One of the hardest mental exercises for a writer of historical novels is to forget almost all you know about how this world of ours works. The Georgian period stood at the very beginning of a scientific approach to understanding the world around us. Such scientific knowledge as existed was restricted to an educated elite. For the vast majority of people, little had changed since mediaeval times. Medicine was stuck in the study of Galen and the belief that disease was due to an imbalance of humours. Germs and infection were unknown. If the primitive medical tools of the day failed, you either got well on your own, lived maimed and crippled, or died. Too often, it was the last.
Faced with so many terrors and misfortunes, people sought some explanation of their causes. That way, they might be able to lessen or avoid them. “Why me?” is the universal cry of people in distress. “What do I do now?” swiftly follows. Even for the faithful, to be told it’s God’s will brings little practical comfort.
People in Georgian times turned to two sources to answer their questions about the misfortunes they encountered. “Why me?” would be approach by traditional naturalistic, magical or spirit-based reasons. These could range from practical know-how to curses, charms and superstitions. “What now?” was usually approached through an appeal to precedent and tradition.
The Power of Tradition and Folk-Memory
What we dismiss as quaint superstitions — if we recall them at all — were of vital importance in Georgian times, especially in the countryside.
Those who ignored or overlooked the time-honoured rituals and actions associated with key events in the agricultural year inviteed disaster. To do so was to behave with arrogance towards the natural world and the spirits which lurked there. Such pride would bring punishment. Folk tales abound in stories of careless or arrogant humans suffering bad luck — or worse — from not honouring the natural forces who ruled the world about them.
These prescribed rituals were about much more more than continuity. Done properly, they promised good fortune and bountiful harvests. Even today, we can’t control the weather, but we do know what to do to ensure fertility for the crops and how to destroy pests that might ruin the harvest. Such scientific ideas about crop yields was in its infancy in the 18th century. The ordinary farmer or farm-worker could either hope for things to turn out well, or turn to age-old traditions to try to move the odds in his favour.
Much the same applied in cases of sickness. Professionals, like physicians, apothecaries and surgeons, charged fees far beyond the ability of the poor to pay. Folk remedies, recorded in household manuals and cookery books, were there for use when needed. Even the mistresses of grand houses kept notes of healing remedies for people and animal, especially herbal remedies. To be mistress of a household was to be local doctor and vet, as well as everything else. Especially when such household remedies might do as much good as the bleedings and cuppings of the physicians, or the opium and cocaine-based medicines sold by the apothecaries.
A Critical Role for Those with The Longest Memories
Today, we place the highest value on what is new, modern and ‘cutting edge’. As a result, elderly people are assumed to be out-of-date, lost in the past and generally of little account. Not so in the 18th century.
The legality of copyhold landholdings, as well as many boundary disputes, were decided in manorial courts by reference to tradition and custom. In such cases, evidence would be taken from the oldest inhabitants to establish how things were in the past — and should therefore remain. It took the enclosure acts to replace the primacy of memory and oral tradition with documentary proofs. By doing so, this ‘modern’ innovation destroyed much of the value of local knowledge at the same time.
Not entirely, however. If land ownership was now to be determined by lawyers and written evidence, the same could not be said of farming practices. The well-known treatises on ‘scientific agriculture’ of the time were written by capitalist landowners, like ‘Turnip’ Townsend, or agricultural gurus, like Arthur Young. They had never been working farmers. Few tenant farmers had either the learning or the capital to follow their recommendations. As a result, this ‘new’ farming took a long time to become standard practice. Swapping long-established approaches, enshrined in traditional knowledge, for novel ideas presented in books was a significant risk. Get it wrong, and you might be ruined in a single season.
The Killing Breath of Industrialisation
What did most to kill the importance of tradition and folk-memory was movement into the new, industrial centres. Factory workers did jobs which had not existed a few decades before — or had not used the machines which now filled the factory floors. Traditional methods and ideas had nothing to offer them. The Georgian factory worker in one of the new, industrial metropolises would have little interest in past ideas. It was hard enough to cope with what he had to do today to earn a living, and how it might change tomorrow.
Leaving the countryside, with its centuries of tradition and oral knowledge, the 18th-century worker in Manchester or Halifax found him or herself in a place were tradition counted for nothing. Folk-knowledge was of no use in the new factories. They ran by their own rules and acknowledged no precedents. The old folk-tales, if they survived, were soon seen as quaint stories to amuse the children.
The folk traditions did not perish entirely. As science became too complex for most people to grasp fully, and religion declined as an acceptable explanation of the universe now being discovered, they crept back to fill the gaps. A lecture on biology is of no use to a mother mourning a dead child. Fear of future loss or sickness is not dispelled by statistical analyses. Ordinary people in Georgian times needed something they could grasp; something that offered comfort and perhaps a measure of control. We stand at the end of two centuries of rationalism and reliance on scientifically proven facts. They had yet to encounter much of either. To understand their minds, we have to empty ours of what they could not possible know.
It’s very, very hard thing to do.