March 08, 2004

Dr. Tufts and the Marthambles

I wrote earlier about the use of the word Marthambles in novels by Dorothy Dunnett and Patrick O'Brian. Lisa Grossman, co-author of Lobscouse and Spotted Dog, sent an informative note in response, which she has kindly given me permission to post here.


In reference to your suggestions as to the origins of the Marthambles as mentioned by Patrick O'Brian, I believe I can shed a little further light. I am the surviving author of the gastronomic companion to the Aubrey/Maturin series, *Lobscouse & Spotted Dog*, and I clearly remember researching this very question for a chapter entitled "The Sick-Bay." While we were not able to locate the actual panphlet in question, we were fortunate enough to discover - with the kind assistance of a researcher from the National Library of Medicine - a scholarly work which describes it in some detail. He paraphrased as follows:

According to C.J.S. Tompson'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" (apparently not "fires" as Patrick O'Brian quotes it), 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.

I do not now have ready access to the volume itself, but I do have my notes from that time, which substantially corroborate the above explanation. The pamphlet was not clearly dated, but Tompson placed it circa 1675.

As regards the "strong fires"/"strong fives" question, I think we can be fairly sure that the former is the typo, and that it is the result of an error in the transcription of the interview. I have a tape of the interview, and if you wish can dig it out and listen to it for further confirmation. FWIW, however, I can tell you now that throughout the novels (the text of which I have on disk, which enabled me to check this quickly at the time) the disease appears *only* as the "strong fives."

There is, of course, no way to be absolutely sure that O'Brian had not read Dunnett before he first mentioned the Marthambles. But unless Dunnett alo used the Strong Fives and the Moon Pall, both of which appear in the Aubrey/Maturin novels, I think it's safe to say that she was not his only source for the word. (I have long wondered, though, how he managed to resist using the Hockogrockle, which in my view is the best of them all!)

This is not to say that O'Brian was perfectly reliable in his attributions or his definitions. His tongue-in-cheek letters sent us on a merry chase after Balmagowry, Bidpai Chhatta and Pondoo; the evidence, such as it is, strongly suggests that he simply invented all three. At any rate I have yet to prove otherwise - and not for lack of trying. He and his wife were especially mischievous about Balmagowry: his hints on that subject compelled us to study southern (yes, as in the American South) cookery in depth and to read and re-read every word Robbie Burns ever writ. Not until we had done this and a great deal more did we reluctantly conclude he had simply made the thing up out of whole cloth; whereupon we took his meagre description between our teeth and boldly did the same. (If the O'Brians picked up on the delicate dig in the headnote to the recipe, they were too discreet to say so, but I can't imagine they missed it; I do hope they enjoyed the joke.) I love the word almost as much as I do Hockogrockle, and I still occasionally use it as a greeting, an expletive, even an on-line user-name.

I hope you find some of this useful.

Balmagowry to you -
Lisa Grossman


And Balmagowry right back atcha.

If marthambles was there in the original edition of Dorothy Dunnett's The Ringed Castle, then the most sensible explanation seems to be that she and O'Brian read The Quacks of Old London independently -- unless they traded obscure vocabulary by some back-channel connection.

Note that Dr. Tufts, publishing in 1675, is equally anachronistic with respect to The Ringed Castle (set in 1555, 120 years earlier) and Desolation Island (set in 1811, 136 years later).

P.S. I'm still in Japan, and will be posting a bit about LKR2004 later on, probably tomorrow.

[Update 5/20/2004: additional evidence indicates that "the Marthambles" was a term used among medical mountebanks in Tudor times. Read about it here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 8, 2004 11:40 PM