Tuesday 26 February 2008

Modern Marvels and Curious Cures

Having spent the last week and more battling with a rather vicious cold, a five-day long headache and wildly fluctuating temperature – hot sweats giving way to shivery chills, only to return again a short while later – I have had much cause to bless the creators of such modern marvels as the ‘Kleenex Ultra Balm Tissue’, ‘Solpadeine Headache’ tablets, eucalyptus and menthol inhalations and the soothing ‘Strepsils Extra’ lozenge. After dipping into one of my latest literary purchases (this week’s vital statistics: Books bought from a shop - 12; Books on order - 3; Books expelled to make room for newcomers - O), Nigel Cawthorne’s fascinating The Curious Cures of Old England, I have also spent quite some time being actively grateful that I was lucky enough to be born in shiny, new England, rather than the old, slightly mad version he describes.

Had I been suffering from similar ailments a few centuries ago, I would have found the local quack recommending the application of cabbage or lettuce leaves to alleviate my headache; admittedly not quite as bad as the Tudor solution of gargling mustard, or the rather disturbing 18th Century tendency to tie a piece of used hangman’s rope around your skull, but surely not nearly as effective as paracetamol. (In the 19th Century hangman’s rope dropped out of favour, only to be replaced by snakeskin - honestly, I’m not sure which would be worse.)

And what was it with these people and the application of ludicrous items to the skin? It seems that the common cold required a thick piece of toast to be soaked in vinegar and bound to the throat overnight with a handkerchief. Or, alternatively, you could try nodding off with a filthy sock or stocking tied around your neck, taking care to ensure that the heel was positioned over your larynx. Sticking orange peel up your nose was an optional extra in both these cases. Chest complaints might be fended off by wearing a vest made of brown paper and goose fat (not forgetting to apply extra grease to the soles of your feet at the same time), or strapping rashers of bacon to your ribcage. Given the scarcity of food at the time, one has to wonder whether or not the afflicted individual might be expected, come the morning, to cook and eat the same bacon he had lately been wearing?

Prevention being undoubtedly better than a cure, there were many methods of warding off the ague - a fever most commonly, but not exclusively, associated with malaria, it was marked by alternate chills and sweating, and recurred at intervals. In Sussex, it was believed that a necklace made from wood chips taken from a gallows would prevent the ague - but if it had been a particularly quiet year (tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime, dontcha know) and there weren’t enough gallows to go around, a good second choice was a man’s woollen sock filled with earthworms.

Unfortunately, there were times when neither the gallows chips nor the wormy sock could get the job done and, despite all efforts to the contrary, people did fall victim to the ague. In this case, the solution was clear: EELS. Sir Kenelm Digby, a 17th Century medical bigwig, was most specific in his advice. The nails of the sufferer should be trimmed and the parings placed into a small bag or pouch. This bag or pouch must then be hung around the neck of a live eel, which was subsequently placed into a tub of water. The eel should then die and the patient recover. Failing this, of course, you could always resort to the ‘right foot of a black dog hung over the right arm’ option. One or the other was bound to work...

By the 18th Century medical thought had advanced. ‘Eels?’ the people scoffed, ‘What could those idiots have been thinking? Thank goodness we’ve moved on since then.’ And indeed they had. It was now recommended that ague sufferers should fast for seven days, eating only seven sage leaves during this time. If, however, crash diets were not the sufferer’s thing, they could instead swallow ‘pill-bugs’ (woodlice rolled up into balls) or – if they were feeling particularly peckish – a live spider. Some of the pickier eaters preferred to keep the spider in a bag hung around their neck rather than swallowing it – a ridiculous notion, because, as the people of Norfolk would have been happy to tell any Sussex man who asked, everyone knew that this was the cure for whooping cough, not the ague.

It was left to Norfolk parson and diarist James Woodforde (1740-1803) to come up with a sensible cure. He recalls that, when visited by a fever-stricken relative, ‘I gave him a dram of gin at the beginning of the fit and pushed him headlong into one of my ponds, then ordered him to bed immediately’. Not quite as good as paracetamol and a tissue, but definitely preferable to insects and eels...


E.G. said...

How fascinating! Do you feel another slightly eccentric picture book coming on? If you don't, I will! :)

Nik Perring said...

One of you should!

Really enjoyed that - though I do go 'yuk' on more than one occasion!


Emma K-F said...

How fascinating! Do you feel another slightly eccentric picture book coming on? If you don't, I will! :)

'Eccentric' would definitely be the word, what with all the gallows and creepy crawlies around! Though now that you've suggested it, I can feel several ideas taking shape in my head... I think I'll have to step aside and leave it to you, however - I already have far too many as yet unfinished projects on the go!

I look forward to seeing what you come up with... :-)

Really enjoyed that - though I do go 'yuk' on more than one occasion!


Me too - particularly during the bits that involved insects. I can't even be in the same room as a spider, let alone consider hanging one round my neck!! Urgh to the millionth degree. And as for voluntarily swallowing one, well, you'd have to sedate me first - permanently. ;-)