18 April 2012

Quacksalver

For this year's A-Z challenge, I'm posting juicy tidbits of researchy goodness for your interest and edification. I intend to use these as story prompts for the terrifying writing challenge Story a Day in May. You may use them however you wish.

"Quack" as a derogatory term for a scammer healer has a long history. The word derives from "quacksalver," a term coined in the 1570s from the Dutch "kwaksalver," literally "hawker of salve," according to Online Etymology Dictionary. The term has versions in German (Quacksalber), Danish (kvaksalver), and Swedish (kvacksalvare).

The Quacksalver by Rembrandt, 1635

As Europe became increasingly urbanised throughout the 16th century, and people moved away from small communities, it was less and less possible to rely on a local and well known wise woman or healer (often your own mom). Apothecaries or physicians - the university trained variety of doctor - were expensive, and might not have the miracle cure you were looking for.

Enter the snake oil salesmen.

A huge part of the quacksalver's game was performance, including an enactment of the miraculous curative properties of whatever cordial, syrup, or salve that was for sale that day (usually performed by an assistant who was an employee of the quacksalver). Travelling quacksalvers used a form of theatrical performance familiar to us via the late night infomercial. (There is a fabulous example of this in Andrew Miller's wonderful novel Ingenious Pain.)

Source

Their actual healing skills might be dodgy, but they would sell you a cure at an extremely reasonable price. As time went on, the term "quacksalver" came to apply to any would be healer with questionable skills, including the barber-surgeon. ("Physician" did not equate to "surgeon" originally - if you needed surgery - a tooth pulled, a boil lanced, or something cut out or sewn up - you went to a barber, not a doctor).

A typical day at the barber-surgeon's.
Above all, quacksalvers held out hope to those who otherwise could not be cured, or did not have access to care. They're still with us today: you can hardly avoid encountering them. (I call them "pharmaceutical companies", but that's a cynical post for another time.)

By object... Via Medico Della Peste

14 comments:

Amanda Heitler said...

From your page to my programme.

The one I'm about to write for Duchess of Malfi. I needed a word for the useless doctor and Quacksalver is perfect.

Cherie Reich said...

Quacksalver is an awesome word. I've used it in stories before.

Traci Kenworth said...

There still with us today--I call them pharmaceuticals. Absolutely hilarious line!!

L. Blankenship said...

Excellent post! Wish I'd found your blog sooner in the month :)

Guilie said...

Haha--pharmaceuticals, indeed! Like L. Blankeship, I too wish I'd found your blog earlier. Great research tidbits, and as a history fan (and a writer, yeah), this is pure gold. Thanks!

Ashley Nixon said...

I never heard of a quacksalver until today. LOL. Such a great word, and a great post!

Kristine Asselin said...

Ooh, fun theme! Love your post!

Thanks for stopping by my blog earlier this week!

Elizabeth Twist said...

Duchess of Malfi...awesome. I love that play! Wish I were local to you so I could see the show.

Elizabeth Twist said...

That is too cool. I guess I'm planning to work it into a story too.

Elizabeth Twist said...

Tee hee...I felt naughty posting that. Thanks!

Elizabeth Twist said...

How much do I love your last name? A whole bunch. Nice to see you here. I enjoyed stopping by your blog and I will do it again.

Elizabeth Twist said...

Hi Guilie - nice to meet you. I'll visit soon.

Elizabeth Twist said...

There are so many great lost words from the Renaissance. It would be neat to get them back into circulation.

Elizabeth Twist said...

You're welcome Kristine. I'll drop by again soon.

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