Pepys gets stoned

Samuel Pepys is one of those Londoners whose exploits could fill a book (you could call it, I don’t know, The Diary of Samuel Pepys or something). I suspect I’ll end up returning to him more than once.

I think my favourite fact about him, though, was to do with the fact that he suffered from kidney stones. Not a particularly cherishable fact in itself, nor was the operation he had to remove it. I won’t go into details here, but it involved some significant below-the-waist jiggery-pokery that would make any man wince. Put it this way, an important preoperative procedure was to hire four strong men to hold the patient down and tie him up.

In the 17th century, pre-anaesthetics and pre-antiseptics, the most common advice given by doctors to patients contemplating surgery was “don’t.” Indeed, this policy was in operation well into the middle of the 19th century. Pepys’ operation was a resounding success, removing a stone the size of a tennis ball from his bladder, but was not without its complications – the wound later went gangrenous, causing a great deal of pain for him in later life.



No, my favourite part was that Pepys considered the operation to be a second birthday, and would actually hold a party every year. The 1663 diary entry for this day reveals that the operation had no long term effects on his appetite. For the twelve people invited (including Mrs Turner, whose house had formed the operating theatre), the feast on offer was “a fricasee of rabbits and chicken, a leg of mutton boiled, three carps in a dish, a great dish of a side of lamb, a dish of roasted pigeons, a dish of four lobsters, three tarts, a most rare lamprey pie, and a dish of anchovies.” Plus desserts. Plus wine.

Another favourite dish was “umble pie”, an inexpensive dish made from deer offal. Sources differ as to what sort of offal it was – some go with liver, lights and intestines, some favour the testes. In any case, this particular delicacy is the source of the phrase “humble pie”.

On a foody note, perhaps related to Pepys’ kidney trouble was the fact that Londoners in those days drank very little water. Again, the advice was “don’t.” What was recommended instead for the average working Londoner was a drink called “small beer.” This was weak and low in alcohol, but, importantly, the water used to make it still had to be boiled. The principles of water-borne disease wouldn’t be understood Dr John Snow conducted his studies in Soho in the 19th century, but nonetheless it was noted that people who drank water got ill and people who drank beer didn’t.

While drinking beer like water sounds rather fun, up to a point, it wasn’t really beer in the sense that we’d think of it. It was weak-tasting stuff, not unlike Budweiser in cans (allegedly), and nothing special as compared to the proper ales. And from this we get the term “small beer,” meaning “of little consequence” or “a bit rubbish”.

Here endeth the lesson.

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Filed under Booze, Food, History, London, Medicine, Notable Londoners, Rambling on and on, The Restoration

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