Dried rats' tails and live spiders - how the people of the Fens once kept healthy

PUBLISHED: 15:39 29 January 2016 | UPDATED: 15:39 29 January 2016

A picture of a cupping glass, scarifier and venesection knife, in the Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore by Enid Potter. Picture: Ian Burt

A picture of a cupping glass, scarifier and venesection knife, in the Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore by Enid Potter. Picture: Ian Burt

Archant

Dried rats' tails and live spiders - how the people of the Fens once kept healthy

A picture of holed stones, in the Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore by Enid Potter. Picture: Ian BurtA picture of holed stones, in the Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore by Enid Potter. Picture: Ian Burt

From spiders in butter, to dried rats’ tails - they may not sound like the most orthodox ways to treat an illness - but these were just some of the methods employed to keep the people of the Fens healthy for centuries.

The draining of the Fens, to create land more suitable for farming and habitat, unleashed great change in the region – not all of it happy.

Infant death rates shot up and health was blighted by the cold and damp conditions local people found themselves living and working in.

The sodden expanse was a breeding ground for mosquitoes, which spread a strain of malaria known as the ‘ague’ – derived from the Old French word meaning “severe fever”. Symptoms included an alternating hot and cold temperature, aching limbs and a sore throat.

Lecturer Jeff Hoyle. Picture: Ian BurtLecturer Jeff Hoyle. Picture: Ian Burt

However, as new research by the Fenland Lives and Land Project – organised by museums in the area – found, some local customs were developed to combat the condition.

Sufferers were often encouraged to treat the effects by swallowing live spiders rolled in dough. Another alternative was cobweb and butter pills taken in the morning and night.

It was thought that a dried rat’s tail kept in the pocket could help to further ward off the condition.

Another cure to fatigue and way to boost stamina was the use of rabbit droppings, rolled in oil and dusted in flour – then fried and eaten for breakfast.

A picture of a split and bound ash sapling used to reduce hernia, in the Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore by Enid Potter. Picture: Ian BurtA picture of a split and bound ash sapling used to reduce hernia, in the Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore by Enid Potter. Picture: Ian Burt

Many folk remedies involved the use of bark from trees in which quinine naturally occurred.

The medicine – still used today – could be effective in treating ague.

Less expensive was opium, then used quite legally, and widely, in many different forms, to treat fever.

The cold conditions of the Fens left many inhabitants with rheumatic complaints. To combat this, many carried potatoes, nutmegs and even mole paws in their pockets.

A picture taken from the Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore by Enid Potter. Picture: Ian BurtA picture taken from the Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore by Enid Potter. Picture: Ian Burt

Jeff Hoyle, a volunteer for the True’s Yard museum in King’s Lynn, said that while many superstitions lingered in the Fens, by the late 18th and 19th century, medicine across Europe was making great strides.

“You had the age of enlightenment and reason, you had people trusting medicines rather than

just believing in folk tales,” he explained.

“Some people did die from ague. It could be treated but it was more of a debilitating disease than something that could kill you.”

A picture of a white bryony (mandrake) in the Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore by Enid Potter. Picture: Ian BurtA picture of a white bryony (mandrake) in the Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore by Enid Potter. Picture: Ian Burt

Most Read

Most Read

Latest from the Ely Standard