May 20, 2004

Dorothy Dunnett cleared of anachronism

Be it hereby noted that Dorothy Dunnett had good historical evidence for the currency in Tudor times of the disease name "the Marthambles". Details follow below.

Back in February, I noted that Dorothy Dunnett used the pseudo-disease name "Marthambles" in her novel The Ringed Castle, published in 1971, some seven years before Patrick O'Brian first used the same word in his novel Desolation Island. Shortly thereafter, I posted a note from Lisa Grossman, who reported tracing the word (with the help of a researcher from the National Library of Medicine) to a pamphlet published in London by a Dr. Tufts to advertise his tonics and medicines. Lisa said that "[t]he pamphlet was not clearly dated, but Tompson placed it circa 1675."

Lisa also pointed out that O'Brian also used "the Strong Fives" and "the Moon Pall", two other invented diseases from the same pamphlet, suggesting that Dunnett and O'Brian borrowed from the same source -- perhaps C.J.S. Tompson's "The Quacks of Old London".

I observed at the time that a date of 1675 for the source pamphlet would have made the Marthambles an anachronism both in Dunnett's book (which is set in 1555) and in O'Brian's (which is set in 1811).

Shortly thereafter, Diane MM from Plano, TX, emailed to tell me that

Elspeth Morrison's The Dorothy Dunnett Companion, on page 223, has the following entry:

"Marthambles: Castle, II, 9: Popular collective term for any number of divergent symptoms or diseases noted and 'treated' by a mountebank. If particularly fortunate, the patient might also be relieved of the symptoms of the Rockogrogle. Fictitious diseases still cost good money to cure. (W.S.C Copeman, Doctors and Disease in Tudor Times.)"

Although I've not read Copeman's book, I've ascertained that it was published in 1960, in London by Dawson.

As Diane pointed out, this strongly suggests that the Marthambles (and perhaps the others as well) were not in fact invented by Dr. Tufts in 1675, but were taken by him from a popular culture of medicine that had been around at least since Tudor times. And therefore, Dorothy Dunnett is absolved of any taint of anachronism.

Unfortunately, at about this point, I mislaid Diane's note in the course of a series of email server outages and moves. What with one thing and another, I haven't since untangled some little pockets of mail scattered around on various servers that I used as temporary expedients. Anyhow, Diane recently wrote to express her concern that an unanswered accusation of anachronism has been floating around in netspace all this time, associated with Dunnett's e-identity.

So I apologize to the spirit of Ms. Dunnett -- she died in 2001 -- and to Diane. I've also added a link from the earlier post to this one.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 20, 2004 03:06 PM