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From Scourbuch to the Scurvy: The Arrival of a New Disease in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

Greg Wells

My argument is that scurvy in the early modern period, as it affected people on land, has been neglected in favour of sea scurvy in the late seventeenth century and later. This neglect is unjustified, firstly because the disease was common and serious at the time, secondly because it can be used to illuminate wider aspects of changes in attitudes to health. I pose three questions. What, exactly, was the scurvy? How was it treated in practice? Why do we have a disease called scurvy today? To answer these I have used mainly medical texts from the Early English Books Online database between 1568 and 1657. I also looked at treatments for the scurvy in popular collections of recipes, and at the case notes of one physician, John Hall. These were published in 1657 and it is the published version that has mostly been studied. I show that there are aspects of the case notes which are not adequately reflected in the published version. My conclusions are that scurvy changed from a simple disease (scorbute) in the sixteenth century, to a more complex one (the scurvy) overlapping with other diagnoses by 1650. There was less change to treatment, which continued to rely on long-­standing herb-­based remedies. There was increased use of antiscorbutics in other diseases, to treat supposedly hidden disease. Why we have a disease called scurvy today, instead of scorbute, required a comparison of usage in medical and non-­medical texts. I suggest that a pre-­existing popular and derogatory meaning of scurvy absorbed some elements of the new disease, and proved strong enough to be re-­absorbed into medical language.

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