Folk Medicine and Magic in Lancashire

Folk cures for humans as well as beasts involved the medical, the magical and sometimes the simply mystifying. Peter Watson reveals some of the techniques in traditional and historical medical practice

Published in Northern Earth 86 (2001): 20-23

The library of Chetham’s school in Manchester contains a remarkable if largely forgotten herbal, beautifully written and illuminated in a hand of the early 17th century. Within the pages of this book, bound in a palimpsest of ancient parchment, are juxtaposed a large number of traditional cures and a lesser number which appear to the layman to have no medicinal virtue. There is a recommendation to the practitioner, in attempting a cure “ffor the canker”, to “… take the hedde of a stork or of a crane, and the fete and all that is within and do it all in a pot of erthe that was newe and do it in an oven … and dry it so that thou may make a pouder thereof and do of that pouder in that canker and it shalbe hole within foure dayes” [1]

As unlikely to benefit as this may seem, such ‘medicines’ had a long tradition amongst the culturally backward people of much of Lancashire. An Anglo-Saxon Leechdom advises, for “… oppressive, hard-draw breathing …”, a fox’s lung, “… sodden and put into sweetened wine, and administered, which wonderfully healeth” [2]. And in the Burnley area as late as the 18th century a charm (as one example of many) was placed over the door of a dwelling-house which sought protection by, amongst other things, “… the Sun, Moon, Mars … Saturn … and a Dragon’s tail .. to Gard this House from all Desorders, and from anything being taken wrangasly, and give this famaly good Ealth and Welth” [3]. There is no mention of Divine protection here: everything is invoked except God.

Belief in the efficacy of so-called ‘folk medicine’ was not diminished with the passage of time. Even in our modern society, seemingly groundless beliefs still hold sway. Who has not thrown salt over their shoulder or touched wood for luck? During the 18th and 19th centuries, in the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, a large part of the population was maintaining beliefs that had been present for a thousand years and more. The magic of ancient cultures, long forgotten and a mystery to most, was inherent in the charms, spells and incantations resorted to as methods of harnessing supernatural powers.

The apparently nonsensical nature of much folk medicine is retrospective. In the absence of anything more revealing or effective for the survival of the body and the soul, illogical beliefs were deep-rooted and only became generally redundant in recent times. The key to the maze of superstition in Lancashire is undoubtedly the demographic aspects of the county and its rural nature. Within a few minutes by car of the centres of the once-great textile and engineering districts, close-knit and very old communities continue to flourish alongside younger relatives. The remoteness of some parts may be readily appreciated and, work and play once being largely confined to insular communities based on farming and hand-loom weaving which required little intellectual effort, it is unsurprising that people believed in the power of spells, charms and talismans.

Many putative cures were, quite literally, magical in origin and in the expectations of their effects, being ‘made up’, so that the mystical essence appealed to superstitious minds, setting in motion what is commonly referred to as the ‘placebo effect’ – if the patient thought the medicine was going to work it might, for less serious conditions. Quite often, on the other hand, it didn’t, and an examination of medical recipes will demonstrate why.

In the late 18th century the ‘Whitworth Doctors’ dispensed medicine in the industrial areas of Rossendale and Whitworth in the south Pennines. Some of their treatments were questionable, but have every right to be included in the field of folk-medicine. For re-setting bones in the leg the patient was tied to railings, whereupon a good ‘punce’ (kick) was administered to the offending member! Their famous ‘red bottle’, the recipe for which remains a secret, was said to be corrosive in large amounts, but their fame as doctors (they were actually horse-doctors, to begin with) amongst the poor brought them eventually into contact with no less a personage than the daughter of George III, whom they cured after all attempts by the court physicians had failed. If patients were unable to pay for treatment there was no charge, but they had to take their turn with the horses in the fields and would often be vying with them for the doctor’s attention [4].

Some methods were little more than the manifestation of ‘wishful thinking’. There was often an attempt to transfer or divert sickness to something, or someone else. Examples abound from all parts of the county, including the western coastal areas around Blackpool, Fleetwood and Morecambe, which became the scenes, well into the twentieth century, of performances re-enacting much older beliefs in attempting to cure whooping cough. Sufferers stood on the beach at high tide and when the tide went out it carried the cough with it [5]. Similarly, as late as the early 20th century, a woman who had tried every trick to rid herself of painful warts was told by a Pendle doctor to go to bed, put a silver sixpence under her pillow and pray! Presumably the silver, a magical metal, would be expected to absorb the warts.

An east Lancashire newspaper of 1863 published a report which demonstrates the once widely-held belief that animals, like inanimate objects, could take away sickness. Hidden amongst the commonplace items of a small regional publication, surrounded by obituaries, maudlin poems, advertisements for quack medicines, public disorder reports and the like is the following gem of pure superstitious belief from a time when most people were unable to afford doctors’ bills. The reporter regaled his readers with the tale of the old nurse who had cured two children of measles “… by cutting some hair from the nape of the neck of each child and separately placing the hair between two slices of bread and butter.” The matron, watching anxiously for a strange dog to pass, “… no other being efficacious … then gave him the bread to eat, and as he ate it without loathing she was sure the children would be cured. The dog then went away and, of course, never came again, for he died of the measles, having travelled off with the disease of two affected children.” [6]. Since measles was, at that time, one of several particularly nasty and dangerous illnesses, the children may be considered fortunate to have recovered and, no doubt, the old woman was praised for her presence of mind in treating them as she did.

A further and equally unintelligible remedy for all sorts of agues was the ‘magnetical experiment’ of paring a patient’s nails when the fit was coming on and putting them into a bag of fine linen or sarsanet, which was then tied about a live eel’s neck in a tub of water. The perpetrator of the experiment, which had been tried “with infallible success” advised, “… the eel will die and the patient recover” [7]. And a medieval charm against fever, written by a semi-literate priest in vulgar Latin reads: “This fever is as easy for you as the birth of Christ to the Virgin Mary” [8]. The immediate effect of this on the sweating patient may be imagined. Parson Woodforde, the tobacco-smoking, tea-drinking smugglers’ friend of the mid-nineteenth century, had occasion to resort to a “common saying” when he had a stye on his eye and after some deliberation “… rubed it with a black cat’s tail.” After dinner he found his eye-lid “… much abated of the swelling” [9]. Even the most highly educated people (Woodforde was an Oxford graduate) were not above the magical treatment of physical complaints and the superstitious propitiation of evil forces.

The Rev Charles Allen, writing in 1748, recommended “… leaves of rue, venice treacle and the scrapings of Pewter … boiled over a slow fire in two Quarts of strong Ale …” as a successful treatment for hydrophobia. Whether the reverend gentleman knew it or not, this “receipt”, by the nature of its preparation, is a charm, as the medicine had to be given in nine (a magical number) spoonfuls, within nine days of “… ye biting of ye dog.” Significantly, he was also relying on supernatural intervention, as he wrote that the recipe would not fail “… by God’s blessing …” A case of hitting it with everything you’ve got. He added, in his day book, that, “almost the whole Parish having been bitten, those who used the medicine recovered, and those who did not, Died” [10].

The ingenuity with which healers plied their trade (including those who were regarded as ‘professional’ practitioners) and the readiness to try anything, took folk medicine beyond what modern people would find acceptable. To those remedies which advocated the use of animal and human excrement smeared about the afflicted parts may be added the eighteenth century commonplace cure for consumption, which recommended “… the swallowing of a handful of little white garden snails” [11],whilst Porter writes of the woman who, in 1885, was reported as “… skinning a new-born puppy, and boiling it up and giving the soup to her weakly child, to make it grow up strong” [12].

The Anglo-Saxons produced an impressive array of cures for all kinds of conditions, from herb salves against “nocturnal goblin visitors” to the wolf’s flesh, “well dressed and sodden”, for the apparitions associated with ‘devil sickness’ [13]. Henpecked husbands were prescribed the root of radish, “… against the chatter of women …” and were confidently assured, “… that day the chatter cannot harm thee” [14]. Religious magic was interposed where herbal magic needed strengthening, so that nine masses were to be sung over a concoction that included bishopwort, lupin, henbane, harewort, viper’s bugloss, cropleek, garlic and hedgerife, “…for women with whom the devil hath carnal commerce…” [15]. The Leechdom from which this was taken does not go into any more detail, but it is to be hoped that the women who were treated felt it was worth the efforts of their ‘carnal commerce’!

The same herbs crop up a thousand years later when henbane, “sede of lekes and ffrankences” were the main curative ingredients for “wormes in the tethe” [16] and sprigs of wormwood were combined in a sort of pomander, with “veniger and rose water” in ‘Docter Hammonds Receipt Against evill Ayres and the Plague’ [17]. The procedure for avoiding these “evill Ayres” was somewhat protracted and doubtless inconvenient, in that the recipient of the good doctor’s knowledge was required to “… Cast wyne veniger upon a hott tyle and recyve the same at your mouth and nose before you goe out of your Chamber every Mornynge … and use venigar with all your meate, eat very moderately drink noe Wyne and avoyd the thronge of company.” [18]. The advice to avoid crowded places is probably the only sensible part of this recipe; the remainder is the magical bit.

Some recipes for potentially serious, even fatal, conditions were not unpleasant – for consumption (which may cover several chest complaints of varying severity) 2oz of mutton was prescribed, to be cut small and boiled well in a pint of new milk, and taken for supper. The same source, the commonplace book of B Shaw (1821), gives, also for the relief of consumption, a recipe consisting of “… a tablespoonful of oatmeal, honey, butter the size of a nutmeg, 1 yolk of an egg mix pour on them a pint of boiling water … to be drank in bed or the last thing before bed.” A seventeenth century cure “ffor hym that hath the fflew” appears particularly appetising, for the wretched sufferer was exhorted to take “… a hott lofe as it comyth out of the oven and make soppes of the croms in good wyne and ete well thereof and it shal do the gode.” [19].

Much of the folk medicine which was popular amongst a rural population was probably maintained to the bitter end as a means of holding on to and making some sense of a way of life that was changing for ever with the ‘Industrial Revolution’; in many ways people were content to suffer the consequences of ignorance as long as it was on their terms. They continued into the present century to swear by tried and tested cures, of which the benefits were, to a large extent, of the psychological kind.


[1] Byrom Collection, Chetham’s School, pages unnumbered A.3. 127
[2] Anglo-Saxon Leechdom, vol. 1, p. 355
[3] ‘Lancashire Folk-Lore’, Harland and Wilkinson, (1882), p. 63
[4] ‘The Taylors of Lancashire’, J L West, (1977), pp. 122, 123
[5] ‘The Witch Hunt in early modern Europe’, B P Levack, (1995), p. 89
[6] ‘Bacup & Rossendale News’, December 12th, 1863, pages unnumbered
[7] ‘Traditions, Superstitions & Folklore’, C Hardwick, (1872), p. 108
[8] Medieval charm, provenance unknown
[9] ‘Medicine and the decline of Magic’, R Porter
[10] Commonplace Book of Rev. Charles Allen, (1748), p. 1 P.R.O. EHC 50
[11] Mrs. Owen’s Recipe Book, P.R.O. DDX 337/1
[12] Porter, op.cit.
[13] Saxon Leechdom, op.cit., p. 361
[14] Leechdom, vol. 2, p. 343
[15] Ibid. p. 345
[16] Byrom Collection, A.3. 127
[17] Judge Walmsley’s Commonplace Book, P.R.O., pages unnumbered.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Byrom Collection, op.cit.
Published in NE86 (Summer 2001), pp.20-23

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