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What Is a Mountebank?

While mountebanks are usually defined as crooks and impostors who trade in false promises and claim knowledge they don’t have, in the seventeenth century it was not always easy to distinguish them from other medical practitioners or from other entertainers and orators.

A broadside sheet with a poem and an illustration of a pair of mountebanks displaying their wares.

Satirical broadside on Hans Buling, a Dutch mountebank in London.

The Infallible Mountebank, or Quack Doctor, c. 1670-1690, British Museum Number 1868,0808.3274, © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Thomas Coryat, "The Mountebanks of Venice"

I hope it will not be esteemed for an impertinency to my discourse, if I next speak of the mountebanks of Venice, seeing amongst many other things that do much famous this city [make this city famous], these two sorts of people, namely the courtesans [whom he has just discussed at length] and the mountebanks, are not the least. For although there are mountebanks also in other cities of Italy, yet because there is a greater concourse of them in Venice than elsewhere, and that of the better sort and the most eloquent fellows, and also for that there is a larger toleration of them here than in other cities (for in Rome, etc. they are restrained from certain matters as I have heard which are here allowed them), therefore they use to name a Venetian mountebank … [the] principal mountebank of all Italy. Neither do I much doubt but that this treatise of them will be acceptable to some readers, as being a mere novelty never before heard of (I think) by thousands of our English gallants. Surely the principal reason that hath induced me to make mention of them is because, when I was in Venice, they oftentimes ministered infinite pleasure unto me.

I will first begin with the etymology of their name: the word “mountebank” (being in the Italian tongue monta inbanco) is compounded of two Italian words, montare, which signifies to ascend or go up to a place, and banco, a bench, because these fellows do act their part upon a stage, which is compacted of benches or forms, though I have seen some few of them also stand upon the ground when they tell their tales, which are such as are commonly called ciaratanoes or charlatans. In Latin, they are called circulatores and agyrtae, which is derived from the Greek word ayelpeiv, which signifies to gather or draw a company of people together … The principal place where they act is the first part of Saint Mark’s street that reaches betwixt the west front of St. Mark’s Church and the opposite front of Saint Geminian’s Church, in which, twice a day, that is, in the morning and in the afternoon, you may see five or six several [different] stages erected for them.

Those that act upon the ground, even the forsaid “charlatans,” being of the poorer sort of them, stand most commonly in the second part of St. Mark’s, not far from the gate of the Duke’s Palace. These mountebanks at one end of their stage place their trunk, which is replenished with a world of new-fangled trumperies. After the whole rabble of them is gotten up to the stage, whereof some wear vizards being disguised like fools in a play; some that are women (for there are diverse women also amongst them) are attired with habits according to that person that they sustain [they wear the liveries of their patrons or patients?]. After (I say) they are all upon the stage, the music begins­­–sometimes vocal, sometimes instrumental, and sometimes both together. This music is a preamble and introduction to the ensuing matter. In the meantime, while the music plays, the principal mountebank, which is the captain and ringleader of all the rest, opens his trunk, and sets abroach [displays] his wares. After the music has ceased, he makes an oration to the audience of half an hour long, or almost an hour, wherein he does most hyperbolically extoll the virtue of his drugs and confections–Laudat venales qui vult extrudere merces. [“He praises his wares who hopes to unload them on someone else,” Horace]–though many of them are very counterfeit and false.

Truly, I often wondered at many of these natural orators. For they would tell their tales with such admirable volubility and plausible grace, even extempore, and seasoned with that singular variety of elegant jests and witty conceits, that they did often strike great admiration into strangers that never heard them before. And by how much the more eloquent these naturalists are, by so much the greater audience they draw unto them, and the more ware they sell. After the chiefest mountebank’s first speech is ended, he delivers out his commodities by little and little, the jester still playing his part, and the musicians singing and playing upon their instruments. The principal things that they sell are oils, sovereign waters, amorous songs printed, apothecary drugs, and a commonweal of other trifles. The head mountebank at every time that he delivers out anything, makes an extemporal speech, which he does eftsoons [repeatedly] intermingle with such savory jests (but spiced now and then with singular scurrility) that they minister passing mirth and laughter to the whole company, which perhaps may consist of a thousand people that flock together about one of their stages. For so many according to my estimation I have seen giving attention to some notable eloquent mountebank.

I have observed marvelous strange matters done by some of these mountebanks. For I saw one of them hold a viper in his hand, and play with his sting a quarter of an hour together, and yet receive no hurt, though another man should have been presently stung to death with it. He made us all believe that the same viper was lineally descended from the generation of that viper that leapt out of the fire upon St. Paul’s hand, in the island of Melita now called Malta, and did him no hurt. And [he] told us moreover that it would sting some, and not others. Also, I have seen a mountebank hackle [hack or slash] and gash his naked arm with a knife most pitifully to behold, so that the blood has streamed out in great abundance, and by and by after he has applied a certain oil unto it, wherewith he has incontinent[ly] both stanched the blood, and so thoroughly healed the wounds and gashes that when he hath afterwards showed us his arm again, we could not possibly perceive the least token of a gash.

Besides there was another black-gowned mountebank that gave most excellent contentment to the company that frequented his stage. This fellow was born blind, and so continued to that day. He never missed Saint Mark’s place twice a day for six weeks together. He was noted to be a singular fellow for singing extemporal songs, and for a pretty kind of music that he made with two bones betwixt his fingers. Moreover, I have seen some of them do such strange juggling tricks as would be almost incredible to be reported. Also, I have observed this in them, that after they have extolled their wares to the skies, having set the price of ten crowns upon someone of their commodities, they have at last descended so low that they have taken for it four gazets, which is something less than a groat. These merry fellows do most commonly continue two good hours upon the stage, and at last when they have fed the audience with such passing variety of sport that they are even cloyed with the superfluity of their conceits, and have sold as much ware as they can, they remove their trinkets and stage till the next meeting. Thus much concerning the mountebanks.

Source: Thomas Coryat, Coryat’s Crudities: Hastily Gobbled Up in Five Months of Travels in France, Italy etc. (London, 1611), pp. 271-75. [modernized]

The OED defines a “toad-eater” as “one who eats toads; originally the attendant of a charlatan, employed to eat or pretend to eat toads (held to be poisonous) to enable his master to exhibit his skill in expelling poison.” In the figure of the toad-eater, then, we find another link between the toad and the mountebank. In the eighteenth century, the toad-eater picks up the meaning now associated with the word “toady,” that is, “a fawning flatterer, parasite, sycophant.” Thus the apparently bizarre act of toad-eating in service to the mountebank haunts contemporary usage. The following, a diary entry about “William Utting, toad eater,” is the earliest text the OED cites linking toad-eaters and charlatans, although it does not relate the toad-eater to a mountebank. The examples of toad-eaters working for quacks in the OED are all from the eighteenth century.

John Rous, The Diary of John Rouse

In October 1629, I having been at Wickham Market, at my cousin Games’s, with my wife and Anthony, in our return, about Kesgrave, between Woodbridge and Ipswich, I fell into the company of one Paine, a shopkeeper in Laxfield, of whom, after much talk about Mr. Skinner and my old acquaintance at Laxfield and Dennington, I inquired of him if William Utting the toad-eater (of whom, see in my first long notebook, covered with redder forrell [a book case], page 43, and in the notes of 1612)* did not once keep at Laxfield. He told me yes, and said he had seen him eat a toad, nay two. The man in whose house he kept went to him for his sake, and after salutation, told him that a friend of his would give a groat to see him eat a toad (thus was the way to see it). He accepted the offer, and went and fetched in, from under blocks, 2 toads, and, rubbing of the earth (as in my other book), he swallowed them down. But presently he cast them up into his hands, and after some pause, “Nay,” says he, “I will not lose my groat,” so taking that which came up last (says he), “thou went in first before and shall so do again.” When both then were down, his stomach held them, and he had his groat. This said Paine. See my notebook, what I saw, &c.

*The notebooks to which Rous here refers do not seem to have survived, although we have a miscellany as well as his diary. But his parenthetical reference to his “first notebook” as well as “notes of 1612,” which might or might not be part of that notebook, documents a robust, self-conscious, and self-referential note-taking practice.
Source: John Rous, The Diary of John Rouse, incumbent of Santon Downham, Suffolk, from 1625 to 1642 (New York: AMS Press, 1968), p. 45. [modernized]
Aesop, “An Ape and a Mountebank”

There was a mountebank tricked up as fine as a lord. A certain ape, that had a mind to set up for a beau [or a gallant], spies him out, and nothing would serve him but he must have a suit and dress after the same pattern. He pressed the quack so hard for it that at last he told him plainly, “Upon condition,” says he, “that you shall wear a silver chain about your neck, I'll give you the very fellow on [or of] it. For you’ll be running away with your livery [uniform] else.” Jack [the ape] agrees to it, and is presently rigged out in his gold and silver lace, with a feather in his cap, and as figures go now a-days, a very pretty figure he made in the world, I can assure you; though upon second thoughts, when the heat of the vanity was over, he grew sick of his bargain. For he found that he had sold his liberty for a fool’s coat.

’Tis with us in our lives, as with the Indians in their trade, that truck [exchange] gold and pearl for beads and glasses.* We part with the blessings of both worlds for pleasures, court-favors, and commissions. And, at last, when we have sold ourselves to our lusts, we grow sick of our bargain.

A vain fool can hardly be more miserable than the granting of his own prayers and wishes would make him. How many spectacles does every day afford us of apes and mountebanks in gay coats that pass in the world for philosophers, and men of honor; and it is no wonder for one fool to value himself upon the same vanity for which he esteems another. He that judges of men and of things by sense, governs himself by sense too. And he that well considers the practices and opinions of the age he lives in, will find that folly and passion have more disciples than wisdom and virtue. The feather in a fool’s cap is a fool’s inclination. Nay, it is his ambition, too. For he that measures the character of another man by his outside, seldom looks further than the business of dress and appearance in himself, besides [the fact] that ill examples work more upon us than good, and that we are forwarder to imitate the one than to emulate the other. This now is the highest pitch of infelicity, when we do not only square our lives in general, according to vicious precedents, but set our hearts in particular (with the fantastical ape here) upon this or that extravagance. No other sort of fool would please him, than the very counterpart of this quack. His mistake was double. First, he placed an opinion of happiness where there was no ground at all to expect it. Secondly, he parted with his liberty in exchange for it, which is the same thing with trucking the greatest blessing of human nature for the handiwork of a tailor.

*This seventeenth-century summary of the story’s moral depends on the racist assumption that native people foolishly accepted worthless goods (beads and mirrors) in exchange for precious ones (gold and pearl). Widely repeated, this assumption informed contempt for native peoples and preparations for trade with them. For example, the records of the Virginia company document efforts to establish a glass furnace in 1621 because “the Comoditie of Beads was like to prove the Verie Coyne of that Country” (The Records of the Virginia Company of London, ed. Susan Myra Kingsbury [Washington: Government Printing Office, 1906], 1:513.) The constant repetition of this assumption in unexpected places, like this moral, obscures the messy facts of Anglo-Indian trade. In Virginia, for example, the settlers were often trading for corn, not gold, and the Indians were often trading for tools and guns.
Source: Roger L’Estrange, Fables of Æsop and other eminent mythologists with morals and reflexions (London, 1692), pp. 371-2. [modernized]
Ben Jonson, Volpone

[This scene takes place in St. Mark’s Place in front of Corvino’s house. Sir Politick Would-Be, a knight, and Peregrine, a gentleman traveller, are in conversation when Mosca and Nano, Volpone’s servants, enter to create a stage on which he will then perform disguised as a mountebank, Scoto of Mantua. Volpone’s goal is to attract the attention of Corvino’s wife, Celia, who will hear and see him through her window. The ruse ends when Corvino arrives to interrupt Volpone’s performance. Throughout the scene, Sir Politick and Peregrine stand to the side, commenting on the action.]


PER: Who be these, sir?

MOS: Under that window, there ’t must be. The same.

SIR P: Fellows, to mount a bank. Did your instructor
In the dear tongues, never discourse to you
Of the Italian mountebanks?

PER: Yes, sir.

SIR P: Why,
Here shall you see one.

PER: They are quacksalvers;
Fellows, that live by venting oils and drugs.

SIR P: Was that the character he gave you of them?

PER: As I remember.

SIR P: Pity his ignorance.
They are the only knowing men of Europe!
Great general scholars, excellent physicians,
Most admired statesmen, profest favourites,
And cabinet counsellors to the greatest princes;
The only languaged men of all the world!

PER: And, I have heard, they are most lewd impostors;
Made all of terms and shreds; no less beliers
Of great men’s favours, than their own vile med'cines;
Which they will utter upon monstrous oaths:
Selling that drug for two-pence, ere they part,
Which they have valued at twelve crowns before.

SIR P: Sir, calumnies are answer’d best with silence.
Yourself shall judge.–Who is it mounts, my friends?

MOS: Scoto of Mantua, sir.

SIR P: Is’t he? Nay, then
I’ll proudly promise, sir, you shall behold
Another man than has been phant’sied to you.
I wonder yet, that he should mount his bank,
Here in this nook, that has been wont t’appear
In face of the Piazza!–Here, he comes.


VOLP [TO NANO.]: Mount zany.

MOB: Follow, follow, follow, follow!

SIR P: See how the people follow him! he’s a man
May write ten thousand crowns in bank here. Note,
Mark but his gesture:–I do use to observe
The state he keeps in getting up.

PER: ’Tis worth it, sir.

VOLP: Most noble gentlemen, and my worthy patrons! It may seem strange, that I, your Scoto Mantuano, who was ever wont to fix my bank in face of the public Piazza, near the shelter of the Portico to the Procuratia, should now, after eight months’ absence from this illustrious city of Venice, humbly retire myself into an obscure nook of the Piazza.

SIR P: Did not I now object the same?

PER: Peace, sir.

VOLP: Let me tell you: I am not, as your Lombard proverb saith, cold on my feet; or content to part with my commodities at a cheaper rate, than I accustomed: look not for it. Nor that the calumnious reports of that impudent detractor, and shame to our profession (Alessandro Buttone, I mean), who gave out, in public, I was condemn'd a sforzato to the galleys, for poisoning the cardinal Bembo’s–cook, hath at all attached, much less dejected me. No, no, worthy gentlemen; to tell you true, I cannot endure to see the rabble of these ground ciarlitani, that spread their cloaks on the pavement, as if they meant to do feats of activity, and then come in lamely, with their mouldy tales out of Boccacio, like stale Tabarine, the fabulist: some of them discoursing their travels, and of their tedious captivity in the Turks’ galleys, when, indeed, were the truth known, they were the Christians’ galleys, where very temperately they eat bread, and drunk water, as a wholesome penance, enjoined them by their confessors, for base pilferies.

SIR P: Note but his bearing, and contempt of these.

VOLP: These turdy-facy-nasty-paty-lousy-fartical rogues, with one poor groat’s-worth of unprepared antimony, finely wrapt up in several scartoccios, are able, very well, to kill their twenty a week, and play; yet, these meagre, starved spirits, who have half stopt the organs of their minds with earthy oppilations, want not their favourers among your shrivell'd sallad-eating artizans, who are overjoyed that they may have their half-pe’rth of physic; though it purge them into another world, it makes no matter.

SIR P: Excellent! have you heard better language, sir?

VOLP: Well, let them go. And, gentlemen, honourable gentlemen, know, that for this time, our bank, being thus removed from the clamours of the canaglia, shall be the scene of pleasure and delight; for I have nothing to sell, little or nothing to sell.

SIR P: I told you, sir, his end.

PER: You did so, sir.

VOLP: I protest, I, and my six servants, are not able to make of this precious liquor, so fast as it is fetch’d away from my lodging by gentlemen of your city; strangers of the Terra-firma; worshipful merchants; ay, and senators too: who, ever since my arrival, have detained me to their uses, by their splendidous liberalities. And worthily; for, what avails your rich man to have his magazines stuft with moscadelli, or of the purest grape, when his physicians prescribe him, on pain of death, to drink nothing but water cocted with aniseeds? O health! health! the blessing of the rich, the riches of the poor! who can buy thee at too dear a rate, since there is no enjoying this world without thee? Be not then so sparing of your purses, honourable gentlemen, as to abridge the natural course of life–

PER: You see his end.

SIR P: Ay, is’t not good?

VOLP: For, when a humid flux, or catarrh, by the mutability of air, falls from your head into an arm or shoulder, or any other part; take you a ducat, or your chequin of gold, and apply to the place affected: see what good effect it can work. No, no, ’tis this blessed unguento, this rare extraction, that hath only power to disperse all malignant humours, that proceed either of hot, cold, moist, or windy causes–

PER: I would he had put in dry too.

SIR P: ’Pray you, observe.

VOLP: To fortify the most indigest and crude stomach, ay, were it of one, that, through extreme weakness, vomited blood, applying only a warm napkin to the place, after the unction and fricace;–for the vertigine in the head, putting but a drop into your nostrils, likewise behind the ears; a most sovereign and approved remedy. The mal caduco, cramps, convulsions, paralysies, epilepsies, tremor-cordia, retired nerves, ill vapours of the spleen, stopping of the liver, the stone, the strangury, hernia ventosa, iliaca passio; stops a disenteria immediately; easeth the torsion of the small guts: and cures melancholia hypocondriaca, being taken and applied according to my printed receipt.
For, this is the physician, this the medicine; this counsels, this cures; this gives the direction, this works the effect; and, in sum, both together may be termed an abstract of the theorick and practick in the Aesculapian art. ’Twill cost you eight crowns. And,–Zan Fritada, prithee sing a verse extempore in honour of it.

SIR P: How do you like him, sir?

PER: Most strangely, I!

SIR P: Is not his language rare?

PER: But alchemy,
I never heard the like: or Broughton’s books.

NANO [SINGS.]: Had old Hippocrates, or Galen,
That to their books put med’cines all in,
But known this secret, they had never
(Of which they will be guilty ever)
Been murderers of so much paper,
Or wasted many a hurtless taper;
No Indian drug had e’er been famed,
Tabacco, sassafras not named;
Ne yet, of guacum one small stick, sir,
Nor Raymund Lully’s great elixir.
Ne had been known the Danish Gonswart,
Or Paracelsus, with his long-sword.

PER: All this, yet, will not do, eight crowns is high.

VOLP: No more.–Gentlemen, if I had but time to discourse to you the miraculous effects of this my oil, surnamed Oglio del Scoto; with the countless catalogue of those I have cured of the aforesaid, and many more diseases; the pattents and privileges of all the princes and commonwealths of Christendom; or but the depositions of those that appeared on my part, before the signiory of the Sanita and most learned College of Physicians; where I was authorised, upon notice taken of the admirable virtues of my medicaments, and mine own excellency in matter of rare and unknown secrets, not only to disperse them publicly in this famous city, but in all the territories, that happily joy under the government of the most pious and magnificent states of Italy. But may some other gallant fellow say, O, there be divers that make profession to have as good, and as experimented receipts as yours: indeed, very many have assayed, like apes, in imitation of that, which is really and essentially in me, to make of this oil; bestowed great cost in furnaces, stills, alembecks, continual fires, and preparation of the ingredients, (as indeed there goes to it six hundred several simples, besides some quantity of human fat, for the conglutination, which we buy of the anatomists,) but, when these practitioners come to the last decoction, blow, blow, puff, puff, and all flies in fumo: ha, ha, ha! Poor wretches! I rather pity their folly and indiscretion, than their loss of time and money; for these may be recovered by industry: but to be a fool born, is a disease incurable.
For myself, I always from my youth have endeavoured to get the rarest secrets, and book them, either in exchange, or for money; I spared nor cost nor labour, where anything was worthy to be learned. And gentlemen, honourable gentlemen, I will undertake, by virtue of chemical art, out of the honourable hat that covers your head, to extract the four elements; that is to say, the fire, air, water, and earth, and return you your felt without burn or stain. For, whilst others have been at the Balloo, I have been at my book; and am now past the craggy paths of study, and come to the flowery plains of honour and reputation.

SIR P: I do assure you, sir, that is his aim.

VOLP: But, to our price–

PER: And that withal, sir Pol.

VOLP: You all know, honourable gentlemen, I never valued this ampulla, or vial, at less than eight crowns, but for this time, I am content, to be deprived of it for six; six crowns is the price; and less, in courtesy I know you cannot offer me; take it, or leave it, howsoever, both it and I am at your service. I ask you not as the value of the thing, for then I should demand of you a thousand crowns, so the cardinals Montalto, Fernese, the great Duke of Tuscany, my gossip, with divers other princes, have given me; but I despise money. Only to shew my affection to you, honourable gentlemen, and your illustrious State here, I have neglected the messages of these princes, mine own offices, framed my journey hither, only to present you with the fruits of my travels.–Tune your voices once more to the touch of your instruments, and give the honourable assembly some delightful recreation.

PER: What monstrous and most painful circumstance
Is here, to get some three or four gazettes,
Some three-pence in the whole! for that ’twill come to.

NANO [SINGS.]: You that would last long, list to my song,
Make no more coil, but buy of this oil.
Would you be ever fair and young?
Stout of teeth, and strong of tongue?
Tart of palate? quick of ear?
Sharp of sight? of nostril clear?
Moist of hand? and light of foot?
Or, I will come nearer to’t,
Would you live free from all diseases?
Do the act your mistress pleases;
Yet fright all aches from your bones?
Here’s a med’cine, for the nones.

VOLP: Well, I am in a humour at this time to make a present of the small quantity my coffer contains; to the rich, in courtesy, and to the poor for God’s sake. Wherefore now mark: I ask’d you six crowns, and six crowns, at other times, you have paid me; you shall not give me six crowns, nor five, nor four, nor three, nor two, nor one; nor half a ducat; no, nor a moccinigo. Sixpence it will cost you, or six hundred pound– expect no lower price, for, by the banner of my front, I will not bate a bagatine, that I will have, only, a pledge of your loves, to carry something from amongst you, to shew I am not contemn’d by you. Therefore, now, toss your handkerchiefs, cheerfully, cheerfully; and be advertised, that the first heroic spirit that deignes to grace me with a handkerchief, I will give it a little remembrance of something, beside, shall please it better, than if I had presented it with a double pistolet.

PER: Will you be that heroic spark, sir Pol?
O see! the window has prevented you.

VOLP: Lady, I kiss your bounty; and for this timely grace you have done your poor Scoto of Mantua, I will return you, over and above my oil, a secret of that high and inestimable nature, shall make you for ever enamour'd on that minute, wherein your eye first descended on so mean, yet not altogether to be despised, an object. Here is a powder conceal’d in this paper, of which, if I should speak to the worth, nine thousand volumes were but as one page, that page as a line, that line as a word; so short is this pilgrimage of man (which some call life) to the expressing of it. Would I reflect on the price? Why, the whole world is but as an empire, that empire as a province, that province as a bank, that bank as a private purse to the purchase of it. I will only tell you; it is the powder that made Venus a goddess (given her by Apollo,) that kept her perpetually young, clear’d her wrinkles, firm'd her gums, fill'd her skin, colour’d her hair; from her deriv’d to Helen, and at the sack of Troy unfortunately lost: till now, in this our age, it was as happily recovered, by a studious antiquary, out of some ruins of Asia, who sent a moiety of it to the court of France, (but much sophisticated,) wherewith the ladies there, now, colour their hair. The rest, at this present, remains with me; extracted to a quintessence: so that, whereever it but touches, in youth it perpetually preserves, in age restores the complexion; seats your teeth, did they dance like virginal jacks, firm as a wall; makes them white as ivory, that were black, as–


COR: Spight o’ the devil, and my shame! come down here;
Come down;–No house but mine to make your scene?
Signior Flaminio, will you down, sir? down?
What, is my wife your Franciscina, sir?
No windows on the whole Piazza, here,
To make your properties, but mine? but mine?
Heart! ere to-morrow, I shall be new-christen’d,
And call’d the Pantalone di Besogniosi,
About the town.

PER: What should this mean, sir Pol?

SIR P: Some trick of state, believe it. I will home.

PER: It may be some design on you:

SIR P: I know not.
I'll stand upon my guard.

PER: It is your best, sir.

SIR P: This three weeks, all my advices, all my letters,
They have been intercepted.

PER: Indeed, sir!
Best have a care.

SIR P: Nay, so I will.

PER: This knight,
I may not lose him, for my mirth, till night.


Source: Ben Jonson, Volpone, Act 2, scene 2.1, Project Gutenberg edition, which is based on the Felix Schelling edition. [Some editions number this as Act 2, scene 2.]
Edward Phillips
"The Mountebank’s Letter to the Chirurgeons [or physicians]"

Having had continual and daily experience in several parts for many years together, in the cure of the French Disease, with as good success as mine own heart could wish, and now at length desiring to show myself a profitable member of this commonwealth and city wherein I abide, I could not choose but write to you by way of advice, seeing so many errors among you, tending all to the destruction of the patient. In the first place, I counsel thee, O man or woman, whoever thou art, that does profess the cure of venereal distempers, to avoid that common fault among all the professors thereof, which is covetousness. For if a young man or a young woman has by chance got a clap, and is willing to give all he has, rather than to endure the disease long, will you be so base and sordid to make his or her earnest desire to be the cause of thy exaction [extortion]? Assure yourself that money got by such exaction will be a worm to consume that part of your estate which you have honestly got. In the next place, be not too inquisitive of any patient who he is and where he dwells. For if he has not a mind to tell you, what have you to do to enquire anything concerning him? Thirdly, judge not rashly of him, as who should say, “you have been lying with a wench.” For you cannot but know that there are many ways of getting claps beside that one, as by drinking with the party, lying in a hot bed with him, sitting upon a close-stool after him; as also by lifting, riding, or any other manner of straining. Then let every patient receive his cure with all privacy. And lastly, do not flatter me daily with any patient whatsoever. This is the part which you have to act upon the theatre of this world, which, if you do not justly perform, consider, I say, consider, that you must make your exits into stoves and sweating tubs much hotter than those with which you ever afflicted your patients … being on earth. Heaven direct your course, that you may be neither cheaters, imposters, nor cozeners, as most are who profess the cure of venereal distempers, but that you may be in this, as well as in all your other actions, faithful and honest; which is the daily wish of,
Your Friend and Servant.

Edward Phillips, The Mysteries of Love & Eloquence, or, The arts of wooing and complementing as they are managed in the Spring Garden, Hyde Park, the New Exchange, and other eminent places: a work in which is drawn to the life the deportments of the most accomplisht persons, the mode of their courtly entertainments, treatments of their ladies at balls, their accustom'd sports, drolls and fancies, the witchcrafts of their persuasive language in their approaches, or other more secret dispatches … (London, 1685), sig. L3r. [modernized] [Phillips includes this letter among what he calls mock letters.]

Mountebanks often used public entertainments to advertise their medicines, and several seventeenth-century ballads take up the subject of mountebanks, painting pictures of them as lazy, itinerant swindlers best known for distributing poison. “The Skillful Doctor, OR The Complete Mountebank,” a ballad c. 1685-1688, mimics what a mountebank might call out to viewers as he went along, stressing his ability to restore women’s lost maidenheads (Source: Early Broadside and Ballads Archive, EBBA ID 21926, Magdalen College, Pepys Library). Like other itinerant workers, mountebanks were classified as threats to society: “A new merry ballad I have to show,” from 1630, warns its listeners to stay away from Jesuits, papists, prostitutes, usurers, lawyers, courtiers, and mountebanks, who deceive society, cheat people of their money, and spread venereal disease (Source: Early Broadside and Ballads Archive, EBBA ID 20078, Magdalen College, Pepys Library). “The Miserable Mountebank,” another ballad c. 1685-88, depicts the sort of duel Pulter describes. In it, the skeptical plowman “Downright Dick” challenges the mountebank who sells a “never failing pill” that proposes to cure all diseases and raise “some persons from the dead,” calling him down from his stage for a parley and beating him severely. In a woodcut from the ballad, presented below, the mountebank promises that “here you may be cured.”

A mountebank, saying

“The Miserable Mountebank,” Early Broadside and Ballads Archive, EBBA ID 33197. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland.

After the Earl of Rochester accidentally gave Charles II a critical and obscene poem (“A Satyr on Charles II”) he had written about him in 1674, he had to stay out of the king’s way and out of court for a while. As part of his exile, he disguised himself as an Italian mountebank on Tower street—so successfully, it was said, that his friends didn’t recognize him—and actually practiced medicine for some weeks. That Rochester’s work as a mountebank was a performance tightens the connection of mountebanks with the theatre; his success suggests the unstable distinction between mountebanks and physicians. The mountebank’s pitch had become so conventional that Rochester could parody it. This is a broadside advertising his services.

John Wilmot, Alexander Bendo Wishes All Health

Gentlemen, Ladies, and others,
Whether of
Wisheth all Health and Prosperity.

Whereas this famed metropolis of England (and were the endeavours of its worthy inhabitants equal to their power, merit, and virtue, I should not stick to denounce it, in a short time, the metropolis of the whole world); whereas, I say, this city (as most great ones are) has ever been infested with a numerous company of such whose arrogant confidence, backing their ignorance, has enabled them to impose on the people either premeditated cheats, or at best the palpable dull and empty mistakes of their self-deluded imagination—in physic (chemical and Galenic), in astrology, physiognomy, palmistry, mathematics, alchemy, and even in government itself (the last of which I will not propose to discourse of, or meddle at all in, since it in no way belongs to my trade or vocation, as the rest do, which, thanks to my God, I find much more safe, I think equally honest, and therefore more profitable)—but as to all the former, they have been so erroneously practiced by many unlearned wretches, whom poverty and neediness for the most part (if not the restless itch of deceiving) has forced to straggle and wander in unknown parts, that even the professions themselves, though originally the products of the most learned and wise men's laborious studies and experience, and by them left a wealthy and glorious inheritance for ages to come, seem by this bastard race of quacks and cheats to have been run out of all wisdom, learning, perspicuousness, and truth, with which they were so plentifully stocked; and now run into a repute of mere mists, imaginations, errors, and deceits, such as in the management of these idle professors indeed they were. … But that I may not prove too tedious, I will proceed faithfully to inform you, what are the things in which I pretend chiefly at this time to serve my country.

First, I will (by the leave of God) perfectly cure that Labes Britannica, or grand English disease, the scurvy, and that with such ease to my patient, that he shall not be sensible of the least inconvenience whilst I steal his distemper from him. I know there are many, who treat this disease with mercury, antimony, spirits, and salts, being dangerous remedies, in which I shall meddle very little, and with great caution, but by more secure, gentle, and less fallible medicines, together with the observation of some few rules in diet, perfectly cure the patient, having freed him from all the symptoms, as looseness of the teeth, scorbutic spots [spots that are a symptom of scurvy], want of appetite, pains and lassitude in the limbs and joints, especially the legs. And to say truth, there are few distempers in this nation that are not, or at least proceed not originally from the scurvy, which were it well rooted out (as I make no question to do it from all those who shall come into my hands) there would not be heard of so many gouts, aches, dropsies, and consumptions. Nay, even those thick and slimy humors which generate stones in the kidneys and bladder are for the most part offsprings of the scurvy. It would prove tedious to set down all its malignant race; but those who address themselves here, shall be still informed by me in the nature of their distempers, and the grounds I proceed upon to their cure. So will all reasonable people be satisfied that I treat them with care, honesty, and understanding. For I am not of their opinion who endeavor to render their vocations rather mysterious, than useful and satisfactory.

I will not here make a catalogue of diseases and distempers. It behooves a physician I am sure to understand them all. But if any come to me (as I think there are very few that have escaped my practice), I shall not be ashamed to own to my patient where I find myself to seek [that is, uncertain], and at least he shall be secure with me from having experiments tried upon him, a privilege he can never hope to enjoy, either in the hands of the grand doctors of the court and town, or in those of the lesser quacks and mountebanks.

It is fit, though, that I assure you of great secrecy as well as care in diseases, where it is requisite, whether venereal or others, as some peculiar to women, the green sickness [a disease associated with virgins, for which the cure prescribed was often sexual intercourse], weaknesses, inflammations, or obstructions in the stomach, reins [kidneys], liver, spleen, &c. For I would put no word in my bill that bears any unclean sound. It is enough that I make myself understood. I have seen physician’s bills as bawdy as Aretino’s Dialogues* (which no man that walks warily before God can approve of) but I cure all suffocations in those parts producing fits of the mother [disorders of the uterus, especially a supposed condition by which the uterus rose in the body so as to suffocate], convulsions, nocturnal inquietudes, and other strange accidents not fit to be set down here, persuading young women very often that their hearts are like to break for love, when God knows the distemper lies far enough from that place.

Pietro Aretino’s Dialogues was a bawdy and hugely popular sixteenth-century text, first published in Italian.

Likewise barrenness proceeding from any accidental cause, as it often falls out, and no natural defect, for nature is easily assisted, difficultly [sic] restored, but impossible to be made more perfect by man than God himself had at first created and bestowed it. Cures of this kind I have done signal and many, for the which I doubt not but I have the good wishes and hearty prayers of many families, who had else pined out their days under the deplorable and reproachful misfortunes of barren wombs, leaving plentiful estates and possessions to be inherited by strangers.

As to astrological predictions, physiognomy, divination by dreams, and otherwise (palmistry I have not faith in, because there can be no reason alleged for it), my own experience has convinced me more of their considerable effects and marvelous operations, chiefly in the directions of future proceedings, to the avoiding of dangers that threaten, and laying hold of advantages that might offer themselves. I say, my own practice has convinced me more than all the sage and wise writings extant of those matters. For I might say this for myself (did it not look like ostentation) that I have very seldom failed in my predictions, and often been very serviceable in my advice. How far I am capable in this way I am sure is not fit to be delivered in print. Those who have no opinion of the truth of this art, will not, I suppose, come to me about it. Such as have, I make no question of giving them ample satisfaction.

Nor will I be ashamed to set down here my willingness to practice rare secrets (though somewhat collateral to my profession), for the help, conservation, and augmentation of beauty and comeliness, a thing created at first by God, chiefly for the glory of his own name, and then for the better establishment of mutual love between man and woman. For when God had bestowed on man the power of strength and wisdom, and thereby rendered woman liable to the subjection of his absolute will, it seemed but requisite that she should be endowed likewise in recompense, with some quality that might beget in him admiration of her, and so enforce his tenderness and love.

The knowledge of these secrets I gathered in my travels abroad (where I have spent my time ever since I was fifteen years old to this my nine and twentieth year) in France and Italy. Those that have travelled in Italy will tell you to what a miracle art does there assist nature in the preservation of beauty; how women of forty bear the same countenance with those of fifteen. Ages are no ways there distinguished by faces, whereas here in England, look a horse in the mouth, and a woman in the face, you presently know both their ages to a year. I will therefore give you such remedies, that without destroying your complexion (as most of your paints and daubings do) shall render them perfectly fair, clearing and preserving them from all spots, freckles, heats, and pimples, nay, marks of the small-pox, or any other accidental ones, so the face be not seamed or scarred.

I will also cleanse and preserve your teeth white and round as pearls, fastening them that are loose; your gums shall be kept entire, and red as coral; your lips of the same color, and soft as you could wish your lawful kisses.

I will likewise administer that which shall cure the worst breath, provided the lungs be not totally perished and impostumated [infected], as also certain and infallible remedies for those whose breaths are yet untainted, so that nothing but either a very long sickness or old age itself shall ever be able to spoil them.

I will, besides (if it be desired) take away from their fatness who have overmuch, and add flesh to those that want it, without the least detriment to their constitutions.

Now should Galen himself look out of his grave, and tell me these were baubles below the profession of a physician, I would boldly answer him, that I take more glory in preserving God’s image, in its unblemished beauty upon one good face, than I should do in patching up all the decayed carcasses in the world.

They that will do me the favor to come to me, shall be sure from three of the clock in the afternoon till eight at night at my lodgings in Tower-street, next door to the sign of the Black Swan, at a goldsmith's house to find

Their humble servant,

[John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester], To All Gentlemen, Ladies, and Other … Alexander Bendo Wishes All Health and Prosperity (London, 1700). [modernized]

Edward Coke’s presentation of the Jacobean witchcraft statute (I Jac. cap. 12), includes this discussion of punishments for those who fall short of bringing about death, but are found guilty of the second degree felony of using enchantment or charms to locate treasure, find lost or stolen items, provoke to unlawful love, destroy property, or intend but not effect harm to persons. Coke warns that “diverse impostors, men and women, would take upon them to tell, or do these five things here specified, in great deceit of the people, and cheating and cozening them of their money or other goods.”

Edward Coke, Institutes of the Laws of England

Here are expressed the punishments inflicted upon these impostors, mountebanks, and cheating quacksalvers, viz. 1. To suffer imprisonment by the space of a whole year without bail or mainprize. 2. Once every quarter of the year these mountebanks are to mount the pillory, and to stand thereupon in some market town six hours, and there to confess his or her error, and offence.

Edward Coke, The Third Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England [1644] (London, 1809), 1:46.
Thomas Rushworth, Historical Collections

As for the pillory, it was first invented for mountebanks and cheats, to exalt them in the same kind as they had exalted themselves upon banks and forms to abuse the people.

Thomas Rushworth, Historical Collections from the Year 1628 to the Year 1638, Abridged and Improved. London, 1706. II.348.

Rushworth is here commenting on the Court of Star Chamber’s harsh punishment of John Lilburne in 1637, for printing and distributing unlicensed books, among other things. Lilburne’s punishment included imprisonment, whipping, gagging and being set in the pillory.