Monday, July 27, 2009

A Miracle of 16th. century Medicine


The herbal uses of many plants, like the two woundworts shown here, are preserved in their common names. Hedge woundwort Stachys sylvatica (bottom photo), with spikes of purple and white-blotched, hooded flowers is common along woodland edges and is most easily recognised by the appalling stench of its crushed leaves. Marsh woundwort Stachys palustris (top photo), with less pongy leaves covered with soft greyish hairs and with pink flowers, is restricted to damper habitats. Confusingly, the two species tend to form hybrids with intermediate chacters when they occur within bee-foraging proximity. According to the 16th. century herbalist John Gerard, marsh woundwort (or all-heale, as he also called it) has miraculous powers. In his famous Herbal of 1597 Gerard says that marsh woundwort first came to his attention when he met a labourer who had cut his leg to the bone with a scythe. Gerard recounts how the victim crawled to a patch of woundwort and “tied a great quantitie of it unto the wound with a piece of shirt”, whereupon the pain and bleeding ceased and he could resume work. Within seven days, he claimed, the wound was healed. Impressed with the labourer’s experience, Gerard went on to test the efficacy of woundwort on two of his own patients. The first had been run through with a sword, puncturing his lung, but Gerard claimed to have “perfectly cured him in a very short time”, using the labourer’s method with the addition of some turpentine, oil of roses and “a quart of good claret wine”. Even more improbably, he then claimed to have successfully treated an attempted suicide who had cut his own throat and stabbed himself in the chest and abdomen, restoring him to good health within twenty days. Far-fetched for sure, but back in Gerard’s day the tall stories in his Herbal – and the wild plants of the hedgerow – were the best medical resources available. Interestingly, he describes marsh woundwort as growing “in the medowes by Lambeth neere London”. I wonder if there’s a marsh woundwort plant growing anywhere within the Borough of Lambeth today?

7 comments:

  1. What a wonderful tale, Phil. I suppose it was all excellent publicity for the good doctor. I am find the whole matter of plants used to heel and cure interesting. I was reading again about the doctrine of signatures recently and found that interesting too.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Have you been to the Physic Garden at Dilston near Corbridge, Emma? It's well worth a visit - see http://dilstonphysicgarden.com/

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Phil, They might have some Woundwort growing at the Garden Museum, next to Lambeth Palace. I visited there about 10 years ago and remember seeing Gertrude Jekyll's gardening boots, not to mention an impressive collection of dibbers. Just up river a bit is the Chelsea Physic Garden which I did on the same day, well worth a visit - I bet they'll have Woundwort in the First Aid border.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Fascinating, as always Phil.
    I'm sure some of Gerard’s stories are a bit over the top; but equally there must be some truth in there somewhere.
    A beautiful plant though.

    ReplyDelete
  5. The man from the Physic Garden came and spoke at our Women's Institute meeting in Rochester last year. He gave a very good presentation including talking about some plants he had picked on the verge outside the village hall. Now that you remind me, I might take a trip down to Corbridge one day soon.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi Rob.,I've never been to the museum of garden history, but the Chelsea Physic Garden is a wonderful place - you're right, they're bound to have it in cultivation...

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thanks Keith, Gerard's Herbal has been oublished in a facsimile edition and it makes an entertaining read......

    ReplyDelete