Popular Science Monthly/Volume 31/October 1887/Strange Medicines
QUICKLY—by far too quickly for the sake of the student and the archæologist—is the wave of foreign influence over-sweeping Japan, ruthlessly effacing all the most marked characteristics of native manners and customs, and substituting the commonplaces of everyday European life.
Already this tendency to exalt and to adopt foreign novelties meets the traveler at every turn, and only he who turns aside from the tracks most subject to foreign influence can hope now and then to find some stanch conservative who, in that nation of ultra-radicals (albeit most loyal imperialists*), has the courage to adhere to his own old-fashioned ways.
I had the good fortune to meet with such a one in the very interesting old city of Osaka—a compounder of just such strange medicines as were administered to our British ancestors in the middle ages. So rapidly has the scientific study of medicine been taken up by the Japanese medical practitioners, that the survival of such a chemist of the pure and unadulterated old school is quite remarkable; and I was greatly struck by the evident annoyance of a Japanese gentleman to whom I expressed my interest in this mediæval chemist, and who evidently felt it humiliating that a foreigner should have seen such a relic of the days of ignorance.
The quaint old man whose loyal adherence to the customs of his ancestors afforded me such an interesting illustration both of old Japan and old Britain was a seller of curoyakie—i.e., carbonized animals; in other words, animals reduced to charcoal, and potted in small covered jars of earthenware, to be sold as medicine for the sick and suffering. Formerly all these animals were kept alive in the back premises, and customers selected the creature for themselves, and stood by to see it killed and burned on the spot, so that there could be no deception, and no doubt as to the freshness of their charred medicine. Doubtless some insensible foreign influence may account for the disappearance of the menagerie of waiting victims and their cremation-ground; now the zoölogical back-yard has vanished, and only the strange chemist's shop remains, like a well-stored museum, wherein are ranged portions of the dried carcasses of dogs and deer, foxes and badgers, rats and mice, toads and frogs, tigers and elephants.
The rarer the animal, and the farther it has traveled, the more precious apparently are its virtues. From the roof hung festoons of gigantic snake-skins, which certainly were foreign importations from some land where pythons flourish, Japan being happily exempt from the presence of such beautiful monsters. I saw one very fine piece of a skin, which, though badly dried and much shrunken, measured twenty-six inches across, but it was only a fragment ten feet in length, and was being gradually consumed, inch by inch, to lend mystic virtue to compounds of many strange ingredients. I was told that the perfect skin must have measured very nearly fifty feet in length. I saw another fragment twenty-two feet long and twelve inches wide; this also had evidently shrunk considerably in drying, and must, when in life, have been a very fine specimen.
There were also some very fine deer's horns (hartshorn in its pure and simple form), a highly valued rhinoceros-horn, and ivory of various animals. My companion was much tempted by a beautiful piece of ivory about ten feet in length. I think it was the horn of a narwhal, but the druggist would only sell it for its price as medicine, namely, ten cents for fifty-eight grains, whence we inferred that the druggists of Old Japan, like some nearer home, fully understand the art of making a handsome profit on their sales. Some tigers' claws and teeth were also esteemed very precious, and some strips of tigers' skin and fragments of other skins and furs proved that these also held a place in the pharmacopœia of Old Japan, as they continue to do in China (the source whence Japan derived many branches of learning, besides the use of letters).
Unfortunately for the little lizards which dart about so joyously in the sunlight, they too are classed among the popular remedies, being considered an efficacious vermifuge; so strings of their ghastly little corpses are hung in festoons in many village shops, where I have often looked wonderingly at them, marveling in what broth of abominable things they might reappear. So lizards and dried scorpions (imported as medicine) also found a place in this strange druggist's shop—an "interior" so wholly unlike anything I have ever seen elsewhere, that the recollection of it remains vividly stamped on my memory—the multitude of earthenware jars containing the calcined animals all neatly ranged on shelves, the general litter of oddities of various sorts strongly resembling an old curiosity-shop, and, in the midst of all, the eccentric old man, who might have passed for a Japanese wizard rather than a grave physician. It was a strangely vivid illustration of what must have been the general appearance of the laboratory of the learned leeches of Britain in the days of our forefathers.
Before glancing at these, however, it may be interesting to note a few details of kindred medicine-lore in China, on which subject a member of the French Catholic mission, writing from Mongolia, says: "May Heaven preserve us from falling ill here! It is impossible to conceive who can have devised remedies so horrible as those in use in the Chinese pharmacopœia; such as drugs compounded of toads' paws, wolves' eyes, vultures' claws, human skin and fat, and other medicaments still more horrible, of which I spare you the recital. Never did witch's den contain a collection of similar horrors."
Mr. Mitford has told us how, also at Peking, he saw a Chinese physician prescribe a decoction of three scorpions for a child struck down with fever; and Mr. Gill, in his "River of Golden Sand," mentions having met a number of coolies laden with red deer's horns, some of them very fine twelve-tine antlers. They are only hunted when in velvet, and from the horns in this state a medicine is made which is one of the most highly prized in the Chinese pharmacopœia.
With regard to the singular virtues supposed to attach to the medicinal use of tiger, General Robert Warden tells me that on one occasion when, in India, he was exhibiting some trophies of the chase, some Chinamen who were present became much excited at the sight of an unusually fine tiger-skin. They eagerly inquired whether it would be possible to find the place where the carcass had been buried, because, from the bones of tigers dug up three months after burial, a decoction may be prepared which gives immense muscular power to the fortunate man who swallows it!
I am indebted to the same informant for an interesting note on the medicine folk-lore of India, namely, that while camping in the jungle, one of his men came to entreat him to shoot a night-jar for his benefit, because from the bright, prominent eyes of this bird of night an ointment is prepared which gives great clearness of vision, and is therefore highly prized.
Miss Bird, too, has recorded some very remarkable details on the materia medica of China and Japan. When in a remote district of Japan, she became so unwell as to deem it necessary to consult a native doctor, of whom she says:
One of the said rhinoceros-horns was, as we have seen, among the most valued treasures of the old druggist of Osaka. This horn and that of the unicorn (which seems generally to mean the narwhal) have ever been held in high repute throughout the East as an antidote to poison, and cups carved from these horns were used as a safe-guard because they possessed the property of neutralizing poison, or at least of revealing its presence.
And indeed the same virtue was attributed to it by the learned leeches of Europe. At the close of the sixteenth century the doctors of medicine in Augsburg met in solemn conclave tospecimen of unicorn's horn, which they found to be true monoceros, and not a forgery; the proof thereof being that they administered some of it to a dog which had been poisoned with arsenic, and which recovered after swallowing the antidote. They further administered nux-vomica to two dogs, and to one they gave twelve grains of unicorn-horn, which effectually counteracted the poison; but the other poor dog got none, so he died. Similar statements concerning this antidote, and also concerning the value of elks' and deer's horns powdered as a cure for epilepsy, appear in various old English medical works of the highest authority.
Very remarkable, also, is the efficacy supposed to attach to ante-diluvian ivory, more especially the tusks of the mammoths, which have been so well preserved in Siberian ice that their very flesh is still sometimes found untainted. There they have lain hermetically sealed for many a long century, and now, when the rivers from time to time wash away fragments of the great ice-cliffs, they reveal the strange treasures of that wondrous storehouse—sometimes a huge unwieldy hippopotamus, or a rhinoceros, or it may be a great woolly elephant with a mane like a lion and curly tusks; and the hungry Siberian bears and wolves fight and snarl over these dainty morsels, which are still as fresh as though they had fallen but an hour ago.
Here, in these marvelous ice-fields, lie inexhaustible stores of finest ivory, and this it is which the learned professors of the Celestial medical hall value so highly. So these precious tusks are dragged forth after thousands of years, to be ground down and boiled to a jelly for the cure of vulgar Chinese diseases of the nineteenth century! Alas, poor mammoth!
Nor are these the only antediluvian relics which are thus turned to account. Professor H. N. Moseley tells us of the "dragon's teeth and bones" which he bought from the druggists of Canton, where they are sold by weight as a regular medicine, and are highly prized in the materia medica both of China and Japan as specifics in certain diseases. They proved on examination to be the fossil teeth and bones of various extinct mammalia of the Tertiary period, including those of the rhinoceros, elephant, horse, mastodon, stag, hippotherium, and the teeth of another carnivorous animal unknown.
He obtained a translation of the passage in the medical works of Li She Chan which specially refers to the use of this medicine. It states that "dragons' bones come from the southern parts of Shansi, and are found in the mountains." Dr. To Wang King says that if they are genuine they will adhere to the tongue. "This medicine is sweet and is not poison. Dr. Koon certainly says that it is a little poisonous. Care must be taken not to let it come in contact with fish or iron. It cures heart-ache, stomach-ache, drives away ghosts, cures colds and dysentery, irregularities of the digestive organs, paralysis, etc., and increases the general health."
Another medical authority, "The Chinese Repository," published in Canton a.d. 1832, states that the bones of dragons are found on banks of rivers and in caves of the earth, places where the dragon died. Those of the back and brain are highly prized, being variegated with different streaks on a white ground. The best are known by slipping the tongue lightly over them. The teeth are of little firmness. The horns are hard and strong; but if these are taken from damp places, or by women, they are worthless.
From his examination of these so-called relics of the dragon (which prove to belong to so many different animals, which in successive ages have crept to the same cave to die), Mr. Moseley points out how some imaginative person probably first devised a fanciful picture of the mythical animal, combining the body of the vast lizard with the wings of a bat, the head of a stag, and carnivorous teeth, which has become the stereotyped idea of the dragon in all lands.
Even in Europe fossil bones thus found together in caves were long known as dragons' bones, and accounted useful in medicine. Indeed, so great was the demand for these and similar relics, that our museums and scientific men have good cause to rejoice that their ancestors failed to discover what stores of old bones lay hidden in our own seaboard caves—as, for instance, in that wonderful Kirkdale cavern, where the mortal remains of several hundred hyenas were found, guarding the teeth of a baby mammoth, a patriarchal tiger, a rhinoceros, and a hippopotamus; or the caves along the Norfolk coast, where Hugh Miller tells us that within thirteen years the oyster-dredgers dragged up the tusks and grinders of five hundred mammoths; or those wonderful zoölogical cemeteries where the fossil bones of cave-lions, cave-hyenas, elephants, mammoths, hippopotami, woolly rhinoceros, red deer and fallow deer, oxen, sheep, and horses, have lain so securely, stored for untold ages beneath Charing Cross and Trafalgar Square.
After all, this reduction of prehistoric bones and ivory to vulgar powders for medicinal use is not more strange than the fossil food which forms so large a part of the daily bread of multitudes of our fellow-creatures in Lapland, Finland, and Sweden, in Carolina and Florida, on the banks of the Orinoco and of the Amazon, where vast tracts of earth are found composed wholly of myriads of microscopic shells, and this strange mountain-meal, being duly mixed with meal of the nineteenth century, is freely eaten by the people. In Lapland alone, hundreds of wagon-loads are annually dug from one great field, and there are men who eat as much as a pound and a half per diem of this curious condiment. We hear of fields, as yet untouched, having been discovered in Bohemia, Hungary, and other parts of Europe; so perhaps we may ere long add these primeval atoms to the delicacies of our own tables.
Of the firm belief of the Chinese in the efficacy of medicines compounded of the eyes and vitals of the human body we have had too terrible proof; for it is well known that one cause which led to the appalling Tientsin massacre in 1870 was the wide-spread rumor that the foreign doctors (whose skill all were forced to admit) obtained their medicines by kidnapping and murdering Chinese children and tearing out their hearts and eyes! As this nice prescription is actually described in their own books as a potent medicine, the story obtained ready credence, and we all remember the result. Moreover, the same accusation has repeatedly been spread on other occasions of popular excitement against foreign teachers.
I am not certain whether the Lamas of Peking have there introduced the fashion of administering medicine from a drinking-cup fashioned from the upper part of a wise man's skull; but such medicine-cups are greatly esteemed in Thibet, where they are mounted in gold, silver, or copper.
Such details as all these are apt to sound to us strangely unreal as we read them somewhat in the light of travelers' tales, with reference to far-away lands; but it certainly is startling when, for the first time, we realize how exactly descriptive they are of the medicine-lore of our own ancestors—in truth, to this day we may find among ourselves some survivals of the old superstitions still lingering in out-of-the-way corners. Thus it is only a few years since the skull of a suicide was used in Caithness as a drinking-cup for the cure of epilepsy. Dr. Arthur Mitchell knows of a case in which the body of such a one was disinterred in order to obtain her skull for this purpose.
It was, however, accounted a more sure specific for epilepsy to reduce part of the skull to powder and swallow it. Even the moss which grew on such skulls was deemed a certain cure for various diseases. Nor was this simply a popular superstition. In the official Pharmacopœia of the College of Physicians of London, a.d. 1678, the skull of a man who has died a violent death, and the horn of a unicorn, appear as highly approved medicines. Again, in 1724, the same pharmacopœia mentions unicorn's horn, human fat, and human skulls, dog's dung, toads, vipers, and worms, among the really valuable medical stores. The pharmacopœia was revised in 1742, and various ingredients were rejected, but centipeds, vipers, and lizards were retained.
Nor were these strange compounds prepared for human subjects only. In the "Angler's Vade Mecum," published in 1681, anglers are recommended to use an ointment for the luring of fish, consisting, among other horrible ingredients, of man's fat, cat's fat, heron's fat, asafœtida, finely powdered mummy, camphor, oil of lavender, etc.; and it was added that man's fat could be obtained from the London chirurgeons concerned in anatomy.
Of ordinary skulls, multitudes are known to have been exported from Ireland to Germany for the manufacture of a famous ointment. But as regards the more precious skull of the sinner who has died by his own hand, some faith in its efficacy seems still to linger in various parts of Britain. The Rev. T. F. Thiselton Dyer quotes an instance of it in England in 1858; and some years later, a collier's wife applied to the sexton at Ruabon in Wales for a fragment of a human skull, which she purposed grating to a fine powder, to be mixed with other ingredients as a medicine for her daughter, who suffered from fits. Scotland likewise furnishes a recent instance of the same strange faith, which about thirty years ago happened to come under the notice of Sir James Simpson, in the parish of Nigg in Ross-shire, where, a lad having been attacked with epilepsy, which his friends vainly sought to cure by the charm of mole's blood (the blood of a live mole being allowed to drip on his head), they actually sent a messenger nearly a hundred miles to procure a bit of the skull of a suicide. This treasure was scraped to dust and mixed with a cup of water, which the boy, ignorant of its contents, was make to drink! (An equally odd cure for consumption was, not long ago, fully believed in in the adjoining county of Sutherland, where the patient was made to drink warm blood drawn from his own arm. An instance of this was related to Sir James Simpson by one of the parties concerned. Dr. Mitchell has seen several epileptic idiots who had been subjected to the same treatment.)
Equally precious to the leech of the last century were the ashes of a burned witch collected from her funeral-pyre. Such were deemed a certain cure for gout or for fever, and eagerly were they gathered up and treasured.
Whatever may have been the special merit thus attaching to criminals (and we know that a strand from the rope with which a man had been hanged was long accounted an amulet against many ills), it is satisfactory to know that saints have had their share in this dubious honor. There is one sect of our fellow-Christians in Syria, namely, the Nestorians, who, while they eschew all veneration for relics, yet believe the remains of saints and martyrs to be endowed with such supernatural virtues, that at their wedding-feasts the dust of some reputed saint is invariably mixed with the wine in the marriage-cup—a custom which would seem to require numerous additions to their saintly calendar. Doubtless, however, the holy dust multiplies, that the supply may be equal to the demand.
But to return to this remarkable phase of cannibalism in Europe, we find that, just as the Chinese doctor sets most store by the animals imported from foreign lands, so did our ancestors chiefly prize a preparation of long-deceased Egyptians. Among the standard medicines quoted in the medical books of Nuremberg of two hundred years ago are "portions of the embalmed bodies of man's flesh, brought from the neighborhood of Memphis, where there are many bodies that have been buried for more than a thousand years, called mumia, which have been embalmed with costly salves and balsams, and smell strongly of myrrh, aloes, and other fragrant things." The writer further tells how, "when the sailors do reach the place where the mumia are, they fetch them out secretly by night, then carry them to the ship and conceal them, that they may not be seized, because certainly the Egyptians would not suffer their removal." Nevertheless, the sailors had no great liking for their cargo, believing it to be connected with unholy magic, and that ships having mummies on board would assuredly meet with terrible storms, and very likely be compelled to throw them as an offering to the angry waves.
These medicinal mummies were also imported from Teneriffe, where in olden days the natives used to embalm their dead, sew them in buckskin shrouds, and hide them in caves, whence they were stolen by traders. "White mummies" were also obtained from the coast of Africa, where bodies of drowned mariners were sometimes washed ashore, and became dried up and shriveled as they lay unburied on the burning sands. These became so light as scarcely to weigh thirty pounds. They were, however, not considered so desirable as the genuine article from Alexandria, and were, moreover, more expensive.
The learned doctors of France, Germany, and Italy all made great use of this eccentric drug, and in the seventeenth century grievous complaints arose of its adulteration. Monsieur Pomet, chief apothecary to the French king, records that the king's physician went to Alexandria to judge for himself on this matter, and, having made friends with a Jewish dealer in mummies, was admitted to his storehouse, where he saw piles of bodies. He asked what kind of bodies were used, and how they were prepared. The Jew informed him that "he took such bodies as he could get, whether they died of some disease or of some contagion; he embalmed them with the sweepings of various old drugs, myrrh, aloes, pitch, and gums, wound them about with a cere-cloth, and then dried them in an oven, after which he sent them to Europe, and marveled to see the Christians were lovers of such filthiness."
But even this revelation did not suffice to put mummy-physic out of fashion, and we know that Francis I, of France, always carried with him a well-filled medicine-chest, of which this was the principal ingredient.
Old Sir Thomas Browne, after enumerating the various diseases for which divers great doctors recommend mummy as an infallible remedy, protests against such unworthy use of the ancient heroes, and declares that to serve up Chamnes and Amosis in electuaries and pills, or that Cheops and Psammetichus should be weighed out as drugs, is dismal vampirism, more horrible than the feasts of the ghouls.
The apothecaries of England were often well content to make use of a cheap substitute which answered quite as well, namely, the bones of ancient Britons. Dr. Toope, of Oxford, writing in 1685, tells how at the circles on Hakpen Hill, in Wiltshire, he had discovered a rare lot of human bones—skeletons, arranged in circles, with the feet toward the center. He says, "The bones were large and nearly rotten, but the teeth extream and wonderfully white." Undisturbed by any questions of reverence for these ancestors of his race, he adds "I dug up many bushells, with which I made a noble medicine."
The mummy-trade was supported by various classes of the community, for artists declared that mummy-powder beaten up with oil, gave richer tones of brown than any other substance, and modern perfumers found means of preparing the perfumes and spices found inside the bodies, so as to make them exceedingly attractive to the ladies. Paper-manufacturers found that the wrappings of the mummies could be converted into coarse paper for the use of grocers, and the cloth and rags were sometimes used as clothing—at least, so we are told by Abdallatif, a traveler of the twelfth century, who also records how one of his friends found in the tombs of Ghizeh a jar carefully sealed, which he opened, and found it to contain such excellent honey that he could not resist eating a good deal of it, and was only checked in his feast by drawing out a hair, whereupon he investigated further, and found the body of an ancient Egyptian baby in good condition, and adorned with jewels. He does not record how he enjoyed that meal in retrospect. Imagine dining off the honeyed essence of a baby-Pharaoh!
Is it not pitiful to think that all the skill so lavishly expended by the sages of ancient Egypt in rendering their bodies indestructible, should, after three thousand years, end in this? And, in truth, the mummies thus dealt with, had less reason to complain of their lot than the multitude which were broken up and sold at so much per ton to fertilize the fields of a far-distant and insignificant islet peopled by barbarians!
A very interesting point of similarity between the little shop of the old Japanese apothecary, and those of early English druggists, is suggested by the extensive use of calcined animal matter, recommended in the prescriptions which were most highly valued in England before the Norman Conquest, and which are recorded in elaborate Saxon manuscripts, carefully preserved in our national archives. These "leechdoms "are written in ancient black-letter characters, and are curiously illustrated with pictures of the herbs and animals which are recommended for medicinal use.
Our Saxon ancestors appear to have devoted considerable attention to the subject of their hair. Though ignorant of macassar-oil, they discovered that dead bees burned to ashes, and seethed in oil with leaves of willow, would stop hair from falling off; but should the hair be too thick, then must a swallow be burned to ashes under a tile, and the ashes be sprinkled on the head. But in order altogether to prevent the growth of hair, emmets' eggs rubbed on the place are found an effectual depilatory;" never will any hair come there."
Excellent also as a cure for deafness is the juice of emmet's eggs crushed, or else the gall of a goat, or, in extreme cases, boar's gall, bull's gall, and buck's gall, mixed in equal parts with honey, and dripped into the ear, sometimes with the addition of very nasty ingredients. But if earwigs had entered in, then the sufferer is bidden to "take the mickle great windlestraw, with two edges, which waxeth in highways, chew it into the ear; he, the earwig, will soon be off."
Even this poor insect was turned to account. One prescription desires that "the bowels of an earwig be pounded with the smede of wheaten meal and the netherward part (i. e., root) of marche, and mingled with honey."
For a hard tumor or swelling, goat's flesh burned to ashes and smudged on with water is found to be efficacious, as are also shavings off the horn of a hart to disperse ill-humors and gatherings. Wood-ashes seethed in resin, or goat's horn burned and mingled with water, or its dung dried and grated and mingled with lard, were all good remedies for swellings.
For erysipelas, the prescriptions are numerous. A plaster of earthworms, or of bullock's dung, still warm is recommended; but, better still, "For that ilk, take a swallow's nest, break it away altogether, and burn it, with its dung and all; rub it to dust, mingle with vinegar, and smear therewith." For pain of jowl, burn a swallow to dust, and mingle him with field-bee's honey. Give the man that to eat frequently.
To the value of every portion of a fox not even the fairy-lore of Japan can bear higher testimony. The man who has disease of the joints is advised to take a living fox and seethe him till the bones alone be left, and then bathe repeatedly in this foxy essence. And every year he shall prepare himself this support, and let him add oil thereto, when he seetheth him. Wonderfully it healeth!
For sore of ears and dimness of eyes, a fox's gall mingled with oil or with honey is recommended, and "the fat of the fox's loin melted and dropped in the ear also bringeth health. For oppressive, hard-drawn breathing, a fox's lung sodden and put into sweetened wine and administered, wonderfully healeth." A salve of fox's grease mingled with tar would heal all manner of sores, while his liver worked cures quite as notable as those recorded in Japan. Shoes lined with vixen-hide were recommended to those who suffered from foot-addle—i.e., gout.
Next in value to the fox ranks the hare, whose brain drunk in wine "wonderfully amendeth "an indolent tendency to oversleep. Its lung, bound on the sore, healeth both eyes and feet. The hare's gall, mingled with honey, brighteneth the eyes. The lung and liver, mingled with myrrh and boiled in vinegar, cures giddiness. The sinews swallowed raw are an antidote against bite of spiders; and the rennet administered in wine against that of serpents. The heart mingled with dust of frankincense heals various forms of disease, while baldness is averted by smearing the head with oil in which have been seethed portions of this poor little animal." Then the hair holdeth on, and the salve compels that it shall grow."
If the gums of a child be frequently rubbed with a hare's brain sodden, then shall its teeth wax without sore. The milk of a she-wolf was held equally efficacious, but more difficult to obtain!
Next in order of merit comes the he-goat, whose liver pounded with vinegar is found valuable as a styptic, as is also his blood dried and reduced to dust; goat's gall is a cosmetic which will remove all unsightly spots and specks from off the face; mingled with apple-juice it heals disepses of the ear, or, with oil, is a remedy for toothache. If a child be epileptic, "draw the brain of a mountain-goat through a golden-ring; give it to the child to swallow before it tastes milk; it will be healed." "To get sleep, a goat's horn laid under the head turneth waking into sleep." A goat's horn, roasted and pounded with acid, reduces the inflammation of erysipelas. Goat's grease and blood mingled with barley-meal forms a soothing poultice, while pills of goat's grease and a draught of its blood are recommended for dropsy.
Many and indescribably disgusting are the other remedies derived from the goat. A Brahman, reverentially swallowing a little of each product of the sacred cow, would shrink with loathing from the leechdoms of the early English, so important a place do they assign to preparations of the excrement of divers animals, but chiefly of bulls, of swine, of dogs, and of goats. These, and many other foul ingredients are compounded in every conceivable manner, and prescribed not merely for medicinal baths and plasters for external use, but as most unsavory physic for the inner man.
A less nasty remedy was bull's marrow, administered in wine to check spasms, while its gall was prescribed for divers diseases; moreover, it was well known that snakes would flee from any place where a bull's horn, burned to ashes, had been sprinkled.
The brain, lung, and liver of the boar are largely prescribed, while for nausea "boar's suet boiled down, and with boar's foam added thereto, is so sure a remedy that the patient will wonder, and will ween that it be some other leechdom that he drank." A pleasant cure for sleeplessness is to lay a wolf's head under the pillow; while wolf's flesh, well seasoned, counteracts devil sickness and an ill-sight. A draught of wolf's milk, mingled with wine and honey, was a potent remedy for women in dire suffering; while an ointment made from the right eye of a wolf was the best prescription that the Saxon oculist could command. The head-bone or skull of a wolf, when burned thoroughly and finely pounded, would heal racking pain in the joints, and the ashes of a swine's jaw are to be laid on the bite of a mad dog.
Truly valuable was lion's suet, of which it is stated "it relieveth every sore." Elephant bone or ivory, pounded with honey, is an infallible cosmetic, removing all blemishes from the face. "For the kingly disease, jaundice, the head of a mad dog, pounded and mingled for a drink with wine, healeth. For cancer, the head of a mad dog, burned to ashes and spread on the sore, healeth the cancer-wounds; while, for laceration by a mad dog, a hound's head burned to ashes, and thereon applied, casteth out all the venom and the foulness, and healeth the maddening bites." "For pain of teeth, burn to ashes the tusks of a hound; sprinkle the dust in wine, and let the man drink. The teeth shall be whole."
Another effectual remedy, for cancer, is to burn a fresh hound's head to ashes and apply to the wound. Failing relief, human excrement, dried and reduced to dust, may be tried. "If, with this, thou art not able to cure him, thou mayest never do it by any means!"
An excellent remedy for imperfect sight was an ointment of honey mixed with the fatty parts of all manner of river-fishes. Another, equally efficacious, was a compound of dumbledore's honey with the ashes of burned periwinkle. It was, however, requisite that certain mystic words should be uttered while gathering the periwinkle, a wort which had special power to counteract demoniacal possession and devil-sicknesses. The ashes of the elder-tree were applied in cases of palsy, for which a plaster of earth-worms, well pounded, is also accounted excellent.
We may well believe that, for convenience' sake, many of these calcined plants and animals were prepared at leisure and stored, ready for use in cases of emergency. Consequently, though we can hardly flatter ourselves that our ancestors were as exquisite in their neatness as the Japanese, doubtless this little druggist's shop in Osaka gives us a very fair notion of the surroundings of a learned Saxon leech, in whose repositories were earthenware jars of every size, containing the ashes of goat's flesh, of dead bees, of wolf's skull or swine's jaw, of divers shell-fish, of worts and rinds without number—nay, even of human skulls and bones. On the walls hung bunches of dried herbs and remains of birds and lizards, rats, moles, and such small deer, together with skins of serpents, portions of mummies, horns of stags, rhinoceros, narwhal, elephants' tusks, and many other items of the strange materia medica of our own ancestors.
The foregoing "leechdoms" are fair samples of the voluminous pharmacopœia of Britain in the tenth century. But to us, who pride ourselves on the medical skill of the present day, it is truly marvelous to find that the early part of the eighteenth century should show so little, if any, advance on the ignorance which prevailed at the date of the Norman Conquest. Here is a rare old volume which was printed in the Cowgate of Edinburgh in 1712. It is "A Collection of useful Remedies for most Distempers. ... Collected by John Moncrief, the laird of Tippermalluch, a person of extraordinary skill and knowledge in the art of physick, and who performed many stupendous cures by these simple remedies."
His volume contains innumerable directions for the preparation of divers herbs, and also a multitude of prescriptions of animal substances so inexpressibly loathsome as to make it a matter of marvel how any one could be found either to prepare them, or to submit to their application. Salts of ammonia in the crudest form were a favorite remedy for external or internal use.
By far the least objectionable compounds were those prepared from carbonized animals in the Japanese or early Saxon manner. Thus "for a dangerous squinance or quinsy" Tippermalluch bids his disciples—
For falling of the hair. Make a Lee of the Ashes of Cow's Dung, wherewith wash the Head. The burnt Ashes of little Froggs applyed cures the falling of the hair, called Alopecia. The burnt Ashes of Goats Dung mixt with Oyl, anointed, multiplys the Hair. The Ashes of a Goat's Hoof mixed with Pitch healeth the Alopecia. The Ashes of Bees mixt with Oyl, or the ashes of Southernwood mixt with old Oyl, causeth hair to grow. A Lee of the Ashes of Ivie-tree-Bark causeth hair grow yellow. The Blood of a shell Crab anointed, breeds much hair. But the Blood of a Bat, or a little Frog, the powder of a Swan's Bones, or the Milk of a Bitch hinders the growing of the hair. The bark of the Sallow Tree dissolved in Oyl maketh the hair black. The decoction of the flowers of broom dye it yellow. To make Curl'd hair. Ashphodele roots rubbed on the head, the same being first raz'd (i. e., shaven).
For the cure of the disease called Lethargie burn the whole skin of a Hare, with the ears and nails, and give the patient the powder thereof warm. The smoak of Kid's leather burnt, holden to the Nose, awakens them powerfully. Ashes of Hartshorn burnt, mixt with the Oyl of Roses and anointed on the forehead and temples, causeth a pleasant sleep.
For Cancer, the Ashes of a Dog's head, or burnt human dung.
The Ancle-bones of a Swine or the hoofs of a Cow, burnt and drunk, cures the Colick. Hare's blood fryed, taken, Hosted Hare's flesh eaten, the Ashes of a Hare, burnt whole, Ashes of burnt willow, or Ashes of the bark of the Elm-tree cureth burning or scalding. Powder of the burnt hairs of a hare cures St. Anthonies Fire, i. e., Erysipelas.
Here are valuable styptics to stanch bleeding of the Nose. Make a powder of the blood of the Patient after it is burnt, and blow it up in the Nose. It powerfully stays the bleeding. Snails with the shells bruised, put in. Juice of Swine's dung, put in. Hold before your eyes the herb sheepherd's scrip, or Vervain, or Knot-grass. These herbs have that propertie, by looking on them, to stanch blood.
Ashes of a Frog well burnt in a Pot, gleweth Veins and Arteries and cures Burning. Ashes of Hen's feathers burnt, or ashes of Nettles snuffed up. The blood of a Partridge, of an Ozell, of a Dove, applyed, stayeth the flowing of the blood most healthfully. The blood of a Cow put in the wound.
Cause the patient to ly on his back all naked, and drop on his Face Water and Vinegar. This is a most sure Cure. Steep a Hare's hair in Water and Vinegar, put it in the Nose and it will produce a marvellous effect.Or take a Toad, dry it very well before the Sun, put it in a Linnen cloath and hang it with a string about the party that bleedeth. Let it touch the breast of the Left side near the Heart. Spiders pulverised and snuffed stops blood.
I think the Japanese gentleman who was so much annoyed at my having obtained a glimpse of "the foolishness" of old Japanese medicine, might have wondered a good deal had he got hold of some English prescriptions of the last century!
From an almost endless catalogue of healing-spells which are to this day practiced by the peasantry of various districts in England and Scotland, I will quote a few which are considered certain remedies. The Northumbrian cure for warts is to take a large black snail, rub the wart well with it, and then impale the poor snail on a thorn-hedge. As the poor creature wastes away, the warts will surely disappear.
In the west of England eel's blood serves the same purpose. For goître or wen a far more horrible charm must be tried. The hand of a dead child must be rubbed nine times across the lump, or, still better, the hand of a suicide. It is not many years since a poor woman living in the neighborhood of Hartlepool, acting on the advice of a "wise woman," went alone by night to an out-house where lay the corpse of a suicide awaiting the coroner's inquest. She lay all night with the hand of the corpse resting on her wen; but the mental shock of that night of horror was such that she shortly afterward died.
In the neighborhood of Stamfordham, in Northumberland, whooping-cough is cured by putting the head of a live trout into the mouth of the patient, and letting the trout breathe into the child's mouth. Or else a hairy caterpillar is put in a small bag and tied round the neck of the child, whose cough ceases as the insect dies.
A peculiar class of remedy is that of making offerings of hair as a cure for whooping-cough. In Sunderland, the crown of the head is shaved, and the hair hung upon a bush or tree, in full faith that, as the birds carry away the hair, so will the cough vanish. In Lincolnshire, a girl suffering from ague, cuts a lock of her hair, and binds it round an aspen-tree, praying it to shake in her stead. In Ross-shire, where living cocks are still occasionally buried as a sacrificial remedy for epilepsy, some of the hair of the patient is generally added to the offering. And at least one holy well in Ireland (that of Tubber Quan, near Carrick-on-Suir) requires an offering of hair from all Christian pilgrims who come here on the last three Sundays in June to worship St. Quan; part of the ceremonial required is that they should go thrice round a neighboring tree on their bare knees, and then each must cut off a lock of his hair, and tie it to a branch as a charm against headache. The tree, thus fringed with human hair of all colors, some newly cut, some sun-bleached, is a curious sight, and an object of deep veneration.
Travelers who remember the tufts of hair which figure so largely among the votive offerings in Japanese temples, may trace some feeling in common between the kindred superstitions of these Eastern and Western isles.
Hideous is the remedy for toothache practiced at Tavistock in Devonshire, where a tooth must be bitten from a skull in the church-yard, and kept always in the pocket.
Spiders are largely concerned in the cure of ague. In Ireland the sufferer is advised to swallow a living spider. In Somerset and neighboring counties, he is to shut a large black spider in a box and leave it to perish; while in Flanders he is to imprison one in an empty walnut-shell, and wear it round his neck. Even in sturdy New England a lingering faith in the superstitions of the old mother-country leads to the manufacture of pills of spider's web as a cure for ague, and Longfellow tells of a popular cure for fever "by wearing a spider hung round one's neck in a nutshell." This was the approved remedy of our British ancestors for fever and ague; and I am told that in Sussex the prescription of a live spider rolled up in butter is still considered good in cases of obstinate jaundice.
Many and horrible are the remedies for erysipelas. Thus, at Loch Carron, in Ross-shire, we knew of a case in which the patient was instructed to cut off one half of the ear of a cat, and let the blood drip on the inflamed surface.
It appears that the old superstition may even survive in such an atmosphere of strong common sense as that of Pennsylvania, where so recently as the year 1867, a case was reported in which a woman was found to have administered three drops of a black cat's blood to a child as a remedy for croup. Her neighbors objected to her pharmacy, and proved their superior wisdom by publicly accusing her of witchcraft.
In Cornwall the shedding of blood is not required. The treatment prescribed for the removal of "whelks" or small pimples from the eyelids of children is simply to pass the tail of a black cat nine times over the part affected.
Of the burial of a living cock on behalf of an epileptic patient, we have had many instances in the north of Scotland in the present century, but this savors rather of devil-propitiation and sacrifice than of medicine-lore.
In Devonshire the approved treatment for scrofula at the present day is to dry the hind-leg of a toad and wear it round the neck in a silken bag, or else they cut off that part of the living reptile which answers to the part affected by scrofula, and, having wrapped the fragment in parchment, tie it round the neck of the sufferer. In cases of rheumatism, a "wise man" of Devonshire will burn a toad to ashes, and tie the dust in a bit of silk to be worn round the throat.
So recently as 1822, one of these quacks traveled through England "in his own gig." Each patient who consulted him was required to bring him a fee of seven shillings and a live toad. He pocketed the shillings and cut the hind-legs off the luckless toads, placing them in small bags, which he solemnly hung round the neck of the sufferer, who was required to wear this unfragrant appendage till the leg was quite decayed!
For the same malady the same remedy was in the last century recommended by a beggar-wife to a girl at Gaddesden who had been a sufferer from her infancy. It is stated that the cure was effected, and that the girl never suffered afterward. But it is worthy of note that the beggar-wife explained that the efficacy of the charm lay in the death of the poor mutilated toad, which, deprived of its legs, would pine and die, but as it slowly wasted so would the distemper pass away. Here, then, as in the offering of the live cock, was involved the principle of sacrifice—a life for a life.
Another girl in the same village was partly cured of the "evil" in her eyes by applying a sun-dried toad to the back of her neck, whereby blisters were raised. Poor toads are still made to do service in divers manners in Cornwall and Northampton for the cure of nose-bleeding and quinsy; while "toad-powder," or even a live toad or spider shut up in a box, is still, in some places, accounted as useful a charm against contagion as it was in the days of Sir Kenelm Digby. The medicine known to our ancestors as Pulvis Æthiopicus (a valuable remedy both for external and internal use in the treatment of small-pox and dropsy) was neither more nor less than powdered toad.
Frogs are well-nigh as valuable as toads to the sick poor, who are rarely lacking in the primary necessity of faith in the means adopted. Thus, frog's spawn, placed in a stone jar and buried for three months till it turns to water, has been found wonderfully efficacious in Donegal, when well rubbed into a rheumatic limb. How much of the credit was due to the rubbing is not recorded. In Aberdeenshire a cure recommended for sore eyes is to lick the eyes of a live frog. The man who has thus been healed has henceforth the power of curing all sore eyes by merely licking them! In like manner it is said in Ireland that the tongue which has licked a lizard all over will be for ever endued with a marvelous power of healing whatever sore or pain it touches.
Another Irish remedy is to apply the tongue of a fox to draw a troublesome thorn from the foot; the tooth of a living fox to be worn as an amulet is also deemed valuable as a cure for an inflamed leg. The primary difficulty is to catch the fox and extract his tooth!
With respect to deep-seated thorns, the application of a cast-off snake-skin is efficacious, not to attract the thorn toward itself, but to expel it from the opposite side of the hand or foot. But, once we touch on the virtues of the mystic snake, we find its reputation just as great in Britain's medicine folk-lore as in Japan, where the great snake-skins held so conspicuous a place in the druggist's shop, or in China, where the skin of a white-spotted snake is valued as the most efficacious remedy for palsy, leprosy, and rheumatism.
Strange to say, in the old Gaelic legends, there is a certain white snake who receives unbounded reverence as the king of snakes, and another legend tells of a nest containing six brown adders and one pure white one, which latter, if it can be caught and boiled, confers wondrous medical skill on the lucky man who tastes of the serpent-broth.
In some of the Hebridean Isles, notably that of Lewis, the greatest faith prevails in the efficacy of so-called "serpent-stones," which are simply perforated, water-worn stones. Some have had two plain circles cut upon them. These are dipped in water, which is then given to cattle as a cure for swelling or for snake-bite. Should such a charmed stone be unattainable (and their number is exceedingly limited), the head of an adder may be tied to a string and dipped in the water, with equally good result.
The oft-quoted remedy, "A hair of the dog that bit you," appears in many forms. In Devonshire, any person bitten by a viper is advised at once to kill the creature and rub the wound with its fat. I am told that this practice has survived in some of the Northern States of America, where the flesh of a rattlesnake is accounted the best cure for its own bite.
In Black's very interesting volume on "Folk-Medicine," he mentions that the belief in the power of snake-skin as a cure for rheumatism still exists among the sturdy New-Englanders, some of whom are not above the weakness of wearing a snake-skin round the neck, or keeping a pet snake as a charm. The use by American Indians of rattlesnake-oil for the same malady seems not devoid of reason; but the New England faith in snake-skin is probably a direct heritage from Britain, where Mr. Black tells of an old man who used to sit on the steps of King's College Chapel, at Cambridge, and earn his living by exhibiting the common English snake, and selling the sloughs of snakes, to be bound round the forehead and temples of persons suffering from headache.
In Durham, an eel's skin worn as a garter round the naked leg is considered a preventive of cramp, while in Northumberland it is esteemed the best bandage for a sprained limb.
So, too, in Sussex, the approved cure for a swollen neck is to draw a snake nine times across the throat of the sufferer, after which operation the snake is killed, and its skin sewed in a piece of silk and worn round the patient's neck. Sometimes the snake is put in a bottle, which is tightly corked and buried in the ground, and it is expected that, as the victim decays, the swelling will subside.
The quaint little drug-store at Osaka has led me into a long talk; but the subject is a large one, and the chief difficulty lies in selecting a few examples from the mass of material before me. I am sure that should these pages ever meet the eye of my Japanese friend, he will acknowledge that my interest in the medicine-lore of his ancestors was certainly justifiable.—Nineteenth Century.
- Monodon monoceros.
- See "In the Hebrides," by C. F. Gordon Cumming, London, Chatto & Windus.