Acting naturally

PUBLISHED: 16:37 24 May 2007 | UPDATED: 12:28 04 May 2010

Advances in technology and medicine have given us a health service with highly-trained professionals skilled in carrying out the most intricate life-saving techniques. But caring for patients in the 17th Century was a very different matter and women who t

Advances in technology and medicine have given us a health service with highly-trained professionals skilled in carrying out the most intricate life-saving techniques.

But caring for patients in the 17th Century was a very different matter and women who treated the sick with herbs and potions were accused of being witches and put to death by hanging or drowning.

Now with more and more people turning to natural remedies,

Lesley Innes talked to Karen Faulkner from Ely who is sharing the secrets of 17th

Century medicine, some of which form the basis of treatments today.

IN 17th Century England, plague ravaged the country on and off over a 20 year period and naturally people were desperate for a cure or preventative medicine.

Nutmeg was believed to be the answer to their prayers, a cure-all and those with money would pay virtually any amount to get their hands on this tiny seed.

But it was expensive and in 1642 a man, hoping to cure his wife, swapped his coach and four horses for one single nutmeg.

"It would have been like parting with a Porsche today," said Karen Faulkner, who has launched a new business sharing the secrets of ancient medicines and potions. "The man gave the nutmeg to his wife but she died the same night."

During the same period tobacco was believed to hold the power to ward off the plague.

"Boys at Eton were actually flogged for not smoking pipes because it was thought they would prevent them from getting the plague," said Karen.

These fascinating tales of medicines and potions from 400 years ago form the basis of talks given by Karen, of Walsingham Way, Ely.

She is a member of the Sealed Knot, English Civil War renactment group, which will be visiting Ely's Cromwell House on July 29.

Karen plays the part of a soldier's wife, taking part in living history demonstrations which sparked her interest in the herbs and potions of 17th Century England.

Now she is sharing some of the secrets with schoolchildren and other interested groups across the district.

"If you were in the fens it would cost over a guinea to get a physician to come out," said Karen, "and if he wrote out a prescription it could cost another £1 at the apothecary to get the medicine.

"But peasants would know over 300 different herbs in the hedgerow and use them for different problems.

"They believed if a woman was trying to conceive and a doctor had said that her womb was too low she should sit with a burdock leaf on her head under her cap. If the womb was too high she would put the burdock leaf in her shoe."

Karen added that some of the remedies are still used in one form or another today.

In 17th Century England people would stud an onion with cloves and boil it in milk as an elixir for fever. Cloves are still used today as antiseptic.

Onions peeled and taken with honey were believed to cure coughs and colds. Honey is used in many cough medicines today.

Willow bark tea was given for pain and the first aspirin was created from a chemical very similar to the one found in white willow bark.

A lump of dried ginger was used to treat digestive problems. Ginger tea and ginger biscuits are prescribed today for morning sickness during pregnancy.

Soldiers fighting in the 1640s on the side of Cromwell or King Charles would take their wives and children along on their campaigns.

The women had no choice but to tag along in these baggage trains if they wanted their husband's money and they acted as nurses, cooks and seamstresses.

"If anyone got sick and the home remedy didn't work the women would gather round and offer different recipes to cure the illness," said Karen. "They had to be very resourceful and this went on until the First World War.

"In history we are never told what life was like from an ordinary person's point of view - what life was like in the marching camps if you were a woman with 10 to 14 children in tow."

At that time people believed infection was a result of foul air sent by the devil and those who were ill were bewitched.

"Herbalists and midwives were executed, by hanging or drowning, because they were believed to be witches," said Karen.

"Hygiene, such as it was, was not great at this time. A barber would be cutting someone's long, greasy hair and then pull out another man's tooth."

Karen, who discovered from her own family history that there was an herbalist in her family in the 19th Century, will be speaking to Ely Rotarians in July and members of the Trefoil Guild in September.

To illustrate her talk she will take along examples of the herbs and potions used as battlefield medicines to treat the soldiers and remedies ordinary people relied on in the 1600s.

Anyone interested in finding out more about Karen's work or for bookings can contact her on 01353 610562.

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