Popular Science Monthly/Volume 83/July 1913/Vulgar Species and Therapeutic Superstitions

1580007Popular Science Monthly Volume 83 July 1913 — Vulgar Species and Therapeutic Superstitions1913Max Kahn


By MAX KAHN, M.A., MD., Ph.D.


THE search for the cause of things and events exists since the appearance of man on the face of the earth. The inability to explain things reasonably and convincingly induced the thinkers of ancient times to use their imaginative faculties. The ancient explainers of natural phenomena were the poets.

The restless mind of man ever seeking a reason to account for the marvels presented to his senses adopts one theory after another, and the rejected explanations encumber the memory of nations as myths, the significance of which has been forgotten.[1]

The continual strife with the elements, the dreadful toils and dangers of man's life, the inclemency of nature—were all attributed to a perverse divinity or demon, who delighted to inflict pain and misery upon brief-lived mortals. Such a divinity needed worship and sacrifice to propitiate him. Humanity began to fear the devil before they imagined the god. The "earthworms" created the gods of goodness to protect themselves against the spirit of evil which they had incarnated.

With fear began superstition, which is based upon fear and ignorance. The desire to know the mysterious future has given rise to a great deal of the world's store of credulity in the supernatural. The ancient philosopher who desired to divine the future by means of geometrical figures, the pretty maiden who counts the petals of the daisy or dandelion to learn whether her lover will be constant, and the business man who allows the clairvoyant to pass on the lines of his hand—are the ordinary examples in life of the vain endeavor to raise the curtain that hides what is to be. Living beings fear death—a rational fear. In order to prolong life, the body is to be kept healthy, illnesses are to be avoided and, if disease does afflict an individual, the sickness is to be cured. This is all rational. But illnesses are almost inevitable in man's life, and diseases are not always cured or curable. Instead of combating disease logically, men of all classes drew upon their imagination and hashed various absurd means and methods of treating their ailments.

Coeval with the birth of superstition was the birth of magic. The charlatan who could unscrupulously play upon the feelings of his ignorant audience had quite a mighty following in every locality where human beings suffered and hoped. The establishment of the Roman Church in England did not cause the old Anglo-Saxons to abandon their ancient rites and ceremonies. The inhabitants still clung to the mysterious lore of the Druids, and were only able to attach themselves fully to the new belief by retaining quite a number of the heathen superstitions. Long after the coming of the Catholic missionaries to the British Isles, there throve in merrie England hundreds of magicians who were feared even more than the holy fathers. The ignorant person ever loves to compromise. He is never certain which god is the true god, and in order not to take chances, he sacrifices to more than one divinity, lest he be left in the lurch. Palmists, fortune tellers, necromancers, magicians, clairvoyants are always secure of a very comfortable livelihood, if they do but settle in those centers where ignorance abounds. For, indeed, they seem all omnipotent to the credulous mind. They can predict the future; they can prescribe for the patient when the learned physician has given up hope; they can sell love-philters; they can cast evil spells upon our enemies; they can give us an amulet which we can wear and be forever protected against fearful maladies; they can grant good luck, and tell us how to avoid dangers and pitfalls.

Above all, let us repeat, they can give us an amulet, or charm, to wear which will make us fearless of disease.

The selling of amulets by magicians is a very lucrative business even in the present day. Sometimes it is not the necromancer, but the church, which sells charms to its adherents. The word amulet has quite a variety of derivations from the Roman and Arabian tongues. Amulets were so called by the Latins because of their supposed efficacy in allaying evil; "amiletum quod malum amolitur." Some think that the word is derived from the Latin amula, which is a small vessel of lustral water carried about by the Romans. In the Arabian language, hamalet means that which is suspended."[2] Certain charms are supposed to be valid against all evils or ailments, others are efficacious only in certain specific instances.

People are afraid more often of an imaginary, possible misfortune than they are of the present state of infelicity. Joseph Addison says:

As if the natural calamities of life were not sufficient for it, we turn the most indifferent circumstances into misfortunes, and suffer as much from trifling accidents as from real evils. I have known the shooting of a star spoil a night's rest; and have seen a man in love grow pale, and lose his appetite, upon the plucking of a merry-thought. A screech-owl at midnight has alarmed a family more than a band of robbers; nay, the voice of a cricket hath struck more terror than the roaring of a lion. There is nothing so inconsiderable which may not appear dreadful to an imagination that is filled with omens and prognostics. A rusty nail or a crooked pin shoot up into prodigies.

I shall mention several curious charms or amulets that were prevalent in the various countries of the orient and Occident. Among the Chinese, iron nails which have been used in scaling up a coffin are considered quite efficacious in keeping away evil influences. They are carried in the pocket or are braided into the queue. Sometimes such a nail is beat out into a long rod or wire and is incased in silver. A large ring is then made of it to be worn on the ankles or wrist of a boy till he is sixteen years old. Such a ring is often prepared for the use of a boy if he is an only son. Daughters wear such wristlets or anklets only a few years, or for even a shorter time.[3]

Galen mentions an amulet belonging to an Egyptian king, who is said to have lived 630 B.C. It was composed of a green jasper cut in the form of a dragon, and surrounded with rays. This was applied to strengthen the stomach and organs of digestion.

The Hebrews have quite a variety of amulets or charms, each of which has a specific virtue. In the middle ages, the quack necromancers did a thriving business among the Jews that had settled in Spain. Maimonides, the great physician, wrote vigorously against them.

Believe not in the magician or the necromancer; they do but blaspheme the name of God.[4]

Still many of the old superstitions have remained with the Jews. When a gentile physician goes into the lying-in room of the Hebrew woman he will notice placards on all the four walls, written in the ancient biblical tongue. These papers invoke the aid of the great angels for protection against the evil spirits that may attack either the newborn infant or the mother.

A mystic charm worn even at the present day bears the inscription Abracadabra. The word abra which is twice repeated in this amulet is derived from the initial letters of four Hebrew words: Ab, Ben, Ruach Acodesch, which signify Father, Son and Holy Ghost. During the times of the Crusades and for a long period afterwards, the very rich or the very noble carried about them, or kept hidden in a holy shrine, amulets made from a piece of wood from the true cross. As somebody has well said,

A grove of a hundred oaks would not have furnished all the wood sold in little morsels as remnants of the true cross; and the tears of Mary, if collected together, would have filled a very large cistern.[5]

Sometimes the charms worn were not so harmless, and had no sentimentality or mystery to grant them fascinating potence. Very frequently, horrifying things and repulsive substances were carried about to ward off illness. In Egypt[6] the finger of a Christian or Jew, cut off a corpse and dried, is suspended from the neck and is reputed to have the powers of an amulet. In Flanders, a sick person imprisons a spider between two walnut shells and wears it around his neck.[7]

There were also specific amulets in circulation. For every ailment or unhappiness there was obtainable in the market of the necromancers, a charm which was supposed to have a certain beneficial influence for the affliction. Guttierez, a Spanish physician, who wrote a book on "Fascination" in the year 1653, states that children of that country wore amulets against the evil eye. In case a person who had the evil eye should gaze upon a child wearing this stone-charm, the vicious influence of the gaze will be attracted by the stone which will then crack.[8] For epilepsy there was in circulation a charm which had this inscription:

Jasper brings myrrh, and Melchior incense brings,
And gold Balthazar to the King of Kings;
Whoso the names of these three monarchs bears,
Is safe, through grace, of epilepsy's fears.

For convulsions, as another example, they used to wear a necklace of beads from the root of the peony. Pliny tells that for headache a remedy to be tried is the halter by which somebody has been recently hanged; this should be worn around the neck of the patient. In 1726, Philip, Earl of Chesterfield, wrote in great praise of the Goa Stone:

The Goa Stone is an admirable preparation of various ingredients; it is made by a Jesuit at Goa; it hath the same effects with the Lady Kent 's powder, but is much stronger; it is a sudorificke, and expels all poisons and humors in the blood; it is admirable in all feavours and agues; it drives out measles and small-pox.

There was a belief current in the middle ages that the cries of animals had each a significance. A very plausible arrangement of the cries was made by a certain anonymous genius. One must, however, be a scholar of Latin in order to understand what the animals were saying. Arranging the conversation of the beasts in the form of a dialogue, we have the following curious effect:

Cock: Christus natus est.
Duck: Quando, quando?
Raven: In hac nocte.
Cow: Ubi, ubi?
Lamb: Bethelem.

"Incredulity," said Ashmole, "is given the world as a punishment." It is no wonder then that human beings in order to avoid this penalty, believed all that was told them, and relied upon others to grant them the same courtesy; and then acting upon this privilege or license, helped to burden the lore of the world with tales of absurdity and incongruity.

No natural exhalation in the sky,
No scope of Nature, no distempered day,
No common wind, no customed event,
But they will pluck away his natural cause,
And call them meteors, prodigies and signs.
Abortions, presages and tongues of heaven.

I shall endeavor to give a list of various specifics that were recommended long ago and are still in vogue wherever ignorance abounds. I am indebted to various authors of books on magic and superstition for various references to ancient customs. The excellent "Collectanea" of Vincent MacLean has saved me a great deal of trouble and labor in the looking up of old customs and credulities.

For every evil invented by the devil, God has created a remedy. The cure was not always known, because the ingredients of the medicine were very numerous and varied. In order to obtain the remedy in its full efficiency, the portions that made up the various concoctions were to be in exact proportion, otherwise the medicament would prove futile. The numberless combinations possible were to be tried out, and those that proved beneficial were treasured. Certain localities did a roaring trade in the sale of the specific for which it was noted. In the modern times the nostrum and patent-medicine has replaced these Meccas of healing, and the descendants of the ancient sufferers and believers are now helping to fill the coffers of the quacks.

As a method of curing himself, man has attempted to rid himself of his disease by transferring it to the stranger or the foe. In Germany a plaister from a sore may be left at a cross-way to transfer the disease to a passer-by. "I am told on medical authority," writes a certain author,[9] "that the bunches of flowers which children offer to travelers in southern Europe are sometimes intended for the ungracious purpose of sending some disease away from their houses." The contagiousness of ailments were known in olden times, and this desire to cure themselves by transferring the malady to somebody else was often the cause for the outbreak of violent epidemics in the whole neighborhood. Sometimes, instead of passing off the sickness to a human being, they attempted to give it to some animals, and thus rid themselves of the affection. A child that was suffering from scarlet fever was treated by taking some of the hair of the patient and giving it, concealed in the food, to an ass, which was to contract the fever and thus cure the patient. A similar procedure was in vogue for the treatment of measles; the hair from the nape of the neck of the child was given to a dog. A patient that had rickets was passed over the back and under the belly of a donkey nine times, uttering no word but the successive numbers. The good-women advised anybody that had convulsions or fits to try this simple remedy: Every morning while fasting, the subject is to chew a piece of grass and give it to a jay to eat; when the bird dies, the cure ensues.

In northern Europe the fays, or fairies, were vested with the dreaded power of inflicting disease. Fairies were supposed to be evil spirits which might be propitiated by giving them a gracious appelation.

By giving diseases and other evils a good name when speaking of them, the danger of bringing them upon oneself by his words, is turned away. For this reason, fairies were called Eumenides by the ancients, and "good people" by the Celts.[10]

Morier[11] mentions a general superstition which he found also in Persia that to relieve disease or accident the patient has only to deposit a rag on a certain bush, and from the same spot take another which has been previously left from the same motives by a former sufferer.

There are certain minor ailments which even in the present day, the experienced grandmother thinks herself quite as capable of administering to as the most respected doctor. In olden times children suffering from skin eruptions or from general ill-health were taken to certain ancient dames, who, by means of incantations and exorcism, were able to drive out the devil from the body of the child.

In the small villages of Russia when a child is suffering from a cutaneous disease of the face, it is taken to an "old woman" who mumbles some words and spits several times into the mouth of the child.[12]

Incantations were one of the strongest weapons of defense against all the maladies. A person afflicted with ring worms, for example, takes a little ashes between the forefinger and thumb on three successive mornings, and, before having taken any food, holds the ashes to the part affected and says:

Ringworm, ringworm red. Never may'st thou either spread or speed; But aye grow less and less, And die away among the ase.[13]

After scalding oneself, instead of giving way to vigorous profanity, or counting up to one hundred, as Benjamin Franklin suggested, the custom was to blow upon the injured part and repeat:

There was two angels came from the North,
One brought fire and the other brought frost;
Out fire, in frost.
In the name of Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

There is a fashion even now among the lesser civilized folks to mention the name of a saint or of a divinity, or say something "good" when they see somebody sneezing or yawning. In Scotland, they say to one who sneezes, "Saint Columba be with you." The Jews say, "God give you health." When a child yawns, the nurse must say: "Your weariness and heaviness be on yonder gray stone." The Jews have a custom of giving a new name to a person who is in very bad health. The superstition underlying this is the belief that the Angel of Death is instructed to slay a certain person with a certain particular name. If, however, the name is changed, the angel will be unable to identify the sick man, and death will be thus robbed, for a time at least, of its victim. Among the Celts they give a road name (Ainm Rothard) to the person who is ill; it was given upon the luck (Air sealbhaich) of the person met.

Contagious diseases had quite a variety of treatment in each case. Joubert,[14] speaking of the transmissibility of illnesses, says:

D'ou vient qu'une maladie contagieuse se prend plustost d'un vieux a un jeune qu'au contraire. . . . S'il vray que L'argent ne donnent on apportent jamais la peste.

The ordinary affections of childhood were treated by incantations and exorcisms, or by endeavoring to transfer the disease to the lower animals. For such a disease as smallpox, which counted its victims by the thousands every year, curious medicaments were recommended. Sheep's dung or trickings[15] were administered to such patients. Another procedure was to wrap the patient in a scarlet cloth.

The Chinese make their children wear paper masks on the last night of the year to prevent the god of small-pox from "pouring it out" on them, as he is supposed to attack only pretty children, and thus disfigured they will pass by.[16]

For erysipelas they suggested chantings of witches; but this was not always to be obtained for either love nor money, for the church was quite stringent in its warfare against these old women who rode on broom-sticks and had communion with the devil. In cases where the songs of the "weird women" were not to be heard, several medleys were suggested. The ashes of a woman's hair mixed with the fat of a swine were to be locally applied; or else one half of the ear of a cat was to be cut off and the blood allowed to drop upon the part affected. A less odious procedure and one which has a little sentimentality with it was to rub the ailing part with a golden wedding ring.

The king's evil, or scrofula, was supposed to be curable by the touch of the ruler of England. Dr. Samuel Johnson, in his childhood days, was taken by his father to Queen Anne, in order to cure the child of the malady which affected him. The first king to introduce the king's touch into England was James I. Shakespeare has an allusion to the healing powers of this king in "Macbeth":

Strangely visited people,
All swollen and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,
The mere despair of surgery, he cures,
Hanging a golden stamp upon their necks,
Put on with holy prayers.

—"Macbeth," Act IV., Scene 3, line 150.

The cure of Naaman, who seems to have suffered from this disease, by the prophet Elisha (Kings, II., 5) was accomplished by advising the great general to bathe in a certain river. A very delightful cure must have been the one mentioned by Soane.[17] A person suffering from scrofula was to kiss seven virgins, daughters of the same mother, for seven days consecutively. Another remedy, less esthetic than the one just mentioned, was to tie a toad's leg around the part affected.

The great evils of cholera, black death or plague, had very many superstitious beliefs as the basis for their cure or avoidance. The condition of affairs caused by one of these dreaded diseases can be appreciated by perusing Daniel Defoe's description of the state of things before and after the fire of London. In Morocco, as a prophylactic procedure, the priests advise the people to avoid sandhills, and to keep close to the walls to avoid the evil spirits.[18] As a charm against cholera, the Japanese hang a bunch of onions or a leaf of kiri, or a rag monkey in front of their house doors.[19] In some parts of Russia, when the approach of cholera is feared, all the village maidens gather together at night, in the usual toilet of the hour, and walk in procession around their village; one girl walking ahead with an Icon, the rest following with a plow.[20]

For consumption, the white plague, which even now demands a heavy toll of human life annually, the people had very many home remedies, which probably did very little remedying. The specifics that were in vogue were rather empiric, to say the least, and sometimes altogether disgusting. To live at a butcher's shop, to suck healthy person's blood, to sleep over a cow-house, to inhale the smoke of a limekiln, to pass through a flock of sheep leaving the fold in the morning, to feed on a large whiteshelled snail, to eat muggons or mugwort—all of these were current medicaments in various localities. Children who had tuberculosis were allowed to lie over night at a certain well, named in honor of a certain saint. In order to prevent the spread of this malady in the household, they buried the corpse with the face downward.

In hectic and consumptive diseases, they pare the nails of the patient, put these parings into a rag cut from his clothes, then wave their hand with the rag thrice around his head, crying "Deas Soil," after which they bury the rag in some unknown place.

Leprosy was an affliction sent as a punishment of God, according to the beliefs of the ancients. Persons suffering from this illness were driven from the community and were compelled to go about masked, and to cry "Unclean, unclean" upon the approach of a non-leprous individual. Undoubtedly much that was called leprosy in the olden times was in reality syphilis. For a dreadful disease, a dreadful remedy was advised, and surely in those days of slavery the remedy was quite feasible for any one who was able to afford the several coins that a human life cost.

It was anciently believed that a bath made of the blood of infants will cure leprosy, and heal the flesh already petrified.

A sore throat was sometimes treated by a very unpleasant method. The sole of a stocking that had been worn for several days, was taken warm from the foot and tied about the neck of the patient. Sailors who suffer from soreness of the throat, take a raw salt herring with the bone taken out and apply it to the neck, tying a handkerchief over it and keeping it on all night.[21]

Before the discovery of the healing properties of quinine, malaria had perhaps more victims than the other severe sicknesses. At the present time, in the less civilized portions of the globe, they still apply to the magician for a cure for the ague. The chips of gallows and places of execution were thought especially efficacious, and lacking these, the branch of a maiden ash freshly cut from the tree or the water from a church font were used. Certain charms were carried about by those who feared an attack of the fever. A handful of groundsel worn on the bare breast, or else an especially blessed amulet with the inscription of the name of God upon it were suspended from the neck of persons who lived in malaria-infested neighborhoods.

Bring him but a tablet of lead with crosses (and Adonai or Elohim written on it) he thinks it will heal the ague.[22]

Another charm was prepared after the following directions: Peg a lock of hair into an oak tree and then wrench it out. As internal medication, quacks recommend pills made from pitch, or a pill made by rolling up a spider in dough and taking it several times daily; another usage was to take a spider and rub it up alive in butter and then eat the mixture, or else eat while fasting seven sage leaves seven days running. As a barometer, so to speak, of malaria, the people shut up a spider in a box "and as it languishes and dies, so will the ague."[23] Joubert,[24] speaking of the ague, said:

Est il vray que le fievre quarte s'en va par exces on yoronguerie et qu'elle ne fait jamais sonner campane; et qu'un home en est plus sain toute la rest de sa vie.

Not a very profitable transaction to one of the persons concerned is the following "Worcestershire superstition:[25]

Go to a grafter of trees and tell him your complaint. You must not give him any money or there will be no cure. You go home and in your absence the grafter cuts the first branch of a maiden ash, and the cure takes place instantly on cutting the branch from the tree.

A writer of the sixteenth century in England says:

Tench are good plasters but bad nourishment; for, being laied on the soles of the feet, they often draw away the ague.[26]

An incantation which was to be chanted by the oldest female in the family on Saint Agnes' Eve ran as follows:[27]

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

Epilepsy, the falling sickness, was ever regarded with superstitious dread. For this disease special amulets were worn. The emerald was supposed to possess the power of hindering an attack, or it would break into fragments. Another charm was a ring made of seven six-pences collected from seven maidens from seven parishes. Still others were: Hair plucked from the cross of an ass's shoulder, woven into a chain and worn; nine pieces of silver and nine three half pence collected from as many unmarried persons of the opposite sex—a ring was made from the silver and the cost of making was paid by the copper coins. In France they hung about the child's neck, as Brâssieres relates, "un tuyau de plume d'oie fermé aux deux exiremités et dans lequel est intoduit de mercure liquid." A broth made in the skull of a dead person; lion's hair chopped up and eaten with milk; three drops of a sow's milk; toadstools fresh and small; the juice of the bracken fern squeezed out when the stem is newly cut across; the fresh blood from a decapitated criminal; a poultice of groundsel applied to the pit of the stomach to set up vomiting—were all used in the various countries of Europe. A procedure, somewhat cruel, was to take a live mole, cut off its nose, and let nine drops of blood fall upon a piece of sugar, which was then to be given to the child. In certain of the village parishes, the epileptic was advised to go into a church at midnight, and to walk three times around the communion table.

The daily cramps and aches and unpleasantnesses that are found in all families had their specific remedies. The usual belly-ache attack passes without the use of any medical agent, and will, in the very great majority of cases, pass in spite of any medicament. The layman, however, suffers with aches, takes a reputed remedy, gets well, and firmly believes that it was the special mixture that he had taken which had cured him. For example, they applied in Germany a special concoction recommended by Dr. Christopher Guarnonius of the court of Rudolph II. of Bavaria (1576-1612). It is rather interesting to know how many people were able to obtain this remedy:

The moss that had grown on the skull of a thief 2 ounces
Man's grease 2 ounces
Grease of Mummy 1/2 ounce
Man 's blood 1/2 ounce
Linseed oil 2 ounces
Oil of roses 1 ounce
Sole armoniack 1 ounce
Mix well and apply locally.

For blows, wound and sores in children, the kissing of the injured part was supposed to be efficacious. The ordinary intestinal colic had quite a number of "specifics" for it. One cure which must have been quite difficult of accomplishment, except by the professional clown, was to stand on one's head for a quarter of an hour.[28] Perhaps after the exertion of standing upon one's head not only the colic but more painful diseases might have been cured. Persons who were liable to the attacks of colicky pains sometimes carried about with them wolf's dung. In his "Diary," Pepy speaks about carrying about oneself a hare's foot. Pepy also gives a prescription, which I shall here repeat:

Balsam of sulphur 3 or 4 drops in a syrup of Coltesfotte, not eating or drinking two hours before or after. The making of this balsam was as follows: "two thirds of fine oyle, and one third of fine Brimstone, sett thirteen or fourteen hours on ye fire, simpering till a thicke stuffe lyes at ye Bottome, and ye Balsom at ye toppe. Take this off, etc.

For cramps they used coffin rings dug out of a grave, bone of hare's foot, the patella of a sheep or lamb, or the tying of a thread around the limb below the thigh. It was also thought that if a rusty old sword were hung near the bed, or if the shoes be placed T-or X-wise over the bed, or if a pan of clean water were kept under the bed, the cramp would leave the patient.

Brimstone and vervain are no honey yet bind them to thine hand and thou shalt have the cramp.[29]

Eating buns or bread baked on Good Friday was supposed to cure diarrhœa.[30]

Besides the cross bun, a small loaf of bread baked on Good Friday morning and carefully preserved as a medicine is good for diarrhœa. It is considered that a little of the Good Friday loaf grated into a proper proportion of water is an infallible remedy for this complaint.

Joubert says:

Des amellittes avec toile d'araigne contre le mal de ventre qu'ont les enfants.

Another article of diet which the loose-boweled were advised to eat was the first rib of salted roast beef. A more vulgar procedure was to sleep with puppies for several nights until cured of this ailment.

In children, or for that matter in adults, incontinence of water was treated rather quaintly. It was the custom to give to a child who suffered with this defect three roasted mice.

The mouse, being roasted is good to be given to children. . . in their bed; to help them furder, it will dry up the fome and spattle in their mouthes.[31]

Numberless as are the aches that afflict the human being so numerous are the remedies which purport to cure these ailments. For the general aches and pains of muscles, "the laying under your pillow for nine nights a crooked six-pence that has belonged to three young men of the name of John"[32] will cause relief. Sweating was good for the usual muscular aches.[33]

For I do sweat already, and I'll sweat more;
'Tis good they say to cure the aches.

For the household toothache, it was the custom in Shropshire to apply the amputated foot of a live mole (oont). For intestinal worms, a live trout was laid on the stomach of the patient, and the water in which earthworms had been boiled was taken internally as a broth.

Boils and abscesses were poulticed for three days and nights, and the bandages were then deposited in the coffin of one awaiting for burial.[34] These patients were also advised "to creep under a bramble that had taken second root at the branch end, moving on the hands and knees." Another procedure which Diaxe speaks about is "walking around six, and crawling three times across the grave of one of the opposite sex on a dark night following the interment "—a rather shivery experience! For a carbuncle:

On advertit ceux qui ont carboncle de ne passer l'eau, sur pont ou sur bateau, ne en sorte que ce soit[35]

A special amulet worn by nursing women to protect them against sore breasts was a heart-shaped medal made of the lead cut off the quarrels of a church window at midnight. Bleeding of the nose was prevented, so was it thought, by wearing a red ribbon around the neck, or by suspending from the neck a dead dried toad, or a large key. A lace given unasked and received without thanks from one of the opposite sex will sometimes stop epistaxis.

We see that a bone taken out from a carp's bead stauncheth blood, and so will none other part of the fish.[36]

Poisoning had and still has its superstitious treatment. The unicorn's horn was remedy for all poisons. The horn of a unicorn (the animal is not to be found classified in the modern books on zoology) was worth the price of half a city.[37] It is needless to say that this remedy was not within the reach of everybody, and less poetic remedies were used by the ordinary people. The quacks, however, made huge profits selling powdered unicorn's horn to the gullible public. It is more than a suspicion that the stuff sold was made from the horns of an ox or a ram. "Plain proof declares one poison to drive out another."[38] and they certainly gave dangerous medications to persons that were poisoned. If the patient did not succumb to the original draught, he had very good chances of dying as a result of the remedy.

For the bites of animals, many queer remedies were in vogue. A patient bitten by a dog used to eat the hair of this dog. A person stung by an adder was advised to kill the animal and apply some of its fat to the wound, or else to fry the adder and strike the place bitten with the hot flesh, or else to make an ointment from its liver and apply it locally (Noake).

'Tis true a scorpion's oil is said
To cure the wounds the vermin made.

The Boston Journal of Chemistry (1879) tells of a druggist from Texas who paid two hundred and fifty dollars for a "mad-stone" which had the powers to cure the bites of animals. A custom, which is practised by the Hottentots also, is to kill a chicken and to thrust the bitten part into the stomach of the bird, and there let it remain till the chicken becomes cold. If the flesh of the fowl becomes dark, a cure was supposed to have been affected; if not the poison had been absorbed by the person bitten.

To relieve deafness, they applied eels to the ears. For the cure of dropsy "all-flower water" was recommended. Another method for the treatment of dropsy is the one reported by Joubert:

Pisser durant neuf matins sur le marrube avant que le soleil L'ait touche et a mesure que la plant e mourra, le ventre se desenflera.

For the cure of rickets, they suggested sleeping on a bed of green bracken, or passing the child nine times through a holed stone against the sun. In Oxfordshire, they relieved heartache by giving the patient the last nine drops of tea from the tea-pot after the guests had been served.

Rheumatism and the joint pains were treated both by charms and by concoctions. To carry the forefoot of a hare, or a raw potato, or a horse chestnut in one's pocket ameliorated an attack of the severe pain that accompanies all Joint affections. Sailors when attacked by rheumatism wear a flannel shirt nine times dyed. The landlubber has to be satisfied with sleeping on a hop pillow, or leaning for one night against the bellows.

Common nostoc, commonly called star-jelly, a trembling gelatinous fungus that springs up suddenly after rain, is by superstitious persons believed to possess virtue as a vulnerary and in pains of joints.[39]

Walking in fields on Friday before sunrise was advised to patients suffering with gout. Pliny says:

Podagras mitigati pede leporis viventis absciso si quis secum assidue habeat.

Dropping of excreted water upon the feet, or applying the lodestone were thought of benefit in this disease.

D'ou vient que les chapons sont plus et plustot gouteux que le coqs si la castration est remedy d la goutte.

For billiousness and jaundice, quite a number of the most disgusting mixtures were used. Lice seem to have been quite a current specific for this affection; lice served in all manners and form, and in all ways of preparation. Nine lice to be eaten on a slice of bread and butter;[40] or else nine lice swallowed alive,[41] were two of the most conventional ways of taking this medicine. Poor, dirty communities need never complain of jaundice, for they always have the wherewithal to cure it.

Die of jaundice, yet have the cure about you!—lice, large lice, begot of your own dust and the heat of brick kilns.[42]

Goose dung made into pills and eaten several times a day was another very tasteful medicament, which was especially in style in Staffordshire. In Franche Comte, hawkweed and carrots are still considered specifics for jaundice. A more convincing recipe is the one recommended by Graham:[43]

Raw eggs eaten two at rising, fasting, and one every four hours during the day at times when the stomach is empty. Prohatum est.

Fall to your cheese-cakes, curds, and clouted cream,
Your fool, your flaunes, and swill of ale a stream
To wash it from your livers.[44]

Cancer, it was vaguely believed in certain portions of the world, was due to the growth of a toad-like body in the human organism. The first thing that was, therefore, applied to a cancerous surface was a dried toad. The doctors recommended the following composition: To a yolk of an egg add salt, then make a salve and apply. A prescription which was given to Pope Clement VII. to relieve his carcinoma (I believe) read as follows:

Take of
Cinnamon 10 ounces
Ginger  5 ounces
Zedoary  4 ounces
Nutmeg  3 ounces
Elder root  2 ounces
Calamus  1 ounce
Dissolve in a decoction of lemon juice mixed with wine.
Take a half pint before meals in the time when the moon is in Cancer, Leo or Virgo.

Brâssieres, speaking about the errors of medicine, relates the following procedure for the treatment of cancer:

Chacun connait ce vieux prejuge que l'on ne rencontre plus que chez de pauvres femmes du siècle dernier. Atteintes de cancer, elle nourissent avec soin, pour ne pas en etre devoreés ce pretendu animal, en appliquant tons les matins sur leur plaies une tranche fraiche de veau.[45]

For the treatment of urinary lithiasis, very many curious means were in use in the middle ages. Goat's urine was recommended by all the Arabian physicians to be taken internally. The Talmud mentions quite a remarkable cure for the kidney or bladder stone. Baas speaks of this method in a very bitter way, but it is no more vulgar than many similar customs in different countries. Baas's "History of Medicine" is rather unfair and partial in its treatment of Hebrew contributions to medical knowledge. The method to which I am referring was cited in another paper by me on the history of the lithotomy operation.[46]

A bone from the head of a carp is said to be good for apoplexy or the falling sickness.[47]

All flower water was given to patients suffering with asthma. This "all-flower water" was called urina vaccæ. Patients complaining of chorea were usually taken to one of the holy shrines where remarkable cures were said to be performed. Lourdes in France still boasts of the survival of this ancient custom. Emile Zola in his masterly novel, bearing the name of this city, vividly describes how the sick and suffering from all parts of France come to this town and expect complete restoration to normal health.

The next is Vitus sodde in Oyle, before whose ymage faire,
Both men and women bringing hennes for offering do repair;
The cause whereof I do not know, I think for some disease
Which he is thought to drive away from such as him do please.[48]

For shingles, herpes zoster, there was practised the following cure: The patient was taken to running water, where seven rushes were picked and were laid across the affected part; the rushes were then thrown into the stream. This was repeated on three consecutive days. "Cataplasme de chair de vautour avec les vifs" was applied locally to hareskin disease.[49] Si poter foureure et plumes de Vautour sur L'estomac luy pent servir en quelque chose?[50]

Procreative disease was, of course, more inviting to quack remedies than any other ailment of any other part of the body. The richest quacks and those that do the most flourishing business, are those charlatans who pretend to cure the sexual illnesses. I shall not discuss the remedies for all genital disorders. Sterility, however, presents very interesting points, and I shall just briefly give some of the ancient customs that were common for the treatment of this "deficiency." In all countries, nulliparous women traveled to holy places and prayed in the churches of the holy saints to grant them issue. At Jarrow, in England, brides sit themselves in the chair of the Venerable Bede. The old English dramatist, Heywood,[51] relates of the traveling to holy shrines of sterile women in order to become fruitful.

Another miracle eke I shall you say
Of a woman which that many a day
Had been wedded, and in all that season
She had no child, neither daughter nor son,
Wherefore to St. Modwyn she went on a pilgrimage,
And offered there a live pig, as is the usage
Of the wives that in London dwell.

In Egypt and other semi-civilized countries, the women who desire to become pregnant, pass several times silently under the corpses that hang on the gallows, or else they bathe in the dirtiest puddles where carrions and carcasses of dead animals abound.

Juvenal[52] says in one of his satires:

Steriles moriuntur, et illis Turgida non prodest condita pyxide Lyde.

Another Latin writer states:

Credebant antiqui mulierem sterilem concipere posse, si pyxide araneam inclusam gestit in sinu.

Sage and salts were the ordinary ingredients of the prescriptions which were given to women in order to cause them to become enceinte. On the other hand.

Gold dust is taken internally when to prevent offspring is desirable. Shot is swallowed with the same intention, and also scrapings from a rhinoceros horn.[53]

A little superstition seems to be a universal trait, but it is the excess of it which has caused so much harm and misery.

  1. 1.0 1.1 Baring-Gould, "Curious Myths of the Middle Ages," p. 151.
  2. William Jones, "Credulities Past and Present," London, 1898.
  3. Doolittle, "Social Life of the Chinese," II., 309.
  4. Maimonides, "More Nebbuchim."
  5. C. Mackay, "Memories of Extraordinary Popular Delusions," 1850.
  6. Lane, "Modern Egyptians."
  7. Chambers, "Book of Days," I., 372.
  8. T. H. Knowlson, "The Origin of Popular Superstitions."
  9. Tylor, "Primitive Culture," II., 137.
  10. J. G. Campbell, "Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Sootland," 1900.
  11. Morier, "First Journey through Persia," 1812, p. 230; and "Second Journey through Persia," 1818, p. 239.
  12. Kahn, "Biochemical Studies of Sulfocyanates," 1912.
  13. Ashes.
  14. Joubert—cited after MacLean's "Collectanea."
  15. Jackson, "Shropshire Folk Lore," 1883.
  16. Doolittle, "Social Life of the Chinese."
  17. Soane, "New Curiosities of Literature," I., 206.
  18. Leared, "Morocco."
  19. MacLean, "Collectanea."
  20. Pinkerton, "Russia."
  21. A. H. Markham, "A Whaling Cruise to Baffin's Bay," 1874, p. 253.
  22. T. Lodge, "Wit's Miserie," 1596.
  23. Northal, "Folk Phrases of Four Counties," 1894.
  24. L. Joubert, "Erreurs populaires," 1579.
  25. Noake, "Worcestershire Notes and Queries," 1856.
  26. J. Cains, "History of Animals," 1570.
  27. W. Hone, "Everyday Book," 1560.
  28. E. Hunt, "Popular Superstition," 1865.
  29. B. Melbancke, "Philotimus," 1583.
  30. G. F. Jackson, "Shropshire Folk Lore," 1883, p. 191.
  31. Bullein, "Bulwarke of Defence," 1562, p. 84.
  32. Mrs. Hannah More, "Tawny Rachel."
  33. Webster, "Cure for a Cuckold."
  34. T. Diaxe, "Bibliotheca Scholastica Instuctissima," 1633.
  35. L. Joubert, loc. cit.
  36. Scott, "Diseoverie of Witchcraft," XIII., p. 10.
  37. Dekker, "Gull's Hornbook," II.
  38. Grange, "Golden Aphroditis," III.
  39. Lindley, "Vegetable Kingdom," 1846.
  40. Narsnet, "A Declaration of Popish Impostures," 1603.
  41. Isaac Walton, "Complete Angler."
  42. Beaumont and Fletcher, "Thierry and Theodoret," V., 1,
  43. Graham, "Domestic Medicine."
  44. Ben Jonson, "Sad Shepherd," I., 7.
  45. A. F. E. Brâssieres, "Sur les Erreurs en Medicine," 1860.
  46. Kahn, "History of the Lithotomy Operation," Medical Record, 1912.
  47. J. Schroedems, "Zoology," 1659.
  48. Googe, "Popish Kingdom," 1570, p. 54.
  49. R. Cotgrave, "Dictionaire," 1611.
  50. P. Bailey, "Questiones Naturelles et Curieuses" 1628
  51. John Heywood, "A mery play of Johan, Tyb, and Sir Johan," 1533. p. 27.
  52. Juvenal, "Satires," II., 140.
  53. Leared, "Morocco and the Moors," p. 281.