We know that our ancestors inhabited a very different mental universe from our own – that they thought very differently from us – but a much harder question for historians to address is whether our ancestors lived in a world that felt physically different from our own. Are physical experiences ahistorical? Does the experience of stubbing a toe transcend all variations across time and space? Or were our ancestors hardier than us, less sensitive to pain perhaps?
Let’s try narrowing this question down a bit by focusing on one particular physical state that will be familiar to most of us: the hangover. But did our seventeenth-century forebears get them? They didn’t use the term (the Oxford English Dictionary suggests it is a twentieth-century Americanism), but they certainly suffered from them. A broadside ballad that warned against the dangers of drinking too much on the Sabbath day cautioned that men who did so often found themselves incapacitated for as many as two days after:
From Ale-house to Ale-house, they’d ramble and roam
And may be at night they’d come staggering home;
Their Wives have been careful to get them to bed,
Next morning the liquor has lain in their head;
So that beside all their vast charges and cost,
Both Monday and Tuesday they commonly lost.
If anything, we might wonder whether our ancestors experienced their hangovers even more severely than we do if they stretched over two days. But there is another explanation. In a ballad entitled ‘Monday’s Work‘ we hear of the symptoms that followed the morning after a Sunday drinking bout. They may sound familiar:
Last night I was shot
Through the braines with a Pot [of ale],
and now my stomacke doth wamble.*
*[Wamble, surely a word that should enjoy a renaissance, defined by the OED thus: ‘Of the stomach or its contents: To be felt to roll about (in nausea).’]
Yet this condition did not have these ballad drunkards opting for a ‘duvet day’. They had another remedy in mind:
A piece of salt Hogge,
And a haire of the old Dogge
is good to cure our drunken Noddles.
That often debated hangover cure – getting back on the bottle – dates back to at least the sixteenth-century. It might explain why Tuesday too was often a hangover day, but it was deemed effective by the famous diarist Samuel Pepys. The morning after drinking ‘a great deal of wine’ at The Dolphin on Tuesday 2nd April 1661, Pepys awoke with his ‘head akeing from last night’s debauch’. No doubt he complained of this to the friends with whom he took lunch, for they encouraged him to ‘drink two drafts of sack [a Spanish white wine] to-day to cure me of last night’s disease,’ Pepys was sceptical at first, but the proposed tonic seemed to do the trick: ‘which I thought strange but I think find it true.’
So what does this tell us about the timelessness of physical experiences? Not much perhaps, but it is clear that finding an effective way of dealing with a hangover is one experience that unites us with our early modern forbears.