Like Mark Liberman, I am a fan of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, so I was intrigued by his Language Log post investigating the term marthambles, an unspecified illness “known as the marthambles at sea and griping of the guts by land.” O’Brian claimed to have taken the word from “a quack’s pamphlet of the late 17th or early 18th century,” but it turns out he may instead have taken it from Dorothy Dunnett’s historical novel The Ringed Castle (1971). Not only do I appreciate the wordsleuthing involved, I am glad to be told about Dunnett’s “exciting, literate, carefully-researched works, full of accurate historical detail and historically accurate specialized terminology,” set in 16th-century Muscovy; I will check the Mid-Manhattan Branch’s catalog for them next time I’m there.
Update. Mark Liberman has gotten a note from Lisa Grossman, co-author of Lobscouse and Spotted Dog, indicating that there actually was such a quack’s pamphlet, written by a Dr. Tufts circa 1675, and it seems likely that Dunnett and O’Brian read The Quacks of Old London independently. Grossman also mentions the wonderful term Hockogrockle, another alleged disease which O’Brian inexplicably failed to use.


  1. Dorothy Dunnett is a hoot and a half. The bar-none classiest soap operas you will ever read: but they are rich, rich food. Don’t overindulge all at once.

  2. Dunnett has two series of historical novels: one is “the Lymond Chronicles”, of which The Ringed Castle is #5 of 6, and the other is “the House of Niccolo”, in which there are 8.
    Contrary to the impression that I gave in my post, the Lymond Chronicles take place throughout Europe and the Middle East; The Ringed Castle is the only one that is (partly) set in Russia.
    The House of Niccolo takes place during the 15th century, and its settings include wonderful evocations (in different books) of the fall of Trebizond and of the last days of Timbuctoo as a great capital.

  3. I’m fascinated by both Trebizond and Timbuctoo, so I’ll investigate those as well. Something to tide me over when the O’Brians run out…

  4. I am exceedingly fond of Dunnett, and it is in large part to the first series of novels, the Lymond Chronicles, that I ended up a medievalist. The second series, the House of Niccolo, is in fact genetically related to the first series, though it takes place chronologically earlier. Read the Lymond Chronicles first. See this page for a list of the books in order and a couple of links to Dunnett sites.

  5. Many readers of Dunnett’s historical novels who don’t have a classical education in either languages, literature or history to fully appreciate the text have come to rely on a wonderful set of books written by Elspeth Morrison. The first of the two is the “The Dorothy Dunnett Companion” and on page 223 is the following entry:
    “Marthambles: Castle, II, 9: Popular collective term for any number of divergent symptoms or diseases noted and ‘treated’ by a mountebank. If particularly fortunate, the patient might also be relieved of the symptoms of the Rockogrogle. Fictitious diseases still cost good money to cure. (W.S.C Copeman, Doctors and Disease in Tudor Times.)”
    Copeman’s book was published in 1960, in London by Dawson.

  6. Thanks, that’s good to know about!

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