He cures all diseases, and sells his packets for sixpence a-piece. He erected stages in all the market towns twenty miles round; and it is a prodigy how so wise a people as the English are gulled by such pickpockets. But his amusements on the stage are worth the sixpence, without the pills. In the morning he is dressed up in a fine brocade night-gown, for his chamber practice, when he gives advice, and gets large fees.”

A passage in a letter written by the second Lord Lyttelton, about the year 1774, shows that this style of travelling was then still kept up by mountebanks. He says:—“As a family party of us were crossing the road on the side of Hagley Park, a chaise passed along, followed by a couple of attendants with French horns. Who can that be, said my father? Some itinerant mountebank, replied I, if one may judge from his musical followers. I really spoke with all the indifference of an innocent mind: nor did it occur to me that the Right Reverend Father in God, my uncle, had sometimes been pleased to travel with servants similarly accoutred.” Nearly twenty years later, the famous quack, Katerfelto, travelled through Durham in a carriage, with a pair of horses, and attended by two negro servants in green liveries, with red collars. In the towns he visited these men were sent round to announce his lectures on electricity and the microscope, blowing trumpets, and distributing hand-bills.

There seems to be good ground for believing that among what may be called the amateur mountebanks, such as Rochester, we must count the author of “Tristram Shandy.” Dr. Dibdin found in the possession of Mr. James Atkinson, a medical practitioner at York, a rather roughly executed picture, in oil colours, representing a mountebank and his zany on a stage, surrounded by a crowd. An inscription described the former as Mr. T. Brydges, and the latter as the Rev. Laurence Sterne. Mr. Atkinson, who was an octogenarian, told Dr. Dibdin that his father had been acquainted with Sterne, who was a good amateur draughtsman, and that he and Brydges each painted the other’s portrait in the picture. The story is a strange one, but before it is dismissed as unworthy of belief, it must be remembered that the clerical story-writer was a droll and whimsical character, and at no time much influenced by his priestly vocation. It is quite conceivable, therefore, that he may have indulged in such a freak on some occasion during the period of his life in which he developed his worst moral deficiencies.

In the early years of the present century, a German quack, named Bossy, used to mount a stage on Tower Hill and Covent Garden Market alternately, in order, as he said, that both ends of London might profit by his experience and skill. It is said that on one of these occasions, when he had induced an old woman to mount his stage in the latter place, and relate the wonderful cures the doctor had performed upon her, a parrot that had learned some coarse language from the porters and costermongers frequenting the market, and sometimes used it in a manner that seemed very apt to the occasion, exclaimed, “Lying old ——!” when the old woman concluded her narrative. The roar of laughter with which this criticism was received by the rough audience disconcerted Bossy for a moment; but quickly recovering his presence of mind, he stepped forward, with his hand on his heart, and gravely replied, “It is no lie, you wicked bird!—it is all true as is de Gospel!” Bossy attained considerable reputation, and ended his days with a fair competence.

The mountebank has long fallen from his former high estate. The quack may still be found vending his pills in the open-air markets of Yorkshire and Lancashire; but he does not mount a stage, and resembles his predecessors of the last century only in the fluency and volubility of his discourse on the virtues of his potions, pills, and plasters. The author of the paper on mountebanks in the “Book of Days” (edited by Robert Chambers), states that he saw one at York about 1860, who “sold medicines on a stage in the old style, but without the Merry Andrew or the music,” and adds that “he presented himself in shabby black clothes, with a dirty white neck-cloth.” Even the name had long before that time ceased to be connected with the vending of medicines, and had come to be applied to those itinerant circus companies who gave gratuitous performances in the open air, making their gains by the sale of lottery tickets. The present writer remembers seeing the circus company of John Clarke performing on a piece of waste ground at Lower Norwood, when the clown of the show went among the spectators selling tickets at a shilling each, entitling the holder to participate in a drawing, the prizes in which were Britannia metal tea pots and milk ewers, papier maché tea trays, cotton gown pieces, etc. That must have been about 1835, or within a year or two of that time.

Only a few years later, a lottery in sixpenny shares was similarly conducted at Alfreton, in Derbyshire, and probably in many other places, though contrary to the provisions of the Lottery Act.

The mountebank doctor of former times, with his carriage, his zany, and his musicians, can now only be met with in the provincial towns of France and Italy, and even there but seldom. Thirty or forty years ago, there was a man who, in a carriage drawn up behind the Louvre, used to practise dentistry and advertise his father, who had a flourishing dentist’s practice in one of the narrow streets near the cathedral of Notre Dame. Another of this fraternity was seen at Marseilles by an English tourist a few years later, and in this instance some musicians accompanied the mountebank’s phaeton, and drowned the cries of the suffering patients with the crash of a march. But these survivals remind us rather of Belphegor, in the pathetic drama of that name, than of Dulcamara in the opera of L’Elisor d’Amore, with his gorgeous equipage and his musical attendants, as old play-goers remember the personation of the character by the famous Lablache.