Monday, May 7, 2012

Cures for what ails ye

© 2011 Christy K Robinson  

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Woman bathing in a stream,
Some unpleasant medical and physical conditions, it seems, have been around forever. Many of them are preventable with hygiene practices, healthful eating practices, or knowing which products we can purchase at the supermarket or corner store like Walgreens, CVS, or Boots.

Twelve generations ago, all sorts of quack remedies were available to treat conditions we generally avoid by bathing, cleaning our teeth, eating wholesome, fresh foods, and drinking pure water. Immersion bathing probably wasn’t very common for city dwellers, and without many changes of clothing, the aromas must have been quite ripe at any time of the year. 

Because of the cost of consulting a physician, many with minor ailments benefited from the skills of an herbalist-healer or midwife. Depending on the spiritual climate, though, healers were sometimes accused as witches.

An array of potions and lotions that were considered cures for baldness, body odor, halitosis, and flatulence is chronicled in The Path-Way To Health. The book's subtitle reads: "Wherein are to be found most excellent and approved Medicines of great vertue, as also notable Potions and Drinks, with the Art of distilling divers precious Waters, for making of Oyls, and other comfortable Receit for the health of the body, never before printed."
This edition says 1654, but the original
edition would have been 1596.
These libraries carry the 228-page book.

The book’s intended market was the physician, but probably also the apothecary who supplied the ingredients: snail’s blood, arsenic, lye, bird eggshells, herbs, distilled and brewed alcohol, seeds, cats' dung, and oils.

The author, Peter Levens, a physician and surgeon, held an MA degree from Oxford University in England, as did Dr. John Clarke, the principal author of Rhode Island’s charters of liberties and a Baptist minister. (The Master’s degree would not have been in medicine. In Dr. Clarke’s case, it was in theology.) Dr. Clarke was a friend and neighbor of William and Mary Dyer in Portsmouth and Newport, Rhode Island, and was one month younger than William Dyer.

Peter Levens lived in the 16th century, obtaining his Bachelor’s degree at Oxford in 1556 (during Queen Mary’s bloody reign), his MA in 1559 (just after Elizabeth I ascended the throne), and then practicing medicine and teaching grammar school. The Path-Way to Health was published in 1596, 1608, 1632, 1644, 1654, and 1664. This medical journal was written in English at a time when all scholarly work was recorded in Latin. Levens believed that books written in unknown or difficult-to-understand languages hid knowledge from people, and those who hid such wisdom were guilty of “malice exceeding damnable and devillish.”

Dr. Clarke, who emigrated to Boston in 1637 and moved with the Hutchinsons and Dyers (and many others) to Rhode Island, returned to England from late 1652 to about 1664, where he was the Rhode Island agent or representative working for their interests, and where he practiced medicine in London. Three editions of Path-Way to Health were published during the times Dr. Clarke lived in England! It’s very likely that he would have known of, or possibly used, this journal. I wonder if he treated Newport families with these or other remedies from the book.
Visit of the Physician, by Gabriel Metsu, 1660s

Some of Path-Way’s suggested cures:

To cure baldness:
Take the ashes of Culver-dung [chicken dung] in Lye [potassium salts from ashes], and wash the head therewith.
Also, Walnut leaves beaten with Beares suet, restoreth the haire that is plucked away. Also, the leaves and middle rinde of an Oak sodden in water, and the head washed therewith, is very good for this purpose."

To take away haire in unwanted places:
Take the shels of two Egges, beat them small, and stil them with a good fire, and with that water annoynt the place; or else take hard Cats dung, dry it and beat it to powder, and temper it with strong Vineger, then wash the place with the same, where you would have no haire to grow.
Also, take the bloud of a Snaile without a shel, and it hindereth greatly the growing up of haire.
Also, take Labdanum [a sticky brown resin], the gum of a Ivie tree, Emmets Eggs, Arsenick and Vineger; and binde it to the place where you wil have no haire to grow.
Or boil Frankensence and Barrows grease into an ointment.

A remedy for louse nits:
Smear the scalp with the gall of a Calfe.

Where nails have been rent from the flesh:
A mixture of brimstone, arsnick and vinegar can ease pain.
Take Wheat flower, and mingle the same with Honey, and lay it to the nails, and it wil help them.

For stinking breath:
Wash the mouth out with water and vinegar, followed by a concoction of aniseed, mint and cloves sodden in wine.

For a stench under the armpits:
First, pluck away the haires of the arme holes, and wash them with white Wine and rosewater that cassialigna has been sodden in, and use it three or four times.

To help break wind in the belly [flatulence]:
Drink a mixture of cumin seeds, fennel seeds and aniseeds in wine three times a day.

For women with great bellies:
Take an handful of Isop, a handful of Herb-grace, a handful of Arsmart, and seethe all these herbs in a quart of Ale til it come to a pint, then preserve the same in a glass, and give the woman so grived a quarter of a pint at once, first in the morning and last at night.

For Womens paps [breasts] that arte rancled and be ful of ache:
Take Grounsel, and two times as much of Brouswort, and wash them both, and stamp them, and temper them with stale Ale, and straine it through a cloth, and give it to the Patient thereof first thing in the morning and last at night.
1517--Feldbuch diagram of blood-letting points.

Rules for Blood Letting:
The vein above the thumb is good against all fevers.
The vein between the thumb and the forefinger, let blood for the hot headache, for frenzy and madness of wit.
Also be ye always well advised, and wary, that ye let no blood, nor open no vein, except the Moon be either in Aries, Cancer, the first half of Libra, the last half of Scorpio, or in Sagittarius, Aquarius, or Pisces.

Hmmm, I wonder if the snail minded being “bled” outside of those prescribed times!

Most of us, even the back-to-natural-remedies folks, vegans, PETA supporters, and just plain squeamish (that would be me), give thanks for antiperspirant, moisturizer, Rogaine, tweezers or wax, antiseptic, mild soap and minty shampoo, analgesic burn ointments, Gax-X, toothpaste and breath fresheners. Not to mention hot showers any time we wish!


Christy K Robinson is author of these sites:  

and of these books:

·          We Shall Be Changed (2010)
·          Mary Dyer Illuminated (2013)
·          Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This (2014)
·          The Dyers of London, Boston, & Newport (2014)
·          Effigy Hunter (2015)
·          Anne Marbury Hutchinson: American Founding Mother (2018)

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