doctor had trundled his wheeled rostrum into the cobbled lane outside the
Anchor. The horse was quickly unharnessed and tethered at a small
distance. Ingenious levers and pulleys transformed the rig into a small
stage under which a knot of spectators assembled: a restive mixture of
shopkeepers and labourers. A snowstorm of handbills was distributed by the
Zany, and the semi-literate set themselves up reading aloud in pompous
tones to those who could not guess at their inventions.
got up in an extravagant confection of multi-coloured rags, now hurtled up
onto the stage and began to warm the mood of the audience with his capers
and jokes. Hearing laughter, more people drew near until at least fifty
souls, baying and helpless with mirth, were the Zany’s to do with as he
I felt homesick suddenly: such a sight was to be enjoyed on the
Riva degli Schiavoni any day in Venice. This stage even boasted the
familiar effigies in wood of Cosima and Dammiano, patron saints of
medicine. Nor were the services of such a clown disdained by the most
pompous of Venetian quacks. The Zanies were useful to draw the crowds and
unlock their ears, all the better to steal a passage to their pockets.
Sometimes the arrant silliness of the Zany served to underline the
seriousness of his master.
My mind travelled back sixteen years to those nights when
I had crept out of San Zaccaria to the Riva degli Schiavoni, pretending to
be with my lover, and watched the mountebank doctors at their work. I had
not seen such a thing since.
All Zanies have their particular talents, acrobatic,
theatrical or musical. This one was a singing Zany and most tunefully he
treated us to song as he scattered his creamy largesse of printed
handbills advertising the services of the Great, the Unparalleled, the
Most Rever’d Dottore Velena, the wonder lately come to London direct from
Venice − (Indeed! I smiled) − with his Universal Cure that had
lately saved many thousands of Venetians in mortal danger from the Itching
Flux. I glanced behind the threadbare velvet curtain to see the said
Doctor Velena, whom I had previously thought the horseman, applying his
make-up. He was no more Venetian than I was an Englishwoman.
The Zany scampered about warbling:
travels much at home,
Present and to come;
Cramp, the Stitch,
Squirt, the Itch,
Gout, the Stone, the Pox;
e’er can tell.
Zany had finished the last of five such verses, he backed away
deferentially, making many respectful bows towards the curtain at the back
of the stage, from which the quack now strode forth in a dramatic manner.
swarthy in his paint, impressively wigged but quite simply dressed, he
stood silent for a moment, glaring at the rabble, and then addressed them
in an accent that but crudely pretended at Italian. However, he had a
talent for rolling his ‘r’s, which he used to great effect.
their rags, stinks and low accents, he began, ‘Most noble and illustrious
Signorrrrri and egregious beautiful and virtuous Madonnas, and the
rrrrrest of my honoured friends and scrupulous Auditors . . .’
customers, marinating in this flattery, drew closer, shrugging their
shoulders and smiling shyly at one another. ‘May I
present myself, Dottore Conte Marchese Paracelsus Theophrastus Velena,
lately arrived from the most ancient and stately city of Venice where I
was wont to fix my bench in the Face of the great Piazza.’
an hour he intoned. He introduced himself as a friend to the ill and weak.
A mere Mortal himself, he said modestly, casting down his eyes, just a man
whose tender heart was easily riven in two by the sight of needless
children . . .’ he moaned, ‘. . . wasting away. Young women, ripped from
their adoring husbands’ arms. How shall I bear it? How shall you
bear it when it comes to you, gentle people?’
somewhere the quack conjured up a true tear, which he wiped away with a
gesture of desperate bravery, before it could smear his paint.
he drew himself up to his full height. He gyrated his features into a
rictus of righteous indignation and stamped his foot. His boot was
apparently tipped with iron, for the noise echoed like a shot. People in
the crowd jumped. Women clutched their babies.
I thought. A nice touch. Bravo.
here no boastful, upstart, bum-beeping apothecary,’ he thundered. ‘No
rumbling quack, no piss-prophet, no greedy physician rambling tamely among
you with some mouldy tales out of Boccaccio and discoursing of my exotic
travels. Not I.
‘No no no no no.
To a man,
the crowd hastily shook their heads, banishing such a possibility.
Such despicable men went about the country, he told us, robbing honest
citizens not just of their wealth but their corporeal health, prescribing
the same deceitful cure for every illness, and inventing illnesses to suit
their wares, active not in the Hippocratic arts but in the crass pursuit
of the hard-earned pittances of foolish people.
‘Behold at last an honest man!’ he cried, pointing to his
modest garb. ‘Too honest to be rich! You will not hear me talking of the
Moon-Palls or the Strong-Fives nor the Hockogrocles, nor the Marthambles,
all spurious maladies genesised for his own profit by that arrant quack
Doctor Tufts who has recently passed through this fair town, spreading
misery! Nor even the Dogmatical Incurables of Nathanial Merry, so named
because of his rejoicing in his profits earned at the cost of a dozen
young lives! How often have I been called – too late, alas, and so
futilely to the victims of the hoax quacksters, such as the notorious
Doctor Trigg of Tower Wharf, Spawner of the dreaded Golden Vatican Pills!
And, though it pains me to say so, of mine own countrymen, no better are
the so-called Dottore Salvador Winter and his deadly Elixir Vitae, and
Giovanni Francesco Borri, with his false Sovereign Julep! Doctors? No!
Thieves? Yes. These men would steal the eyes out of your head and come
back for the eyelashes.’
There is the competition destroyed, I
thought. Well done.
Velena described himself as a mere Enthusiast in Physic, a scholar who had
stumbled on a great benediction while engaged only in the search for
knowledge – what this benediction was, well, he humbly asked our patience,
but he would return to that subject shortly.
his genius, not to mention his wares at all, until he had built up
a pitch of fervour for them. In the meantime he spoke with great passion
of his many and esoteric studies, interlarding each sentence with Latin
phrases of a faintly familiar yet not quite comprehensible provenance:
this, I soon realised, was because they were nonsense, a mere concoction
of learned sounds without substance. And into each sentence he inserted a
morsel of Pseudo-Physics or Chemistry, drawing down upon us the Science of
a thousand years, and the secrets of a dozen great but extinct cultures.
concentration for a while, amused myself looking on the rapt faces of the
crowd. When I re-entered his sphere, he was rolling on about how, as a
learned Antiquary, he had recovered out of some Ruin of Asia the formula
for a certain precious balm, which not only kept the ancient races
immortal but also beautified them beyond belief. He recounted how the
members of the College of Physicians had embraced him and wept for joy
when presented with the results of his life’s work.
Men and women in the audience nodded sagely at his
mentions of the great Dr Chamberlen, the inventor of the Anodyne Necklace
that had lately saved upwards of twelve thousand London children from
dying of their teeth. And they smiled approvingly at his casual mention of
‘just a mere few’ of his esteemed patients, not solicited by him but who
had sought him out, despite his begging to be left to his scholarly
‘But my Lord Hathaway would have none of it when I told
him I sought just a simple life, away from court!’ the quack cried. ‘Nor
Prince Eugene of Russia, who begged for my help, and whom I had not the
heart to turn away when I beheld his suffering, knowing that in my
possession I held the instant cure to the painful malady that ravaged his
entire family on account of their over-indulgence in the Venus Sports.
Only when I had seen them all sound and well did I leave the court at
Saint Petersburg and make my way to Paris where the Queen herself did
await me, all other surgeons having forsaken her as a Case Beyond Hope.
And when I left her again blooming in health, and freshly with child, I
returned to my native Venice (here he allowed his eyes to show the rheum
of nostalgia, and wiped away another tear) where the Doge, growing blind,
required my services to remove the cataracts on his eyes. It is he who
awarded me the title I so rarely use, for motives of modesty, but in this
case I shall share it with you: High Venetian Physician Empirickal.’
There was a smattering of applause at this. Dottore Velena
‘And what,’ he asked us, rising up pridefully, ‘has led to
the conferment of such honours?’
and without a word, he produced a single blue glass bottle from a cavern
in his breeches. He fondled the little bottle as tenderly as if it were a
kitten, allowing a moment’s silence for all eyes to fall on the
‘This Physic,’ he cried, now holding it up so it caught
the light and glistened like a sliver of the ocean, ‘does cure all the
diseases that God ever entailed upon the race of Adam.
‘Behold this tiny bottle, so fragile, so delicate. Yet it
contains inside it a moiety of that greatness that the whole Universe
could not afford to purchase, were it to offer the just sum. This
miraculous Elixir contains not just the purest distilled gold, but all the
very heart of a Mandrake, the liver of an African Phoenix and the Tongue
of a Nile Mermaid, Anise, Mastich, Ginger, Cardamoms, Cinnamon, Zedoary,
Manna, Senna, Mirabolams, Scordium, Bayberries, Catmint, Balsam of Peru .
The list of ingredients ran on and on, interrupted by
explanations of the processes used to fuse them together. These included
the contracted and pulled rays of the sun, boiling over a cedarwood fire,
and the blessing of a noble Cardinal.
Breathlessly, he assured us: ‘And lastly this golden juice
is divested of any Crudities by a true separation of the pure from the
impure, and impregnated with Beams of Dawn Light and tartaragraphated
through an Alembic of Crystalline Transfluency.’
There were moments when the audience seemed to be losing
the thread, starting to shuffle or eat apples. When this happened, a
curious thing occurred, which I had never seen before, even in Venice. The
back wall of the rostrum was perforated with a number of small doors. At
somnolent intervals, one of these little doors would pop open, to reveal
the grinning head of the Zany, who waved a cautionary finger at the crowd
and then disappeared behind the door he had slammed shut loudly. His
timing was immaculate: He was clearly adept at earning his snack in the
profits. At the clack of the shutter, everyone dozing in the audience
would wake up, smile, and address their full attention to the quack again.
The pharmaceutic part of his discourse completed, the
quack suddenly fixed his eye on a tripe-woman, glaring at her sternly,
‘Yes, YOU!’ he thundered. ‘You know only too well of the lapsus of which I
All eyes fell on the fainting tripe-woman, who could only
weep and moan, ‘Yes sir, you have discovered me. How was I to know what pocky kind of present he had brought for me in his breeches? I beg your
kindness, Oh Sir, do help me.’
‘PRRRRESENTLY,’ thundered the quack, holding the medicine
away from her outreached hand, rendering it infinitely more valuable in
the eyes of all watching.
question was, would he allow the poor tripe-woman to perish before he
finished his speech? How soon would he relieve her misery by allowing her
to purchase the bottle of salvation?
Some time, it seemed, for now the quack had reached the very climax of his
speech, in which he described the ongoing symptoms of the disease which at
present showed but feeble signs among them.
‘Those who suffer from the light cough, or the mild itch,’
he warned, ‘are already in the grip of the Scurbattical Humour which even
now sucks on their vitals and enfeebles them. These distempers are but the
first steps to a Worse Fate.’
The audience drooped visibly, running solicitous hands over various parts
of their bodies. The tripe-woman was by this time lying on the ground, her
At this moment, the quack uttered a sharp whistle, and the
Zany gambolled on to the stage, holding a miniature theatre with shabby
‘Behold!’ announced the quack. ‘Avert your eyes, if you
are female, juvenile or delicate. For I am about to show you your Futurrrrre!’
The Zany held the little theatre up so all might behold it, and with a
grand flourish the quack flung open the curtains.
A deep groan coursed through the audience. Several men staggered where
they stood. Women, none of whom had averted their eyes, were openly
weeping, and two pickpockets working the crowd froze with their hands in
the breeches of their victims.
For revealed on the tiny stage was a most appalling waxwork, showing a man
and a woman, naked, and in the final stages of a foul disease that had
empurpled their skin, caused their hair to drop out, and reduced their
fingers and toes to bloodied stumps. Their faces were scarred with
striated tissue and worst of all, where the eye should detect the organs
of generation were mere blackened holes, from which small waxen worms were
seen to emerge.
Dottore Velena closed the curtains with a weighty sigh.
He seemed to have lost all his former vigour and proceeded in a weak
voice: ‘All my life I have slaved to counteract the mischiefs that are
bred in our blood. Now I am old’ – here the Zany plucked at a grey curl
of his wig – ‘and I am weary from my travails’ − here he sagged to a stool
that the Zany placed beneath him, and he continued in a rasping whisper,
‘and I shall no more make this curative of mine, despite the entreaties
and earnest prayers of several Lords, Earls, Dukes and Honourable
Personages. What you see here are the last drops I shall ever produce on
this earth.’ He winked back a tear. ‘Of course I shall continue with their
manufacture in Heaven.’
The silence of the crowd was palpable. The audience strained on his every
‘Because I value the living soul of every creature on this
earth, I have examined my conscience and found it commands me to sell this
Infallible Preparation at so small a price as one shilling, even though I
rob my own pocket in so doing and condemn myself to a lingering death in
Now the Zany stepped forth with a very small tray of bottles. The crowd
surged forward, demanding their share of the precious dwindling stock.
While butchers loaded their aprons, housewives their baskets, the quack
held himself aloof from the sordid commerce at his side, and continued
with a soothing litany, never desisting from his recital of curable
symptoms until the last customer had departed with the bottle snatched
from the small tray that the Zany repeatedly replenished from a trunk
behind the stage. His gambols had lessened: his harlequin tunic was
weighed down with coin. Sometimes he teased the crowd, pretending to find
the trunk empty, but they soon set up such a howl that he contrived to
find some more bottles secreted in a back corner of it.
All through the sales Dottore Velena was murmuring, ‘If
you deign to buy this humble preparation, then I can personally guarantee
that it shall save you from the Shrinking of the Sinews, the Scurvy, the
Rupture, the Consumption, the Falling-Sickness, Wens on the Neck, Agues of
all kinds, the Tertian, Quartan and Quotidian, Retired and Shrunken
Nerves, Excrementitious Blood, Colt Evil, Scabs in the Head, Catarrhs, the
Humid Flux, Gouty pains, Hare-Lips, Dwindling of the Guts, Green or
Canker’d Wounds, Polipus up the Nose, Disruption of the Fundament,
Swimmings in the Head, Stoppage of the Spleen, Looseness of the Teeth,
Nocturnal Inquietudes, Vertiginous Vapours, Perdition of the Huckle-bone
and Dolour of the Os Sacrum, not to mention Hydiocephalus
Dissenteries, Odontalgick or Podagrical Inflammations, Palpitations of the
Pericardium, the Hen-Pox, the Hog-Pox, the Whore’s Pox, and the entire
Legion of Lethiferous Distempers.’
He uttered these words with a mechanical perfection, and while he intoned
them his eyes were busy counting the number of bottles being dealt out by
‘Drink but sparingly of this little bottle, it serves best
when you allow but fifty or sixty drops (more or less as you please) and
they are to be taken in a glass of Spring Water, Beer, Ale, Mum or Canary.
It works just as well without sugar and a drrram of Brrrandy may make it
more palatable too, of course. It may be taken by sea and land, in any
the last few customers were reaching out for their bottles, Doctor Velena
still chanting his instructions. ‘Don’t forget,
’tis most excellent in
coffee and chocolate too, and will perfume both beverages with the most
fragrant spirit of goodness. It will wipe off (abstersively) those
tenacious conglomerated sedimental Sordes that adhere to the Oesophagus
and Viscera, and annihilate all Nosotrophical symptoms. It removes all
Webs, Pearls, Spots, Sparks, Clouds and Films from the Eyes . . .’
Just before the last customer could be satisfied, he made
a little motion of his head and the Zany made one final trip to the
cupboard, returning with an empty tray and a tragical expression. The
final unsatisfied customer departed, weeping and bemoaning his fate, and
the quack and the Zany quickly closed up their little stage with curtains
and retired behind it.
Bravo! I thought to myself. An almost faultless
I had rarely seen better, even in Venice.
But they lacked one thing, and in this lack I thought I might help them,
and at the same time help myself.
I walked back to my lodgings, pausing only to buy some white chalk powder,
an apron, and a simple grey dress that, I was assured, had only been worn
twice, and that by a woman of quality.
Extract from The Remedy
Michelle Lovric, 2005