This introduction to folk medicine was provided by my friend Dawn and was great fun during our Tudor project. However, I take no responsibility for anything you do based on this info!!!!! It is an archive post from 2003.
People over the centuries have used everyday plants for curing illnesses. Below are some of the plants that you will probably find in the kitchen, and what they were used for in history. This is not a specific ‘Tudor’ list so much as an ancient/medieval/worldwide one.
Cinnamon bark has been a highly prized spice for many years, sometimes more valuable than gold! Cinnamon is mentioned in the Bible and was used in ancient Egypt for embalming. The Crusaders bought cinnamon to western Europe as a food flavouring, then used it in medicines and for perfumes. It has been used to relieve tiredness, winter lethargy, melancholy and nervous problems and was also given to children when mumps first appeared. Cinnamon can be added to milk for a delicious flavour but was also added to dispel milk’s mucus-forming quality.
The word “honey” is derived from the Hebrew ghoneg, meaning delight. The Teutons of Europe would make a wine from honey and this would be drunk for 30 days after marriage – hence the word honeymoon. Until WW1 wounds would often be treated with honey to disinfect then and to aid the healing process. This is because honey is ‘hygroscopic’ – it draws water to it so it draws poisons out of infected wounds or ulcers. Honey is also used as a remedy for burns and mastitis. Rose honey was made from the juice of rose petals and was also given to the sick as a tonic.
Oats was a traditional remedy for children and adults to help aid sleep. A mattress would be stuffed with oat husks and sleeping on it was meant to guarantee a god nights sleep. People suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, constipation and gastritis would also use oats as a remedy. It has also been used to treat depression and nervous exhaustion. Oatmeal makes a wonderful facial scrub and is healing and soothing to sore and inflamed skin conditions.
The Romans used the lemon as an antidote to all poisins, but the fruit is more well known for its high vitamin C content. Lemons have an astringent action that stems bleeding, so it would be aplied by cotton wool to a bleeding nose and rubbed on the gums in the morning and at night. The lemon is a powerful antiseptic, stimulating the immune system and promoting sweating, so it would also be given to children and adults as a remedy for infections and fevers.
Potato is a traditional remedy for the heart and circulation. Russian folk medicine reccomends that all those over 40 should grate a medium sized raw potato and eat it daily before breakfast to keep the arteries clear. Doing this would aid the flow of blood to the heart. Again in Russia, small pieces of fresh potato would be inserted into a persons bottom bottom for quick relief from hemorrhoids! Raw potato juice and hot potato water would also be applied to the painful areas in gout, rhuematism and lumbago. A traditional remedy for high blood pressure would be to boil the skins of 4 – 5 potatoes in 1 pint of water for 15 minutes. You would drink the strained and cooled liquid daily.
The word “salt” has a sense of great value. The expression “worth his salt” comes from the Roman times when soldiers were paid in salt money. Salt was also highly prized by the ancient Greeks – Homer went so far as to call it divine. In medieval feasts, “inferior” guests sat below the midway point on the tables marked by a pot of salt. Only those above the salt were invited to savour its delights. A salt enema would be given to children to children to relive them of thread-worms. Salt is also used for sore throats, enlarged adenoids, inflamed gums and mouth ulcers using a weak salt solution (1tsp of salt in a glass of warm water) as a gargle or mouthwash – its cleansing and antiseptic action is believed to stop the growth of infection. At the onset of a cold the salt solution would also be used to clear the sinuses by drawing the salt solution through the nose.
Pepper was used as a remedy for infections, such as scarlet fever, dysentery, typhus, cholera, smallpox and the bubonic plague. It was also used to relive the swelling of arthritic joints. Pepper was considered so valuable that Attila the Hun demanded, among other things, more than a ton of it as a ransom for the city of Rome. In Roman times pepper was worth its weight in gold – literally. The Japanese added cayenne to remedies for infertility.
The ancient Greeks and Roman doctors used – and we continue to use – cayenne as a “hot” remedy to treat “cold” disorders, such as tiredness, colds, catarrh and for a weak digestion. Cayenne used to be placed in woolen socks to warm the feet on cold winter days.
Apples’ medicinal virtues have been recorded since the days of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. In Greek mythology the apple tasted like honey and healed all ailments. In folk medicine apples were used to treat: flu, fevers, bronchial complaints, heart problems, lethargy and anaemia; to decongest the nose and chest of mucus; and to speed recovery after an illness. All this seems to confirm the old saying: “To eat an apple going to bed, will make the doctor egg his beard.” Cooked apples were valued as a sedative to calm anxiety and promote helpful sleep. Grated raw apple was used as a poultice for bruised or sore eyes and applied to varicose veins.
Cabbage is one of the most highly esteemed remedies in medicinal folklore. The early Egyptians so revered it that they built a temple in its honour, while in ancient Rome cabbage was regarded as a cure-all. Cato the Censor said that it was thanks to cabbage that the Romans lived for six centuries without doctors! Pythagoras recommended a daily diet of raw cabbage to cure nervous disorders. It was also used by sailors to prevent scurvy. Raw cabbage was reputed to purify the blood and clear the skin, detoxify the liver, cure arthritis, headaches, hangovers and even dry out alcoholics!
For more than 4000 years, tea has been used as a medicine in China. The ancient Greeks called it “the divine leaf” and prescribed it for asthma, colds and bronchitis. The application of cold tea is an old remedy for burns and scalds, as well as swollen eyes. For this purpose it is still used today as a beauty treatment. Powdered tea was also used as a snuff to stop nosebleeds.
Carrots were first mentioned in writings by the ancient Greeks 2500 years ago. Hippocrates used carrots in his remedies in 430BC. A vital Russian folk remedy was fresh carrot juice mixed with honey and a little water. It was taken daily by the teaspoonful to cure colds and coughs and to ward off winter-time respiratory ailments.
The custom of bathing, both for cleansing and for health benefits, dates from very early times. bathrooms have been discovered among the ruins of ancient Egypt, and in Greece they date from around 1500BC. The Romans, renowned for their love of luxury, had hot water, steam, and cold baths, and used them as social centres for meeting friends and doing business. Around 1800, hydrotherapy was established in Europe for treating health problems. Charles Darwin remarked that a cold dip made his aches and pains disappear – later studies have confirmed that a short sharp shock benefits the immune system and circulation of the blood…