Fictional antedating of the marthambles

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Yesterday brought some news about "The Marthambles", a disease mentioned in five of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels (DI 123, RM 164, NC 132, 149, WDS 130, YA 226, for the cognoscenti). The earliest of these (Desolation Island) was published in 1978, and is set in 1811 or 1812. Marthambles is not found in the OED, but according to an interview in The Patrick O'Brian Newsletter (volume 3, issue 1, March 1994), O'Brian explained that "Marthambles is a very fine word that I found in a quack's pamphlet of the late 17th or early 18th century".

However, the word is also used in Dorothy Dunnett's historical novel The Ringed Castle (fifth of the "Lymond Chronicles"), which was published in 1971 and deals with fictional events taking place in the year 1555. This raises a set of questions whose answers must be mildly embarrassing to someone: perhaps the OED missed a world used in English medical practice for three centuries; perhaps Patrick O'Brian learned a word from Dorothy Dunnett but claimed to have found it for himself; perhaps Dorothy Dunnett used a late-18th-century word in a mid-16th-century novel. (Trust me, some people care about these things.)

This issue was discussed at greater length in a series of LL posts from 2004: "The mysterious marthambles", 2/27/2004; "Dr. Tufts and the Marthambles", 3/8/2004; "Dorothy Dunnett cleared of anachronism", 5/20/2004.

As reported in those posts, Lisa Grossman contributed this information, quoted from a "researcher at the National Library of Medicine":

According to C.J.S. Thompson's The Quacks of Old London (page 100), the marthambles is one of several nonexistent diseases invented by a Dr. Tufts in a pamphlet in order to sell his tonics and medicines. The other diseases mentioned in Tuft's pamphlet are the "Strong Fives" …, the "Moon Pall," and the "Hockogrockle." Tufts claims to have encountered these diseases on his travels over a period of forty years, and that he can cure 'em all.

Dr. Tufts flourished around 1700, so if  he (or Thompson's book, published in 1928) were the source for both novelists, then each would be guilty of a mild anachronism, Dunnett by a century and a half backwards, and O'Brian by a bit more than a century forwards.

However, Diane MM then wrote to tell me that Elspeth Morrison's The Dorothy Dunnett Companion cites W.S.C Copeman, Doctors and Disease in Tudor Times (1960), as the source for glossing the marthambles as a "Popular collective term for any number of divergent symptoms or diseases noted and 'treated' by a mountebank".

So perhaps the OED that should be mildly embarrassed, for missing a "popular" term in use for several centuries, cited in two secondary sources, and used by two major historical novelists. But there's still the question of O'Brian's "quack's pamphlet of the late 17th or early 18th century" — was it real? And did he stumble over the pamphlet in some dusty archive, or did he find the word in Thompson, Copeman — or Dunnett?

Yesterday brought email from Andrew Facey, who wrote that

Patrick O'Brian also refers to the marthambles, the strong fives and the moon pall on page 30 of his book Richard Temple, which was first published in 1962.

This eliminates the possibility that O'Brian learned the word by reading Dunnett, and raises again the possibility that she learned the word from him.

Thanks to Google Books, I can now quote the relevant passage from (a 2003 reprint of) Thompson's Quacks of Old London, pp. 109-110:

The quack doctor's bills enumerated so many common diseases that it was thought by one ingenious practictitioner it was time some new ones were invented. Dr. Tufts, who announces from the Three Compasses in Maiden-lane, that he has newly arrived from his travels, "states that after forty years study, he hath discovered Several strange Diseases, for which (though as yet not known to the world) he hath infallible cures.

"Now the names of these new Distempers are :


"Although the Names, Natures, Symptoms and several cures of these New Diseases are altogther Unknown to our greatest Physitians, and the particular knowledge of them would (if conceal'd) be a vast advantage to the aforesaid person ; yet he, well knowing that his country's good is to be prefer'd to his private interest, doth hereby promise all sorts of People, a faithful cure of any or all of the Diseases aforesaid, at as Reasonable Rates as our modern Doctors have for that of any common Distemper."

Dr. Tufts' advertisement (apparently a handbill) is not given a specific date in Thompson's book, but it's introduced shortly after a work dated to 1670. Both Tuft's advertisement and Thompson's discussion assert that as of that time, "the marthambles" had NOT been a commonly-used term for more than a century. Rather, Tufts asserts that "the Names …of these New Diseases are altogether Unknown", and Thompson discusses the matter as if this were true.

A fuller rendition of Dr. Tufts' handbill can be found in Ruben Percy's 1823 Relics of Literature, which reproduces it on p. 218 under the heading of "Eccentric Advertisements", attributed to Harleian MSS. 5931:

No date is given for this document, but an earlier item in the series, also sourced to Harleian MSS 5931, is said to have been "about the reign of Queen Anne" (1702-1714):

The American Medical Gazette of 1858 reprints an (anonymous?) article from the London Lancet entitled "Two Periods of Medical Quackery". The author excoriates the then-contemporary "spirit-rappers, the globulists, and the kinesipathists; dealers in senseless adjurations of the unknown, the doubtful, and the mysterious; blasphemers against nature, who press into their mercenary service the common reverence with which mankind are wont to regard the spiritual world and the finer essences of dynamic physiological force", and concludes that

It gives a mental refreshment to revert to the laughable orations of the more honest mountebanks of bygone days — men who avowed themselves quacks, cut their ridiculous antics to the sound of a drum, and with visible glee extracted from the laughing chaw-bacon a groat in fee, rather for their oratory than for their medicines. Mr. Morley has just recalled to-day some admirable specimens of the mountebank oratory o fthe seventeenth century, from a little undated book published about the year 1690, entitled, "The Harangues or Speeches of several Famous Mountebanks in Town and Country." Here is an inimitable specimen of candid self-glorification and witty abuse of his contemporaries — and address by one of the cleverest, Tom Jones: "Gentlemen and ladies — You that have a mind to preserve your own and your families' health, may here, at the expense of a two-penny-piece, furnish yourself with a packet which contains things of great use and wonderful operation in human bodies against all distempers whatsoever. Gentlemen, because I present myself among you, I would not have you to think that I am an upstart glister-pipe apothecary. No, gentlemen, I am no such person; I am a regular physician, and have traveled most kingdoms purely to do my country good. I am not a person that takes delight, as a great many do, to fill your ears with hard words, in telling you the nature of turpet mineral, mercuri, dulcis, balsamum capiviet, astringents, laxations, heart-burnations, circulations, vibrations, salivations, excoriations, scaldations. These quacks may fitly be called coliniates, because they prescribe only one kind of physic for all distempers; that is, a vomit. If a man has bruised his elbow, take a vomit, says the doctor. If he has torn his coat, take a vomit. For the jaundice, fever, flux, gripes, gout — nay, even the distempers that only my friend, the famous Dr. Tuff, whom you all know, knows as the hocognicles, marthambles, the moonpauls, and the strongfives, — a vomit; tantum. Gentlemen, these imposters value killing a man no more than I do drawing an old stump of a tooth that has long troubled any of you; so that I say they are a pack of tag-rag, asafoetida, glister-pipe doctors. […]"

Alas, Google Books offers no preview of the "The Harangues or Speeches of several Famous Mountebanks in Town and Country", but does say that it is "Dated in British Museum Catalogue 1700? and by the bookseller, Stonehill, ca. 1725". The rendition of Dr. Tuft as "the famous Dr. Tuff" reminds us that t-d deletion was alive and well in English 300 years ago; and the variant spelling "moonpaul" and garbled correspondence "hocognicles" and "hockogrocle" suggests that the D.G., the author of "The Harangues or Speeches of several Famous Mountebanks in Town and Country", transcribed these orations from live performance. The  datesof 1700 and 1725 are consistent with Percy's "about the reign of Queen Anne". All of this seems to confirm that a mountebank named Tuft, circa 1700, was indeed claiming to have discovered some new diseases that included the marthambles, the moon pall, and the strong fives.

I haven't yet been able to get hold of a copy of Copeman's "Doctors and Disease in Tudor England", but based on Google Books' snippet view, he seems to mention "marthambles" in passing as an example of invented diseases, without any specific Tudor-era citation.

So pending further information, I'm inclined to believe that that inclusion of marthambles in Tudor medical terminology was a mistake, with a misreading of Copeman perhaps responsible for Dorothy Dunnett's use in The Ringed Castle. I also suspect that there was no "quack's pamphlet of the late 17th or early 18th century", and that Patrick O'Brian learned about the marthambles, the moon-pall, and the strong fives from a secondary source, perhaps from Percy 1828 or from Edith Sitwell's 1933 English Eccentrics, which also reproduces some of Dr. Tufts' handbill.

However, there does seem to be ample reason for the editors of the OED to consider scheduling a Word Induction Ceremony for marthambles — we have two initial citations around 1700, several echoes in 19th and 20th century medical literature, more than a dozen uses in seven books by two famous historical novelists, and many additional citations in works about those novelists. Google Book yields 60 hits; the New York Times mentioned it in a 1933 review of Sitwell's book; and …


  1. rootlesscosmo said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 12:58 pm

    The hockogrockle, a short-lived dance craze of 1946, is now believed to have been inspired by a disorder of the crockus (q.v.)

  2. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 1:30 pm

    I'm sure this is a stupid question, but I'm very confused. If Dr. Tuft(s) was a quack, and around 1700 he put out a handbill that described marthambles, then in what sense is there no "quack's pamphlet of the late 17th or early 18th century"? 1700 is about as late in the 17th century as you can get . . .

  3. language hat said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 2:13 pm

    I think the point is that O'Brian got it from a secondary source rather than from an actual copy of the pamphlet, but that's a pretty fine distinction; if he read the pamphlet's words quoted in the source, it seems quite natural to say "I found it in a quack's pamphlet." We're not talking about journalism here, still less scholarship, we're talking about an author casually discussing where he got a word from, and it doesn't seem to me the same stringent standards of accuracy and careful sourcing should apply.

  4. Mark Liberman said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 2:49 pm

    I don't mean to give Patrick O'Brian a posthumous hard time. I agree with Steve that O'Brian's description of where he found the word is just fine — "pamphlet" might be a memory slip for "handbill" — though it does set him up as a bit more of a scholar than if he had called marthambles (say) "a very fine word that I found in Edith Sitwell's English Eccentrics".

    The main question about O'Brian and Dunnett is whether their use of this word, in novels set in 1812 and 1555 respectively, was an anachronism. At this point, I'm inclined to think that it was. The word is so much fun that both of them probably would have concluded that this liberty was worth it, despite how scrupulous in general they both were about the accuracy of historical details.

    The main thing that I learned, in poking around Google Books for this post, is how often Dr. Tufts' invented diseases were echoed in works of the 19th and 20th centuries that O'Brian and Dunnett might have read.

  5. peter said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

    I would be unwilling to accuse people of historical anachronisms knowing that words and ideas may persist in usage out of the public eye for long periods. The Muggletonians, for instance, a dissident English religious sect, survived, apparently without drawing much public attention, from 1651 to 1979, while keeping written minutes of their meetings the whole time.

  6. Tim said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

    I wonder if it's really fair to say that they were using the term anachronistically, since it was never the name of a real disease to start with. Sure, they're using the word fictionally in a setting that is at a different time to when it was originally used fictionally. It seems a bit like decrying the anachronism of a modern-day tale about a Jabberwock.*

    *(Acknowledging, of course, that the Jabberwock's inventor never tried to pass it off as real.)

  7. jim said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

    It wouldn't surprise me if Dunnett also got the word from _The English Eccentrics_. It's a fairly common book: Librarything says 179 people have some edition or other. Some of the eccentrics she talks about do come from the 16th century. Dunnett may have remembered the word but misremembered which chapter she saw it in.

  8. Amcguinn said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 4:38 pm

    The factual and fictional dates and people are very confusing – Isn't Elspeth Morrison the wife of Harry Flashman?

  9. Rick said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 7:12 pm

    I'm only puzzled by two things:

    Dr. Tufts flourished around 1700, so if he (or Thompson's book, published in 1928) were the source for both novelists, then each would be guilty of a mild anachronism, Dunnett by a century and a half backwards, and O'Brian by a bit more than two centuries forwards.

    Two centuries? Surely he would only be off by one century attributing to c. 1812 a word known to have been in use around 1700.

    This bit of pedantic puzzlement aside, the more interesting question is whether either author's use of the word is actually anachronistic. Here, I gather, is a word that is attested in a way that indicates that it had some modest currency at least around 1700. Possibly it was a sort of flash in the pan, a slangish term that came and went in one generation, but it would seem like a word like this, in modest and somewhat specialized usage, might well have been in use as early as 1550 and as late as 1800.

  10. [links] Link salad takes that midnight train to Georgia | said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 8:36 am

    […] Fictional antedating of the marthambles — Language Log takes on Patrick O'Brian. […]

  11. Catanea said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 8:55 am

    And Lady Dunnett wasn't above knowingly slipping in some anachronisms to tease her readers. But usually there is/was a mechanism for discovering precisely how one has been fooled.

  12. Andrew said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 12:14 pm

    Rick: my understanding is that Dr Tufts claimed this was a new disease that no one had known of before. While it's perfectly possible that the term remained in use after his time, this would seem to rule out its being used earlier. (Of course, this assumes that Dr Tufts was telling the truth, which is perhaps a risky assumption.)

  13. Mr Punch said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 1:04 pm

    Each word brings us closer to a million.

  14. Catanea said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

    This is why I read Language Log. There is, in almost every thread, SOMEBODY, who just says very little and makes me laugh – REALLY – out loud. My family think I am mad. Bravo!

  15. Martyn Cornell said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 5:10 pm

    FWIW, the Three Compasses in Maiden Lane, where Dr Tuft could be consulted, was later the Peacock and is now a gay bar called the Bar Aquda (sic) …

  16. Riverside Rambles » The Marthambles said,

    January 19, 2009 @ 12:15 pm

    […] Fictional antedating of the marthambles […]

  17. Graham Asher said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

    I would regard it as almost certain, as you suggest, that O'Brian got these names from Sitwell's 'English Eccentrics', which came out in a Penguin paperback edition in 1971, reprinted several times. But is 'strong fives' really an invented disease? I see that 'vives', of which 'fives' is a variant, is defined as 'Swelling and inflammation of the submaxillary glands of a horse' in the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Well, people can have swollen submaxillary glands as well as horses, I think.

  18. obrianadorer said,

    April 12, 2011 @ 2:27 am

    could it be 'hives'??

  19. Werbaz Neutron said,

    April 12, 2011 @ 10:48 am

    I have just finished my third reading of the Aubrey-Maturin novels and enjoy them every time. Marthambles, it seems to me, IS quite descriptive of an affliction I share with many oldsters – an affliction that CAN kill in some occasions as it contributes to a perforated intestine which, untreated, can kill via infection. I am referring to Diverticulitis or Diverticulosis (I can't remember the difference between the condition and the attack of same). I can advise, from personal experience, that an attack of same can well be described – as Maturin advises – as a GRIPING OF THE GUTS. Such condition is aggrevated by a harsh diet coupled with its effects of poor eliminationn – a problem OBrien visits on Aubrey in Nutmeg and Trulove. At present, Metamucil, taken daily, keeps things flushed out.

  20. Robert Allenby said,

    October 22, 2012 @ 1:40 pm

    Aren't we also forgetting the nature of the very character who is Dr. Maturin? Even Aubrey himself praises the good doctor as a linguist. (See The Nutmeg of Consolation at 129-30.) And no faithful reader could ever conclude that O'Brian's character was anything but a master and scholar of esoteric language to the point of being habitually pedantic. Moreover, he was a physician steeped in, and prideful (particularly among sailors) of, medical jargon that by definition was not in popular usage. Would not such a character know of and use a word like "mathambles" and innocently not appreciate or even agree that he did so anachronistically? Might we not give literary credit to an author who thereby demonstrates his mastery of character development?

  21. me said,

    October 21, 2013 @ 1:37 pm

    In nutmeg doesn't obrian mention marthambles being the sea term for griping of the guts by land?
    Abse dies from it I believe

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