Medical Folk-Lore.

By John Nicholson.


To ease pain and endeavour to effect a cure, man will try every suggested remedy, likely and unlikely, and when numberless things have been tried, each of which was alleged to be a certain cure, he reverts to some simple thing, taught him by his old grandmother, or the “wise woman” of his early days; and which, by reason of its simplicity, had been at first contemptuously rejected in favour of more complex but inefficacious compounds. There is scarcely a market but has a stall kept by a herb woman, who, in warm old-fashioned hood, with a little shawl round her shoulders, her ample waist encircled by broad tapes from which is suspended a pocket, capacious and indispensable, lays out with great care her stock of simples—roots, leaves, or flowers, studiously gathered at the proper time, when their virtue is strongest. Here may be seen poppy heads for fomentation, dandelion roots for liver complaint, ground ivy for rheumatism, celandine for weak eyes, and other herbs, all “for the service of man,” to alleviate or cure some of the “ills that flesh is heir to.” She can relate wondrous tales of marvellous cures wrought by her wares, of cases, long standing, and given up by the duly qualified medical fraternity, a brotherhood she holds in contempt because of their new-fangled remedies and methods.

This chapter, however, deals chiefly with superstitious remedies, or at least those remedies which seem to have no scientific bearing on the case; thus, a person having a sty on the eye, will have it rubbed with a wedding ring, or the gold ring of a young maiden; or cause it to be well brushed seven times with a black cat’s tail, if the cat were willing. Another cure is more efficacious if administered as a surprise. The patient is placed in front of the operator, who unexpectedly spits on the eye affected; which action often leads to angry remonstrance, met by derisive laughter, which causes, it may be, broken friendship and general unpleasantness for a time.

It is a common belief, almost world-wide in its extent, that toothache is caused by a little worm which gnaws a hole in the tooth. Not long ago I was shewn a large molar, which when in situ had caused its owner great pain, and he pointed to the nerve apertures, saying, “That’s where the worm was!” Shakespeare, in “Much Ado About Nothing,” speaks of this curious belief:—

D. Pedro. What! sigh for the toothache?

Leon. Where is but a humour or a worm.”

“This superstition was common some years ago in Derbyshire, where there was an odd way of extracting, as it was thought, the worm. A small quantity of a mixture, consisting of dried and powdered herbs, was placed in a tea-cup or other small vessel, and a live coke from the fire was dropped in. The patient then held his or her open mouth over the cup, and inhaled the smoke as long as it could be borne. The cup was then taken away, and a fresh cup or glass, containing water, was then put before the patient. Into this cup the patient breathed hard for a few moments, and then, it was supposed, the grub or worm could be seen in the water.”

The following was communicated to the Folk Lore Journal by Wm. Pengelly, Esq., Torquay, February 1st, 1884:—

“Upwards of sixty years ago, a woman at Looe, in south-east Cornwall, complained to a neighbouring woman that she was suffering from toothache, on which the neighbour remarked that she could give a charm of undoubted efficacy. It was to be in writing, and worn constantly about the person; but, unfortunately, it would be valueless if the giver and receiver were of the same sex. This difficulty was obviated by calling in my services, and requesting me to write from dictation the following words:—

‘Peter sat in the gate of Jerusalem. Jesus cometh unto him and saith, “Peter, what aileth thee?” He saith, “Lord, I am grievously tormented with the toothache.” He saith, “Arise, Peter, and follow me.” He did so, and immediately the toothache left him; and he followed him in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.’

The charm, being found to be correctly written, was held to have been presented to me by the dictator. I at once gave it to the sufferer, who placed it in a small bag and wore it round her neck.”

A Roumanian charm against toothache is to sit beside an anthill, masticate a crust of bread, spit it out over the anthill, and as the ants eat the bread the toothache will cease.

Some believe that if you pick the aching tooth with the nail of an old coffin, or drink the water taken from the tops of three waves, the wearying pain may be relieved or cured. In Norfolk, the toothache is called the “love pain,” and the sufferer does not receive much sympathy.

Some time ago, a man wished to shew me some antiquity he had found, but his jacket pocket was so filled with odds and ends (“kelterment,” he called it) that he turned all out in order to better prosecute his search. Among the miscellaneous collection I noticed a potato, withered, dry, hard, and black; and was informed it was kept as a preventive and cure for rheumatism. For the same distressing, disabling disease, some people spread treacle on brown paper, and apply hot to the part affected.

The following curious passages have been transcribed by my friend, Mr. George Neilson, solicitor, Glasgow, from the Kirk Session Records of the parish of Gretna, and are here inserted by his consent, most freely given:—

Graitney Kirk, Feb. 11, 1733.

Session met after Sermon.

It was represented by some of the members that the Charms and Spells used at Watshill for Francis Armstrong, Labouring under distemper of mind, gave great offence, and ’twas worth while to enquire into the affair and publickly admonish the people of the evil of such a course, that a timely stop be put to such a practice.

Several of the members gave account that in Barbara Armstrang’s they burned Rowantree and Salt, they took three Locks of Francis’s hair, three pieces of his shirt, three roots of wormwood, three of mugwort, three pieces of Rowantree, and boiled alltogether, anointed his Legs with the water, and essayed to put three sups in his mouth, and meantime kept the door close, being told by Isabel Pott, at Cross, in Rockcliff commonly called the Wise Woman, that the person who had wronged him would come to the door, but no access was to be given. Francis, tho’ distracted, told them they were using witch-craft and the Devils Charms that would do no good. It is said they carried a candle around the bed for one part of the inchantment. John Neilson, in Sarkbridge, declared before the Session this was matter of fact others then present. Mary Tate, Servant to John Neilson in Sarkbridge is to be cited as having gone to the Wise Woman for Consultation.”


Graitney Kirk, Feb. 25, 1733.

Session met after Sermon

Mary Tate having been summoned was called on, and compearing confessed that she had gone to Isabel Pot, in the parish of Rockcliff, and declared that the sd Isabell ordered South running water to be lifted in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and to be boiled at night in the house where Francis Armstrong was, with nettle roots, wormwood, mugwort, southernwood and rowantree, and his hands, legs and temples be stroaked therewith, and three sups to be put in his mouth, and withal to keep the door close: She ordered also three locks of his hair to be burnt in the fire with three pieces clipt out of his shirt, and a Slut, i.e., a rag dipt in tallow to be lighted and carried round his bed, and all to be kept secret except from near friends: Mary Tate declared that the said Francis would allow none to touch him but her, and at last Helen Armestrange, Spouse to Archibald Crighton, Elder, assisted her, and after all the said Francis, tho’ distracted, told them they were using witchcrafts and the Devil’s Charms that would do no good: Mary Tate being admonished of the Evil of such a course was removed: Notwithstanding her acknowledgments of her fault she is to be suspended a sacris, and others her accomplices, and that none hereafter pretend Ignorance the Congregation is to be cautioned against such a practice from the Pulpit.”

Ague used to be much more prevalent than it now is. Drainage and sanitation have banished many evils, and with the evil, the exorcists’ charm for the banishment of the evil. Charms, rather than medical remedies, for the cure of ague, are very prevalent. Rider’s British Merlin for 1715 lies before me. It is a thin 16mo. booklet of 48 printed pages and 42 blank pages, but some of the blank inter-leaves have been torn out. It is bound in parchment with gilt edges, and has had a clasp, which has disappeared. One of the interleaves bears this written charm:—“And Peter sat at the gate of Jerusalem and prayed, and Jesus called Peter, and Peter said, Lord, I am sick of an ague, and the evil ague being dismissed, Peter said, Lord, grant that whosoever weareth these lines in writing, the evil ague may depart from them, and from all evil ague good Lord deliver us.” The following charm is taken from an old diary of 1751:—“When Jesus came near Pilate, He trembled like a leaf, and the judge asked Him if He had the ague. He answered, He had neither the ague, nor was He afraid; and whosoever bears these words in mind shall never fear ague or anything else.” A strange charm for this dreaded disease was to be spoken up the wide cavernous chimney by the eldest female of the family on St. Agnes’ Eve. Thus spake she:—

“Tremble and go!
First day shiver and burn;
Tremble and quake!
Second day shiver and learn;
Tremble and die!
Third day never return.”

A curious anecdote is related of Lord Chief Justice Holt. When a young man, he, with companions who were law students like himself, ran up a score at an inn, which they were not able to pay. Mr. Holt observed that the landlord’s daughter looked very ill, and, posing as a medical student, asked what ailed her. He was informed she suffered from ague. Mr. Holt, continuing to play the doctor, gathered sundry herbs, mixed them with great ceremony, rolled them up in parchment, scrawled some characters on the same, and to the great amusement of his companions, tied it round the neck of the young woman, who straightway was cured of her ague. After the cure, the pretending doctor offered to pay the bill, but the grateful landlord and father would not consent, and allowed the party to leave the house with hearts as light as their pockets.

Many years after, when on the Bench, a woman was brought before him accused of witchcraft. She denied the charge, but said she had a wonderful ball, which never failed to cure the ague. The charm was handed to the judge, who recognised it as the very ball he had made for the young woman at the inn, to help himself and his companions out of a difficult position.

In the west of England a live snail is sewn up in a bag and worn round the neck as an antidote for ague; though others in the same district imprison a spider in a box, and, as it pines away, so will the disease depart.

It is a common belief in the north of England that a person bitten by a dog is liable to madness, if the dog which bit them goes mad. In order to secure the bitten one from such a terrible fate, the owner of the dog is often compelled to destroy it. Should he refuse to do so, the friends of the injured party would probably poison it, The condition peculiar to the morning following a night of debauchery, is said to need “a hair of the dog that bit you,” which doubtless refers to the means taken to prevent ill effects following a dog bite. A wise saw from the Edda tells us that “Dog’s hair heals dog’s bite.” The following incident recorded in the Pall Mall Gazette, Oct. 12th, 1866, shews most gross superstition in this Victorian age. “At an inquest, held on the 5th of October, at Bradfield, (Bucks.), on the body of a child of five years of age, which had died of hydrophobia, evidence was given of a practice almost incredible in civilised England. Sarah Mackness stated that at the request of the mother of the deceased, she had fished out of the river the body of the dog by which the child had been bitten, and had extracted its liver, a slice of which she had frizzled before the fire, and had then given it to the child to be eaten with some bread. The dog had been drowned nine days before. The child ate the liver greedily, drank some tea afterwards, but died, in spite of this strange specific.”

Erysipelas in Donegal is known as the “rose.” It is very common, but can be cured by a stroker. The following is said to have happened. A nurse of a Rector had the “rose,” and the doctor was called in. After he was gone, the woman’s friends brought in a stroker, who rubbed the nurse with bog moss, and then threw a bucket of bogwater over her in bed. This treatment cured the woman, and is said to be generally in vogue, but is not efficient except the right person does it. In some parts of Yorkshire, sheep’s dung is applied as a poultice for the cure of erysipelas.

What is more distressing, both to patient and nurse, than whooping cough, or king-cough, as it is sometimes called? A change of air is deemed beneficial to the afflicted one, so the mothers of Hull take their suffering children across the Humber to New Holland and back again. Some call it “crossing strange water.” Other people procure a “hairy worm,” and suspend it in a flannel cover round the neck of the sufferer, in the belief that as the creature dies and wastes away, so will the cough depart. This custom seems to be the relic of an old belief that something of the nature of a hairy caterpillar was the cause of the cough, and Mr. Tylor, in his Primitive Culture, speaks of the ancient homœopathic doctrine that what hurts will also cure. In Gloucestershire roasted mouse is considered a specific for whooping cough; though in Yorkshire the same diet cure is adopted for croup, while rat pie is the one to be used for whooping cough. The Norfolk peasants tie up a common house spider in a piece of muslin, and when the luckless long-legged spinner dies, the cough will soon disappear. A correspondent of Notes and Queries states that when staying in a village in Oxfordshire, he was informed by an old woman that she and her brothers were cured of whooping cough in the following way. They were required to go, the first thing in the morning, to a hovel at a little distance from their house, where a fox was kept. They carried with them a large can of milk, which was set down before the fox, and when he had taken as much as he cared to drink, the children shared among them what was left. The Aberdeen Evening Gazette of 24th August, 1882, tells of a curious superstition in Lochee:—

“Hooping-cough being rather prevalent in Lochee at the present time, various cures are resorted to with the view of allaying the distress. Amongst these the old ‘fret’ of passing a child beneath the belly of a donkey has come in for a share of patronage. A few days ago, two children living with their parents in Camperdown Street, were infected with the malady. A hawker’s cart, with a donkey yoked to it, happening to pass, the mothers thought this an excellent opportunity to have their little ones relieved of their hacking cough. The donkey was accordingly stopped, the children were brought forth, and the ceremony began. The mothers, stationed at either side of the donkey, passed and repassed the little creatures underneath the animal’s belly, and with evident satisfaction appeared to think that a cure would in all probability be effected. Nor was this all; a piece of bread was next given to the donkey to eat, one of the women holding her apron beneath its mouth to catch the crumbs which might fall. These were given to the children to eat, so as to make the cure effectual. Whether these strange proceedings have resulted in banishing the dreaded cough or not, has not been ascertained, and probably never will be. A few years ago, the custom was quite common in this quarter, but with the spread of education the people generally know better than to attempt to cure hooping-cough through the agency of a donkey.”

The North British Mail for 20th March 1883, among other superstitions in Tiree, says, “On the west side of the island there is a rock with a hole in it, through which children are passed when suffering from whooping-cough or other complaints.”

It is a common belief that if you wash your hands in water in which eggs have been boiled, warts will make their appearance; also, that the blood of a wart will cause other warts. Anyhow, if the warts be there, they can either be cured or charmed away. The writer once had a row of warts, thirteen in number, on his left arm. He was told by an aged dame, who sat on a three-legged stool before her cottage door, smoking a short black pipe, to take thirteen bad peas, throw them over his left shoulder, never heeding where they went, all the while repeating some incantation, which has been forgotten.

Cures are effected by rubbing the warts with something, which is afterwards allowed to decay. Some rub the warts with a grey snail or slug, and then impale the poor creature on a thorn; others steal a bit of beef, not so much as Taffy made off with, rub the beef on the warts, and then bury the beef. Lord Bacon, in his Natural History, says:—“I had from my childhood a wart upon one of my fingers; afterwards, when I was about sixteen years old, being then at Paris, there grew upon both my hands a number of warts, at the least an hundred in a month’s space. The English Ambassador’s lady, who was a woman far from superstitious, told me one day she would help me away with my warts: whereupon she got a piece of lard with the skin on, and rubbed the warts all over with the fat side; and among the rest, the wart which I had from my childhood; then she nailed the piece of lard, with the fat towards the sun, upon a post of her chamber window, which was to the south. The success was, that within five weeks’ space all the warts went quite away; and that wart which I had so long endured, for company.... They say the like is done by the rubbing of warts with a green elder stick, and then burying the stick to rot in muck.”

In Withal’s Dictionary (1608) there is the following couplet:—

“The bone of a haire’s foot closed in a ring,
Will drive away the cramp whenas it doth wing,”

but Pepys, who tells us the whole of his experience, with comments thereon, used a hare’s foot as a charm for colic. He says:—(20 Jan. 1664-5) “Homeward, in my way buying a hare and taking it home, which arose upon my discourse to-day with Mr. Batten in Westminster Hall, who showed me my mistake, that my hare’s foot hath not the joynt in it, and assures me he never had the cholique since he carried it about him; and it is a strange thing how fancy works, for I no sooner handled his foot but I became very well, and so continue.”

(22nd.) “Now mighty well, and truly I can but impute it to my fresh hare’s foot.”

(March 26) “Now I am at a loss to know whether it be my hare’s foot which is my preservation; for I never had a fit of collique since I wore it, or whether it be my taking a pill of turpentine every morning.”

The following newspaper cutting from the Boston Herald, 7th February, 1837, is worth preserving:—

“Nothing could be more absurd than the notions regarding some of these supposed cures; a ring made of a hinge of a coffin had the power of relieving cramps, which were also mitigated by having a rusty old sword hanging up by the bedside. Nails driven in an oak tree prevented the toothache. A halter that had served in hanging a criminal was an infallible remedy for a head-ache when tied round the head; this affection was equally cured by the moss growing upon the human skull taken as cephalic snuff dried and pulverised. A dead man’s hand could dissipate tumours of the glands, by stroking the part nine times; but the hand of a man who had been cut down from the gallows was the most efficacious. The chips of a gallows on which several had been hanged, when worn in a bag round the neck would cure the ague. A stone with a hole in it, suspended at the head of a bed, would effectually stop the night-mare, hence it was called a hag-stone, as it prevents the troublesome witches from sitting upon the sleeper’s stomach. The same amulet, tied to the key of the stable door, deterred witches from riding horses over the country.”

Our forefathers firmly believed in planetary influence on the minds and bodies of men, and no operation could be performed on any part of the body unless the planet, ruling that particular part, were propitious. Rider’s British Merlin for 1715, places the name of some part of the body—face, neck, arms, breast, etc., opposite the days of the month, indicating that the influence of the planets on that day is favourable to that particular part or organ. An old proverb says:—

“Friday hair, Sunday horn,
You’ll go the devil afore Monday morn,”

shewing that these days were unlucky for clipping hair and cutting nails. The York Fabric Rolls tell us that Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday, was termed Shere Thursday, because “in olde faders dayes the people wold that day sheer theyr heddes and clype theyr berdes and poll theyr heedes and so make them honest ayenst Easter Day.” The same interesting volume gives the following account of charming away fevers:—

“1528. Bishopwilton. Isabel Mure presented. She took fier, and ij yong women wt hirr, and went to a rynnyng water, and light a wypse of straw and sett it on the water, and said thus, ‘Benedicite, se ye what I see. I se the fier burne, and water rynne and the gryse grew, and see flew and nyght fevers and all unkowth evils flee, and all other, God will,’ and after theis wordes said xv Pater Noster, xv Ave Maria and thre credes.”

The following is a reproduction of a receipt for Yellow Jonus (Jaundice) copied from an old book in my possession. “A quart of whine (wine), a penoth of Barbary barck, a penoth of Tormorch (Turmerich), a haporth of flour of Brimstone for Jonous.”