Finding a Cure for Venereal Disease in Early Modern London

By Olivia Weisser

For many of us, one of the most challenging aspects of writing a history paper is crafting a strong argument. How do you take an assortment of primary sources and actually say something arguable about them? I tell my students to look for patterns. Patterns can point toward exciting historical problems and attempts to explain those problems, in turn, can develop into arguments. Patterns, in other words, compel us to prove something rather than report what our sources say.

Country Journal or The Craftsman, April 27, 1734, British Library

I, too, try to find and explain patterns in my own work. My forthcoming research in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, for example, tries to explain an intriguing pattern I found in healers’ writing about venereal disease from the early 1700s: medical cases tend to end with confessions of sexual secrets. Patients admitted to sleeping with prostitutes or having secret affairs with servant maids. Why would this be? I ultimately found that confessions enabled healers to highlight their expertise. Patients’ admissions of sexual dalliances validated healers’ diagnoses of disease.

This post looks at a lesson I developed to help students work through the key steps of moving from source to argument. It does so using some of the sources from my forthcoming article in the Bulletin.

This lesson is part of a longer unit on the history of venereal disease that I teach in a research methods class, “Sex and Society (1600-1800),” at the University of Massachusetts Boston. We begin by discussing a secondary source about our topic. I like to assign a fantastic article by historian Kevin Siena that shows how patient demand for privacy shaped venereal healers’ practices. We talk about the author’s sources–hundreds of advertisements for venereal cures–and how he uses them to support his argument. I bring in my own work, to show how two historians can interpret the same sources differently. Then we try it for ourselves.

Students read a packet of advertisements for venereal cures from the early 1700s. The images above and below offer examples of what some of these advertisements look like.

Advertisement by Dr. James Tilborgh, British Library

Using these sources as models, students inhabit the mindset of an early modern healer by creating their own advertisements, but with one key difference: their ads are set in the early modern “world” of our university. Instead of a shop located “by the Golden Ball on Fleet Street” as it might be in a London advertisement, students refer to the buildings and culture of our campus. One group last fall, for instance, advertised a “shop behind Quinn Café.” They instructed readers to “order a latte with extra cinnamon and it will arrive with a secret cure for the pox.”

Students present their advertisements to the class and together we generate a list of features they all share in common: how healers assert expertise, the secret locations of shops, the kinds of diseases they purportedly cure, and so on. By the end of the presentations, we have a long list of patterns found in the early modern advertisements, as well as students’ humorous versions of the ads. We discuss these patterns and highlight those that seem surprising, contradictory, or particularly interesting. That is, we locate the patterns in our primary sources that require explanation. Those explanations, students begin to see, are where arguments are born.

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