Tuesday, June 15, 2010

'A worm the author of this book': William Ramesey's 'Helminthologia'





This chap is William Ramesey, and the amazing bonnet he is wearing was probably designed as an extra container or sump for the overflow of dotty notions stemming from his brain. Or there may be some ceremonial aspect to it: Patrick Curry’s ODNB life of Ramesey mentions that while he was born in Scotland into a family called Ramsey, he later changed his name because he had an idea of his Egyptian descent. He probably thinks of the hat as being like the crown of Upper Egypt Rameses the Great would have worn. This whole bogus Egyptian connection primarily suggests his inheritance from Ptolemy the Great, for Ramesey’s first obsession was astrology.

He was, however, an astrologer with a marked reluctance about making specific predictions. Ramesey was a royalist, and really didn’t want to make trouble for himself, so he keeps lapsing into this mode: ‘I could say somewhat of (Jupiter) … but I passe it over in silence, knowing it is neither safe nor fitting that the truth should be spoken always’ (Vox stellarum, 1651, p. 86). Ramesey hardly dares say anything particular about the fate ‘our Rulers or Grandees’ (pp. 97-8), but he looked to 1652 as a time when the nation might see ‘the pale Horse and his Rider as it were preparing for his march’ (p. 90). Ramesey duly called on England to ‘repent, repent … God is angry with thee’ (p. 88). Elsewhere in this astrological work, Ramesey seems unduly excited about Venus’s influence, and women in general, who are so threatened by pox (during 1652) that he says he will have nothing to do with women in the summer quarter, at least, ‘(as near as I can)’ (p. 108).


He became a physician, even court physician to Charles II, who would (as he famously said) die with the help of too many men like this. The major medical text by Ramesey is Helminthologia, or, Some physical considerations of the matter, origination, and several species of wormes (1668). It’s a work perhaps advisedly ignored by the compilers of the OED, whose references to things ‘helminthous’ are far later in date.

This is a book which sets off well, with its eye on the subject matter: “Worms the Subject, and worms the readers, and a worm the Author of this Book” (p. 8, and the formal beginning of his text after the prefatory material). Infinite multitudes … die by them, under the notion of feavers of all sorts, Pleurisies, and most other Distempers”, he asserts. To believe that people die of little creatures living in them does seem to be thinking along the right lines. At times, the “Rational and Learned Physician” he saw himself to be flickers into view:

“ ‘view any corrupt blood with a * Microscope where they shall plainly perceive innumerable vermines’ * By which Instrument fitted with glasses at each end, the smallest mite will appear in that magnitude as you may discover every part thereof.”

But his topic wriggles away from him uncontrollably. Worms, he explains, are the product of ‘putrid, vitious and gross, viscid, corrupt matter’. As such, anything that upsets the perfect bodily regime can produce worms: God, his angels, the devil and his imps, witches and witchcraft, air, water, the planets, food, passions, retention of semen (Ramesey shifts into decorous Latin). Ramesey has his full say about witchcraft and the diabolic pact (being a Scot, he once saw “nine burnt at one time in Leith-Links”), about diet, planetary influences, anything. Worms, we realise, are to him what melancholy was for Robert Burton, and he palpably has his eye on Burton’s book, even writing about ‘Air rectified’ as part of a salubrious regime.


Ramesey was not, as his choice of headgear shows, overburdened with a sense of the ridiculous. He also can write like this, in apparent seriousness:

‘That my Reader may be Encincted with Reason able to Renix the Halucinations of that Panenerical evil of Envy and Ignorance, which is a Cacoethick Malady; But especially that he may injoy an Orthostadian Judgement, and not be Depsect with that Truculent Credulity which proves Sontick to most men, and an assured Prodromos of Ruine, I thought it not amiss here to aedepize some things, and Indigitate thee, wherefore others in this Book are handled in that manner they are…’


Credulous about all tales which seemed relevant to his maggoty notions, Ramesey cannot perceive irony in his sources: Erasmus’s story of an Italian, living in Germany and fluent in the language, whose helminthous  problems were so extreme that he behaved like a man possessed, until a wise physician treated him for worms, and simultaneously purged from him both the wriggling cause of his problems and all his grasp of the German language: this cock-and-bull story Ramesey tells twice (pages 42 and 312).

 He has much to say about the effects of milk, and again can be caught retailing as true a gosh-wow-fancy-that yarn: ‘A Slut at Packwood near Knole in Warwick-shire, did put a nurse-by-blow-child [he means, a bastard child, a ‘by-blow’, that has been put out to nurse] often to suck a Mastive Bitch, who at the same instant had Puppies, the Child throve well enough, but shewed the fruits and disposition of his Nurse, as he grew bigger, by his churlish behaviour, and never could sit or lie down, without turning two or three times round’. It seems a plausible story about squalor and neglect in early modern life, until that last couple of clauses.


Under diet, we learn about a Duke of Brunswick bursting after a surfeit of strawberries, and about King James’s opinion of ling, salt cod: ‘a dish for the devil’- Ramesey agrees: ‘they that eat ling, may as well eat a worse thing, and drink Piss’. He is insistent about the dangers of sea food: ‘We may absolutely condemn, and explode the Periwinkle, Cockle, Muscle, as dangerous food, offending the Brain’, and has stories of people who by eating too many cockles became natural fools.

All oddities of diet interest him. He writes about cases of pica, and one of his sources fills him in on what happens to you if you happen to consume cat’s blood: ‘a remarkable story of a maid, who by drinking of cats-blood, degenerated into the disposition and nature of a Cat, and by fits, would imitate a Cat, both in Actions and Voice; and in private would catch Mice, and contract herself so, (which was strange) to pass through holes, that no body else of her bigness could’. (She sounds to me like an entertainer whose spurious back-story has got garbled.)

Notice that none of this discussion has any notion of parasites being transmitted. Sea food, for instance, in itself upsets the bodily regime, and leads to worms spontaneously generating in any part of the body.

Ramesey produces this splendid illustration of the varieties of internal parasite, though the numbers do not key to specific discussions in the text, that would be too limiting. That’s a flat worm 300 feet long that he has picked up report of, and that weasel is a worm shaped just like a weasel, which was found when a pox-ridden gentleman was trepanned, and from his brain, a worm was “taken away, which was on the Dura Mater, in the form of a weasel”. He also reports how in October 1637, Dr May found a worm in the left ventricle of Mr John Pennat, aged 21 (and dead) ‘splendent as if it had been varnished’.

When Ramesey does finally get off the causes of worms to worms themselves, his account of the symptoms (p. 297ff) is horribly graphic and convincing. To that extent, he knew what he was talking about. His account of the treatment for worms retreats into Latin, as his medicine (a highly technical matter of purges and enemas) is something only the educated can practice. Writing of ‘The force of the imagination’ as a possible cause of worms, Ramesey instances the power of the imagination by referring to it ‘all Cures done by silly Women’.

I was disappointed that Ramesey did not have more to say about sex as a cause of worms, for Vox stellarum seemed to show that he was anxious about sexual matters. He does, however, come out strongly for eugenic practices, which among other things will eradicate left-handedness:

‘Sots as we are, in this most weighty matter we are too remiss, marrying any deformed unwholesome piece of mortality for a little money, when we are curious of the strain of our Horses, Doggs, Pigeons, game-Cocks; and so frequently, we leave a Crook-Back’d, Flat-nos’d, Bow-leg’d, Squnit-Ey’d, Left-handed, ugly, infirm, Weesle-fac’d, Diseased, half-Witted, Hair-brain’d, Nonsensical, Goos-cappical and Coxcombical, Worm-eaten Idiot, not only to possess our Estates, but our Names, and to build up our Families…’

To end with, here’s a tale he has of someone offering a toast to the devil during the civil war: ‘Or that of a mad fellow, in the time of our uncivill Wars at Salisbury, who being drunk, in a Bravado, drank an health to the Devil, saying, that if he did not come and pledge him, he would not believe there was either a Devil or a GOD, his Associates trembling at his expressions, retired into another Room, and left him, and never saw him more; for immediately the Devil came and carried him away, as it is thought out of the Window, the Bar thereof being bowed.’


1 comment:

little augury said...

I am extremely diverted. A comely tale of Rameses with all his gray matter bared open, complete with a cautionary tale about untimely endings. What a romp, truly enjoyed!