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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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Sunday, 14 October 2012

A seventeenth-century sticking plaster


I rather like this recipe for a plaster, from Nicholas Culpeper’s A Physical Directory, 1651.

Emplastrum nigrumTake of Colophonia Rozin, Ship-pitch, white Wax, Roman Vitriol, Ceruss, Olibanum, Mirrh, of each eight ounces; Oyl of Juniper berries three ounces; Oyl of roses seven ounces; Oyl of Egs two ounces; Oyl of Spike one ounce; white Vitriol, red Corral, Mummy, of each two ounces; earth of Lemnos, Mastich, Dragons blood of each an ounce; the Fat of an Heron one ounce; the Fat of Timullus (a kind of Fish) three ounces; Loadstone prepared two ounces; Earthworms prepared, Camphire, of each one ounce; make them into a plaister, according to art.

It is very good (say they) in green wounds and pricks.

Dragons blood was the resin from a palm, Calamus draco, which was imported from South America and the East Indies; loadstone was magnetic iron oxide; and Roman Vitriol was copper sulphate. None of these would have done much good, as Culpeper implies in his dismissive aside. Perhaps he was aware of a curious recipe in Langham’s The Garden of Health, 1578, which ascribed to earthworms an extraordinary power:
‘Stampe earthwormes, and put thereto the juyce of radish rootes, and quench therein any knife, sworde, or other toole to make it cut Iron as it were Lead.’

Snails and earthworms appear in many medicinal remedies of the time; were people fascinated by their shapeshifting abilities and the muxture of slime and hardness in the snail’s shell?

In 1778 William Lewis’s The New Dispensatory proposed that
'Both these [worms and snails] are supposed to cool and cleanse the viscera. The latter, from their abounding with a viscid glutinous juice, are recommended as a restorative in consumptions; for this purpose they are directed to be boiled in milk [a longstanding recipe]; and thus managed they may possibly be of some service.'

There is a definite doubt expressed here, and Lewis has in any case nothing to say about earthworms. Current research in the west and medical applications in the east suggest that earthworms may have interesting antibacterial properties, and may help in the treatment of thrombosis. Snail mucus may have an application in antispasmodic treatment of the bronchial tree.

Nobody seems to have had a good word for slugs. I have not come across a single medical use for them, though Isaac Walton (The Compleat Angler, 1654) reckoned black slugs were good bait for catching chub. 

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