Posts Tagged ‘herbal remedies’

I was delighted to think of an excuse to show something from Blackadder, especially the “Wise woman” sketch – have there been many funnier TV programs ever? I thought that it would be interesting to think about the truth in this scene.

You may remember that Edmund Blackadder starts his quest for medical help by going to see the Doctor (he was advised to put leeches in his codpiece!). In Tudor towns there were qualified medical practitioners who could have been consulted, especially by wealthier people (such as Blackadder). For ordinary people though, qualified medical assistance may not have been so readily available.

According to Roy Porter most villages would have had their own ‘Wise woman’ or ‘Wise’, or ‘Cunning man’ to whom people could turn for help when illness struck. The state and the church didn’t approve of these people and would sometimes try to discourage or punish practitioners. Despite this disapproval, there often wasn’t anyone else for people to turn to and of course, if there was any medical help available it was often quite ineffective. A little while back, I came across a story which suggested that perhaps the ‘wise woman’ might have been of some benefit.

I attended a meeting at Birmingham University Medical School and noticed a picture behind the speakers on the stage. This picture showed a man holding a foxglove – when I got home I ‘Googled’ the words ‘Birmingham’ and ‘Foxglove’ and came across the story of William Withering.

William Withering

William Withering

Withering who was a surgeon at Birmingham General Hospital from 1775 was also a member of the famous ‘Lunar Society‘ along with people like Josiah Wedgwood, Matthew Boulton and Erasmus Darwin. Withering was also an enthusiastic botanist known for his scorn of traditional herbal lore.

Withering was asked to see a woman who was suffering with ‘dropsy’ (this is now called Oedema in England or Edema in the US) which is a condition in which the person retains fluid and can become swollen – especially around the feet and ankles but also affecting other parts of the body including the lungs. It is a symptom of other problems, often heart or kidney disease – Withering’s diagnosis was that the outlook was bleak for the woman.

He was suprised to find later that she had been cured by a herbal tea – made to a secret recipe that had passed down through the generations. Withering searched the countryside for the secret, obtained the recipe which contained over twenty herbal  ingredients and eventually worked out that the active ingredient came from the Foxglove.foxglove

Withering set to work perfecting his understanding of the use of the Foxglove in a series of experiments that would today gain him both notoriety and a life sentence in prison. He used patients at Birmingham General Hospital as Guinea pigs! many of these people died in the process of his experiments, Foxgloves being very poisonous plants. The active ingredient in Foxglove is a substance called ‘Digitalis’ – a drug still widely used in modern medicine to treat heart disease.

Fortunately for Withering  the ‘wise woman’ he consulted was a bit more effective than the one seen by Blackadder. It is interesting  to think that despite his scorn about herbal lore it led him to his greatest discovery.

(See also ‘Tudor cures’)

(By the way – if you want to read more about the story of the Lunar Society I can really recommend this book.)


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Few people in Tudor England lived beyond their fortieth birthday. This remains the situation in many parts of the developing world. The life expectancy in present day Sierra Leone is 34.3 years, and in Zambia life expectancy has fallen to 33 years, making it the lowest in the world. This situation continues to get worse due to rampant poverty and the spread of AIDS.
Tudor people experienced war, persecution, poverty, and did not have any of the benefits of modern medicine. If they became ill they relied instead on herbal treatments.

Headaches were treated by imbibing a drink made up of a mixture of lavender, sage, marjoram, rose and rue. Other headache sufferers preferred to press a hangman’s rope to the head! Rheumatism was treated by the patient being made to wear the skin of a donkey. A treatment for Gout was to apply to the affected foot a mixture made out of worms, pigs marrow and herbs all boiled together with hair from a red-haired dog. For deafness the gall of a hare was mixed with grease from a fox. The resulting concoction was warmed and placed in the ear. Those suffering from smallpox had red curtains hung around their bed as it was believed that the red light produced by the curtains will cure the patient. Jaundice could be cured by swallowing nine lice mixed with some ale each morning. The lice and ale mixture should be swallowed for seven consecutive days.

Leech - photo by nebarnix (click image)
Leech – photo by nebarnix (click image)

In the towns and cities bleeding was still a popular cure for most ills. The Tudors believed that too much blood was bad for the body and this in itself caused illnesses. If blood was let from the body, the patient’s illness would also go out of the body with the blood. It was common to use leeches to bleed the body.

Most of these remedies seem very strange now. I’m not sure whether I would like to swallow lice! However some of these older cures, discovered through necessity in hard times, are being investigated by present day medical researchers.
Clinical trials have reported that lavender essential oil may be beneficial in a variety of conditions, including insomnia, alopecia (hair loss), anxiety, postoperative pain, and as an antibacterial and antiviral agent.

Aromatherapists also use lavender to treat headaches, nervous disorders, and exhaustion. Herbalists treat skin ailments, such as fungal infections (like candidiasis), wounds, eczema, and acne, with lavender oil. It is also used externally for circulatory disorders, and as a rub for rheumatic ailments. A recent study found that the use of lavender oil may improve postoperative pain control. Fifty patients undergoing breast biopsy surgery received either oxygen supplemented with lavender oil or oxygen alone. Patients in the lavender group reported a higher degree of pain control than patients in the control group.lavender
In addition to training as a mental health nurse, I have also become qualified in aromatherapy and reflexology – due to an interest in the wisdom the past may have to offer. I think that there are a number of ‘old wives tales’ cures, discovered in a world without a modern day understanding of chemistry or microbiology which will turn out to a scientifically verifiable efficacy. I have seen the powerfully convincing results of using essential oils with massage for rheumatoid arthritis, stress and eczema, amongst other conditions.

Leeches have also made a come back! They are used in burns and reconstructive surgery units for their anti-coagulant and blood-draining properties. The leech bite creates a puncture wound that bleeds for hours, while the leech’s saliva contains substances that anaesthetise the wound area, dilate the blood vessels to increase blood flow and prevent the blood from clotting. Leeches are also useful in reducing the painful inflammation of osteoarthritis. There is even a farm in Wales that breeds Leeches for use in the NHS!

(See also ‘The Wise woman’)


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