Written By Chris Young
This post was most recently updated on March 6th, 2018
Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease…
For centuries before the development of modern medicine the inhabitants of the British Isles relied upon all manner of folk remedies to tackle the various diseases and ailments that afflicted them.
In pre-Roman Britain, the Druids prescribed concoctions of mistletoe and other plants to counter poison and treat other problems. Later, in the so-called Dark Ages, the Celts were widely respected for their apparent mastery of such matters even after the Church set up the first primitive hospitals.
Until relatively recent times great faith continued to be placed in cures that had been passed down through many generations.
In times when the risks of infection were not understood, physical surgery was generally avoided because of the dangers of such procedures (although the practice of trepanning – drilling holes in the skull to release the devil or cure madness – goes all the way back to Neolithic times).
Many remedies were based on restoring the internal balance of the body, as diseases were thought to result from imbalances.
Alternatively, action was required to negate the influence of evil spirits, either through appeals to these spirits or through their expulsion from the body of the sufferer. Other remedies aimed to counter the malicious interference of elves or witches, often through the use of charms, amulets and counter-spells.
Some treatments relied on the principle of sympathetic magic and involved the transferring of physical symptoms from the patient to an animal, which was then driven away, or to an inanimate object such as a slice of bacon or a piece of bread and butter, which was then buried, sealed up in the bark of a tree, or otherwise disposed of, taking the disease with it.
Many folk remedies were relatively simple and did not require the assistance of a specialist. A typical homemade medicine containing such ingredients as bits of rue, juniper berries, walnuts, dried figs, and salt and prepared when the sun was high in the sky was believed to cure multiple ailments if taken on a regular basis.
People ate ginger to treat memory loss and treacle to prevent insomnia or stuffed orange peel up their noses if they had a cold. Simple acts like saying ‘bless you’ if someone sneezed or covering the mouth when yawning ensured that evil spirits didn’t slip inside the body and prevented the soul being accidentally ejected.
More elaborate solutions were also on offer, however. Medical ‘experts’, such as local wise women or witches, quickly realised that the more impressive and complicated their treatments sounded the more they could charge their patients.
Remedies often involved the incorporation of rare or bizarre ingredients, such as the root of the mandrake plant, bear fat, mouse droppings, or liquids dripping from the bodies of hanged men. The more bizarre or challenging the treatment, the more impressed the patient was likely to be.
Patients suffering from baldness were encouraged to rub goose dung into their scalp. For ringworm they needed to wash their skin in the urine of a young boy. Cures for toothache included the application of dried worms to the affected tooth or the wearing of a magpie’s beak around the neck. To treat mouth ulcers the patient had to eat a dog’s tongue. To cure fever he was required to eat one live sheep tick.
For some ailments a patient could choose between a wide range of treatments. For whooping cough, for instance, he might be recommended to consume some owl soup, a roast mouse or the slime of a snail mixed with sugar or to wear a hairy caterpillar in a bag round his neck, hang a live frog in the chimney, coat his feet with garlic and lard or feed the family dog with a few strands of his hair concealed in a piece of bread and butter.
Some remedies were both disgusting and highly imaginative. A cure for poor eyesight required the patient persuading a friend to lick the eye of a frog and then the patient’s own eyes, thus transferring the shine and clarity of the amphibian’s eyes to his own.
People suffering from gout were encouraged to apply a plaster of goats’ droppings mixed with rosemary and honey. Fainting fits could be treated by the patient inhaling the smoke of burning feathers.
Relics Of The Saints
Relics of the saints were highly prized for their power to heal patients who were allowed to touch them. Anything connected with churches was considered sacred, with the result that numerous remedies depended upon ingredients obtained from ecclesiastical sources.
Communion wine was considered excellent for a variety of ailments and churches had to fit locks to their fonts to stop people stealing ‘holy water’ from them to treat problems ranging from warts to serious diseases.
Many vicars and priests found that panes of glass kept falling out of the windows because the faithful were stealing scraps of lead from them, which they then boiled in water and gave to their poorly children to drink.
A lot of folk remedies clearly didn’t, and couldn’t, work. When plague struck, for instance, people were at a loss to understand how it spread and how to treat it and clutched at all kinds of remedies in response, none of which would have done any good. It was argued that plague could be avoided by not breathing bad air, looking at plague victims, or drinking water from poisoned wells.
It was treated by burning sweet-smelling herbs, sitting near sewers (the stench of which was believed to drive off the plague), drinking ten-year-old treacle, swallowing crushed emeralds, eating arsenic powder (which is highly poisonous), blood-letting, killing all cats and dogs in the vicinity, and getting the patient to flog himself with a whip.
Children were warned that they might contract plague if they failed to attend church or were disobedient to their parents.
Some remedies, however, did work and are still in use today. Lots of traditional herbal remedies are accepted as medicinally sound, or at least not harmful, and the ancient belief that the whole body should be treated in order to cure a specific problem is the foundation of the modern holistic approach to medicine.
Some That Worked
For centuries people treated people with heart conditions by feeding them foxglove tea. This practice attracted the attention of modern scientists, who subsequently isolated digitalis from foxgloves and recognised it as a modern wonder drug in the treatment of heart disease.
A similar story may be told of infusions of willow, which led to the development of aspirin. Other time-honoured procedures, such as the application of leeches and the laying of spiders’ webs on open wounds to help them heal are also accepted as having benefits in certain circumstances – although many patients nowadays may prefer a less traditional approach to their ailments!