Mistress Agnes Wields a Quill

CCCC front coverWhat’s this? I hear you cry, Mistress Agnes? She knows not how to write. Ah, so you might think but let me share with you a well kept secret. Mistress Agnes has another life! Who would have known it? There is even a rumour that she had a hand in that wonderous tome Coffers, Clysters, Comfrey and Coifs: the lives of our seventeenth century ancestors.

This very week the other Mistress Agnes has been hobnobbing with those who do wield a quill, whilst the real Mistress Agnes learned of a local rival to Master Christopher. I give you the fascinating tale of Richard Vines, early seventeenth century physician of Biddeford Town; though in truth he was more likely to have been a barber surgeon. Master Christopher need not fear the competition, as Vines, we hear tell, is off to explore the New World and little chance he has of survival. Here be an extract from a fictional tale of Master Vines but we will not be saying which Mistress Agnes was responsible and the full story may never be told, so holding of the breath is not advised. Oh, unless you do become insensible as a result and need Master Christopher’s ministrations – he could do with the business.

Blood spurted across the sawdust-strewn floor of The Ship  tavern and a chilling groan emerged from the young seaman. He was lying on the scarred and sticky table, limbs firmly pinioned by four of his crew-mates, a leather strap held between his gritted teeth. Standing over the writhing man, Vines drew the back of his grimy hand across his sweaty brow and sniffed hard, so that the droplet of moisture did not descend from the end of his pock-marked nose. He urged his assistants to tighten their grip on the patient. One of the anxious onlookers took a black leather flask from his belt and swilled a slug of usquebaugh down the hapless victim’s throat, hoping to dull the pain as Vine’s rusty saw inexorably drew back and forth, with a rasping sound.

                “Not seen a barrel make that much mess o’ a foot since I left Glasgee, these two years gone, poor gille”. The speaker shook his head slowly and fingered his ginger beard. The surgeon’s discarded blade reflected the light from the guttering tallow candle on The Swan’s warped oak mantel-shelf. He working swiftly, knowing that he had no more than three minutes to sever his patient’s shattered foot before the boy bled to death. He’d heard tales of some new French ideas, where the blood vessels were tied individually after amputation but such fanciful notions were not for the pragmatic Vines. His cautery irons were glowing cherry red in the roaring fire and a small iron pot of hot tar stood on the hearth stone, ready to encase the stump.

Richard Vines, barber surgeon to the forthcoming Gorges expedition to Maine had not expected to spend his last evening ashore operating. He’d been sat comfortably on the curved, high-backed wooden settle in front of The Ship’s welcoming fire, woollen encased lags apart, supping his ale. Four men had rushed in, half-carrying, half dragging their young crew-mate, whose foot had been crushed as he worked to load dried goods onto the Pride of Albion. The vessel could be seen through the scratched window glass, rolling and bobbing on river in the stiffening breeze, wet ropes slapping against the mast in the wind, as it was being made ready for its voyage on the morrow. Young Glover had been in The Ship earlier, downing a mug of ale and boasting to all-comers, excited to be part of the expedition, oblivious to the fact that previous ventures had failed. This would have been his first time on the cod run. His dreams of adventure were now cruelly curtailed, his ambitions dust. If he was lucky enough to survive Vine’s ministrations he was now condemned to the life of a supplicant, dependent on parish relief.

Swords and Spindles offer interactive presentations about the medicine of the seventeenth century, suitable for audiences from the ages of 9 – 99.

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