In the last few days, they have gone from being something I rarely thought about to something I've thought about a lot - and in a pretty unusual context, too. After all, if you're ill, you probably wouldn't immediately think of worms as an essential part of a cure. Leeches, perhaps, but not worms. If you're wondering what worms have to do with my research, then you need to get yourself to Ottery St Mary library on 13th September for their event "Living off the Land - the folklore and traditions of country crafts". It's a joint talk with my husband Mark, creator of The Folklore Podcast. We are both members of the Exeter Authors Association and this is a FREE event organised via the EAA. Mark is speaking on the folklore of wool and associated crafts in Spindle, Shuttle and Needle. My talk, Plants, Persecution and Poultices, looks at medieval healers and the thin line they trod between being everyone's friend or their community's scapegoat. Check out the link at the bottom of this blog post for details.
I spent most of this afternoon at the Devon Heritage Centre in Exeter, researching medieval remedies. The Heritage Centre is one of those places which makes you immediately ask yourself why you have never been there before. Within five minutes of being let loose in the card index, I knew that there were going to be some truly fascinating discoveries to be made.
The Heritage Centre only has one reception desk (luckily for me after my National Archives comedy registration...) so getting in was a lot more straightforward than at Kew. I shed the plastic pockets and the folder like a pro and am delighted to report that there was not even a hint of eye-rolling from the lovely and very helpful lady behind the desk. I managed to get in with ONE locker key this time, too.
Even when I went to the enquiries desk, the staff there were not at all phased by my unbelievably vague request. Essentially, I was trying to locate the collection of family documents mentioned by Prof. James Daybell in his lecture, which was the subject of my last blog post. I didn't have the name of the family, or, indeed, any other details, so I wasn't expecting to have a particularly fruitful afternoon. However, after having been pointed in the direction of the card index...well. What can I say? There is so much amazing information to be found - and I found what I needed.
Well, first of all, I found worms, to be precise.
Back in the late 1600s/early 1700s, a lady from Filleigh, Devon, named Bridget Fortescue collected together a number of "receits" (recipes) for cures for the King's Evil. This is the common term for scrofula, a swelling in the lymph nodes in the neck which was a symptom of tuberculosis. It was believed that the monarch could cure this ailment with his 'royal touch'.
If you found yourself afflicted with the King's Evil and didn't happen to have a king available, then you had to resort to alternative cures. And worms.
Mrs Fortescue was evidently extremely concerned about the King's Evil, for in the documents I examined today, there were 40 different cures for it, which had been collected from a variety of people - I copied out those received from Lady Clinton and "my Lady Hollis". Lady Clinton's instructions begin thus (spelling and lack of punctuation as written):
"Take 40 or 50 earthworms alive cutt off both ends and with a penknife slitte and put them in water and salt, shifting till they are cleare whilst ye Broth boyle..."
The unfortunate earthworms are later added to the said broth and the whole lot boiled "till ye Broth be enough". It is then strained and ready for, one presumes, consumption, as there are no instructions for its use.
Alternative cures include the medieval equivalent of those healthy smoothies people make today which look like they are drinking algae. This is the recipe from Lady Hollis, who provided quite detailed instructions for use. The patient should "...just be able to endure" the taste of the concoction, which was made from steeped leaves.
The other use of earthworms as a "cure" came from Ruth St Leger-Gordon's The Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor. If the thought of chucking worms into a broth is bad enough, it must have been far worse for the young girl who (pre-1964) was taken to a healer on Dartmoor after injuring her arm. The healer, having examined the injury, proceeded to sew a couple of earthworms into it. Not surprisingly, the arm became infected and urgent action was required to save it, this time by a more conventional medical practitioner.
I am very much looking forward to returning to the Heritage Centre to dig around for other (possibly worm-related) delights.
If you're interested in the Living off the Land event, please have a look at my author page on Facebook, where you can register your interest and share it with anyone you think might like to come along. Please be aware that Ottery library is a small venue! Mark and I are happy to bring the talk to a venue near you - just drop me a PM via my author page or use the contact form on here.
Tonight, I attended a public talk at Plymouth University. The speaker, Prof James Daybell, gave a fascinating insight into the lives of women in the sixteenth century, using a variety of different routes 'behind the curtain', including samplers and court records amongst others. This is the first in a series of talks about women in history, which promises to be extremely interested and varied - check out the links at the end of the post to see the other subjects being discussed.
In the talk I usually give after each performance of WITCH, I point out to the audience that in Margery's time (1580s-ish), the concept of "privacy" was almost non-existent and certainly totally different to the way we live today. Prof Daybell discussed how this makes it quite difficult to unpick 'privacy' in the context of sixteenth century women, particularly educated women who lived their lives surrounded by bodyservants and relatives.
From samplers to love letters to divorce petitions, the talk demonstrated just how much information may be gleaned about women's lives from seemingly mundane objects. I have always loved samplers, so I was particularly interested in Prof Daybell's decoding of his example. The young needlewoman was not simply producing a beautiful piece of work to demonstrate her skill - this is only part of it. In order to create the sampler, which in this case commemorated the birth of a female cousin, she is using maths and lettering. This, together with her skill with a needle, suggests that she was educated and was developing a skillset that would stand her in good stead when she entered the marriage market.
Deanes Grimmerton, the inspiration for Margery, was accused of witchcraft after sharing a pipe of tobacco - a neighbourly act involving a simple, everyday object. I was, therefore, particularly interested in just how much information may be unpacked from the mundane - I will certainly view samplers through a different lens from now on.
One of the sources Prof Daybell mentioned is a collection of letters to doctors, written by women. This certainly bears some investigation in the context of Margery's role as her community's healer. I was also extremely interested to hear about a collection of family medical records which have been passed down from relative to relative, documenting their recipes for cures and clearly demonstrating the extent of the medical knowledge present in this particular family. This would be a very valuable insight for me, as it would give examples of the sort of salves and poultices being made - if the collection contains a recipe for relieving toothache which involves cloves and ginger, I would very much like to see if I can recreate it - and if I could recreate it as Margery would have done in her rudimentary shelter after she lost her house and possessions. That is an experiment for another day and another blog.
The evening ended with a very civilised (small) glass of merlot and nibbles and the chance to chat with other attendees. It was an extremely interesting way to spend an evening - although I did then have to drive for an hour in the rain and gales, which was an experience of an entirely different sort...
I can highly recommend this series of public lectures. If you can get to one of them, do!
You can find out about Prof Daybell here: www.plymouth.ac.uk/staff/james-daybell
and about the series of lectures here: www.plymouth.ac.uk/whats-on/women-in-history-lecture-series