Fiendish Cures

As long as we’ve opened up the old medicine cabinet, let’s talk about some of the fiendish cures of the past. Christi Phillips, author of The Devlin Diary, a haunting and mysterious tale set partially in 17th Century London, shares some of her favorites.

“Seventeenth century medicines were roughly divided up into two types: ‘simples,’ medicines of only one ingredient, or ‘compounds,’ which had numerous ingredients that might include herbs, flowers, bark, roots, insects, animal parts, metals, salts or minerals. Both simples and compounds could be made into syrups, powders, pills, oils, ointments or plasters. Most physicians prescribed a dizzying array of simples and compounds for any given complaint, along with emetics (medicines that induced vomiting), bleeding (the skill was in deciding where the patient should be bled from), and purging (by enemas or laxatives).

So—the answers are not quite so simple as one ‘ingredient’ for one disease—physicians and apothecaries would have been out of a job if it were so easy! There were so many things that a doctor had to consider: which of the humors was out of balance, whether the patient had been exposed to any “noxious vapors,” and, of course, the position of the planets, since the heavenly bodies regulated the humors and each part of the body, along with medicines and everything else on earth.”

Here are a few remedies plucked verbatim from Nicolas Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician, originally published in 1653. Everything in parentheses is Christi’s.

Parts of living creatures and excrements:

  • The liver of a Hedge-hog being dried and beaten into powder and drank (sic) in wine, strengthens the reins (the kidneys) exceedingly, and helps the dropsy, convulsions, and the falling sickness (epilepsy), together with all fluxes of the bowels.
  • The brain of Sparrows being eaten, provokes lust exceedingly.
  • Eels, being put into wine or beer, and suffered to die in it, he that drinks it will never endure that sort of liquor again. (That would certainly make a teetotaler out of me!)
  • Crab-fish, burnt to ashes, and a dram of it taken every morning helps the bitings of mad dogs, and all other venomous beasts.
  • The flesh of Vipers being eaten, clear the sight, help the vices of the nerves, and resist poison exceedingly.
  • The liver of a Frog, well dried (but not burned), helps quartan agues (fevers), or as the vulgar call them, third-day agues.”

And a few from “The Admirable Secrets of Physick and Chyrurgery” – Thomas Palmer, originally published in 1696:

(to cure the) Biting of Venomous Beasts:

  • First the Poison must be drawn out…take hens or Pigeons cut in the middle alive & apply hot to the wound for 6 or 8 hours. Apply to it a roasted Onion with Salt, or Pigeons dung, or hens dung, to draw out the remainder of the poison.
  • To prevent Serpents biting, take Juice of Radish roots & annoint the hands therewith & the smell thereof will not only cause them to forbear biting, but be ready to die though you take them up in your hands. (Guess he was worried about malpractice.)

(to cure) Cramp:

  • Every night when you goe to bed smell to your fingers after you have picked the stincking sweat that is between yor toes. This will help without fail for an ordinary cramp.

Madness. How cured

  • The Cure is at first by frequent bleeding in the left arm, foot, forehead, nose. Leeches applied behind the ears, or hemoroidial veins opened is good. Also use of Vomits. Also (its a great secret) the brains of a dogg be given boyled 3 mornings together.

About The Devlin Diary:

When handsome but venal Professor Derek Goodman is found slain clutching a page of a coded diary by 17th-century physician Hannah Devlin, Clare Donavan, a temporary lecturer at Cambridge’s Trinity College, and her sometimes boyfriend, Cambridge fellow Andrew Kent, set out to solve a mystery that takes these literary detectives and the reader back to 17th Century London. Scheming academics in this century and scheming courtiers in a century long past muddy the waters, quite literally at times, as Clare and Andrew untangle a web of intrigue. The historical detail is fascinating. Add well drawn characters that pack an emotional wallop, a circuitous plot that mystifies until the final denouement and you have a tremendous read.

—Erin Orison, DEAD LOVE/The Daily Slice