Clyster, also spelled glister in the 17th century, comes from
Greek "to wash." It is an archaic word for enema, more particularly for enemas
administered using a clyster syringe – that is, a syringe with a rectal nozzle
and a plunger rather than a bulb. Clyster syringes were used from the 17th
century (or before) to the 19th century, when they were largely replaced by
enema bulb syringes, bocks, and bags.
The patient was placed in an appropriate position (kneeling,
with the buttocks raised, or lying on the side); a servant or apothecary would
then insert the nozzle into the anus and depress the plunger, resulting in the
liquid remedy (generally, water, but also some preparations) being injected into
Because of the embarrassment a woman might feel when showing her
buttocks (and possibly her genitals, depending on the position) to a male
apothecary, some contraptions were invented that blocked all from the
apothecary's view except for the anal area. Another invention was syringes
equipped with a special bent nozzle, which enabled self-administration, thereby
eliminating the embarrassment.
Clysters were administered for symptoms of constipation and,
with more questionable effectiveness, stomach aches and other illnesses. In his
early-modern treatise, The Diseases of Women with Child, François Mauriceau
records that both midwives and man-midwives commonly administered clysters to
labouring mothers just prior to their delivery.
In Roper's biography of his father-in-law Sir Thomas More, he
tells of Thomas More's eldest daughter falling sick of the sweating sickness.
She could not be awakened by doctors. After praying, it came to Thomas More:
There straightway it came into his mind that a clyster would be
the one way to help her, which when he told the physicians, they at once
confessed that if there were any hope of health, it was the very best help
indeed, much marveling among themselves that they had not afore remembered it.
— Utopia, Thomas More
Clysters were a favourite medical treatment in the bourgeoisie
and nobility of the Western world up to the 19th century. As medical knowledge
was fairly limited at the time, purgative clysters were used for a wide variety
of ailments, the foremost of which were stomach aches and constipation. Molière,
in several of his plays, introduces characters of incompetent physicians and
apothecaries fond of prescribing this remedy, also discussed by Argan, the
hypochondriac patient of Le Malade Imaginaire. More generally, clysters were a
theme in the burlesque comedies of that time. According to Claude de Rouvroy,
duc de Saint-Simon, clysters were so popular at the court of King Louis XIV of
France that the duchess of Burgundy had her servant give her a clyster in front
of the King (her modesty being preserved by an adequate posture) before going to
the comedy. However, he also mentions the astonishment of the King and Mme de
Maintenon that she should take it before them.