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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book. 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. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.

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Monday, 17 September 2012

How to cure a nose bleed, 1639


I have never been sure how to stop a nose bleed. Pinch the nose? Let it bleed? Hold ice in the mouth? Set the head back or forward? Should the head be set between the knees, or is that to do with being sick, or giving birth? A moment's doubt throws all into doubt. I came across this comforting remedy, or course of treatment, while researching for How To Cure The Plague, to be published next year.


'Of Bleeding at the Nose' 

from Philip Barrough's The Method of Physick, 1639 

Let the patient speak little, and let him eschue moving, trouble of mind, and chiefly anger. Also it is good to have the lower parts of the head highest. For the cure, you must take heed that in bleeding at the nose, the lower parts lie highest, and the head downward. The cure must be begun with those remedies which turn the bloud to other parts of the body. First therefore if the body be full, and age will suffer it, and if the sick be not resolved, you must cut the veins on the arme, right against the flowing of the bloud at the nose.

Moreover, friction and rubbing of the inferior parts, as the armes, hands, thighs, share [groin], and feet is very profitable; and it is marvellously good to put the feet into warme water, ever rubbing them up and down.


Barrough’s recommended treatment for a nose bleed becomes a whole-body experience involving cupping the liver area if the right nostril is bleeding, or the area of the spleen if the left nostril is bleeding; an ointment made from frankincense  and ‘the soft haires of a Hare’ is applied to the nose, the ears are stopped ‘strongly with linen and wax’, and the patient should ‘hold in the mouth cold raine water’. For good measure ‘the flesh of Snayles brayed with vinegar, or their shells burnt and brayed’ [crushed] are good, and should be applied to the forehead as a paste, with vinegar.

If the bleeding has not stopped by then, and the patient is still within the grasp of whoever is treating him or her, a kind of homeopathic treatment is to be deployed, for ‘above all the bloud which commeth out of the patient’s nose is good, if it be burned in an earthen pot, and then beaten; take of it three drams, of Bolearmoniak one scruple, of camphor one scruple, with the white of an egg and a little vinegar, make it thick like hony, and lay it to the forehead, and put it into the nose.’

Often the last remedy in a list is so bizarre that its power probably lies in frightening the patient into convincing him or herself and everyone else in the room that recovery has been effected, that the nose bleed has indeed stopped, even though there may be fountains of blood springing from the nostrils. ‘Necessity requiring it, it is lawfull to put [in] two grains or three of Opium; Asses dung dried and made into a powder is wonderfully good, and also hogs dung hath the like property.’

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