Tuesday, 20 January 2009
In sickness and in health . . .
In Victorian times - and of course before and since - the plants of pasture and hedgerow provided a medical cabinet which helped in all but the most severe of illnesses. Whilst some - more modern - folk set great store by patent medicines, the labouring families often had no money to spare for such quackery and wisely turned to herbal cures. However, having said that, the labouring poor of East Anglia - Lincolnshire and Norfolk especially, where lack of a good nourishing diet and long hours spent outside in all weathers made them martyrs to their rheumatism and neuralgia, were apparently all opium addicts! In 1867, the British Medical Association reported that over half of the opium imported into this country was consumed in those two counties alone. There was scarcely a marshland cottage in N. Norfolk or Lincs without its "penny stick or pill of opium, and not a child that did not have it in some form. Godfrey's Cordial, a mixture of opium, treacle, and an infusion of sassafras, was the usual comfort administered to a squalling baby when its mother was too busy working in the fields to feed it." (Pamela Horn: Labouring Life in the Victorian Countryside).
Opium - in its many forms but especially as Laudenum (Branwell Bronte was an addict and even Queen Victoria had it administered when necessary) was the main painkiller in the 19th century. As Laudenum, the opium was mixed with alcohol, and it was widely prescribed for menstrual cramps amongst the better classes, and was soon being taken just to produce the swooning whiteness of a TB victim, as being pale and interesting was the fashion! (Thanks to Wikipedia).
On a more basic level, anything which required a poultice - from an embedded thorn to a septic wound, abscess or a boil, would have the commonest sort of all, that of bread, which I have used myself with great effect. Groundsel poultices were also used, and a horseman might bring home a mugful of bran (which was an effective poultice for an abscess or quittor in a horse). Bad bruising or even a broken limb might be bound with comfrey leaves - its local name was "knitbone" and it was also affective on wounds and torn ligaments. My late m-in-law swore by it, and still had a packet of dried leaves in the drawer at the time of her death a few years ago.
Bee stings were treated with a dab of bluebag - the Reckitt's blue of my childhood, which went into the final white wash to make the whites yet whiter still. A dab of vinegar was the treatment for wasp stings. A friend of ours who is a beekeeper, always grew Marshmallow plants in his garden, as he said that the leaves were also effective in the treatment of bee stings.
The leaves and flowers of Marshmallow made into ointment, were also a country treatment for boils. "Lily leaves were used for cuts, dock leaves for galled feet, dandelion roots for liver troubless, coltsfoot leaves for asthma and bronchitis, rue pills for tonic, whilst the leaves of camomile, yarrow and agrimony were used as a Yarb Tea" drunk for general good health.
Witchcraft still held sway in remote rural areas and old superstitions were still being passed down through families. The cure for a 'bleeding tumour' was supposedly to place the hand of a dead person upon it - this wisdom coming from the grandmother of an old Norfolk labourer in the 1860s. Should a child be born with a rupture, it was believed that a straight young ash plant should be split down its length and the child passed between the two halves, which were then bound back together with string. If the sapling grew together again, so would the rupture be healed . . .
In 1880 a vicar noted - doubtless with some alarm - that one of his parishioners (an elderly woman) 'said the Lord's Prayer backwards to get rid of an infliction which has been "put" on her. She promised me to say it forwards three times a day, but added, "unless the trouble comes back, and then I will say it backwards again".'
Superstition also led Hertfordshire labourers to carry a small potato in their pocket to ward off rheumatism, whilst in Norfolk a pig's foot bone, or small pieces of brass, copper and zinc in a bag were to serve the same purpose.
So the next time you reach for a dock leaf after you have been stung by a nettle, think of your ancestors . . .