Folk remedies were based on principles that seem bizarre today and they included some very ‘nasty medicines’ indeed.
By Richard Holland
RECENT years have seen a sudden flowering of alternative medicines. Hypnotism, reflexology, acupuncture and especially herbal and holistic medicine have become less ‘fringe’ and more accepted as the population has become less trustful of orthodox medicine with its heavy reliance on chemical drugs.
Centuries ago, there was no choice but to use tried and trusted folk remedies – even after the advent of modern medicine, many living in the countryside would have had no access to a doctor, and would have been unable to afford his fees even if they had. Reliance, then, was on the proverbial ‘old wives’ and their knowledge of the healing properties of herbs and other natural substances.
Medical science and old wives tales have often overlapped. One folk belief, for example, was that wrapping a cobweb round a cut would keep it free of infection and help it heal. Cobwebs, we now know, contain penicillin. However, for every sensible folk remedy one can cite there is another whose nature is bizarre – even horrible! Creepy-crawlies feature heavily in old wives’ cures. And so do slimy things.
A universal belief in primitive medicine was ‘the doctrine of signatures’, meaning that if something resembles a part of the body, it will cure ailments associated with it. For example, a plant called lungwort, whose leaves have the mottled appearance of a human lung, was believed to cure diseases of the lung. Toothwort was taken to ease toothache, and so on.
Taking this idea to a logical, if nasty, conclusion is a remedy for the worming of small children suggested by a correspondent to a Welsh Borders newspaper as late as 1889: ‘Procure some worms in prime condition, the fatter the better, from your garden, and place in a muslin bag in a saucepan. Cover with new milk and simmer with brown sugar for a few hours. This in a drink will at once expel the abdominal parasite in children’.
Yuk – presumably by making the poor mite throw up! The idea that a draught of earthworms could kill abdominal worms is one example of the ‘hair of the dog that bit you’ philosophy. This well-known saying comes from an ancient belief that that to avoid contracting rabies if you were bitten by a mad dog, you should bite it back, to ‘return’ the madness. To be really safe, you should kill the dog. In July, 1877, at Chester, a woman successfully filed for assault against a man and wife who had forced their way into her home, took away her Skye terrier and destroyed it. In their defence, they told the magistrates that the dog had bitten their baby daughter and they were afraid that if they did not kill it, she would go mad and die.
Peculiar and extreme though these methods might be, at least there was some logic, however misguided, behind them. This was by no means always the case.