Sometimes the embarrassment and frustration of eighteenth-century sufferers seems to seep from their letters. One such case is that of a young boy, John Plowden. A Mr John Manley of Winchester wrote seven letters to Sloane in 1723-4, asking advice about the child’s lack of bladder control. The relationship between Manley and John is never made clear in the letters. The boy did not seem to be an apprentice and his father was still alive. His age was also not given, though it seems likely that he was at least the age of reason (seven)–but perhaps not much more. John’s own letter was composed in grammatical sentences, but he retained a childish script.
In October 1723, Manley complained that John “has several times bepiss’d his Bed, & when ever that happens, it is always but midnight. He has also bepiss’t his Breeches about six times a day.” A month later, John and his nurse insisted that she had been “very careful & vigilant in complying” with providing John with his remedies. The real problem, though–as Manley claimed–was that John “is so negligent that he has sometimes bepiss’t his Breeches in the day time. I say tis his own negligence, for he is never deny’d leave to do down whenever he askes it”. A strong statement.
John reported in January 1724 that his control had improved. He was now able to wake himself up in the night when he needed to urinate and “don’t do it in my Sleep so often as I us’d to do”. Manley noted that John had occasional mishaps in bed the previous month, but the nurse had spotted a pattern: the “mischances happen chiefly on those nights [when] at going to bed he makes but a small quantity of urine.” With the cause identified, it became possible to change John’s behaviour. Having John write his own letter to Sloane may also have been an attempt to make him take responsibility for his problem.
Setting aside the fact that toilet training is obviously a desirable goal, this case highlights the importance of bodily control from an early age in the eighteenth century. John’s guardian must have been deeply concerned about the “mischances” if he was consulting one of England’s leading physicians: few people wrote to Sloane about children and consulting Sloane was expensive (a guinea per letter). Manley saw this as a troubling matter.
In John’s case, his physical symptoms suggested a potentially worse problem–an underlying lack of self-control. By the early eighteenth century, there was a growing emphasis on masculine self-management in terms of mind, body and behaviour. Young boys were particularly vulnerable to learning bad habits that could have long-term effects. Manley’s letters reveal a tone of increased impatience with the boy’s repeated “negligence”, while John himself recognised a need to regain control of his own body. And this mastery needed to be as much mental as physical, including even the ability to wake himself when asleep. Much was at stake for young John Plowden.
Update October 24, 2013: Hannah Newton has an excellent post up at earlymodernmedicine on remedies and explanations for bed-wetting (“Wet Beds & Hedgehogs”).