Medicine shows were touring acts that peddled “miracle cure” patent medicines and other products between various entertainments.
The predecessor to the traveling American medicine man was the European mountebank, well known throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance for selling their medicinal wares at fairs, street corners, in market squares or wherever they could gather a crow of onlookers. 17th century London, for example became, in scholar Ann Anderson’s terms, “a hotbed of medical malpractice” and a home to many medical “quacks”. Scholars acknowledge, however, that it was the Italian mountebanks of the 17th century that typify the European medicine men of this era.
Every day, Venice’s St Marks Square would be packed with half a dozen platforms where various mountebanks would try for the crowd’s attention. Music could play and the showman would open up his trunks, displaying his medicinal wares for the audience, while he delivered a long presentation of half an hour or longer .
While the main goal of the European mountebank was to sell their miracle cures, they would utilize various forms of entertainment to attract the crowd. In Italy and France, mountebanks would often draw upon elements of Commedia dell Arte, a popular street theater art form of the time, to amuse the crowd as they pitched their products. In fact, the importance of performance in the mountebank’s sale becomes quite clear through the various names that the people developed for them: “montimbanca, cantimbanca, or saltimbanca” would refer to the musical and acrobatic feats they performed on their platforms, or “ciarlatano (from ciarlare, to chatter)” the origin of the term “charlatan”, which emphasized the verbosity of the mountebank and “ciurmatore (from the Latin carmen, or charm)” referencing their magical feats which the mountebank’s displayed to lure in the public.