Page:Journal of American Folklore vol. 12.djvu/70

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page needs to be proofread.


62 Journal of American Folk-Lore.

sun- whether a given course of treatment has proved beneficial or not, the vis medicatrix nature* is so great and so obscure a factor in most cases, that there has always been much chance in medical practice for what might perhaps be called sincere quackery. Let it once be suggested that a given substance might cure a certain disease, and let its remedial virtues be tried in a few cases. If some of the patients recover, it is sure to be argued, by a familiar process of reasoning, that the remedy effected the cure. In any new region it would be easy to trace the steps by which the popular materia medica is thus enlarged, but after the addition the process can only be con- jectured.

The study of the considerations which suggest curative power in this or thai animal' or vegetable product is a most interesting one. The principle on which (to cite only one instance out of many) the little white granular roots of a common British saxifrage were supposed to form an efficient remedy for vescical calculi still flourishes among us. A common smart- weed, for example, with heart-shaped marks on its leaves, is widely known as heart's-ease from its supposed value in cardiac affections. Apparently the possession of a disgusting smell or taste has often sufficed to give a substance a reputation for curative properties. Burnt feathers, angleworm oil, tar, pitch, boneset, and the host of bitters vaunted in domestic medicine, must owe much of the esteem in which they are held to their unsavory quali- ties. It is very evident that anything singular in the aspect of a plant, above all if the singularity be of an unpleasant kind, is a strong recom- mendation for its adoption into the list of remedial herbs. In many cases this suggestiveness depends wholly or in part on the well-known doctrine of signatures, as it does in the reputation which many plants of the Orchis family have obtained for nervine or aphrodisiac qualities. But there are other instances, such as that of the rattlesnake-plantain, the cow-parsnip, and the whole list of plants with milky juice, which seem to owe their use in folk-medicine merely to their conspicuous or peculiar characteristics.

It has been well said that "nastiness is often an element of mysteries," and no doubt the curious veneration for filth is responsible for some of the excrement-cures which are still employed in a few places and meet with implicit belief.

In folk-medicine, as in the materia medica of the schools, there is a noticeable tendency to outgrow the use of remedies of animal origin, while the list of herbs credited with medicinal virtues remains a long one. General treatises on medicine two hundred years ago abounded in the most irrational and disgusting prescriptions of animal remedies. Michael iller, in his "Opera Medica," * devoted nine folio pages to medicinal preparations from the human body and its excreta, of which those obtained from hair, nails, sweat, and earwax are the least filthy. No longer ago than the middle of the eighteenth century such substances as ambergris, castor, civet, " man's-grease," mummy (human), vipers, and a multitude of other equally absurd animal remedies, found a place in one of the best dispensatories of the time, Pomet's "General History of Drugs." The

1 Francofurti, 1708.

�� �