'Folk' medicine is an accumulation of very diverse techniques and beliefs, on which many layers of cultural history have left a mark; it could never have been known in its entirety to any one community, let alone one individual. The two primary aspects, predating any written records, are a practical knowledge of the effects of *herbs and plants, and the principles of *magic by contact or similarity. An important principle was that disease could be transferred from one person to another, or to an animal or object. This is obvious in *wart cures, and in the notion that *onions 'draw' infection; it is probably one factor in more complex rituals such as passing a child with hernia through a split *ash. Perhaps the widespread belief in the curative touch of a *dead hand implied that the ailment would go with the dead man to his grave; however, contact with death seems to have been effective in itself, judging by the healing power attributed to *skulls, *coffin nails, *churchyard earth, and similar grim objects.
   Christianity had a strong impact on folk medicine. From Anglo-Saxon times onwards, instructions for gathering or administering medicinal herbs routinely involved making the sign of the cross, and repeating formulas of prayer. Many traditional verbal charms, such as those for *toothache, *nightmare, and *burns, invoke the power of Jesus, or of saints and angels. The medicinal efficacy of *cramp rings, *Good Friday buns, rain falling on *Ascension Day, and much else, rested ultimately on religious associations.
   Other traditional cures seem arbitrary: keep a potato in your pocket against rheumatism; give a child cooked *mice for bed-wetting or whooping cough; eat a live *spider for ague; take powdered cockroaches, or woodlice in wine, for dropsy - and very many more. It would be wrong to call such things 'magic', for there was nothing supernatural about them; they were taken for granted as natural properties of everyday items.
   When the sickness was itself attributed to *witchcraft, magical *counterspells would be set in motion, often under the guidance of a *cunning man or woman. Others gifted with healing powers were *charmers, *seventh sons or daughters, and (in the case of *king's evil) the anointed monarch. Certain personal peculiarities also made one a healer for certain ailments; thus, a 'left twin' (survivor of a pair where the other had died) could cure thrush by blowing three times in the sufferer's mouth (Latham, 1878: 38); bread and butter made by a couple named Joseph and Mary would cure *whooping cough (Hole, 1937: 10-11); so would anything recommended by any man riding a piebald horse (Opie and Tatem, 1989: 305-6). How long such ideas have existed, or how they began, is beyond conjecture; one must simply accept that traditional medicine ranges from sound pragmatic advice, through symbolism, to downright silliness. See also *herbs and *charms (verbal).
   For an assessment of the effectiveness of herbal treatments, see Hatfield, 1994. Books on regional folklore almost always include cures, and there is a good selection from all over England in Wright, 1913: 239-56.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.


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