Homemade remedies – Grandmother’s Embrocation

Turpentine comes from fir trees, I think, and to be honest I tend to think of it in a DIY context rather than a medical care setting. However, today, having watched Bake Off last week and clearly having taken leave of my senses I decided to make a couple of Cornish pasties for lunch – there will be no picture of them and the Bake Off tent is perfectly safe from my attentions.

However, the book I took the recipe from is called Farmhouse Fare and it belonged to my parents. This morning I looked at it rather more closely. It was printed in 1937 by The Farmers’ Weekly based on recipes sent by readers – or “Country Housewives” as it says on the front cover. It sold out but then the war came along and it wasn’t printed again until 1946 but there was still a shortage of paper so the print run wasn’t very long. My copy dates from the 1950s.

As I sat with my cup of tea I flicked through it’s pages and came to a section marked “For Your Corner Cupboard,” given that I have been writing about medieval remedies I thought I would have a look to see what the twentieth century had to offer and voila Grandmother’s embrocation which I do not recommend you try at home – really don’t even go there: 1/2 pint turpentine and 1 egg shaken up until it turns to a cream. Then add 1 pint of vinegar (slowly) and a small tablespoon of liquid ammonia – apparently it keeps for years!

Apparently turpentine was recommended in 1865 to remove worms – clearly it’s something that has bothered people down the centuries making me glad to be alive now rather than then despite the fact that most of us haven’t ventured very far this year.

In this case the embrocation, which is rubbed on before anyone gets too carried away, is designed to relieve the pain of rheumatism and arthritis not to mention aching limbs and sprains. Given that ammonia is caustic I can only assume that the heat generated by the above concoction would take your mind off most things – demonstrating that it wasn’t just during the medieval period that people applied some very strange concoctions to themselves in the hope of feeling a bit better.

Right – time for a quick time for a quick burst of George Formby’s song – Auntie Maggie’s homemade remedy I think. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrSM99xZX-E

And aren’t we all grateful for the National Health Service that made homemade embrocations a thing of the past? And with that in mind if you haven’t seen the Ruth Jones edition of Who DO You Think You, it’s definitely one to watch if you’re interested in the evolution of the National Health Service.

Royal Forests in medieval England

Forest comes from the Latin word meaning outdoors – so medieval forests included woods, heaths, wasteland and all manner of open spaces. Their aim was to protect the beasts which the king hunted – deer and boar amongst others. The rules of vert and venison were designed for the protection of habitat, animal and ease of the hunt.

By 1086 there were in the region of 25 royal forests. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle contains many bitter complaints on the matter. At one point during the thirteenth century it’s estimated that a quarter of the country was designated royal forest which meant that it fell under forest law which was an arbitrary system based on the king rather than common law and its precedents.

Now I know that there is still a words, words, words challenge ongoing but it seems to me that this has real potential – so here is an unexpected History Jar challenge – how many of the medieval royal forests can you name?

Forest Law- the courts

Royal Forests in medieval times  were overseen and administered by keepers who were appointed by the monarch and also by justices who applied Forest Law. There were two justices- one for the forests north of the River Trent and one for the forests south of the river. The laws that applied in the king’s woods were different to the common law applied elsewhere in the kingdom. The laws in the forest were what the king decided that they should be.

The laws were essentially to protect the animals that lived in these areas under forest law – and they weren’t all wooded – heaths and moors were also encompassed by forest law. The laws also prevented things like fencing and hedging which would have hampered the king from hunting. Eventually an accommodation of some kind was established for the people who lived in areas designated Royal Forest leading to commoners rights. These were documented in 1215 with Magna Carta when King John found himself at odds with his barons. The Charter of the Forest was signed in November 1217.

Woodmote – this is more properly a court of attachment. It was held every forty days. The judges were the wardens/keepers and their deputies and sometimes verderers. This court decided whether the people charged with breaking forest law should go to a higher court – the swainmote.

Swainmote – this court met three times a year. It tried cases where people had broken the rules about putting fields int he forest or grazing their livestock at times and in quantities that they shouldn’t. The swain element was the jury of freemen that sat once a year before the Feast of St John the Baptist.

Court of Regard – every three years officials called retarders checked that dogs living in the area under forest law had been declawed. This declaring is often called “lawing.” Regarders also dealt with instances of trespass.

The Eyre Essentially an eyre is a circuit court presided over by the king’s justices. It was held approximately once every five years after a notice of forty days was given.

Jane Mosley’s remedies, cuttlefish and Galen

Image of peony from Gerard’s herbal

Jane Mosley lived in Brailsford, Derbyshire during the seventeenth century. The record office has her personal books of recipes and remedies.

She was probably born in the summer of 1669. The family had links with London as well as being an established Derbyshire family. In 1697 she married Edward Soresby of Darley. The couple went on to have eight children before Jane died in 1712. The county archives contains letters, accounts and land transactions as well as family wills.

Amongst her remedies is a cure for the falling sickness, or epilepsy as we would recognise it today. Peony roots grated and drunk and worn around the neck – Jane spells it pionie and it turns up elsewhere as danpi. It will probably come as no surprise to discover that Galen, the Roman physician, recommended peonies as a cure for falling sickness. So all though it features in Jane’s book it would have been something understood in the medieval period as well. Anyone with seizures would likely be prescribed a drink containing peony roots and required to wear it around their neck as a talisman. The remedy can also be found in Gerard’s Herbal.

There are several toothpaste recipes, the most straightforward of which involves salt and cuttle bone – ground up cuttlefish bone was also used as a polishing powder by goldsmiths. A second recipe involved rosemary and harts horn as well as cuttlefish. She also knew of a mouthwash to make teeth “steadfast.” The rinse involved vervain roots in cold wine.

Derbyshire Museum Service. 1979. Jane Mosley’s Derbyshire Recipes

Tigers in medieval England

tiger from the Northumberland Bestiary 1250-60

I was looking at the award winning photograph of the Amur tiger a couple of nights ago and that got me wondering about medieval depictions. The Amur used to be Siberian but the new name Amur reflects their decreased territories. This led me to looking at bestiaries with their strange mix of fact and fantasy. The fantastic animals, unicorns and manticores and suchlike, existed as part of culture and as with so much in the medieval world they became a tool to provide an insight into morality. And of course God created all the animals so their study was yet another way for mankind to get a bit closer to understanding God, the Cosmos and mankind’s place within it.

I’m not sure why the tiger was blue. Come to think of it I’m not totally sure why the tiger has spots rather than stripes other than because Isidore of Seville wrote that this was the case.

The illustration is based on a story by Pliny – so for those of the History Jar readers who have ventured into the medieval world of this autumn’s Zoom classes there is a neat rehearsal of a familiar pattern. We know for example that Pliny’s story appeared in Latin format and ultimately a French text before crossing The Channel. The knowledge of the Greeks arrives in medieval hands by circuitous routes. A key text in the evolution of bestiaries is the bestiary of Isidore of Seville who wrote in the seventh century – so back to one of those transition points for information to move from the Arab to the Frankish world.

The hunter in the story is attempting to steal tiger cubs. He makes his get away by dropping one cub at a time to distract the irate parent. In medieval minds tigers were very fast moving animals and dangerous if angry. (again thanks to Pliny) In the thirteenth century an additional element crept into the story when the story teller arranged for the hunter to drop something shiny so that the mother seeing her own reflection believed it to be her cub – clearly not aware of the sensitive olfactory moggy snout! Clearly the hunter gets away, either because the mother tiger is busy looking after her abandoned cubs or licking her own face in a mirror of some description.

The Northumberland Bestiary is in the hands of the Getty Museum https: //www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/240115/unknown-maker-northumberland-bestiary-english-about-1250-1260/. Unsurprisingly given it’s origins it was originally owned by the Duke of Northumberland. It contains 112 illustrations.

As you might expect the British Library is the home for many medieval bestiaries:

https://www.bl.uk/medieval-english-french-manuscripts/articles/beastly-tales-from-the-medieval-bestiary

Sergey Gorshkov’s winning photograph of the Amur Tiger. I should note that medieval writers were thinking about the Asian tiger and would sometimes note that the River Tigris was named for the tiger.

The Embrace by Sergey Gorshkov, Russia   –   Copyright  © Sergey Gorshkov/Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2020 https://www.euronews.com/living/2020/10/16/wildlife-photography-awards-offer-a-rare-glimpse-of-siberian-tigers

A 1614 map of Earl Sterndale

1614 map of Earl Sterndale

Earl Sterndale is part of the parish of Hartington Middle Quarter in the Derbyshire Dales.  It was created as an ecclesiastical parish from a chapelry in 1763.  It’s church, St Michael’s and All Angels, has the distinction of being blown up by the Luftwaffe with a stray bomb in 1941.

I’m posting about Earl Sterndale today because I came across this 1614 map in a file of documents – it’s a random find and to be honest it has no reference on so I don’t even know which book it was taken from by whoever copied it. It’s a reminder though that whilst I tend to teach history in a neat linear pattern that history itself is much more untidy. The fields shown are a mixture of open strip farming and enclosed land. Enclosure was something that began more or less in the thirteenth century and escalated until at the end of the eighteenth century farming practises and land ownership wrought wholesale enclosure.

Records indicate that the farms around Earl Sterndale were largely monastic granges belonging to Basingwerk Abbey, Flintshire, Wales.  The abbey was a Cistercian foundation and it’s lands including the granges near Earl Sterndale were sold following the Dissolution of the Monasteries.   Basingwerk was a lesser monastery with an income of less that £200 per year.  It is perhaps not surprising that Basingwerk Abbey held property and the rights to churches in other parts of Derbyshire including Glossop.   But it’s not completely a monastic story – again history tends to be taught or written about in neat units but the distribution, in this case literally on the land, tells of different administration systems abutting one another and in some cases overlapping.

Within the medieval Manor of Hartington, of which Earl Sterndale was part land belonged in part to the Duchy of Lancaster – the land in Earl Sterndale once having been in the holding of the de Ferrers’ Earls of Derby until the 6th earl fell foul of Henry III and the land was given to Henry III’s second son – Edmund Crouchback, Earl of Lancaster. edmund’s great grand daughter Blanche (the daughter of Henry Grosmont the 1st Duke of Lancaster) married John of Gaunt – for those of you who like to make links.

Meanwhile the manor of Hartington of which Earl Sterndale was part worked on the three field open system where strips of land were allocated to various tenants (villeins).  Rent was paid along with labour for the lord.  In addition to which part of the manor functioned as demesne land which was farmed on behalf of the Duchy of Lancaster itself rather than the income all coming from tenants.  By the fourteenth century sheep had become an important part of the venture for the Duchy – as it was for the Cistercian granges. I’ve read elsewhere that as the Black Death plotted it’s course in 1348 demsesne farming was abandoned in the parish of Hartington; it being more profitable to rent land out.

It’s also worth noting that the village of Earl Sterndale held common grazing rights to a portion of land adding yet another dimension to the equation of who held the land.

The map of 1614 pictured above demonstrates that the three field system with its open strips didn’t suddenly stop here at the end of the medieval period nor was the dissolution of the monasteries sufficient to bring about total enclosure. It is  evident that strip farming around Earl Sterndale continued into the seventeenth century – although there is also evidence of enclosure in the form of Mr Thomas Nedham’s land.  Enclosure when it finally came was at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

The importance of the number 7 in medieval times

It will come as no surprise to those of you who have found yourself exploring medieval people’s relationship with the cosmos this week to discover that seven was a significant number in the medieval world. Everything was supposed to be in balance whether it was the elements or the humours – so unsurprisingly in a world that saw seven planets with the world at the centre of the cosmos that there should be corresponding balance elsewhere – from seven sacraments, seven virtues and sins to seven metals. Each one of the metals linked up to it’s own planet and it’s own day of the week. There was also a religious significance thanks to Biblical interpetation -seven days to create the Earth; the four corners of the world link up to the Holy Trinity resulting in completeness – a balance between the spiritual and the world – harmony. Number theory connects the world to the Divine in much of medieval thinking. And from there study of numbers and organising things in numerical pattern draws mankind closer to the Divine.

The theme of numbers can be seen in many medieval works – Dante’s Divine Comedy being the one that sticks from long ago study. And of course patterns such as those created by the Fibonacci sequence are pleasing to the eye. I’m not quite sure how the seventh son of a seventh son fits into the pattern but for today at least here are the seven planets of the medieval cosmos and the seven metals that alchemists worked with.

 Day Planet Metal
 Sunday Sun Gold
 Monday Moon Silver
 Tuesday Mars Iron
 Wednesday Mercury Mercury
 Thursday Jupiter Tin
 Friday Venus Copper
 Saturday Saturn Lead
medieval metals and their planets

Of alchemists and kings

Fathers of Alchemy from Elias Ashmole’s book on the subject

Dr John Dee is probably England’s most famous alchemist thanks to his employment by Elizabeth I. He cast the horoscope which identified 15 January 1559 as an auspicious date for Elizabeth. Just in case you’re wondering, as well as being an astrologer and mathematician Dr Dee spent quite a lot of his time trying to talk to angels. Rather alarmingly he also managed to get involved in a scandalous wife swapping episode which probably also explains why Dee is notably absent from most school texts.

It turns out that the English had a bit of a reputation for alchemy. Elias Ashmole collated late medieval works in the Theatrum Chemicum Britanium of 1652 (and there is no one who knows me who will be surprised that I didn’t cover that during my recent Zoom class.) He began with the introduction “severall poeticall pieces of our famous English philosophers, who have written the hermetique mysteries in their owne ancient language.”

I was a bit perplexed to find Chaucer on Ashmole’s list until I read the Canon’s Yeoman’s tale and found a counterfeiter – well base metal does appear more precious than it started out! It turns out that the tale is based on a real case which can be found here on the National Archives blog: https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/geoffrey-chaucer-and-alchemy/

Ashmole did not comment on whether he believed in the Philosopher’s stone or not.

It also turns out – according to some “histories” that Edward III employed one the form of Franciscan friar Raymond Lull – who somehow or other convinced Edward that he could produce enough hard cash to fund a new crusade. You will all be delighted to hear that Edward’s investment paid off because his alchemist apparently turned several tons of lead into gold which Edward promptly used to pay for his war against the French – oddly I don’t recall reading about effective chrysopoeia during the reign of Edward III. Unsurprisingly Lull disappears form history leaving a tall tale behind him – the real Lull, a Catalonian, died when Edward was a toddler, though it is true that he spoke Arabic and studied various Islamic texts.

It turns out though that in this case there is fire to go with the smoke. A Patent Roll of 1330 identifies Edward III’s interest in alchemical transmutation of base metal and twenty years later John de Walden was arrested and sent to the Tower of London for relieving the Plantagenet monarch of 5,000 gold crowns and 20 pounds of silver to “work thereon by the art of alchemy.” His arrest would suggest that Edward wasn’t totally convinced by the end product.

Johnathan Hughes, The Rise of Alchemy in Fourteenth Century England, Bloomsbury Publishing

words words words 3- monastic habits

Sorry can’t resist the very bad pun. How many words pertaining to monasteries can you identify – could be architectural or to do with monastic life and roles?

Alchemy – Nicholas Flamel

The tomb of Nicholas Flamel

For people who are not fans of Harry Potter (strange I know but there are some) Nicholas Flamel is a character in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. And he was a real person who lived in fourteenth century Paris.

Alchemists believed that the world was made up of four elements and that eventually all substances would return to a pure state – so in the case of base metal they were speeding things up in their bid to transmute lead into gold and in the case of the Elixir of Life they were slowing things down. Or put another way they were attempting to work out the secrets of the cosmos.

Now, the problem with this was that until the lead transmuted into gold there wasn’t a great deal of money to be had – although if you found a rich patron then things probably became more straight forward. Though obviously states tended to be a bit twitchy about people manufacturing gold without their say so and the Church had it’s doubts about men usurping God’s role (though apparently Martin Luther found it all very interesting.) Nicholas Flamel paid his bills by working as a copyist, a public writer who wrote letters for people who couldn’t, a landlord and a bookseller – he had a licence from the University of Paris. He also speculated in property.

Apparently Nicholas laid hands on a very old book allegedly written by Abraham the Jew. Flamel translated it being familiar with kabbalah, and lo and behold Abraham knew the secret to the Elixir of Life. The problem was that he wasn’t that well versed in the language or the symbolism so he decided that he needed some help.

He concluded that the best place to go was Spain where he met a Converso – a Jew who had converted to Christianity. Conchez, the Converse, obligingly undertook to help Nicholas. Unfortunately Nicholas had travelled all that way without the book. Conchez died in Orleans and Nicholas spent the next two decades deciphering the text.

Until in 1382 he apparently found the formula and became very very rich.

There are a couple of problems with the story. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of evidence of alchemy in Mr Flamel’s life. The money? His wife Perenelle, who he married in 1368, came from a wealthy family. That and the fact she’d already been twice widowed. His will does not suggest fantastic wealth.

Perenelle was apparently, according to the story, Nicholas’s able assistant.

Nicholas Flamel by Balthazar Montcornet – 17th century

The story – no smoke without fire and all that? Became popular about 200 years after he died… though some writers claim that they saw him in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

And where does all this come from? Livre des figures hiéroglyphiques was published in 1612 – which possibly goes to show that just because a book is old doesn’t make it totally trustworthy! Unless you happen to think Flamel was an alchemist in which case you might take an entirely different view! And you might also argue that given what I wrote earlier about Church and State views that you might want to look like a mild mannered entrepreneur rather than a proto-scientist.

Did I mention that other alchemist…Sir Isaac Newton?