Before modern medicine lay people and some physicians held the belief that transferring the ailment to another object could cure you of disease. Since antiquity, and well into the eighteenth century, people believed that men reflected aspects of the natural world. It was a dominant strategy that explained the mysteries beyond the ken of the science of the day.
A man in late seventeenth century Somerset claimed that his brother was cured of a rupture by being passed through a slit cut in a young ash tree, three times on three Monday mornings before dawn. When the tree was later cut down, his brother grew ill again.
To cure jaundice, you took the patient’s urine, mix it with ashes and make three equal balls. Put these before a fire, and when they dried out, the disease leaves and he’s cured. In Devon, to cure the quartan ague, you baked the patient’s urine into a cake, then fed the cake to a dog, who would take on the disease.
Even Richard Wiseman—a Barber Surgeon—who wrote Chirurgicall Treatises during the time of Charles II, believed to remove warts you rub them with a slice of beef, then bury the beef.
Color as well played a part in how health was viewed. “Yellow” remedies were used to cure jaundice: saffron, celandine with yellow flowers, turmeric, and lemon rind. John Wesley, who wrote Primitive Physick, in the mid-eighteenth century, suggested that sufferers of this illness wear celandine leaves under their feet.
Health was also governed by astrological explanations. Manuals intended for physicians and apothecaries included this “otherwordly” advice. Nicholas Culpeper detailed which herbs were presided over by which planets in his famous health text, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal. For example, if a headache was caused by the actions of Venus, then fleabane (an herb of Mars) would cure the malady.
However, the Vox Stellarum, the most popular almanac in the eighteenth century, took a more moderate view: “Men may be inclin’d but not compell’d to do good or evil by the influence of the stars.” Yet this same almanac, in 1740, listed which diseases were prevalent in certain months—a vestigial form of astrological medicine.
Thank goodness more enlightened physicians, such as brothers William (a leading anatomist and renown obstetrician) and John Hunter (one of the most distinguished scientists and surgeons of his day) in the eighteenth century, came along to bring medical thinking into the modern world. Though superstition among the lay people remained.
I delved into this research for a character, a young physician, in my still unpublished novel, Ring of Stone. Information taken from, Patients, Power, and the Poor in Eighteenth Century Bristol, by Mary E. Fissell, 1991.
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