Anne Lister's Motions

Published on 25 December, 2020 · Last updated on 29 June, 2023
Cover photo: Peter Reed,  CC BY-NC 2.0

A tolerable, good or capital motion?

The workings of the digestive system held significant importance in popular medical opinion in the 19th century. The stomach was thought of as the "focus of vitality" and that derangements of the stomach's functions constituted "a large proportion of human ailments." One can imagine then why Anne Lister, who meticulously documented other aspects of her daily life, was also inclined to track her personal health via details regarding her bowel movements. 

While casual mentions of a 'bowel complaint' keeping her from church or some other activity may appear in plain-hand throughout the journal, in her crypt-hand Anne also wrote in specific detail about the size, shape, and color of her excrement, sometimes noting the time of day, or whether she thought the constitution of the matter was indicative of her own improved or declining health. She would also note similar (but less descriptive) observations about others, including how long they may have spent at 'the place' or 'on the pot' and whether she believed this to be a contributing factor in any recent illness or irregularity of temperament on their part.

Sneaky poop details... for science, of course!

Anne's journals include enough details about her bowel movements to make many a code breaker shudder when there's a single coded line appearing in the middle of an otherwise plain-hand entry. Cross your fingers and pray for 'cousins'? Somehow, you're never quite prepared to have focus abruptly shifted from tree planting to bowel movements.

So why are we compiling these? For science, of course! Anne's careful observations about her troubles with her digestive tract give us a unique view of her diet (as also tracked by Anne Lister's Cuisine) affecting her health.

Reference tracker: Bowel Health


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