Powdered Unicorn Horn and Dirty Socks: A Partial History of Weird Medicine

Today, we live in a highly medicalised society. There’s a pill, a potion or a treatment for almost anything that might ail you, and scientific research is being done into diseases previously seen as incurable. Medical treatment is available for all who need it rather than only those who can afford it (for now, anyway).

But it hasn’t always been like that. Go back far enough into our history and you’ll find that medicine – as practiced by both doctors and ordinary people – was once stranger than you could ever imagine. No, really. Stranger than that. Curious? Join me in the Another Kind Of Mind Time Machine (it’s like the TARDIS, only much cooler) for a trip into the past that will make you glad that the NHS still just about exists….

Got a headache? Most people nowadays would reach for the paracetamol, but our ancestors had some slightly stranger methods of treating one of the most common ailments we all suffer. One of the oddest involved wearing a lettuce or a cabbage leaf under your hat on a hot day in order to cool your head down, which, it was said, would stop headaches caused by the heat of the summer sun.

There were more food-related headache treatments too. The Tudors swore by gargling with mustard as a headache cure, and the Victorians would use a poultice of raw potato on the head, or would rub the affected area with raw onion (they also had easy access to opiates, which were sold in most high street chemists and would probably have been a more effective cure for a headache than the application of raw vegetables…).

However, the most bizarre headache remedy of them all involved a very creepy treatment indeed – tying a length of a hangman’s rope around your head. This became very popular during the 18th century, a time when there were many public executions and such lengths of rope were easy enough to obtain. In fact, many executioners made a steady stream of extra cash by selling pieces of rope to the public straight from the gallows!

Other common ailments had some rather random treatments too. If you had a cold, for example, there were a number of strange folk remedies you could try. You might start by making some toast and soaking a thick slice of it in vinegar. You would then apply this soggy slice of toast to your throat and tie a handkerchief round your neck to hold it in place.

Tying things around your neck was actually a bit of a recurring theme when it came to treating coughs and colds – another (rather unpleasant) remedy was to retire to bed with a dirty sock or stocking tied around your throat, making sure the heel was positioned over your larynx. I’m not entirely sure what that was supposed to achieve (perhaps the smell of cheesy feet might be enough to clear your bunged up nose?), but you may have wished to combine that with the rather more sweetly-scented suggestion of putting orange peel up your nostrils…

If your cold had settled on your chest, the treatments could get a bit greasy – and were definitely not for vegetarians. Bandaging bacon rashers to your ribs was one way of attempting to stop a chest infection (although I wouldn’t recommend eating them afterwards!), or you could wrap yourself up in a concoction of goose fat and brown paper – although various other animal fats were also said to be effective. An old remedy for a nasty dose of bronchitis involved getting up early and heading out to the fields to find a warm spot where a cow had been sleeping – and then lying in it.

If none of these more specific remedies worked for you, you might want to try one of the many medicines produced over the centuries by medical doctors, apothecaries and quacks that claimed to be ‘cure-alls’. A lot of these were simply (and often cynically) attempts at a money-making exercise, but a few of them had ancient origins and were very weird indeed.

For example, if you were a very wealthy and fashionable Tudor, perhaps with connections to the royal court, you might wish to obtain some powdered unicorn horn for your medicine box. The belief in the existence of such beasts was a very old one, and their rarity and perceived magical and healing powers made powdered unicorn horn an extremely expensive and very exclusive cure-all. So exclusive and expensive was this remedy, it was said that Queen Elizabeth I purchased a ‘unicorn horn’ for the astronomical figure of £10,000 (more than £1million in today’s money).

Another bizarre 17th century cure-all was powdered mummy. Yes, you read that right – powdered mummy. Used with much enthusiasm for many centuries by countless doctors, including the famous and influential Paracelsus (who swore by the mummies of hanged criminals), it was said to cure an impressive list of illnesses and diseases:

epilepsy, abscesses, rashes, fractures, paralysis, migraine, throat diseases, coughs, palpitations, stomach ailments, nausea, ulcers, liver disorders, hæmorrhage, bruises, and poisoning – and it even protected against the plague.

However, it also made people as sick as a dog, which – not unexpectedly – put a lot of patients off the idea of taking it. Oddly enough, the fact that they were medicating themselves with ground-up bits of a human body didn’t seem to bother some people, as mummy was still listed in the catalogue of the German pharmaceutical company Merck as recently as 1908!

Many of these weird and wonderful treatments involve ordinary, everyday items that only the very, very poor would be unable to afford, and this is not surprising. Until the advent of the NHS, a large percentage of the population could not afford the cost of calling out or visiting a trained medical doctor, particularly if they or a member of their family had a chronic or especially serious condition. This meant that many people were forced to resort to local healers, itinerant quacks, old folk remedies or whatever they could find that might help – hence the medicinal use of ordinary household goods and unusual objects…

For more bizarre treatments and remedies, see Nigel Cawthorne’s ‘The Curious Cures of Old England’ (Portrait Books, London, 2005)

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