Sick bodies
in Murky waters
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This chapter reasserts the importance of illness and medicine in watering places. Sick bodies took centre stage, and spa towns were first and foremost places of cure and care rather than the clean and sparkling Georgian places of leisure to which they have sometimes been reduced. The chapter opens on the major literary references regularly invoked for eighteenth-century spas: the novels of Smollett, Austen and Burney, stressing how their initial attraction to the spa was rooted in one character’s illness. It also relies on letter-writers’ testimonies to show the degree of trust that could be placed in the curative virtues of mineral waters and thus fight the idea that illness was only a pretext to visit spas. A second section presents the various forms of sickness which could require water treatment, and which were regularly written about in medical treatises, namely gout and nervous diseases, sex-related diseases and diseases of the skin. The one characteristic they all share is they are chronic. Spas are therefore relevant to the cultural history of chronic diseases, as they were integrated in wider forms of care than the reductive patient–doctor relationship, which is only a small fraction of the experience of sickness. It suggests that the focus could be shifted from the sickness to the sick and their experiences, and spas are a good place to start, with the multiple case histories presented in mineral water treatises.

Murky waters

British spas in eighteenth-century medicine and literature


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