Exhilarating Early Moderns: Marthambles
Today’s installment is a story about a fantastical disease mentioned very briefly in two passages of historical fiction discovered by presumably maniacal linguists, settled over three posts in probably the dustiest and least-frequented corner of the internet and now delivered to you by an insane intriguer who has the time and concentration to look up “Marthambles”.
The cantilevering conundrum occurred first here then later here and finally here. The issue at hand was the origin of the Marthambles, which I should say from the start is only a “popular collective term for any number of divergent symptoms or diseases noted and treated by a mountebank.” So if you’ve got a case of them, now you know where to look for treatment.
The word has appeared twice in print this century. In the first case, it was used by Dorothy Dunnett in her 1971 novel “The Ringed Castle”:
… And in 1978 by Patrick O’Brian in “Desolation Island”:
Mark Liberman of “Language Log” puts forth the dreadful accusation, in various permutations, that O’Brian nicked the term from Dunnett and then claimed to have discovered it himself in some crumbling 17th century pamphlet.
The happy truth, though, is that both authors discovered the term on their own.
O’Brian was first exposed to the disease in a 1675 booklet called “The Quacks of Old London”. And Dunnett got a whiff of it in a 1960 publication called “Doctors and Disease in Tudor Times” – note the biased decision to thus title all 16th-century Europeans, Marthambles-ridden or no.
You might logically conclude that the moral of this story is to begin writing your literary memoirs post-haste. But really it is an exhortation to do your research. It is cruel to leave such scanty literary evidence for your devoted readers of centuries to come – but it is crueler still to neglect such delightful details in the first place.