Medieval herbal and traditional remedies come mainly from native Celtic or Germanic roots, not from the Greco-Roman tradition that they considered more scientific. And although only a few of the remedies include women in the actual recipe, they tell us something about traditional Europe’s attitude toward women. In a nutshell, women are good. They can mediate healing in ways that men can’t.
First, they produce milk. Breast milk turns up in five remedies, leaving it very unclear whether its use was “medical” in our sense, or magical. Other kinds of milk can be used in simple ways, as the base for active ingredients; “woman’s milk” is clearly a special ingredient, not just a base.
Bald’s book suggests using it as an eye drop or wash for growths on the eye, particularly the emergence of a “red sponge.” They’re almost certainly referring to a condition known as “Surfer’s Eye.” Every medieval fisherman can be considered a surfer, for these purposes. Being outdoors in the salt spray, with strong wind and bright sun, was very stressful for their eyes. Pterygium is a reddish or yellow growth that begins to cover the eye. It’s considered benign, but it can grow out over the cornea. It seems likely that many old fishermen, having survived storms and accidents, would be blind, and often from double-eye pterygium.
Pterygium in our time is treated with lubricating drops until it becomes urgent enough for surgery. Breast milk has some outstanding qualities, being sterile and filled with fat molecules. However, you’d think sheep’s milk (their most common dairy) would have the same qualities, and no other milk is recommended as an eye drop.
For “spots” on the eye, breast milk was used as a clean-up fluid after some rather nasty things were dropped into the eye. One of the ingredients has an uncertain translation; it could be sulfur. The other ingredients are burnt salt, and ink. They’re pulverized with a mortar and pestle and sprinkled into the eye, which is then washed up with a bit of wool dipped in water. Breast milk as eye drops come last, as a soothing wash.
Could breast milk have brought needed antibodies, as well as sterile water and fats? It’s possible, but it seems like giving them scientific credit in this case is too big a stretch. Breast milk probably is a good eye-drop at need. But after burnt salt and ink? Worse, there are two alternative eye drops suggested for the pterygium growth: hot pigeon’s or swallow’s blood. Again, it’s quite possible that blood would make a decent eye lubricant and perhaps help with disinfecting. When we see the requirement for pigeons and swallows, though, it sounds like magical thinking. “Birds have sharp eyes, so of course their blood is good for eyes.” The logic may have run a little bit differently, but not much. One of the basic principles of natural magic is that like treats like.
Breast milk also works as an ear-drop mixed with cilantro (coriander) juice. Like other ear-drops, it is first warmed in an oyster shell, which works as a tiny pitcher. Here again, we are left to wonder if its antibodies and white blood cells worked directly against infection.
As a fourth human-dairy product, the Lacnunga book has a very weird fever remedy: “take a snail, and cleanse it, and take the clean lather and mix it with a woman’s milk; give it to him to drink.” Just when we get to the remedy that suggests drinking the stuff, they include a snail.
Fifth and last, breast milk was a component of treating palsy of the face, perhaps what we’d call Bell’s Palsy. One way to treat the palsy was to source the problems to the ear; the mixture of cilantro/coriander and breast milk was again recommended. But for more extreme cases, the woman had to be nursing a baby boy, the leaves had to be dried before use, and the resulting mixture had to be applied to the paralyzed cheek with a blue cloth (and then dripped into the ear). There’s no other example of this “baby boy” reasoning, so we can only guess. Things seemed more magical if they crossed boundaries, so perhaps a woman’s milk being fed to a baby male seemed to combine something of both sexes.
Second, women can exert a powerful influence over nature by being virgins. Here, the “science or magic?” question is unnecessary. Let’s look at the prescription-virgin treatment for a cyst or swelling on the heart (and no, I don’t know how this would have been diagnosed without surgery). A cyst or swelling of some kind was called, in Anglo-Saxon, a wen.
“If wens ail a man at the heart: have a virgin go to a spring which runs straight eastwards and scoop one cup full out against the stream, and sing on it the Credo and Pater Noster and pour it then into another container; and….do likewise until you have three; do likewise for nine days; better will soon come to him.”
I think we can say with confidence that when this remedy was first used, Christian creeds and prayers were not the charms recited. Nine is not a significant number in Judeo-Christian tradition, but it is very significant in the Norse one. Odin hung on the world-tree, gaining secret runic knowledge, for nine days. Many charms associated with Odin’s secret lore bring in 9’s. We’ll talk more about charms and runes in later entries.
What can we make of these remedies? If nothing else, it’s clear that women were considered a good influence on nature.
Source: Pollington, Leechcraft.