By Daniel Simkin, IET Research Librarian

The image above is the frontispiece of The Universal Medicine or the Virtues of my Magneticall or Antimoniall Cup, and depicts the author, John Evans, a 17th century Welsh astrologer. First published in 1634, the book is essentially a lengthy advert for the antimony cups that Evans sold from his shop in Gunpowder Alley, close to Fetter Lane in London. The edition in the IET Library and Archives is the second edition published in 1642 and later editions were published up to 1651.

Antimonial cups, such as those that Evans was selling, were small cups or mugs lined with antimony. When wine was poured into the cup, the acid in the wine would react with the antimony, and when drunk, would induce symptoms similar to arsenic poisoning, including vomiting. In the 17th century illness was widely thought to be a result of imbalances in the body and treatments that induced vomiting were often seen as necessary to rebalance the body and restore health. However, if the wine was too acidic the resulting mixture became too strong for the body to handle resulting in poisoning and potentially death.

In the book Evans recounts cases of patients with different symptoms being cured by drinking from his cups, as well as listing notable people who, he claims, endorsed his products. It is debatable how far any of these accounts are true or whether those who Evans claimed endorsed his treatments really did. Dr Robert Fludd, a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), wrote in the annals of the RCP that two customers of Evans, Sir Nathanial Kitch and Lady Ayme Blunt, both died from drinking from his cups. In 1634 Evans was censured by the RCP and William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury, ordered that copies of the book be burned. Laud was executed for treason in 1645 and it seems that neither the church nor the RCP decided to take further action against Evans, who continued to publish the book and sell antimonial cups from his shop.

Who was John Evans?

John Evans was born in Wales c.1594 and was a Church of England preacher who had studied at Oxford University. Much of what we know about Evans comes from his pupil William Lilly, who would become an influential astrologer in 17th century England. Lilly lived on the Strand from 1627-1665 and it was during this time that he first met John Evans. In 1632 Lilly was introduced to Evans by a law clerk at a nearby church. Lilly describes him on first meeting as being “a squat little man, dark and beetle-browed, with splay feet and a flattened nose” and “suffering from a monumental hang-over.” Despite this Lilly seems to have been suitably impressed by Evans to study astrology with him as well as learning how to summon angels and spirits.

Lilly’s description of Evans as “a great scholar” and “an excellent wise man”, but also being quarrelsome, prone to drunkenness and fighting in pubs and the street, appears to be accurate when considering what we know of Evans’s life. Born in Llangelynin, West Wales, after studying at Oxford University Evans moved with his family to Enfield in Staffordshire and lived there for some years. However, a scandal, the details of which we don’t know beyond “disreputable conduct” meant he was forced to leave, and he moved his family to London. He is reported to have understood Greek, Hebrew and Latin and achieved some level of fame as an astrologer and magician as well as being regarded for his theological knowledge. Lilly disputes that Evans knew Greek, describes his library as consisting of only two books, and suggests that he made his living primarily from the sale of the antimonial cups rather than from his astronomical or theological knowledge.

Little is known about Evans’s later life. He died in c.1659 and we can assume that as his book was republished in the 1650s that he continued to run his shop selling antimonial cups. Antimony cups from the 17th century, such as Evans sold are now very rare and only six examples survive, all held in London museums.

• Collection reference: SPT/RB/8vo/204
• Bobrick, Benson. (2005). The Fated Sky
• Raymond, J. (2011). Conversations with Angels
• Williams, Robert. (1852). Enwogion Cymru