Oral Testimony and Remedies Over Time

By Alun Withey

When studying the history of recipes, the longevity of certain remedies, ingredients or substances in healing is often striking. In terms of the early modern period, it is often remarked how far back certain remedies into ancient Greek or Latin texts; in many cases, how far forward they survived is also noteworthy – often long after the rise of (modern) biomedicine.

One of the ways through which we can track this process is through surviving examples in oral testimonies. While early twentieth-century antiquarian obsessions with all things weird and grotesque might not fit with modern academic approaches, the records they collected from oral testimonies, especially from people in rural areas, are often fascinating. Indeed, in many ways, these records are often the only remnants of medical traditions now past and, even more interestingly, the fact that they can be traced back through family generations tells us something about transmission.

An interesting survey was taken in the 1970s of herbal remedies still in use in rural Wales, which had some evidence of long-term family use. In many cases, recipes and ingredients they provided can be readily found in early modern collections. In the early modern period, it was common to use snails as ingredients in recipes to treat eye conditions. Typically, they might be impaled on a pin, with the juice allowed to drop into the afflicted eye. In the 70s, interviewees remembered similar recipes used in their families, including one involving skinning 12 black snails, putting sugar on them and leaving them overnight, before eating the gooey remains the next day!

Another enduring ophthalmic remedy was the ‘snakestone’ or ‘adder stone’ – essentially a polished river stone resembling a snake’s eye. Directions for use of the snakestone can commonly be found in Medieval and early modern texts and, when the survey was taken, reports were included for glain nadredd – in English, ‘adder beads’.

The example shown here was found in the foundations of an old Carmarthenshire house i 1836, and can be seen in the Carmarthenshire County Museum: – http://www.carmarthenshire.gov.uk/english/education/museums/carmarthenshirecountymuseum/pages/home.aspx

An 'Adder stone' found in the foundations of a Carmarthenshire house in 1836

It was reportedly common to use the herb rue in preparations for children suffering from worms. Similar remedies occur in several Welsh collections of the 17th century. Lungwort and eyebright were still in evidence in the 1970s for respiratory and ocular conditions, respectively, and can be traced well back almost into antiquity. Human urine was another common ingredient in the seventeenth century in a variety of remedies and, in living memory, has still been noted as having cosmetic value and also in the treatment of ear conditions. Perhaps most interestingly, in a journal article of 1906, it was reported that a Montgomeryshire woman who injured herself with a scythe went back to the scythe for seven days after and repeated an incantation over it. This bears extraordinary similarity to the so-called ‘weapon salve’ noted by Sir Kenelm Digby in the seventeenth century, whereby the idea was to treat the instrument that had injured somebody, rather than the wound itself.

Image used with permission of the Wellcome Trust/Wellcome Images

It is also interesting to note some echoes of older practices involving modern substances. For example, inhalants were a common facet of early modern recipes, such as boiling herbs and drawing in the steam or even, in one remedy, inhaling the vapour of Mercury as a cure for worms in the teeth. The modern practice of putting Olbas Oil or Friar’s Balsam into boiling water is little different.

In many respects then, it is worth remembering the longevity both of remedies and medical practices. While manuscript collections give us evidence of usage, of remedy networks and contributors, oral testimonies often yield more direct evidence of the transmission of remedies from generation to generation. They also speak of people’s continuing belief in the power of old remedies, even in the face of modern, scientific, alternatives.

(For a fuller discussion of this survey see Anne E. Jones, “Folk Medicine in Living Memory in Wales”, Folklife, 18 (1980), pp. 58-68)

See Lisa Smith’s blog post about cure-all medicines here:http://recipes.hypotheses.org/800

Also, for a different version of this post, see my blog article at:  http://dralun.wordpress.com/2013/01/24/weird-remedies-and-the-problem-of-folklore/


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