Slimbridge Dowsing


Medieval medicine & herbs with Adrianne Jones*


Would you stick a clove of garlic wrapped in sheep’s wool in your ear and leave it there for a week? According to Adrianne Jones, our speaker on 10th April, if you had earache 500 years ago, that was about the only treatment available to you. Blood-letting and leeches were the order of the day.

Wearing a red dress or ‘kirtle’ in the guise of Bronwen, a wise woman in mediaeval times, and with a display of pots, glasses and potions on the table in front of her, our speaker took us through a history of herbs to the present day.

Times were tough in the late 15th century, and life expectancy was a mere thirty years. Open drains spread disease. The water was not safe to drink, mead or ale a safer option. Bronwen would have worn soft leather shoes with wooden pattens, a clog-like shoe to raise the feet out of the mud. Socks to the knee were of cotton in summer, wool in winter.

Under their dresses, women wore a linen shift which would also be worn in bed. A laced bodice signified your station in life: laces straight across meant a good woman, laced crossways meant ill repute, hence the expression ‘straight-laced’. A wimple on her head left no hair showing, and later it became fashionable to have a very high forehead, so wealthy women would shave part of their hair line. She carried a small purse, a drawstring bag, and a knife for eating and cutting.

Adrianne address the audience

The Romans first introduced over 400 Mediterranean plants to our country during their occupation between AD 43–383, including fennel, hyssop, rosemary, lavender and stinging nettles. As well as their medicinal and herbal value, the sting could improve circulation before going to war, and you can make twine or weave a shirt from strong nettle fibre, though it would take 88 lbs of nettles to do so!

As the Romans departed, so the Anglo Saxons arrived and brought many superstitions with them, including a belief in elves, goblins, fairies and witches. A mixture of these superstitions caught on, and some still survive today.

Adrianne with instruments that would be used in the middle ages

At the same time, the Catholics insisted that illness was a punishment for past sins, so these beliefs and superstitions together made for a confused attitude towards herbal remedies, leading to the persecution of witches by the Church. The Witchcraft Act was passed in 1541 and only repealed in 1951, last invoked as recently as World War II.

Treatments could be as dangerous as the disease, and people often died of infections from dirty bandages, un-sterilised blades, or experiments with herbal treatments not right for the job.

By the end of the 15th century, men were able to go to University, study in Latin, and qualify as doctors. For those who could not afford them, untrained barbers became surgeons, and the pole you still see outside barbers’ shops today symbolises white for bandages and red for blood. And this is why surgeons are still referred to as 'Mr' today, which is a bit worrying.

In the 17th century a more scientific approach to the medicinal uses of herbs began. Many plants are still in use today, albeit in synthetic form. The pain-relieving properties of willow bark led to the development of aspirin; foxgloves provided digitalis for heart conditions; mandrake for anaesthetic. Juniper was burned to fumigate hospital wards during the First World War, and poppies brought us opium and cocaine (also still in use today!)

The 20th Century brought a feeling of antagonism towards herbal medicine, which is a bit sad since that is where it all began. Despite the best efforts of the EU to bring about a decline in their use, the opposite has happened and there is now a revival in the use of herbal medications. Natural remedies have their place.

Adrianne ended by quoting her favourite Chinese proverb. ‘If you only have two pennies, buy bread with one and a flower with the other. The first gives you life and the other a reason for living.’