Silly me, I thought bonesetting meant setting broken bones. Since I’ve just snapped one of mine and wondered how in the name of heaven anyone in past times could deal with the frustrating complications, I started researching—only to learn that bonesetters did far more than set bones. They were medieval chiropractors, acupuncturists, and more.
I can’t type well enough yet to sort through all the conflicting details. Samuel Homola claims one of the first written mentions of bonesetting was from Friar Moulton, of the order of St. Augustine. He wrote the Compleat Bonesetter, which was revised in 1656 by Robert Turner. Apparently Turner says the book was intended to be a guide for "the use of those Godly Ladies and Gentlewomen, who are industrious for their talent God has given them, in helping their poor sick neighbors." But the guide isn’t just about setting bones. It’s about “the use of manipulation as a method of setting fractures, reducing dislocations, and restoring mobility to an injured or diseased joint.” Homola concludes that bonesetting was a woman’s job, which doesn’t ring quite true to me, especially in the Middle Ages.
So I looked a little further and learned that in the European Middle Ages, there was an entire guild of bonesetters who worked closely with physicians. As I suspected, the guilds were all male. Perhaps Turner’s book was a kind of housewife’s manual for people too isolated or poor to call on a bona fide bonesetter. But the guild apprenticed only boys, keeping them for seven years. Training was “derived from the Roman and Greek ‘skeleton men,’ and the ancient Egyptian ‘men of the hands.’” They actually had university training four hundred years before medical practitioners. Again, this was as much massage and chiropractics as fixing broken bones. Need your spine popped? Call a bonesetter.
For many reasons, political and religious, Napoleon destroyed the bonesetter’s guilds. Today, only nine large volumes about the craft remain, most of them written in Greek, Latin, and Gaelic. Maybe the little emperor feared languages he couldn’t read—or people smart enough to read them. Or perhaps the guilds had become little more than superstitious cults that defied the growing interest in science.
In Eastern families and communities, bonesetting was also learned in conjunction with acupressure / acupuncture.
So naturally I had to check out Regency England, from which my prejudices evidently stem. Yes, they had women bonesetters in England in the 18th and 19th centuries. There was even one so skilled at reducing dislocations, setting fractures, and bandaging, that mobs would follow her to the theater. But she apparently specialized in fractures, as I assumed, and of course, true physicians—all male—disdained her abilities.
This is all fun to know but doesn’t tell me how people functioned with broken bones. (My cast is fiberglass and still seems to weigh a thousand pounds. My right hand is good for nothing except finger wiggling. Try buttering toast that way!)
I learned from Wikipedia that the earliest methods involved splints. The Ancient Egyptians used wooden splints made of bark wrapped in linen and stiff bandages that were probably derived from embalming techniques. A form of Plaster of Paris was available, but it wasn’t used for bandages. The ancient Greeks also used waxes and resins to create stiffened bandages and the Romans used starch. Arabian doctors used lime derived from sea shells and albumen from egg whites. “The Italian School of Salerno in the twelfth century recommended bandages hardened with a flour and egg mixture as did Medieval European bonesetters, who used casts made of egg white, flour, and animal fat.” But mostly, bed rest was the required treatment—months of bed rest, argghhh!
War, naturally, created the need for more mobile treatment. A surgeon in Napoleon’s army (here comes real science!) studied the effects of transportation on amputated limbs and concluded immobilizing the limb instead of the whole person was sufficient for healing. Yeah, science! Of course, he resorted to the tried and true camphorated alcohol, lead acetate and egg whites for immobilization.
Various surgeons operating at Waterloo and the continuing wars thereafter eventually developed a method that foreshadows modern Plaster of Paris casts. From Wikipedia: “The limb was initially wrapped in wool, especially over any bony prominences. Pasteboard was then cut into shape to provide a splint and dampened down in order that it could be molded to the limb. The limb was then wrapped in bandages before a starch coating was applied to the outer surface.” Better than total bed rest but that had to itch like the devil after a few weeks. And it still doesn’t tell me how women and children with their weaker limbs endured the weight. My bet is on bed rest, for the wealthy at least.
Unfortunately or not, I don’t have the luxury of lounging about while my cook prepares the meals, my maid cuts them into bite size pieces, and my man of business pays the bills. I’m on a 30-day blog tour for LURE OF SONG AND MAGIC and I’m typing revisions to my urban fantasy with one hand. Oh, and let’s not forget that I’m supposed to be promoting my new reissue of SMALL TOWN GIRL and putting together the final touches on next month’s reissue of SWEET HOME CAROLINA. If I mention any more of my current projects, my head will ache as well as my hand. I think I shall hie me to the fainting couch. (That's my new svelte black cast–goes past the elbow. The Mexican original was hot pink and twice the size. I should have taken a picture!)
What experiences have you had with broken bones? Mine was set in a Mexican hospital, another blog all of its own. (which reminds me—I had to start a new Facebook Page. Stop by and Like me, please, and admire photos of my Mexican adventure!)