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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book; and teach the history of printing at other institutions. I research language usage during the First World War, and lead the Languages and the First World War project. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch; and Words and the First World War. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.


Thursday, 28 June 2012

Onions in the Garden of Health (1578)

Looking today through Langham’s Garden of Health (1578) for delightful remedies for the forthcoming book, I am taken by the straightforward and easy arrangement of the material. The format is an alphabetical list of several hundred ‘simples’, plants mostly, each of which has a compilation of numbered uses, followed by an index of conditions to which the simple is to be applied. At the end of the book there is a page index by condition, each one listing alphabetically the simples to be tried.

Thus mugwort has dozens of applications, the 133rd of which is ‘Joyntes out, stampe Mugwort with Vineger and swines grease, and apply it.’  The ‘easy solution’ manner of the writing – ‘Nostrels stinke, boyle Roses with hony in wine, and put them in’ – is reminiscent of the ‘Frisky, fly-away hair? Try Xbrand hair-spray’ style of disingenuous advertising of the 1970s.  Got a problem? Deal with it this way. What could be simpler? A problem is not a problem. Got the plague? Drinke as much powder of the roote of dog-fennel as will lye on a crowne with vineger – problem solved. I smile while I am reading. I'll buy it.

I smile until I am pulled up short by wince-inducing entries (maybe not the best word) like ‘An onion put in as a suppositorie, purgeth the emerods, …’  I don’t really want to know any more, but am drawn to read on; in the section on onions, it seems that the insertion of an onion is a practice applicable to more or less any disease involving one of the body’s openings:

‘Nose bleeding, put in an Onion.’ 
‘Lethargie, put the juice of an Onion into the nostrells.’
‘Urine stopt in Agues, roste an Onion, and apply it to the bladder.’ 

Now, a few questions arise. For the nose-bleed, is the onion being used primarily as a stopper? For ‘lethargie’, is the onion juice a sign of desperation, something you might use on a teenager still in bed at lunchtime? Is the ‘roste Onion’ still piping hot when it is to be applied to the bladder? How is it to be applied, or am I better off not knowing? I want to know, and I want there to be a simple and pleasant answer. But I suspect that there’s more than one way of interpreting that well-known statement, ‘onions make you cry’.

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