With the work of Galileo and the Italian anatomists, William Harvey's discovery of the blood circulation in 1628, Rene Descartes's philosophical work on mechanical physics in the 1640s, the work of the chemists, and the appearance of the practical microscope, seventeenth-century European science was more austerely rational, practical, and certainly more 'mechanical' than the speculative Paracelsianism of the sixteenth century. During the Civil War in England (1642-60) much serious and lengthy experimental work had gone into the Baconian project of capturing the power of nature, through agricultural reform, engineering, and statistical demography; but although Commonwealth debate had ranged widely over a number of idealistic, administrative plans for the health of the people, no parliamentary action was taken. It was a scientifically inclined prince, Charles II, who established a neo-Baconian research institute, the Royal Society, in 1662. One of the key experimental sites of seventeenth-century European science was the observation and testing of the qualities of the 'Element of Air'. Ordinary, simple, clean cool Air—the breath of heaven—is where English ascetic physiology finally made its mark.
The Greek model of good odours and bad miasmas was, in the seventeenth century, held to be true beyond doubt, a cornerstone of science, but one whose essential arcana and mechanisms had yet to be found. Sanctorius had proved that the body breathed out a miasma of perspiration; the chemists had discovered gases but had not yet discovered oxygen, and were in the processing of discovering that plants breathed too. In addition to pure science, there were pressing medical and social reasons for investigating air, namely the controversial medieval plague policy of 'aerial quarantine'—barricading the air into the house by closing the door on it, purifying it with good odours, and sealing it away from the contagions raging outside (or inside). Yet was it not also seen that air was worst when it was shut up and confined? Seventeenth-century writers on plague were highly concerned about the movement of wholesome air: 'oftentimes it is seene, that sick folks doe recover their former health onely by a change of air'.64
Thomas Sydenham (1624-89), the so-called Father of English Medicine, was a fever doctor and follower of Hippocrates who spent years measuring the epidemics of London and carefully observing his patients. Like the Methodists, he thought that the patient should not be trampled on by 'Physic', and that a doctor's aim should be to 'Assist Nature' through therapeutic nihilism: 'truly I sometimes thought, that we can scarcely proceed too slowly in driving away diseases, and that we should proceed slowly, more being often to be left to Nature, than is now generally imagined'.65 By ignoring the medical rules and trusting to natural instinct Sydenham successfully dispensed with the conventional fever regimen, and obtained a huge reputation. The mistake of earlier physicians, he said, had been to have 'prescribed the hottest remedies and method for those Diseases, which required above others the coldest remedies and Regimen, [as] is evident enough both in the smallpox (which is one of the hottest diseases in Nature) and in the cure of Fevers'. The fever should not be stoked up with great fires, sealed rooms, hot drinks, thick odours, and loads of blankets: for 'how can we certainly tell that we may not kill the Man, while we endeavour to dispose the Humours to Sweat by a Hot Regimen, and hot cordials... it is clear to me, that the Fever alone has heat enough itself;not needs it any greater heat from abroad, by a Hot Regimen'. The patient only needed cool beds, plenty of cool drinks, cool air, and no bloodletting: 'the sick must keep up adays, at least some hours, or at least lie outside the Bed... forbidding the use of Broth of any kind, permitting in the meanwhile the accustomed exercise, and free Air, without so much as once using any Evacuations'.66
Sydenham's methods meant that the sickroom, or bedroom, became a very different place to the traditional sealed and heated chamber. We can imagine that many 'modern' householders threw open their windows with relief to let the fumes escape, especially in the summer. They may even have started aerating their old feather beds, for the cogent reasons given by Thomas Tryon in his domestic manual A Treatise of Cleanness in Meats and Drinks, of the Preparation of Food, the Excellency of Good Airs, and the Benefits of Clean Sweet Beds. Also of the Generation of Bugs, and their Cure (1682):
Now Beds for the most part stand in Corners of Chambers, and being ponderous close substances, the refreshing Influences of the Air have no power to penetrate or destroy the gross humidity that all such Places contract... Not that everyone's Bed does smell indifferent well to himself; but when he lies in a strange Bed, let a Man but put his Nose into the Bed when he is thoroughly hot, and hardly any Common Vault is like it... You are to set your other sorts of Beds as near as you can to the most Airie Places of your Rooms, exposing them to the Air the most part of the day, with your Chamber-Windows open, that the Air may freely pass, which is a most excellent Element, that does sweeten all things and prevent Putrefaction. In the Night also you ought not to have your Window-Curtains drawn, nor your Curtains that are about your Beds; for it hinders the sweet refreshing Influences of the Air...67
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