1660’s London: Guest Post by Katherine Pym

Please welcome 17th-century historical fiction author Katherine Pym to The Seventeenth Century Lady!

My work in progress (WIP) is titled The Barbers, a historical novel set in London 1663. Due to the current events of the 1660’s, my goal is to write a novel per year until 1666. So far, I have released stories that mark each year 1660-1662. This means that if something of interest occurred in 1663 that I wanted in my novel of 1660, I could not use it.

During this time, if you and I walked those narrow lanes of London, and knew of an event that took place in the future, we’d be considered witches, followers of sorcery, or worse yet, of the gypsies who were never to be trusted.

At the time of The Barbers, if Queen Elizabeth I drifted from the Heavens to earth, she’d recognize most of London’s landmarks with its timbered buildings, the old and new exchanges, St Paul’s with portions of a lead roof, and Baynard’s Castle, once the home of Anne Boleyn. If Queen Bess ventured to London after September of 1666, she’d recognize nothing within the city walls. The great fire of September burned to the ground over 13,000 homes, 93 churches (including St Paul’s), and all government and financial buildings.


When the smoke cleared, timbered buildings were a thing of the past; to avoid such a calamity of ever happening again, reconstruction of the great city consisted mainly of brick.

My stories take place before the great fire.

The early 1660’s were marvelous years, and a vibrant time. The government went from dark and dreary to colorful and lively. England, and in particular London, burgeoned with awareness. After several decades of religious infighting, three civil wars, and Cromwell’s Protectorate, a Renaissance of sorts took place. Men and women pulled up their bootstraps, and looked to the sun rising in the Eastern sky. They took a deep breath and smiled.

Despite its odoriferous smells, and coal smoke with particulates that settled grit on everything, London burst from the confines of a bud to a flower in full bloom. In 1662, the king married Catherine of Braganza and gained ports of call in the East and West Indies. The race was on to import valuable goods, take new nations, conquer old nations. The Royal Society was born, and brought to it great minds.

The Barbers is a novel of medicine and science, the Royal Society and its experiments. I would have loved for Isaac Newton to take part in my story, but he was still young and at Cambridge. He did not come to the Royal Society until 1671. If I am to maintain date/event dignity, it would be impossible for him to be older and romp through my novel (math and science only, of course).

Margaret_CavendishAnother person who will not be mentioned is Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. She is considered the first to have written science fiction with her novel, The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing World where her heroine is kidnapped from a beach by an admirer, and put aboard a ship. Due to the heinousness of the crime, our Lord created a tempest. The ship blew off course and jettisoned to the arctic where all the men died. The ship continued through a crack in the ether into a new dimension. Margaret’s heroine is honored, and becomes queen of this new world. With this newfound power she sends her minions on journeys, their mission: To seek answers for the phenomena of the Universe.

Some of her questions are really quite amazing. She asks about light, how it’s made which brings discussions of atoms: “Motes of sun [are] streams of very small, rare and transparent particles.”

What of colors and complexions? She questions their makeup: “made by the bare reflection of light, without the assistance of small particles; or by the help of well ranged and ordered atoms, or by a continual agitation of little globules, or by some pressing and reacting motion.”

Margaret continued into dimensional thought with this: there could be a world within a world. An earring is made up of dimensions that house other dimensions.

It bummed me out I could not use her, for her thought processes were extraordinary.

Margaret certainly lived during the 1660’s, and by 1663 she had written of philosophical matters, but her works I would have used were not published until later, 1666, so I am out of luck. If I want to have the reader feel he or she walks the dank city lanes during this time, they would not have known any of this.

Then of course, my stories deal with the common man. Reading and writing, arithmetic were in more use during this time, even by women, but life was a struggle. Not many had the money to purchase books from stalls in Paul’s Yard, or the energy to sit by oil lamp, lanthorn, or a candle made of animal lard and tallow (which dripped horribly and stank), to read after dark.

So, what can I use?

Since The Barbers deals with Galen’s medicine, I can use this one: Culpeper’s Complete Herbal. Due to its length, I did not include all of the title (listed below). Its content is telling, and begins with a long diatribe against the local medical profession, followed by a letter to his wife, Alice Culpeper.

Nicholai_CulpeperNicholas Culpeper was vexed by the arrogance of physicians and apothecaries. They used Latin, never really told their patients anything of value, and overcharged them (apothecaries especially) upward to 300%. Culpeper’s herbs were of local plants that a housewife could pluck from the ground and use. He explained which herb worked the best with astrology and its degree of heat. [Explanation: Heat in the 1st degree opens pores; heat in the 2nd degree thins fluids; heat in the 3rd degree warms, and the 4th burns.]

Culpeper gave instructions how to use his book. He wrote:

…herbs, plants, etc. are now in the book appropriated to their proper planets. Therefore, First, consider what planet causeth the disease; Secondly, consider what part of the body is afflicted…the flesh, or blood, or bones, or ventricles. Thirdly, …what planet the afflicted part…is governed [by]. Fourthly,…oppose diseases by herbs of the planet, opposite to the planet that causes them…Fifthly, there is a way to cure diseases…by Sympathy, and so every planet cures his own disease…

Easy? Hmm, I don’t think so.

A housewife would have to read and have some concept of astrology to help cure loved ones. She’d need to recognize which plant did what, along with the planets, and to what heat degree.

Within its walls, London was very crowded with people, buildings of all sizes, and too many churches. Coal smoke and dust covered everything; there were few places in London where plants would likely thrive. You’d have to leave the city and its Liberties (suburbs) to obtain the herbs, a lengthy and expensive ordeal. How far would you have to go, and where, to find what you sought?

So, people relied on barbers or surgeons to assist them. Hopefully, you found one who looked kindly upon you, your loved ones, and your pocketbook.

During King Henry VIII’s reign, the Barber-Surgeon Guild took a separate direction. Barbers could no longer do surgery, and surgeons could no longer barber, but over the years, this line diminished, and each performed the other’s procedures to make a little extra coin.

Physicians learned their craft at University and typically worked with the more affluent, while surgeons and apothecaries were apprenticed. In the medical hierarchy, physicians came first, then surgeons, then apothecaries. Barbers did not really count. Besides plucking hair from ears and noses, squeezing pimples, and styling head and facial hair, they were allowed to pull teeth, assist in births, and sometimes, when no one looked, bloodletting.

My protagonist in The Barbers is a woman. I’ve named her, Celia Barber, spinster.

Women in London were allowed to do surgery or barber, and be in an apprenticeship, but there is not much data to show how many followed these vocations. I did find a note of a few women licensed in surgery in the 17th century, but they were outside London by several miles. Most women who followed this vocational path were daughters of barbers or surgeons in good standing with the guild.

Celia Barber is part of a hodge-podge family, whose father belongs to the Barber-Surgeon Guild, but prefers the barber side of the business. Celia runs the surgery end in a shop they share. She is bright, and filled with questions. She is like Margaret Cavendish, but as a woman, Celia cannot march into the Royal Society to hear a lecture, or see an experiment. Women weren’t allowed. They can’t watch a dissection (of hanged felons) at Chirurgeon Hall, either, especially if men dug around a woman’s reproductive organs, searching for a way to prevent pregnancy. This was not done for the benefit of women, but to have more control over women.

Being a writer has its perks. I created a fellow who helps disguise Celia as his lackey, and takes her to Society meetings. They see experiments, listen to lectures, and see Robert Hooke’s fabulous air machine. She has access to William Harvey’s The Anatomical Exercises which is a study of the blood as it runs through veins. She hears a lecture by John Evelyn on the damaging effects of smoke in and about London. She sees experiments on dogs, where scientists try to understand the function of the lungs and heart.

All this was available by 1663, the year of my novel.

Early modern England in the 1660’s flowered with life and the quest for knowledge, to strike out in tall ships and cross the seas for goods and spices. English men and women looked beyond the norm, sought answers to their questions at home and abroad, and to make it English.


I thank the following sources:

Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, to which is now added upward of One Hundred Additional Herbs, with a display of their Medicinal and Occult Qualities; Physically applied to the Cure of all Disorders Incident to Mankind. Originally published by Nich. Culpeper Sept 1653

John Evelyn, Fumigugium: Or, The Inconvenience of the AER, and SMOAKE of London Dissipated. Together with some Remedies humbly proposed by J.E. Esq; To His Sacred Majestie, and To the Parliament now Assembled. Published by His Majesties Command. Originally presented to King Charles II May 1661

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing World, published 1666.

William Harvey, The Anatomical Exercises, De Motu Cordis and De Circulatione Sanguinis in English Translation, Translated to English 1653

Katherine Pym likes history, especially 17th century England, specifically London during the 1660’s. The decade is so exciting. It is filled with human interest stories as the people adjust from one government to another, and all their changing rules and regulations. Pym is the author of the following books, which you can purchase through the following links:

[amazon asin=B004RVARM4&template=thumbnail&chan=default][amazon asin=B003YJEUVE&template=thumbnail&chan=default][amazon asin=B008B73N6C&template=thumbnail&chan=default]

Hear ye! One thought — so far — on “1660’s London: Guest Post by Katherine Pym”:

  1. anitadavison

    Lovely post Katherine, and as I an having a sneak preview of ‘The Barbers’, maybe in her clandestine visits to the RS, Celia encounters Duchess Margaret, also in male disguise with whom she has a discussion about the properties of light. Margaret must have done some research and discussion long before her book was published………


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