Initially submitted for Northern Lights A&S Competition 15 (2006)
Lady Elinor Strangewayes, College of St Cuthbert.
Entered in Herbalism, Household Goods, and Miscellaneous. It won the Herbalism category.
What: A dubious English remedy for ague, dating from the 1570s.
“Take Nettelles, and Cobwebbes, and Salte, and beate them in a Woodden dishe, and laie it to the left arme of the sicke, and it will take awaie the heate of the Ague.”
– From An Hospitall for the Diseased, probably compiled by Thomas Cartwright (1535-1603), published in London in 1579.
I purchased dried nettle leaves from a local herb shop. In period, it probably could have been obtained in the wild or kept in a garden. The salt is large-grained kosher salt, similar in appearance to the rougher period salt. The cobwebs are quite authentic, being black from wood smoke and furnace smoke. They were obtained from the spiders which infest my basement. Since there were no quantities listed, I just used my own judgment. I used about a tablespoon of the salt and nettles, and got as much spider webs as possible before they counter-attacked. The wooden bowl is old feast gear.
This recipe doesn’t work. Ague is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “an acute or violent fever,” a definition dating to the 14th century.1 I was running a fever on Friday, and sat with it by my side while I pounded herbs for another entry. I still had the fever that night, so I’m not inclined to put my faith in this remedy. To be fair, it probably didn’t work in period, either, so I doubt its ineffectualness is through any error of mine. (Also, the term “ague” also carries connotations of malaria as early as 1386, and I don’t have malaria or its alternating fever and chills.2)
However, this recipe may have been intended as sympathetic magic. From a humoric standpoint, nettles “consume the phlegmatic superfluities in the body of man.”3 Much as some people today pile on blankets to “burn out a fever,” perhaps the nettles were intended to serve a similar purpose. I cannot speculate on the presence of salt. Cobwebs are useful in staunching bleeding, but I do not know why they would be used in this particular instance.
Follow-up: In conversation with Mistress Jadwiga Zajaczkowa at Northern Lights that year, she suggested that fresh nettles could possibly be held onto the body with spiderweb (hence the exhortation to “laie it to the left arme of the sicke”) and that their irritation might stimulate circulation and possibly assist in fever reduction. Salt would keep any blisters or breaks in the skin from getting infected and adding to the patient’s problems. As it was winter, the only nettles available to me were dried and therefore inactive. Now that I live in a place that has an overabundance of live & kicking nettles, I suppose I could try this receipt again… if I’m that desperate.
1. Nicholas Culpeper. The Complete Herbal, available online at http://www.bibliomania.com/2/1/66/113/21130/1/frameset.html
2. T. C. (probably Thomas Cartwright, 1535-1603),An Hospitall for the Diseased. London: 1579. [Available on microform via the Early English Books collection, STC P&R 1811:5]
3 Culpeper’s The Complete Herbal, available online at http://www.bibliomania.com/2/1/66/113/21130/1/frameset.html