Take the Head of a Black Sheep – Tudor Medicine at Home

Most people in the Tudor period lived in the countryside and unlike us, with our local GPs and ready access to Dr Google, they did not have doctors or apothecaries nearby, even if they could afford them. The bulk of everyday medical care took place within the home with the main practitioners the women of the household. They, in most cases, would have learnt their skills in making of herbal remedies, medicines and treatments from other women: mothers, grandmothers, aunts or other female family members. They would have exchanged remedies with family and friends as some of us still do: banana skins for warts; honey, lemon and vinegar for coughs; and raw Anzac biscuit mixture for constipation. Recipes would have been shared by word of mouth, though those who could write may have recorded them in personal notebooks. Unfortunately, unlike the 17th century few, if any, examples of women’s recipe books survive from this period. The best sources that allow us a glimpse of Tudor home medicine in action are printed books.

Herbals were available throughout the Tudor period. These books described a range of herbs and their uses and included information on the qualities of the herbs and when best to harvest them according to their nature and the alignment of the stars. They often credited individual herbs with the ability to affect remedies across a range of ailments. The grete herball of 1526 claimed that calendula/ marigold could both ‘provoke flowers in women that be staunched’ (bring on menstruation—this could be seen as a covert way of describing an abortifacient) and cure toothache. In the case of delayed menstruation, ‘The juice of this herb drunk or eaten with a raw egg and meal made in fritters putteth forth menstruation or/and comforteth the stomach’. ‘Against pain of the teeth put the juice in the nostrils and it will cease’ because, I suspect, the sufferer would be coughing and spluttering so much that he or she was no longer noticing the tooth pain.

Frontispiece of the The grete herball of 1526

A niewe herball of 1578 (John Gerard’s Great herball of 1597 incorporates much of this book) begins its entry on the marigold (pp.163-4) by saying that either marigold flowers or the plant itself, boiled in wine, will ‘provoke the menstrual flux’. Distilled water of marigold was also good for redness and inflammation of the eyes. No mention of tooth pain but the marigold was capable of so much more. A conserve made of the flowers of marigolds, taken in the morning on an empty stomach, ‘cureth the trembling and shaking of the heart’, as well as being ‘good to be used against the Plague, and corruption of the air’. Most herbs could assist with a range of disorders depending on how they were prepared. While later herbals listed the herbs alphabetically, A niewe herbal had an alphabetical list of aliments and conditions as an easy reference at the back of the book.

As the century progressed there were also books published simply listing medical conditions and methods of dealing with them with no mention of humours or the specific qualities of various herbs. Perhaps these were of most use to a busy housewife. A verye excellent and profitable booke (1568) provides recipes covering ailments from acne and deafness to wounds, scabs and scratches as well as worms, cancers and various symptoms of the ‘French disease’. This book offered multiple recipes for a single condition.

To remedy baldness of the head
Take a quantity of southernwood, and put it upon kindled coals to burn, and being made with powder, mix it with oil of radishes and anoint the bald place, and you shall see a great experience. (Book1, p.32)

To cause hair to grow
Take of malmsey, of children’s urine, and of cow’s milk, of each one pound, mix them in a limbeck, and draw out the water, with the which, washing the head, it causes the hair to grow. (Book 2, p.55)

To heal those which piss a bed
Take the bladder of a goat, or of a sheep, burn it upon a tile on the fire, and give the patient to drink with oil or vinegar; or else boil the testicles of a hare in good wine, and give him to drink of the same wine. It helpeth also to get him to drink before supper a little myrrh with wine, and anoint him under his yard with the dirt of a Smith’s mill. (Book 2, p.58)

To heal those that piss in their beds
Take the hoofs of a boar or tame hog and give the patient to drink therof in red wine or in broth. It helpeth also to take the tongues of three geese, and being roasted, to eat them. And also to give to drink being made in powder of snails found out of their shells in wine and you shall find that they will work a marvellous experience. (Book 3, p21)

Possibly, for those suffering from nocturnal bedwetting, the threat of treatment might be enough to cure the condition.

Some books clearly had a female audience in mind such as the eminently sensible The good huswifes jewell of 1587. This begins with the order of meats to be served at the table and their appropriate sauces, followed by for a range of foods including fowl, fish, meat, and various tarts and conserves. Finally, there is a series of recipes for ‘Approved Medicines for sundry diseases’ as well as instructions for a range of medicinal waters for both drinking and the washing of wounds.

For the shingles a remedy
Take Doves’ dirt that is moist, and of Barley meal heaped half a pound, and stamp them well together & do thereto half a pint of vinegar, and meddle them together, and so lay it to the sore cold; lay wall leaves thereupon, and so let it lie three days unremoved, and on the third day if need require, lay thereto a new plaster of the same, and at the most he shall be whole within three plasters. (p.50)

A suffering ointment for shrunken sinews and aches
Take eight swallows ready to fly out of the nest, drive away the breeders when you take them out, and let them not touch the earth, stamp them until the feathers cannot be perceived, put to it lavender cotten, of the strings of strawberies, the tops of mother [of] time, the tops of rosemary of each a handful, take all their weight of May butter, and aquar more, stamp all the feathers that nothing can be perceived, in a stone mortar; then make it up in bales, and put it into an earthen pot for eight days close stopped that no air take them, take it out, and on as soft fire as may be seethe it, so that it do but simmer, then strain it, and so reserve it to your use.(p.50)
This ointment was later know as ‘oil of swallows’ and was in use into the 18th century.

For all manner of sinews that are shortened
Take the head of a black sheep, camomile, laurel leaves, sage of each, a handful, and bruise these herbs in a mortar, then boil them all together in water till they be well sodden, and let them stand till that they be cold, then draw it through a strainer and so use it. (p.50)

For to make one slender
Take fennel, and seethe it in water, a very good quantity, and wring out the juice therof when it is sod, and drink it first and last, and it shall swage either him or her. (p.52)

The Widowes Treasure contains a wonderful collection of handy hints as well as medical advice and recipes. From confectionary, scented oils, dyes, syrups and cakes to a range of medicinal recipes.

Against drunkenness
Drink the juice of Yarrow fasting, or else the marrow of Pork fasting.
The entry gives no idea of whether this is to be taken before a drinking session to ward off drunkenness or afterwards as a cure.

To provoke sleep
Take a spoonful of womans milk, a spoonful of Rosewater, a spoonful of the juice of Lettuce, boil them in a dish then take some fine Flax and make your plaster as broad as you will have it lie on your forehead, and then moist it with the same Liquor, and grate a little Nutmeg to strew over it, and lay it on your temples and it will provoke sleep.

For an Ague
Take a handful of Hartshorn that groweth in the field, and a handful of Bay salt and lay it on your wrists.

For scabs in children
Oil of Roses, the weight of sixpence in common salt, and a little fresh Butter stirred altogether until it become ointment, healeth them.

A present remedy against the plague
Take a great red Onion, and make a hole in the middle, and put a spoonful of Treacle, roast him in the fire: take a spoonful of Vinegar, a spoonful of Aqua Composita: bruise them all together, strain them through a cloth and give it to drink.

And, finally, another treatment for pissing the bed.
A Mouse, roasted and given to children to eat, remedieth pissing a bed.

I am certain these bedwetting cures are intended to terrify the patient into a cure.

And while we may retch, grimace or laugh at some of these remedies, they were based on the contemporary understanding of the world. Five hundred years on we know better but I wonder what we do now that the future will find incomprehensible and amusing.

Dodoens, Rembert A nievve herball … Antwerp: Printed by Henry Loë, sold] by my Gerard Dewes, dwelling in Pawles Churchyarde at the signe of the Swanne, 1578.
The good husvvifes ievvell …Imprinted at London by Iohn Wolfe for Edward White, dwelling at the litle North doore of Paules at the signe of the Gunne, 1587.
Partridge, John The widdovves treasure … Printed by I. Roberts for Edward VVhite. London: 1595.
Ruscelli, Girolamo A verye excellent and profitable booke … Translated out of Italian into Englishe by Richard Androse. London: Henry Denham, 1569
The grete herball,… London: By me Peter Treueris, dwellynge in the sygne of the wodows, 1526.

This article was first published in the Tudor edition of Historical Times a free interactive digital magazine issued every month full of news, reviews, offers and articles from a wide range of historical authors and experts, well known and not so. If you are interested in subscribing, you can find out more here.

2 thoughts on “Take the Head of a Black Sheep – Tudor Medicine at Home

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.