I mentioned in a previous post how the thought of the food served in the past severely limits the appeal of time travel for me. If anything, the medical care during the Elizabethan period is even more off-putting. A good housewife would have a number of remedies at her disposal and if she had a still room, as Jane does in The Edge of Dark, she would do her best to cure any ailments in the household herself.
I can’t help thinking that continuing to suffer might be preferable to trying any of the following five remedies suggested by Gervase Markham or Thomas Dawson:
1. For the frenzy
For frenzy or inflammation of the cauls of the brain, you shall cause the juice of beets to be with a syringe squirted up into the patient’s nostrils, which will purge and cleanse his head exceedingly.
2. For sore eyes
Take red snails, and seethe them in fair water, and then gather the oil that ariseth therof, and therewith anoint your eyes morning and evening.
3. Of an oil to help hearing
To take away deafness, take a grey eel with a white belly and put her into a sweet earthen pot quick, and stop the pot very close with an earthen cover, or some such hard substance: then dig a deep hole in a horse dunghill, and set it therein, and cover it with the dung, and so let it remain a fortnight, and then take it out and clear out the oil which will come of it, and drop it into the imperfect ear, or both if both be imperfect. P.16
4. To make a strong broth for a sick man
Take a pound of almonds, and blanch them, and beat them in a very fine mortar. Then take the brains of a capon and beat with it. Put in to it a little cream and make it to draw through a strainer. Then set it on the fire in a dish, and season it with rose water and sugar, and stir it.
5. A sovereign ointment for shrunken sinews and aches
Take eight swallows ready to fly out of the nest. Drive away the breeders when you taken them out, and let them not touch the earth. Stamp them until the feathers cannot be perceived in a stone mortar. Put to it lavender cotton, of the strings of strawberries, the tops of mother thyme [wild thyme], the tops of rosemary, of each a handful. Take all their weight of May butter, and a quart more. 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 a fire as maybe, seethe it so that it do but simmer. Then strain it, and so reserve it to your use.
Remedies taken from The Good Housewife’s Jewel by Thomas Dawson, with an introduction by Maggie Black (1996) and The English Housewife by Gervase Markham, ed. Michael R. Best (1986)
As with food, it’s best to stick to remedies that don’t strike a modern reader as too disgusting. I can’t imagine a reader identifying with a character who happily takes baby birds and pounds them to death in a mortar, however authentic that might be.
Perhaps I’m too squeamish, but I tend to stick with remedies from Nicholas Culpeper’s Herbal, which is much safer territory. I used his suggestions when I was looking for an ointment for burns in The Edge of Dark. He suggests that when boiled in soft animal fat, Lady’s bedstraw ‘do help burnings with fire or scalding with water’, and this is what I used for Jane. In the extract below, she is on her way out to visit the wise woman on the common with her maid, Annis, and like the good housewife she is, is able to identify all sorts of plants that she could use in her stillroom.
‘And this is lady’s bedstraw,’ she told Annis, stooping to lift the yellow flowers with one finger. ‘Mixed with sheep tallow, it is a singular remedy for burns and scalds.’ She sniffed at the plant, remembering the smell of the ointment they had put on her hands after she had snatched Ellen’s baby from the flames, and the memory of that terrible day rolled over her like a cloud blotting out the sun.