Medicine Through Time: Weird and (somewhat) wonderful

Historical medicine has the ability to delight and intrigue, especially when cures and remedies include things that seem a little odd to us today. From attempting to cure the bite of a mad dog to treating worms, there are also a lot of illnesses that we don’t often see today. While many may seem silly to us, at the time these remedies are consistent with medical understandings of the time. Purging is perhaps one of the most curious remedies to illness. Purgatives were a common remedy for most ailments. If the body’s humours were imbalanced the excess humours needed to be removed from the body. Purging was a key way to do this. By removing the toxic excess humours, it was believed the body would recover. The only thing it would definitely result in was dehydration and a lot of trips to the toilet!

When reading the recipes, be sure to note some of the ingredients. From a dog’s tongue to viper water, there are a few remedies you wouldn’t want to try. Some combinations are also a little strange. Mixing sherry with crushed snails is one such mixture. A lot are plants you can still find in your garden or local woods today, like scammony, comfrey and Saint John’s wort.

There are also a lot of complicated-sounding names for a number of ingredients. A few are quite disgusting. Isingglase or isinglass is the oil made from pressing a fish. Venice treacle is actually called theriac. It was an expensive cure all made up of various different plants and animals, most often snake flesh. You’ll see a lot of ingredients like adder’s tongue because it was believed snakes contained their own anti-venom. Dragon’s blood is actually a type of tree resin. Often used as a dye or pigment because of its rich colour, it was also used for curing stomach and chest problems.

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18th century, Leeds Temple Newsham Collection (WYL100/F8)
A receipt for the Bite of a mad Dogg
1 oz of Dragons Blood
1 ½ of Spannish Brown
5 oz of Box Leaves Brayden powder
Make a spoonful for three mornings fasting in Sum White Wine whence or in Warme ale fast three Hours after taken.
I Spoonful for man or woman
A less quantity for a Child
2 for a Hogg
2 for a Cow
19th century, Recipes collected by Anne Lister (SH:3/L/122)

Take 4 quarts of water [from] 2 Vipers
1 quart of Snails, wip’d and bruis’d
1 pound of harthorn shaving
A quarter of a pound of Eringoroot*
3 ounces of Isingglase*2
Boile all these together til it is but two quarts and strain it [through] a jelly cage with a pint of Sherry the juice of 6 Seville oranges and a quarter of a pound of brown sugar candy

This is a very great Restorative and you must take the quantity of a jelly glass in the morning and the same at night.
* root of sea holly, was widely candied and pickled
*2 type of oil/gelatin from fish, usually sturgeon
1772, A preservative against the plague (WYW1352/1/4/30/7)

Take three pints of Muscadine* and boyle them in one handful of Rue and one handful of Sage until one pint is wasted then draine it out and set it over the fire againe, and put there in one pennyworth of long pepper, half an ounce of ginger, and a quarter of an ounce of nutmegs all there well beaten together and let it boyle a little, then straine it again and put there in 4 penny worth of Mithrildate, two penny worth of treakel, halfe a pint of Angrillo water, either strong or small, which you like soft, take this every morning one spoonfull, if the party be sicke  take two spoonfulls morning and evening.
                                It hath been proved to be the best remedy against the pestilence, for it was never known that man, woman or child dyed of the sicknesse if they took this in time.
*a type of grape vine species