07 November 2012

Medicine: Medical Folklore in Medieval Wales

By Ginger Myrick

When I began research for my second novel, The Welsh Healer, I knew that information would be scarce. Until modern times, the Welsh language was largely an oral tradition, and so the documentation of their medications and treatments is limited. Even accounts of their folklore are scant, the only good source of which was a book published in 1897. It was compiled by a man who traipsed through the whole of Britain, interviewing old-timers and taking testimony of home remedies passed down through generations. The superstitions are things that I could have never imagined on my own. The remarkable thing is that, although the cultures differed widely, the beliefs were surprisingly similar.

One cannot discuss cures without first addressing the causes. Anyone who reads historical fiction knows about the all-encompassing malignant humors. To remain healthy, it was necessary to keep doors and windows closed against these foul spirits and limit one’s bathing. If one were to open the pores by bathing too often, he ran the risk of disease slipping into the body. And heaven forbid he should bathe under an open window! One would also do well to develop a keen awareness of witches. Witches were a destructive influence causing damage to people, livestock, or crops by casting an evil eye. They were held to be responsible for many illnesses. In order to limit an enemy’s magical power, a person was well advised to conceal personal effects, body clippings such as hair or fingernails, and especially one’s name. (I don’t know how this could be accomplished in a small community where everybody knows everything about his neighbors!) The name, as part of a person, was once identified with the breath of life or the soul. Another way to safeguard the soul was never to wake a man while he was dreaming. While engaged in nocturnal activities, his spirit would be wandering outside the body, and awakening him would result in the life-force failing to find its way back. If this happened, the person would be more susceptible to corruption from external sources resulting in disease, insanity, or death. There were festivals devoted to the prevention of evil influence. 
On May Day, systematic efforts were made to protect man and beast against supernatural beings. Dew gathered on this day was said to provide safety against witches. People placed May flowers over the tops of their doors as preservatives against malevolent powers. They carried crosses of rowan, made without the help of a knife, in their hats and fastened them to the tails of the livestock. Further purification of cattle was accomplished by running them through flame on two sides, and setting the gorse on fire was done to burn witches out in the form of a hare. Any game flushed out on that morning was freely shot with the intent to wound the witch/hare, after which she would return to her human form and remain crippled for the rest of her days. If these precautionary measures were unsuccessful, there was still hope for the afflicted. Drawing even the minutest amount of blood from the witch would cause her to lose power, rendering the spell and resultant suffering harmless. Failing that, if the victim could find the offspring of a human and a member of the Tylwyth Teg—the ‘fair folk’ of Wales—he was in luck. One of the chief pranks of fairies was to switch human babies with their own offspring. The descendants were reputed to possess a healing ability and became well-known doctors.

In the event that a person could not be cured by a doctor or rid himself of a witch’s curse, he could go to a charmer. As with the doctors descended from fairy folk, the ability to charm was hereditary. Sometimes the charmer would be consulted even after the best medical advice had been obtained. Through a concoction of herbs or other types of material blessed by said charmer—mountain ash, rowan, and iron were especially valuable in this capacity—and following directions, such as boil and mix with spirits, place under pillow, or rub on suspect object, any mischief or bad luck could be duly removed. The supplicant was charged not to speak to anyone on the way to accomplish his mission and to follow through with the cure no matter what frightening noises he might hear. The outcry would be the evil spirits quitting the area. Sometimes the culprit would be outed by being the first person to arrive after the boiling of the herbs. I would have thought any of the aforementioned remedies far too fantastical to include in a book for a well-informed, modern-day audience. All I can say is that I am glad I write fiction and live in the age of technology! I opted for a more practical application of herbalism. With the resources available online and a little commonsense, I was able to come up with some decent plausible curatives. 
Ginger Myrick was born and raised in Southern California. She is a self-described wife, mother, animal lover, and avid reader and knitter. Along with the promotion for THE WELSH HEALER, and EL REY, she is currently crafting her third novel, which takes place during the U.S. Civil War. She is a Christian who writes meticulously researched historical fiction with a ‘clean’ love story at the core. She hopes to persevere with her newfound talent and show the reading community that a romance need not include graphic details to convey deep love and passion.