Like Jane Austen, I love novels. In recent weeks I’ve read Jane and The Wandering Eye (the third book in Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen mystery series); A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman; We Were Liars by e. lockhart; Warleggan, book 4 in Winston Graham’s Poldark series; and Daphne du Maurier’s romantic thriller My Cousin Rachel. Occasionally I return to a favorite novel—I read Jane Eyre nearly every year—which explains how I found myself rereading the second Flavia de Luce novel by Alan Bradley: The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag. (The 11-year-old Flavia is sharp as a tack, loves chemistry, and regularly gets into all sorts of scrapes.) In Chapter 17 Flavia finds herself in a pickle: she urgently needs to remove a tar stain from her dress, but doesn’t have time to synthesize hexachloroethane in her chemistry lab to do the trick. “Instead,” she says to herself, “I would have to fall back on mayonnaise, as recommended in The Butler and Footman’s Vade Mecum …”1
On reading this sentence the first time around (back in 2011 or so), my eye glossed over it. I didn’t know what vade mecum meant and didn’t trouble myself to look it up. Fast-forward to today, when I’ve read and researched dozens of books published in the early 1800s, and my second reading produced a very different response: I was in raptures when I read this sentence. Not that I was in any way excited by the trick of using mayonnaise to remove tar from fabric, but because I was thrilled to think there might be a vade mecum book for butlers and footmen. I immediately entered the title in Google Books, only to find there was no such book. Oh, such disappointed hopes! I so long for a vade mecum book on the duties of Regency-era domestic staff, but no such luck (yet). Presumably, Mr. Bradley concocted the title himself, which was very clever of him.
What Is a Vade Mecum Book?
The Latin words vade mecum mean “go with me.” Thus, a vade mecum book is usually small enough to fit in a coat pocket and summarizes those facts the reader most needs to know about a particular topic. I used a vade mecum medical book in my nutrition business for years and years: The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy. My copy is the 15th edition, published in 1987, and looks brand new! LOL. The book is 2¼ inches thick and contains about 2700 tissue-thin pages packed with information on 24 topics from metabolic disorders to poisoning. It is a vade mecum book in style, if not in fact, for it’s far too wieldy to carry around in a coat pocket. I stopped using it when the internet became my go-to resource. Today, of course, a consumer version of the Merck Manual can be found online.
During the Georgian and Regency eras vade mecum books were very popular. A Google Book search returned vade mecum books on defensive war by sea for seamen;2 information for gentlemen intended for the civil, military, or naval service on behalf of the East India Company;3 and the principles of ship-building.4 And for the passionate fisherman seeking to hook a trout or eel, there was a vade mecum book for anglers.5
A Vade Mecum Book for Country Gentlemen
Although I did not find a vade mecum book on the duties of Regency domestic staff, I did, however, discover the delightful book titled The Country Gentleman’s Vade Mecum by G. Jacobs and published in 1717. Jacob’s book provides advice for the country gentleman on improving lands, keeping livestock healthy, removing timber, and gardening, along with general comments about England and London—all in only 159 pages.
There is also a section on rules for managing a family. For example, Jacobs speaks of the importance of having a good economy within a large family, observing that:6
There’s nothing creates more Uneasiness in a Family, than a Master’s listening too much to the private Tales of envious Servants (especially of those in low Posts) though a little may be allow’d sometimes for Information; but even then with great Caution.
The Country Gentleman’s Vade Mecum describes the business of the steward and the gentleman of the horse, the amount of food a family consisting of about 25 or 30 people would eat, the expenses of such a family, and how laborers would be paid. For a newly established country gentleman—perhaps a man like Mr. Bingley in Pride and Prejudice—Jacob’s vade mecum would give him assurance that he had basic information about managing an estate at hand.
Vade Mecum Books for Regency Medical Practitioners
Regency medical practitioners also sought quick guides to basic information. Here are a few I consult frequently while writing my third Regency-era novel:
- The Anatomist’s Vade-Mecum — provides a description of the bones of the body. If you are a Regency anatomist who needs to know about the clavicle, its bones and joints and which bones it’s connected to, this is your handy reference. (The table of contents is 12 pages long!)7
- The Physician’s Vade-Mecum — provides information on doses of medicines and the symptoms, causes, diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment of various disease such as fevers, pneumonia, apoplexy, tetanus, diabetes and the like. It also includes a glossary of terms (in case you can’t remember what an antiphlogistic regimen is good for) and a table of new names of compounds and plants used in formulating medicines.8
- The Surgeon’s Vade-Mecum — provides information on the symptoms, causes, diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment of surgical diseases, including wounds, bleeding, ulcers, burns and scalds, boils, tumors, injuries to the brain, diseases of organs, syphilis, and amputation.9
Vade Mecum Books Today
Good examples of vade mecum-type books in use today are the Dummies series: Football for Dummies, Siberian Huskies for Dummies, UNIX for Dummies, etc. If shrunk down to pocket size, these would be true 21st-century vade mecum books. When I think on it, today’s internet is a mega-vade mecum resource. Only think: where can you find a pocket-sized source of information on any topic you can think of? On your cell phone, of course! What would Jane Austen think of that?
1Bradley, Alan. The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag. New York: Delacorte Press, 2010, Chapter 17, Kindle p. 170.
2Mountaine, William. The Seaman’s Vade-Mecum, and Defensive War by Sea. (London: W. and J. Mount and T. and T. Page, 1761).
3Williamson, Captain Thomas. The East India Vade-Mecum; or Complete Guide to Gentlemen Intended for the Civil, Military, or Naval Service of the Hon. East India Company, Vol. I (London: Black, Parry, and Kingsbury, 1810).
4Steel, D. The Shipwright’s Vade-Mecum: A Clear and Familiar Introduction to the Principles and Practice of Ship-Building. (London: P. Steel, 1805).
5Carroll, W. The Angler’s Vade Mecum, Containing a Description Account of the Water Flies, Their Seasons, and the Kind of Weather that Brings Them Most on the Water. (Edinburgh: Archibald, Constable and CC, 1818).
6Jacobs, G. The Country Gentleman’s Vade Mecum (London, 1717), p. 44 (PDF p. 65).
7Hooper, Robert. The Anatomist’s Vade-Mecum. (London: John Murray, 1804). For information about the clavicle, see pp. 51-52 (PDF pp. 102-103).
8Hooper, Robert. The Physician’s Vade-Mecum. (London: Thomas and George Underwood, et al., 1823).
9Anon. The Surgeon’s Vade-Mecum. (London: John Murray, 1809).