Mistress Martha extols the benefits of Meadowsweet

Meadowsweet has many other names, including Bridewort, as it was traditional in bridal bouquets. It was also strewn at weddings and handfastings for the bride to walk on,  creating a strong aroma. It has been used in love spells and to promote happiness. The smell was said to cheer the heart and keep peace. Meadowsweet also overcame infections. Strewing it about the house allowed the aroma to spread.

MeadowsweetThe scent was said to have the power to induce a deep, sleep from which one would never wake. Conversely, Meadowsweet tea was drunk to heighten energy and merriment, although excessive consumption can produce a narcotic affect. Meadowsweet can be infused into an oil and inhaled, allegedly making women more attractive.

The plant is associated with the warrior Cuchulainn, who took Meadowsweet baths to cure rage and fevers. Regarding fevers, Gerard comments that ‘the floures boiled in wine and drunke do take away the fits of a quartaine ague’ (fever). Gerard also talks of the benefits to the eyes, saying that dropping distilled water of Meadowsweet flowers would reduce burning and itching. Culpeper mentions Meadowsweet and its effectiveness for kidney problems and benefits to the lungs and to ease sore throats.

So that is what the folk of our time believe. Some of these traditional uses have been backed up by scientific research. Meadowsweet has been shown to have adaptogenic qualities, helping the body and mind to deal with stress. This could manifest itself as the ‘cheering the heart, keeping peace and promotion of happiness’ as these are things which can happen when stress is reduced and the body learns to adapt to stress. It could also be said that the heightened energy and merriment and increased attractiveness of women might occur as stress is reduced.

Meadowsweet can control fever, allowing healing to occur, therefore research shows that Cuchulainn’s fever could indeed have been eased by the taking of Meadowsweet. His rage would be calmed due to the aforementioned adaptogenic qualities. This also confirms Gerard’s assertion regarding fevers. There has been research to show that Meadowsweet has antimicrobial properties. This shows that the traditional strewing on the floor could indeed help to overcome infections. Research shows that Meadowsweet is particularly effective in regulating the digestive mucos. This supports Culpeper’s assertion regarding its benefits to the throat, as Meadowsweet has an expectorant effect. Culpeper’s claim that Meadowsweet helps to treat kidney problems, is also substantiated by research. The anti-inflammatory properties of Meadowsweet could be the reason why Gerard observes that the plant has benefits to stinging eyes.

No evidence has been found to indicate that the ‘fatal sleep’ or ‘narcotic effect’ had any basis in fact.


Some Handy Cures for those who Ail

Mistress Agnes decided that she would share a few receipts from goodwives of her acquaintance in case any do be ailing.

Ground IvyDr Wadenfield’s Remedy for Lunacy, as penned by the inestimable Mrs Kettilby. Take of ground-ivy three large handfuls shred small, boil it in two quarts of white wine, till two parts in three be consumed. Strain and add to it six ounces of the best sallad oil, boil it up to an ointment; let the patient’s head be shaved, rub and chafe it with the ointment made warm. Then take fresh herbs, bruised and applied plaisterwise, tying it on the top of the head very hard. Repeat this every other day, ten or twelve times, give the patient three spoonfuls of the juice of ground-ivy every morning fasting, in a glass of beer for the first ten days.

Mrs Kettliby’s own receipt for an ointment for the back of a ricketty child. Pick snails clean out of the shells and prick them full of holes, hang them up in a cloth and put a bason to catch what drops from them; which you must boil up with speracity and blades of mace, of each one ounce. Rub this ointment along the back-bone, round the neck, wrists and ancles. Use this constantly night and morning and chase it in by the fire. This with the drink that follows has recovered many weak children from sickness, lameness and deformity.

To make the Ricketty Drink: Put an ounce of rhubarb, three hundred live wood-lice, sassafras, china and eringo roots of each three ounces; roots of Ismond-royal, two ounces, raisins of the sun ston’d two ounces; Hart’s Tongue, two handfuls. Put these into six quarts of small ale and drink spring and fall, no other drink; tis almost infallible for weak children.

Mistress Agnes be gathering wood-lice this very minute.

Of Frogs and Foreign Parts

Mistress Agnes has not put quill to keyboard lately but rest assured we have not been idle. Armour is being polished, shifts are being darned, herb gardens are being tended, research is being done. The diary is looking very full for 2018, those who are responsible for the education of young folks are advised to book early to be assured of enjoying the ministrations of our wonderous characters in the forthcoming school year. Our presence amongst older folks has also been requested in places near and far.

DSCF3080In preparation for next year’s voyaging to continents unknown, Mistress Agnes has been looking out some new cures. We need to be in good health to be travelling hither and yon. We will therefore be concocting a mouthwash by boiling frogs in vinegar. Should we become jaundiced we will be eating the fresh dung of a grass-fed goose or cutting open a live trout and laying it on our stomachs. Other ailments will be suitably ‘cured’ by the deployment of items in Master Christopher’s surgeon’s kit.

* With grateful thanks to Evans, Jennifer and Read, Sara Maladies and Medicine: exploring health and healing 1540-1740 (Pen and Sword 2017)

A Page from the Herbal of Mistress Agnes – Dung and its Uses

Dung – that most useful substance, second only to urine and of course free. Well there be too many uses to write of them all here but Mistress Agnes thought she would just mentions a few in case you had an excess of the same to be disposed of. Manure, both animal and human is of course most efficacious when cast upon the soil to make the plants grow. ’Tis strewn around Mistress A’s herb garden with abandon.

Lords and Ladies Cuckoo Pint

The berries of the cuckoo–pint can be mixed with hot ox dung and spread on bread as a cure for gout. Fortunately, some may say, thou doth not eat it. Instead this be applied as a poultice. Powdered peacock dung be recommended for the falling sickness that now be called epilepsy (first catch your peacock).

The dried cow pat not only makes an excellent fuel but also purifies the air. It also be a wonderous ingredient in the cob from which the houses of Swords and Spindles folk are fashioned. The dried cow pat can be rubbed upon the face to exfoliate dead skin and scabs. Master Christopher’s colleagues in Ireland are recommending blowing dried human excrement in the eyes for curing of the cataracts.

Swords and Spindles are willing to share their knowledge of the medicine and herbal lore of their time but we do recommend that you do not try any of their ‘cures’ at home.

Mistress Agnes Wields a Quill

CCCC front coverWhat’s this? I hear you cry, Mistress Agnes? She knows not how to write. Ah, so you might think but let me share with you a well kept secret. Mistress Agnes has another life! Who would have known it? There is even a rumour that she had a hand in that wonderous tome Coffers, Clysters, Comfrey and Coifs: the lives of our seventeenth century ancestors.

This very week the other Mistress Agnes has been hobnobbing with those who do wield a quill, whilst the real Mistress Agnes learned of a local rival to Master Christopher. I give you the fascinating tale of Richard Vines, early seventeenth century physician of Biddeford Town; though in truth he was more likely to have been a barber surgeon. Master Christopher need not fear the competition, as Vines, we hear tell, is off to explore the New World and little chance he has of survival. Here be an extract from a fictional tale of Master Vines but we will not be saying which Mistress Agnes was responsible and the full story may never be told, so holding of the breath is not advised. Oh, unless you do become insensible as a result and need Master Christopher’s ministrations – he could do with the business.

Blood spurted across the sawdust-strewn floor of The Ship  tavern and a chilling groan emerged from the young seaman. He was lying on the scarred and sticky table, limbs firmly pinioned by four of his crew-mates, a leather strap held between his gritted teeth. Standing over the writhing man, Vines drew the back of his grimy hand across his sweaty brow and sniffed hard, so that the droplet of moisture did not descend from the end of his pock-marked nose. He urged his assistants to tighten their grip on the patient. One of the anxious onlookers took a black leather flask from his belt and swilled a slug of usquebaugh down the hapless victim’s throat, hoping to dull the pain as Vine’s rusty saw inexorably drew back and forth, with a rasping sound.

                “Not seen a barrel make that much mess o’ a foot since I left Glasgee, these two years gone, poor gille”. The speaker shook his head slowly and fingered his ginger beard. The surgeon’s discarded blade reflected the light from the guttering tallow candle on The Swan’s warped oak mantel-shelf. He working swiftly, knowing that he had no more than three minutes to sever his patient’s shattered foot before the boy bled to death. He’d heard tales of some new French ideas, where the blood vessels were tied individually after amputation but such fanciful notions were not for the pragmatic Vines. His cautery irons were glowing cherry red in the roaring fire and a small iron pot of hot tar stood on the hearth stone, ready to encase the stump.

Richard Vines, barber surgeon to the forthcoming Gorges expedition to Maine had not expected to spend his last evening ashore operating. He’d been sat comfortably on the curved, high-backed wooden settle in front of The Ship’s welcoming fire, woollen encased lags apart, supping his ale. Four men had rushed in, half-carrying, half dragging their young crew-mate, whose foot had been crushed as he worked to load dried goods onto the Pride of Albion. The vessel could be seen through the scratched window glass, rolling and bobbing on river in the stiffening breeze, wet ropes slapping against the mast in the wind, as it was being made ready for its voyage on the morrow. Young Glover had been in The Ship earlier, downing a mug of ale and boasting to all-comers, excited to be part of the expedition, oblivious to the fact that previous ventures had failed. This would have been his first time on the cod run. His dreams of adventure were now cruelly curtailed, his ambitions dust. If he was lucky enough to survive Vine’s ministrations he was now condemned to the life of a supplicant, dependent on parish relief.

Swords and Spindles offer interactive presentations about the medicine of the seventeenth century, suitable for audiences from the ages of 9 – 99.

A Page from the Herbal of Mistress Agnes – Pilewort

The end of January is nigh and Mistress Agnes’ thoughts turn to her garden in springtime. The Pilewort will soon be showing its yellow blooms. ’Tis a beauteous ground covering plant, giving much cheer in the dark days of February. Some do know it as Lesser Celandine (ranunculus ficaria), though it bears little resemblance to its greater brother. ‘Wort’ be an old English word for ‘plant ’ or ‘herb’, so to be termed a wort means that the plant hath been here many hundreds of years, even in Mistress Agnes’ time.

pilewortFor what might she use such a wonderous plant? Well, if I do tell you that the clue is in the first part of the name mahap some can guess. Mistress Agnes will be bruising the plant, mixing it with a little animal fat and offering it as an ointment for treatment of the affected part. Safe to say she will not be volunteering to assist with the application. The Doctrine of Signatures, upon which Mistress Agnes doth base many of her cures, suggests that God hath given folk a clue as to how a plant might be used by its appearance. If you should dig up the Pilewort, do observe its roots good gentles, for they doth resemble the haemorrhoids.

Swords and Spindles offer presentations on the history of medicine, gardening history and the medicinal use of herbs in past times

A Page from the Herbal of Mistress Agnes – Lavender’s Blue – or indeed Purple


Mistress Agnes hath been harvesting her lavender, a most useful plant. Autumn is coming and ’tis time to sweep out the earthen floor of her kitchen, remove the soiled straw that hath been held within her threshold and re-lay fresh. With winds freshening and temperatures dropping she will be bringing the chickens in to the kitchen at night. Not being one to toilet train chickens (any advice on this matter will be gratefully received), the straw therefore doth be a touch noisome. Strewing lavender upon the straw wilt improve the aroma. She will also lay lavender in her coffer where her spare linen be stored and hang sprigs in the cottage to dispel the flies. Lavender can be added to the sallets or used to flavour the pottage, tarts or cheese.

Lavender be most effective for those that doth be troubled with the snoring. A drop of lavender oil (we do call it Oil of Spike) on the bolster at night wilt aid the sleeping and relieve the snoring. If the good master persists in disturbing your rest ladies, then observe the shape of the flowers, they be just right for inserting into the master’s nostrils. It makes an excellent herb for the Tuzzy Muzzy, to hold to your nose to prevent inhalation of the miasmas and thus protecting one from the pestilence that abounds. ’Tis also efficacious for the palsy or falling sickness and stills the palpitations. Oil of lavender wilt sooth burns or sores and applied to the temples doth ease the megrims.

Please note that Mistress Agnes is an historian, not a qualified medical herbalist. You would be well advised not to try her cures at home! She does offer talks on the herbal cures of her time. Come and meet the Swords and Spindles team.