Things have moved on a bit when it comes to medical care, but we should not forget that modern medicine utilises many of the same plants and herbs that have been the staple of the wise village healer for centuries. In the absence of trained medics on 24hr callout, experimental trial and error with a cornucopia of natural ingredients – some less savoury than others – produced kill-or-cure remedies to alleviate all manner of symptoms.
The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow have reproduced, online, a book of 18th Century Herbal Remedies and this offers a curious insight into how the people of Scotland would have cured their woes. Although the author is unknown, the text is believed to have originated in lowland Scotland.
Taking over from the oral tradition, and rather like a family recipe book, many households would have copied, shared and documented their own remedies to refer to in case of family ills. A sort of 18th century book of First Aid. Horrid though most recipes sound, they often include more than a healthy snifter of booze to get you through the medical trauma, some rely on common sense and others are just plain weird.
Take a simple headache. Who knew there were so many different types of headache? Without a tub of paracetamol to hand, the advice ton tending a fevered brow cool is fairly enlightened;
ther is diffiring sorts of apin in the head: ther is the migrum and the head eak
the mgrum is known by its fitching up and doun: ther is a migrum with in the scul and without the scull
1 ther is a head eak that comes of heat and that is easly know by piten your hand on ther brow it will be warm
2 the head eak that comes of coold , ther brue is also cold
so if it be comes of heat we Apply cold things and cold hearbs
and if it be come of coold we Aply hote things and let the chamber be hot also
Headlice may not be a medical emergency, but if you have a child of school age you have more than likely undergone the unpleasant task of having to deal with the blighters. In the 18th century they were also a problem and the solution was fairly simple;
sock hamp seed in water and wine aquil parts: wash your head
take 3 or 4 droppes of saled oil and rub thes in the hayer till yow feel it greasy noe more in your hand do this for sume time and it will curld
how to kill all Neetts in the hayer.
The method simply utilises an oil to smother the lice, which can then be combed out. Current remedies that are shying away from strong chemicals include the use of neem and tea tree oil to do the same thing, so things haven’t changed so very much here.
The humble nettle proved to be mighty useful, be it to aid digestion or to discern whether a maid is truly a virgin. Also a useful tester to ascertain whether the patient was going to make it through the treatment or not:
if yow take the water of a sick person and stipt Nettles lives in it 24 hours and if the leves keep fresh and green the sick person will come throw but if it chnge the culler of the herb ther will be ether death or danger
if you mak snuff of it and pit it in to All or beer and give it to a maid who yow suspact to have lost hir madenhead: if she keep it she is a maden but if she decant it she is not
or if she pish it in to a gless and p[ ] Neetles seed all Night aand if rid spots be in the gless she is not a mad.
Evidently some practices were more reliable and useful than others. If you had a bad case of toothache and no prospect of relief (you know you would do anything), the way forward was to get the tooth out of your head. If the local blacksmith couldn’t oblige then it is suggested that you made a powder of earthworms, mouse dung and hares teeth to rub on the affected tooth. The affected tooth was then meant to drop out, but I suspect the experience just made you forget you that you had awful toothache.
Men afflicted by infertility issues might have drunk the juice of turnips and parsnips to render them more fertile, while to counteract the resulting farting hellebore, rosemary and eggs of imocks (suggestions, anyone?) might help.
Trouble sleeping could be addressed by the use of crude opium: mandrakes, henbane and poppy, and although not recommended and entirely illegal, I would assume this might still be as effective today
It should be remembered that at he time of writing, the perceived wisdom was a little hazy, with little understanding on the inner workings of the body. It was thought that all ills were due to the ‘humors’ or ‘tensions’ . Disease was thought to be caused by the preponderance of the four bodily humours of phlegm, blood, black bile and yellow bile, which in turn corresponded to the four seasons and elements (earth, air, fire and water). Each humor/element/season was associated with specific qualities and this formed the basis of the rather bizarre diagnosis.
For my part, I’ll stick with NHS 24hrs.