Medicines for the Rich and Poor Tudors
Introduction
This is the way I, and others, conducted the Apothecary lesson at the Museum. http://www.wealddown.co.uk
It is a lesson that shows the similarities and differences to today with illnesses, medicines and its' practioners, and how different classes were treated in Tudor times.

(There is a different lesson available for KS3 based in Medieval England and the plague)

I know at the Museum we had the advantage of delivering these lessons in authentic houses and with replica kits, but you don't have to be in a cold house without glass in the windows, the wind blowing the smoke back into the room, and in costume to fire the imagination of children.
Being involved in making pomander beads, the smells and texture is enough to stimulate the children and increase their learning and, hopefully, their love of History.

I've found that after a number of years delivering this lesson in authentic surroundings it does indeed translate well to the classroom, church hall, scout hut and even the cemetery of a 12C church - don't ask!

I have never tired of teaching this lesson, I hope you to enjoy it.
Illness Today
I always started an apothecary lesson relating illness to the pupils.
I ask them "If you'd woken up this morning with a sore throat, who would have been the first person you'd gone to?"
I want a reply of Mum/An adult in the house.

I'd ask them what she would have done.
Have a look at their throat. Maybe check their temperature and glands.
I'd then say the chances are Mum/adult would have then packed them off to school after a dose of Calpol from the medicine cabinet, and possibly with some Tunes or other throat sweets, and assured them that if they got worse their teacher would make sure Mum/adult was called.

I then ask what happens if when they get home they are much worse, snuffling, coughing and running a temperature.
I want to know about going to the doctor.

The doctor says they need antibiotics, does the doctor give them the tablets?
I want to hear the doctor writes a prescription and they go to the chemist who has the medicine. 
Illness in Tudor Times
I ask what they would have done if they'd lived in Tudor times and woken up with a sore throat.
I want the answer that Tudor children would have done exactly the same, gone to Mum/an adult, possibly an older sister in the house.

I ask where a Tudor Mums' medicine cabinet would have been.
In the Garden! The plants make good medicines if you know which to use.

When I ask what happens if you feel much worse, would there have been doctors in Tudor times, it's often 50/50 yes/no.
I then tell them yes, but you'd have to have money to pay for the doctor, so you'd have to be fairly wealthy.

If you didn't have money the local herbwife in the village was a good person to turn to as she had learned all about the healing power of plants. She would make up medicines that maybe Mum didn't know, or with plants she didn't grow, and she'd be happy to have a few eggs, or a piece of meat, even cloth, as payment.

It's a good time to start getting interactive and hands-on!

I general pick out a child and say they look a bit peeky, maybe (holding up a bowl) they should have a wee in that and take it to the Tudor doctor.

Now you can be theatrical! Holding the bowl, telling the child we'll pretend they've had a wee, have a good sniff in the contents - yeuks all round - say it doesn't smell right.
Then dip a finger in and have a taste - absolutely gross!!! - no it definately doesn't taste right!

Using another willing "victim" you can demonstrate that the most likely "cure" a Tudor doctor would perform on them is to take their wrist, cut it with a knife, holding a bowl underneath their arm, and do a bit of blood letting! Wrap the arm up in a dirty old cloth, Tudors didn't know about germs, viruses and bacteria, and with a flourish say that's enough blood for today!
Ask if the children think that would have really made them better or worse.

Another nice horror cure is for the headache. Someone will always play along if you ask if anyone has a headache, you can then mime drilling a hole in the top of their head to let all the bad spirits out!!! Surprisingly some people would actually survive this, though I shouldn't think it did much for their headache!

If there's time, a bit about the barber/surgeon amputating limbs without anaesthetic on the battlefield will round off the gore!

How People Lived and Illness
Get the class to think about the way people lived, particularly in towns.

Houses close together, no running water, no bathrooms, no flushing loos, no drains and sewers, human waste being thrown out - you might be able to sell your wee to the dyers to use as a fixative when dyeing your clothes.
No dustmen collecting rubbish every week, although there wouldn't have been all the packaging we have today, and certainly not the wastage of food like today, but still a certain amount of rotting rubbish. Think about the town butcher, they'd eat a lot more of the carcass of an animal than we do today, but still some bits left out.
No pavements or tarmac roads, but animals up and down the roads going to and from market. All the dung they'd leave behind.

You can build up quite a smelly picture!

Now tell them that the Tudors believed it was the bad smells that made them ill, and although this wasn't right, the Tudors were on the right track.
Get them to come up with the fact that rotting rubbish will attract rats, and it's the rats that carry the disease.
On to Making Pomander Beads
Now for making the Good Smells!

Again this was something for the middle class upwards.

If the poor villagers were visiting the town for market they may well have picked some pleasant smelling herbs from their garden and carried these in a piece of linen so they could hold it up to their nose and sniff at it whilst walking through town.

A merchant's wife living in town would have gone to the Apothecary for her "good smells".
The apothecary was similar to our chemist today. He'd make the medicines that the doctor prescribed, and would even do diagnosing and prescribing of more minor ailments. Just as we may go to our chemist/pharmacist today with a sore eye, he/she will look at it, sell us some ointment, and tell us to go to the doctor if it doesn't get better in three days - he's usually right though.

The Apothecary would not only have all the herbs but spices too. He'd sell sugar, as it was considered a spice then and expensive.

I always start the pomander beads by passing round a container with the dried rose petals in for everyone to look at and smell.
There is absolutely no need to have replica containers, in fact I've found that the little clear plastic tubs that hummus comes in are fine, and can lead to questions about what the Tudor containers would have been made of.

Once we've identified the rose petals I pass round the the container, spoon and a bowl and get children to put a spoonful in each. Working on a kit for a class of approx thirty it would be about 6 spoonfuls.

In fact if there is a class of thirty, maybe it would be best to have the children round two tables and a Teaching Assistant/responsible pupil mirroring what you are doing with half the class.

I do the same with the lavender.

Next I take the fennel, explain this is a slightly stronger smell so not to sniff to deeply!
You will get answers to what it smells like of, like aniseed or licquorice.
Explain it's a plant we can grow in the garden, just like roses and lavender, and today chefs like Jamie Oliver would take the feathery leaves and stuff fish with them to cook.
The powder they are smelling comes from the seeds being crushed and it's fennel.
Very good if you have a bad tummy, make a tea from the fennel seeds to drink; and fennel is still in babies gripe water!
In goes the right number of spoonfuls of fennel powder

I warn not to sniff too deeply of the last dry ingredient - clove powder!
Most will say it reminds them of Christmas, there may even be a few who have made orange and clove pomanders for Christmas decorations with an old-fashioned Granny!
This is one of the expensive ingredients, a spice that has come many thousands of miles in a sailing ship from the Spice Islands, battles were fought over cloves, and pirates would try and capture the cargo of expensive spices like cloves, nutmegs and pepper.
Less of this than other ingredients!

I then say we don't want the smell to fade quickly so must put in something to preserve it. This is where I hold up a piece of benzion which looks like a bit a rock.
Explain that when you cut into the bark of a tree sap comes out, and trees from hot climates can have special sap, from one tree the sap hardens to become rubber. In this case the sap hardens and looks like a rock but we can grind it down with a pestle and mortar to a powder and it acts as a preservative - it's still used as an oil in the perfume industry today.
Pass round the pestle and mortar to those who haven't had a go yet and get the benzion pieces ground down to a powder and put into the dry mixture.

It's far too dry and flakey to stick together so next to be added is some liquid, again pass round the rosewater to see if the smell can be linked to the petals they smelt earlier.
A few spoonfuls of this and everything mixed together.
You can also add a few drops of lavender oil at this point if you wish. An oil being another expensive item, and being distilled by the Apothecary him/herself.

Still to dry to stick together, this is where the "yeuk" comes in again.

I always have a bit of a play with the gum tragacanth, which should be "gloopy" enough to stick everything together, but runny enough to drop off the spoon.
A little bit of theatrics with letting it drop off the spoon into the bowl a few times and asking what the children think it is.
Wallpaper paste is a favourite, but I have been told it looks like snot!

Again explain it's a sap from a tree that grows in a hot climate, but that this one goes in water to make a paste.
They really love it when you tell them you can buy it in cake shops and it's the ingredient that makes royal icing easy to mould, so they've all eaten it on birthday cakes!
It's also in a lot of children's sweets, and I recently bought a bottle of cough mixture that contained both benzion and gum tragacanth.

One and half spoonfuls into the mixture to begin with, more can be added, you are looking for a putty-like consistency. Stir with a spoon to begin with, then get your hands in to mix it properly, the kids will go "yeuk" again!

Once it's all thoroughly mixed, and to the right consistency, divide it up between the pupils and get them to gentle mould it with their fingers into a ball, or pastel shape, or split it and make several smaller beads.

In Tudor times ladies would have kept these beads in a "pomander", usually a small wooden container with holes around it, worn on the belt. Gentlemen might have had them threaded on a piece of linen thread and hanging from their belt, ready to be held under the nose when walking through bad smells!

These will need to be put in a warm, dry place for 2-3 weeks to cure and harden, then they can have holes made in them with needles, and thread passed through.
If they are to be taken home it's worth saying that there is nothing harmful in the beads, all flowers, herbs and spices, but if a little brother or sister or pet got hold of them and ate them it would give them a bad upset tum.


Depending on time, the season, and what you have growing in your garden (or ask a gardening colleague), it might be worth taking in a couple of sprigs of sage. Leaves can be taken off and passed round to smell. The poor would have made a tea with a couple of leaves, cooled and gargled with it for a sore throat - still good today. Calendula - easy to grow in pots on the classroom windowsill in the summer term - petals for the salad, or in with oil and beeswax to make a good healing ointment for cuts.
All these can be grown, made and used by the poor.

Enjoy the lesson and the smell of your classroom for weeks to come!

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Chloe Lacey | Reply 14.06.2011 12.23

This is fantastic- thank you for sharing! I have been looking for ideas for teaching Tudor medicine/health and hygiene for weeks!!

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good information for my school prodject!
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