- Healing Words: The Printed Handbills of Early Modern London Quacks by Roberta Mullini
Among the richest archival sources this reviewer has encountered are two sets of seventeenth-century handbills in the British Library, which together contain several hundred leaflets advertising the medical services of London quacks. Although they have been mined in numerous analyses of early modern medicine, they remain underutilized given their richness and the paucity of similar records from the period. Roberta Mullini’s Healing Words: The Printed Handbills of Early Modern London Quacks offers a book-length exploration of this corpus.
Mullini approaches the handbills using tools from the digital humanities, specifically corpus linguistics, involving the computational analysis of large bodies of text. She transcribed the bills to create a text-searchable corpus, which she then analyzes by exploring which terms (and types of terms) appeared most and least frequently as well as where and how such terms were strategically deployed by quack doctors hoping to stand out in the London market. The approach is exciting; however the execution is poor and the insights decidedly unremarkable. Mullini acknowledges that she is not a historian of medicine, and therein lies one of the major problems with this volume. Time and again she goes over well-worn ground, drawing from a thin smattering of secondary sources and presenting her findings as novel. Mullini’s boast—that her book has “delved into a cultural territory which has been neglected till now. … For the first time London unlicensed practitioners—empirics/quacks/irregulars—are centre-stage, speaking to us once again, not only as an object of satire, derision and disapproval, but also as the self-aware agents of entrepreneurship”—will grate on anyone who has read Roy Porter’s authoritative study of the topic.
An overly enthusiastic claim to novelty is a forgivable sin. What is more troubling is that the insights offered teach us so very little that is either new or important about London quacks. The deep historiography of the medical marketplace and irregular practitioners is just not significantly enhanced by Mullini’s findings, which often merely show that predictable terms—disease, distemper, doctor, medicine, cure, and so on—appeared frequently in quack’s adverts. For example, we now have numerical data supporting that quacks sold medicines through booksellers and coffee shops, but we knew that already. And when she points to interesting features like these she too often fails to follow through with meaningful analysis that breaks ground. Her commentary on coffeehouses amounts [End Page 549] to three paragraphs and makes no attempt to link the story to the rich literature on the Enlightenment coffeehouse. Mullini also makes curious editorial choices. To take but one example, her chapter on the ailments treated by quacks shows that scurvy and venereal disease were far and away the most common diseases mentioned. Why, then, discuss them in a cursory subsection but then spend the rest of the chapter analyzing melancholy, a disease that quacks rarely mentioned? (Mullini’s own data show that quacks mentioned venereal disease—by its many names—ten times more frequently than melancholy.) The upshot of her discussion, predictably that London quacks tended not to trade in melancholy, calls the entire exercise into question. The use of brief subheadings in every chapter and the wandering quality of the book may stem from the lackluster results that her methodology yielded or else from her failure to devise a coherent thesis for the book. The final chapter typifies the problem, offering three case studies: one of a family of quacks, a second about women hawking beauty creams, and finally a look at a pseudo-quack pamphlet penned by the Earl of Rochester. Each is interesting, but they have little to do with one another, and no argumentative thread links them. The publisher, Peter Lang, bears some responsibility. A more thorough peer-review process might have flagged some of the bigger problems.
The book may have value for the history of advertising, which for the premodern age has focused more on newspaper...