22 March 2018

Guest Post by Seamus O'Caellaigh, Author of Pustules, Pestilence and Pain: Tudor Treatments and Ailments of Henry VIII

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

Historian Seamus O'Caellaigh has delved deep into the documents of Henry's reign to select some authentic treatments that Henry's physicians compounded and prescribed to one suffering from those ailments. Packed with glorious full-colour photos of the illnesses and treatments Henry VIII used, alongside primary source documents.

I Would Rather Have an Epidural, Thanks 

On the 9th October 1537, Jane Seymour, mother to Edward I, went into labour. For three days the labour was hard, but finally, on October 12     th she gave birth to a healthy boy. The populace of England celebrated at the news of a Prince, a long-awaited male heir.  Elizabeth Norton in 'Henry VIII's True Love ' says " That night there were bonfires lit in the streets, with music and impromptu feasts. Hogsheads of wine were distributed, and further guns were shot in celebration of the news with the noise going on past 10 p.m. that night." Before modern medicine, what was done for a difficult birth or to decrease the pains of childbirth was a bit…ridiculous. Here are some of the outrageous treatments from various medical texts from  the 1st Century through to the 17th Century. 

Treatment #1: Hildegard von Bingen founded the abbeys at Rupertsberg and Eibingen in Germany. According to the 12th Century Abbess and seer, "A woman who is having difficulty in childbirth, so that she is not able to bring forth, should place a lion's heart on her umbilicus for a short time, not long. The infant within will loosen and quickly come forth."  This treatment makes me wonder how many wild lions there were in 12th Century Germany, or if there was a lion's organ trade route. Can you imagine in the throws of birth, placing an animal heart on the poor woman's navel and hoping that helps?! At least this treatment would not do harm, but I can't imagine that a lion's heart is an inexpensive trinket you pick up at the corner store. Maybe that is why Samson killed the lion in the book of Judges: The rising cost of lion hearts.\
Treatment #2: "[Stinking Arrach] cools the womb, being over-heated. And let me tell you this, and I will tell you the truth, heat of the womb is one of the greatest causes of hard labour in child-birth."  This treatment, from Nicholas Culpeper, gave no real directions, but anything with the descriptor "stinking" sounds less than desirable to me. However, it is often called mountain spinach and is eaten in salads. Nicholas is quoted having said, "No man deserved to starve to pay an insulting, insolent physician." He argued that expensive treatments supplied by apothecaries were not needed and that a person could be treated by wild plants in the countryside. While it is a great idea to be efficient and practical, I am not sure that I would rely on a spinach salad though to help a hard birth.

Treatment #3: The man above obviously is distressed by the dogs swarming the boar. At first glance, you may think it was out of fear of the meat being damaged, but maybe his wife is about to go into labour.  "For inflations of the uterus, it is found a good plan to apply wild boar's dung or swine's dung topically with oil: but a still more effectual remedy is to dry the dung, and sprinkle it, powdered, in the patient's drink, even though she should be in a state of pregnancy or suffering the pains of child-birth."   Pliny the Elder would not last a day at a modern hospital if he came to rub boar dung oil on a woman with a difficult birth. Or better yet, if he tried to sprinkle powdered faeces into the patient's drink , he would no doubt be spending some long days in jail.

Treatment #4: Dioscorides was Pliny's contemporary, and has a much better plan for the easing of a birth. However, there is nowhere to go but up when comparing to Pliny's faeces water  "treatment." In 'De Materia  Medica Pedanius' Dioscorides  wrote, "[Hog's Fennel] gently soothes the intestines, lessens the spleen, and wonderfully helps hard labour in childbirth."  Also called Sulphurwort due to the sulfur smell that comes from the plant's resin, Hog's Fennel was used through the 17th century medicinally, though more often as a diuretic.

Treatment #5: In Carmarthenshire, Wales, the Physicians of Myddfai were a family who lived in the village of Myddfai for generations. In their first herbal, they wrote "To help a difficult parturition: If a woman is unable to give birth to her child, let Mugwort be bound to her left thigh. Let it be instantly removed when she has been delivered, less there should be haemorrhage."  Mugwort contains camphor, linalool and thujone, all volatile oils, as well as sesquiterpene lactones, lipophilic, polyenes and aesculetin. None of these seems to have an ability to cause ease of birth. Used by herbalist for gastrointestinal ailments, poor circulation, and sedation, at least this treatment will smell good  - but no other effects would happen however when bound to the left thigh  (heaven forbid you tie it to the right!).

It is unknown what exactly was done to help ease Jane through her 3-day labour, but for all the good it would have done for her, it could have been any of these. From the 1st Century to the 17th Century the treatments offered where often senseless when seen through a modern eye.  Some treatments certainly do have valid science behind them, such as treatments related to willow bark, but some are just…outrageous. Lion hearts, boar dung, and mountain spinach are not likely to be found on a modern woman's birth plan, and that might be part of the reason birth success rates are much higher now.

Seamus O'Caellaigh
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About the Author

Seamus O'Caellaigh has always been interested in the Tudor dynasty and the many uses of plants. He grew up learning about plants from his grandmother Anne Kelley and mother Diane Prickett. Their love of plants has manifested in Seamus through his love of being out in the wild looking for medicinal plants, through his spending lots of time in the family garden and through spending time in the woods in the Pacific Northwest. He is most often seen with his head down, looking at the plants along the path and not at what lies ahead. Having joined a pre-1600s recreation group, Seamus found a way to incorporate his love of the Tudors with a study of medicinal plants from that time period, along with the many herbal books written from the 1st century to the turn of the 17th century. Nothing makes Seamus happier than finding an obscure reference, or his son Jerrick bringing him a plant for "Dad's Plant Projects."

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