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  • Writer's pictureTim Braithwaite

Thomas Elyot on Vociferation Exercises for Good Health (1595)

‘The chief exercise of the chest and vocal organs is “vociferation”, which is singing, reading, or crying [loud shouting], which has the effect of purging natural heat [from the body] as well as making it “subtill” [supple?] and stable, making the parts of the body substantial and strong, resisting diseases.

This exercise is used by people who are short winded, and those who cannot inhale except for by holding their neck straight upright. [It is also used] by those whose flesh is consumed, especially around the chest and shoulders, as well as those which have had apostemes [puss-filled swellings] broken in their chests. Furthermore it is useful to those who are hoarse due to too much moisture, and by those who have quartan fevers [fevers which occur every fourth day] since it loosens the humour that sticks to the chest and dries up the moistness of the stomach, which the quartan typically brings with it. It is also of benefit to those who have weak stomachs, vomit continually, or break up sourness out of the stomach [acid reflux?]. It is also good for illnesses of the head.

He that intends to attempt this exercise, after he has been at the stool [emptied his bowels], and softly rubbed his lower parts and washed his hands, should speak with as low a voice as he can and, while walking, begin to sing louder and louder, still in a low voice. And let him pay no attention to sweet tunes or harmony, since that does nothing to benefit the health of the body, but force himself to sing loudly, for therefore a lot of air is drawn in by the inhaling of the breath, thrusting forth the breast and stomach, and opening and enlarging the pores.

Superfluous humours are expelled by high crying and loud reading. Therefore men and women, having weak bodies, their flesh loose and not firm, must often read loudly and in a low voice, extending the windpipe and other passages of the breath. However, this exercise should not always used by everyone. I would advise those with too many corrupted humours or those who are very ill with crudities [badly concocted humours] in the stomach and veins to abstain from the exercise of the voice in case corrupted liquids or vapours are distributed throughout the body.’


‘The chiefe exercise of the breast and instrumentes of the voyce, is vociferation, which is singing, reading or crying, whereof is the propertie that it purgeth natural heate, and maketh it also subtill and stable, and maketh the members of the body substantiall and strong, resisting diseases.

This exercise woulde bée vsed of persons shorte winded, and them which cannot fetch their breath, but holding their necke straight vpright. Also of them whose flesh is consumed, specially about the breast and shoulders. Also which haue had aposthumes broken in their breastes. Moreouer of them that are hoarse by the much moysture, and to them which haue quartayn feuers, it is conuenient: It looseth the humor that sticketh in the breast, and drieth vp the moistnes of the stomack, which properly the course of the quartaine is wont to bring with them, it also profiteth them which haue féeble stomackes, or doe vomite continually, or doe breake vp sowrenes out of the stomack. It is good also for griefs of the head.

He that intendeth to attempt this exercise, after that he hath beene at the stoole, and softly rubbed the lower partes, and washed his hands, let him speak with as bace a voyce as he can, and walking, beginne to sing lowder and lowder, but still in a bace voyce, and to take no heede of swéete tunes or harmonie. For that nothing doth profite vnto health of body, but to inforce himselfe to sing great, for thereby much ayre drawen in by fetching of breath, thrusteth forth the breast and stomack, and openeth and inlargeth the pores.

By high crying and lowde reading, are expelled superfluous humors. Therfore men and women hauing their bodies feeble, & their fleshe loose, and not firme, must read oftentimes lowde, and in a bace voyce, extending out the windpipe, and other passages of the breath. But notwithstanding this exercise is not vsed alway and of all persons. For they in whome is aboundant of humours corrupted, or be much diseased with cruditie in the stomacke and veines, those doe I counsaile to abstaine from the exercise of the voice, least much corrupted iuyce or vapours, may thereby bée into all the body distributed.’



Thomas Elyot, The Castell of Health, Corrected, and in Some Places Augmented by the First Author Thereof, Sir Thomas Elyot Knight. (London: Printed By The Widdow Orwin, 1595). Modern paraphrase made by myself for ease of use.

This passage above echoes very closely the ideas on the voice and health expressed by the second-century Greek surgeon Antyllus. Although his original works have been lost, his theories survive through the collections of medical excerpts compiled by the Greek medical writer Oribasius in the fourth century.

The painting below is entitled the ‘Lezende oude vrouw’ (‘Old Woman Reading’) and was painted in the first half of the seventeenth century, most likely in the 1630s. It was previously thought to be by Rembrandt but is now considered more likely to have been painted by a member of his immediate circle. While it’s unlikely that the subject of the painting is vociferating quite as enthusiastically as suggested in the passage above, the work provides a beautiful glimpse into seventeenth-century cultures of literacy.

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