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Nettle Shirts and Cunning Women – herbal secrets of 17th century England

gentlewomans-manualI have loved researching 17th Century botany and herbs for my novels, The Lady’s Slipper and The Gilded Lily. For both of them I have had to research the botanical beliefs of a society that relied on native plants for a good many things, including medicine, cleaning agents, and home-manufactured goods such as cloth. One of my characters in The Lady’s Slipper is a “cunning woman”, a person skilled in folk medicine. She has no daughters and is looking for someone to whom she can hand down her vast store of knowledge. Remedies were passed down orally, and the plants used were readily and commonly available to a populace which was mostly illiterate. Because little was written about it, evidence of these remedies is most often to be found in kitchen manuals because cooking and medicine were so closely related.

The difference between folk medicine and the “official” medicine was largely that folk medicine used plants that occurred naturally in Britain and had not been brought over from abroad. Official medicine drew on metals, chemical compounds and herbs and spices imported from other countries, such as the Mediterranean or Arabia. Physicians could charge more for their exotic-sounding imports, which by the dint of their strangeness appeared to offer more appeal.

In the 17th century many Folk remedies were “simples”, ie a single species of plants used as a cure or palliative, whereas apothecaries mixed perhaps thirty or more of ingredients for their “treacles”. Venice treacle, given by Thomas Sydenham to Lady Sedley in 1686, contained more than seventy ingredients including: wormwood, orange peel, angelica, nutmeg, horseradish, scurvy grass, white horehound, centaury, camomile, and juniper berries. All infused in 5 pints of sack!

And what was this medicine for? A headache.

antique-herbal-print-elder-fennel-endive-culpeper-1790-e400797bb85ec9d8e148d53ae2034cfcServants probably made do with feverfew leaves, and were probably better off for it. So in one of my books the middle-class Thomas Ibbetson is given a ‘drench’ (Pouring a vast quantity of liquid medicine into the throat) which worsens rather than cures his condition. In the 17th century, the richer you were, the more likely you were to die of the treatment rather than the disease. Mercury and antimony were common remedies, as was copious blood-letting to release stagnant humours.

Seventeenth century herbalists such as Gerard, Pechy and the Puritan, Culpeper, were immensely influential in their day, and there was much cross-over between the medicinal and the domestic. For example Culpeper recommends the leaves of the Alder tree for burns, but also for attracting fleas. The leaves were strewed on the ground to attract the fleas, and then the whole lot could be swept out and disposed of. Culpeper’s Herbal is one of the few Seventeenth Century books still in print today.  I can also recommend Nicholas Woolley’s book about Culpeper, The Herbalist.

nettle-shirtNapier’s History of Herbal Healing says that nettles were used as a pot herb in the Spring, but also its fibres were used in weaving instead of flax, to make tablecloths, sheets and even shirts! Read this fascinating article about making a medieval nettle smock. It was used medicinally to treat anaemia and as a general tonic, and also to dye the hair as it produced an intense yellow dye. With interest in ‘green’ products today, nettle fibre is growing more common as a yarn for making clothes.

Along with the practical uses of plants was a vast body of mythological lore, both superstitious and religious. Ideas such as that making love under a Rowan Tree was a certain cure for infertility, were common. So the herbs themselves were used in a broad rather than a narrow context, embracing the physical, emotional and spiritual being of the user. Many people believed in the “doctrine of signatures” of Paracelsus. This suggests that each plant bears a physical sign, placed there by God, of what it should be used for. So the small bulbs of celandines should be used for piles, because that’s what they look like. Women with knowledge of these ideas were known as ‘cunning women’, and were consulted for a wide range of cures and for advice in childbirth and in the rutuals of ‘laying out’ after death.

the-ladys-slipper-ladys-slipper-orchidIn The Lady’s Slipper, Alice Ibbetson is an artist fascinated by painting wild-flowers, the lady’s slipper being a rare wildflower with both medicinal and poisonous properties. In The Gilded Lily the plants are used as a beauty aid by Ella Appleby, a serving maid who becomes obsessed with her appearance and the glitter and glamour of Regency London. Many seventeenth century beauty preparations involved common plants. One for a fair complexion is to “take wilde Tansy and lay it to soake in buttermilke.”

A version of this post first appeared on the Hoydens and Firebrands Blog.

the-lady-slipper-2d-final-design-quire-booksEXTRACT from The Lady’s Slipper , featuring Margaret Poulter – the cunning woman.

Margaret Poulter had lied to Alice. She was not exactly lodging at the Anchor. She could not afford to pay for a room. But the landlord turned a blind eye to the fact that she slept in the hayloft above the stables, and tolerated her peculiar comings and goings in exchange for remedies for his children. He had five children, all of whom suffered from one malady or another – mostly coughs and lice, from what Margaret could see.

After Margaret  left Alice in Netherbarrow, she took her time returning to the inn. This was her gathering time, like her mother and her grandmother before her. The world was one big apothecary’s shop to Margaret, and the source of a good living. She was stocking up; for in times of good health and plentiful harvests like these she was often poor and hungry, whereas at times of war or plague, or when harvests were thin, her draughts and remedies were needed. Then Margaret  grew fat and comfortable whilst others suffered famine and disease.

Daylight hours were for scouting along the hedgerows looking for anything useful, and watching out for signs or omens or shifts in the weather. The underlying web on which the world was hung might be moving or shifting. This was her way – to find out how the land lay – and she did this quite literally, through  her senses, sniffing, poking, tasting and fingering with her nut-brown  hands. Wherever she went she collected small observations  in the same way as she collected the ticks that stuck to her skirts.

She paused in her tracks, thinking of Mistress Ibbetson, and the lady’s slipper, for she was keenly aware that she had reached her autumn years and had not been blessed with a daughter whom she might instruct in the craft. She had been secretly keeping watch on Mistress Ibbetson since the last waning quarter-moon; her fame for painting beautiful life-like pictures of flowers had reached even as far as Preston, and Margaret’s sharp ears.

She might do, Margaret  thought. But these gifts could not be given lightly. No, she must be sure and certain Alice Ibbetson was the one, and judging by the look of her, even if she was, she would need some coaxing, and she would have much to learn.

Pictures from wikipedia unless linked.
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3 replies on “Nettle Shirts and Cunning Women – herbal secrets of 17th century England”

Excellent post! Culpeper’s herbal was one of the first books I found when I researched traditional medicine for my urban fantasy series, and I still reach for it for inspiration. Your excerpt from The Lady’s Slipper really caught my interest so off I go to buy it. Thanks for sharing!

Hi Emma, many thanks for your interest and for buying The Lady’s Slipper. I really hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed the research and the writing!

This was a fascinating post! I love botany and plant folklore, so it’s always really interesting to see what remedies people used before modern medicine…and how many of them continue to work! I still swear by peppermint oil for headaches!

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