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History academic reveals gruesome medical past

Posted on 06/12/2011
Justin Champion

An academic from Royal Holloway, University of London will explore the weird and wonderful cures used to treat the plague in the seventeenth century on a Channel 4 documentary this Saturday (10 December).

Professor Justin Champion, from the Department of History, will feature in Tony Robinson’s new series Gods and Monsters, which looks at the history of belief, superstition and religious experience in Britain.  

In episode three, the series will look at how our ancestors blamed disease and illness on demons, sprites and God instead of bacteria, viruses or failing organs.

Professor Champion said: “Tony and I explored the various medical cures for plague in the seventeenth century – which included herb, spices, fumigation, whitewashing and burning amber. I dressed him up in a plague doctor’s suit (with a beak packed with herbs) and then made him smell rotting fish, maggoty meat and urine - all things in the seventeenth century they thought might cause plague. Essentially we explored in a derelict old people’s home, how the early modern medic coped with epidemic disease. It was rather gruesome.”

The episode will show how relics from a bygone culture led people to believe that ailments such as strokes and angina were caused by mischievous elves. Tony also attempts to recreate a horrifying surgical procedure pioneered 6000 years ago, which involved cutting through a skull to expose the brain with the hole in the head providing an escape route for the evil spirits that had invaded the victim's body.

Episode three, featuring Professor Champion, will be on Channel 4 at 8pm this Saturday. Previous episodes are available to watch online on 4oD.



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