Reading the half-legible inscriptions on this battered, chipped jar reveals its central former role. Its contents were crucial to illness and health in Tudor England, and in its day it sat prominently alongside similar jars on Ogilvy’s apothecary shelf.
'Ogilvy's' Apothecary Jar, Tudor period.
“His place of dwelling and shop to be clenly, to please the sences withal… To have his morrters, stilles, pottes, filters, glasses, boxes, cleane and sweete.” - William Bullein on Apothecaries and Physicians’ shops in his ‘A newe booke entitled the Gouernement of Healthe’.
It is unclear exactly what concoction the jar held – although we do know that it was filled with ointment. At a time when many practiced in medicine yet few understood how the human body worked, options were limited. The poor would often rely on the harmless, but mostly ineffectual herbal remedies of local healing women, whereas those who were slightly better-off might come to an apothecary like Ogilvy’s seeking a cure. Despite this, Tudor apothecary treatments such as the ones contained in this jar were still frequently hit and miss.
Right back to the age of Ancient Greece, it was thought that if the internal balance of blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile was disrupted then havoc would be wrought on a person’s body. The ‘Four Humours’, as they were known, were thought to originate with the four elements of Earth, Air, Water and Fire. They would be maintained in the Tudor period through a variety of wacky methods. Too much blood might be resolved by blood-letting through leeches, while too much yellow bile might be treated by purging the body with laxatives or forced vomiting. Although this little jar might have contained a much hoped-for remedy, it’s clear that Tudor patients often faced as great a risk to their health from their treatment as from the disease itself.