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Widecombe History Group Talk February 2006

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Widecombe History Group Talk on Prayers and Potions : Death & Disease from a Medieval Perspective


The Meeting was given a most interesting illustrated talk by Jill Drysdale entitled "Prayers and Potions : Death & Disease from a Medieval Perspective".

Jill commenced her address by explaining that to go back 500 years in one step is impossible. It is more like peeling back the layers of an onion, era after era until you get to where you wish to start.

Imagine before there was the National Health Service, every time you saw a doctor you had to pay, so that was the last ‘path’ you took. First you explored all the family herbal recipes, the local ‘witchdoctor’, home remedies that had been passed down from many previous generations, including ‘goose grease’ rubbed on your chest at the beginning of winter, a flannel vest put on and not removed till the following May. If that did not work, you kept in close contact with the church, hoping that should help, then and only then did you go to the doctor, in many cases by then it was too late anyway!. There were no antibiotics, injections or tablets, sanitation was shocking if not totally non-existent and a carbolic soaked sheet between the infected and non-infected was the best you could hope for. Water was by no means clean, often polluted. The further back you go, ‘peeling off the layers of history’ you will be amazed at the lack of sanitation, cleanliness, that we today would call basic Hygiene. There was generally a lady in the parish who assisted at most ‘events’. She acted as midwife, go and fetch ‘Mrs So an So’, the husband would be told when a birth was expected, or if it was the fourth, or even the fourteenth the eldest of the children would run the errand. She also arrived when there was death to ‘lay him out’. Her medication was a Madeira cake and a bottle of home made tonic wine, no painkillers to help ease the birth, no post or anti natal care here, just the survival of the fittest. Infection. blood poisoning, and death was common particularly whenever complications were encountered.

The houses were cold and draughty, colds easily became pneumonia, no antibiotics to fight the fever, if you were strong you fought it and survived if you didn’t you died and that was all there was to it. TB was common place and if you contracted that ‘you weren’t long for this world’! Simple cuts and grazes often turn septic, tetanus and death. Each era produces its own disease and those with little or no built in resistance suffer, today it is Aids, and also those that do not make use of current immunisation practices may well leave themselves open to infection.

The power of the church was considerable at this time. The ordinary people were simple in an unsophisticated way, and for the most part they believed what they were told, as they could not read for themselves and there were not many books anyway. It was only the vicars and squires(big landowners) that had an education. They were the only ones that could read or write and whatever they said went! They had everyone in their control and their decisions were never questioned - they ruled the parish! It was because of this that all workers and tenants had to come to church each Sunday, if they did not attend it was the sack on Monday, they were completely controlled. The church told stories to explain the mystery of religion, death, life, harvest and all everyday happenings, the inside of medieval churches were covered in paintings. The stories of the bible were told by pictures, prayers in Latin were learnt off by heart, this is why there was uproar when the first English Prayer Book came into existence as the unknown latin language was mystique. Miracles and other religious happenings were all dealt with in as simple a way as possible.

No television or radio, no daily newspapers, everything was passed on by word of mouth and it was often weeks before news of an event a few miles away came through, and as very little travelling took place, news from afar did not filter into scattered rural villages. They were simply un-informed.

Superstition was rife. In the 1500s(16th century), it was believed that if the King was to lay his hands on you, you could be cured of most things. The Black Death and Bubonic Plague, had a devastating effect on the people, it is believed that two thirds of the population died through this. With the Black Death came many wealthy widows, before that they were considered the chattels of their husbands, but now with their independence they became the head of the family and so became the ruling class themselves.

There began a peasant’s revolt, as there was a shortage of workers to farm the land, sow and harvest and care for the livestock so they started demanding more money. Serfs that had been paid 1/- (a shilling) a week demanded 5/- (five shillings), and they got it, discontent was creeping in! The peasants were also demanding land to work for themselves.

Marriage was a necessity, love did not come into the equation, if you were the landed gentry you arranged the marriage of your daughter to keep the money within the family group of friends and relations. The wife became more important, as a good wife she oversaw the cooking, the making and repair of clothes and kept an eye on her herb garden, this was good for meals, cures and herbal remedies, and medical potions. Mint was considered good for stomach and as an aphrodisiac, its association with Venus and love, Valerium for rest and sleep and even death with the god Mercury, feverfew is good for fevers and childbirth, bee-hives were useful as were marigolds, taragon was good for toothache and there was once a Mr Calpepper in the 1600’s who devised a book on the merits of herbs, beware as he does not give the quantities used. Far more extreme, some folklore cures included the use of birds, beasts, snail shells, vinegar and brown paper and insects mutilated to procure healing.

The church maintained its hold on people for many years and in some cases still does. When all cures had failed you turned to the church. All children had to be christened and it was the duty of the godparents to see that the parents swore to protect the child through fire, water, and other perils. It was the godparents duty to make sure that the child could say the Lords Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Apostle’s Creed. They had failed in their duty if the child could not say them. They could not read it, but it was passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. The priest was very powerful and controlled everyones way of life and how they lived that life, sometimes by fear of the unknown. By lighting a candle, bought from the church (another penny to the church), and praying to the Saint under whom your birth date appears, or the Saint for your particular complaint, (another candle, another penny), believing it helped you pass through purgatory quicker and so reach your peace, it cost you a penny for every candle, you could gain favour by buying extra candles, doing good deeds like feeding the poor, giving and caring for someone worse off, if you could afford more candles the journey became easier and quicker, the choice was yours. Or was it?

This was an amusing, interesting, fascinating and enjoyable talk.

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