Alun Withey on early-modern remedies for hydrophobia.
If the sheer volume of manuscript space devoted to recipes for the bite of a ‘mad dog’ is to be believed, the pathways of early-modern Britain were dangerous places. Seemingly every bush or thicket contained a rabid hound just waiting for the opportunity to sink his teeth into the unwary traveller. Given the ubiquity of remedies, dog bites seem to have been an occupational hazard.
But hydrophobia – rabies – was a serious matter. A viral disease capable of being transmitted from animal to human, its symptoms were nasty. They began with headache, fever, muscular pain and a general sense of illness. As the disease progressed, however, the symptoms became more serious, and also more dramatic. Attacking the central nervous system the unfortunate victim suffered bouts of ‘uncontrolled excitement’ as well as involuntary movements, mania, depression and a fear of water…hydrophobia. Death was almost inevitable.
As in so many instances of early-modern treatments, however, the seeming inevitability of death did not prevent people from attempting to cure the disease – or at least to palliate the symptoms. A variety of substances and approaches were used – some based on established medical practice, others seemingly based on supposition – that all aimed to halt the progress of the disease and restore the sufferer to a state of balance.
Some took a straightforwardly herbal approach. This one, for example, is from a remedy collection dated 1781 and was made up of ‘simples’ – unadulterated herbs used ‘straight’ rather than mixed or decocted.
“A medicine for any one bit by a mad dog
Take a handful of the herb called Lady’s Bedstraw, bruise it in a mortar then roll up the leaves and juices with a lump of butter and make the party swallow it. It is reputed as an immediate cure for man or beast”
Another from around the same date used a variety of ingredients and a more complex mixing process. This example is interesting in a number of ways. Firstly it required metallic, as well as herbal, ingredients, and also included the foul-smelling resin ‘Venice Treacle’ – also known as Theriac, which itself contained 64 ingredients. Also of note is the 9-10 day duration of the cure, hinting at a recognition of the progressive nature of the disease.
“For the biting of a mad dog
Take Garlick, rue, scraped pewter, of each two ounces of Venice Treakle, one ounce and quarter of Masgadin, put all these things into it & stop it close, boil it two hours in a kettle of water then par off the clearest away, and put a little dregs into the place bitten & give the patient two spoonefulls morning and evening, 9 or 10 days together.”
A receipt in the recipe book of the Welsh gentry lady Catherine Nanney, dating to the early 18th century, advocated surgical intervention as well as herbal ingredients, but also included an element of symbolism. Here the issue of the fear of water, synonymous with the disease, in a procedure that would be familiar to phobia therapists today:
“A Receipt for the bite of a mad dog
The patient to loose ten ounces of Blood out of the Arm, to take of grey ground liverwort one Dram, of Black beaten pepper one Scruple in half a pint of cows milk every morning for Four day and to go into Cold Spring every morning for a month Togeth Dipping all over and staying in about four minute with the head above water, & then thrice a week for a Fortnight longe”
In other words, address the phobia head on. There were some, however, who perhaps took this to the extreme. One seventeenth-century ‘cure’ for hydrophobia advocated that the patient’s head should be held under water three or four times ‘for as long as ye party can bear it’. So, push a person scared of water under the water, and hold them there until they begin to splutter…I doubt Paul McKenna will be using that one in his next book!
So afraid of Rabies were people (and understandably so) that remedies even appeared in newspapers and were cut out and kept, or copied, by people in case they were needed. In a 1730 commonplace book of Michael Hughes of Anglesey is the note:
“An infallible cure of ye bite of a mad dog brought from Tonguin by Sir George Cobbs Bart…
Taken from ye Chester paper of ye 24th June 1760 by Michael Hughes then Plas y Brain”
The clergy even kept records in case their parishioners were struck down, and it is interesting that some of these remedies could become widely known. In the parish registers of a Monmouthshire church is a recipe for the bite of a mad dog which states that it was taken from Cathorp church in Lincolnshire where the “greatest part of the town were bit by a mad dog”.
Dog bites were a serious matter in the early modern period. People recognised the danger and were quick to act if they, or their families, were bitten. Keeping a recipe – sometimes several – in a domestic collection, learning remedies by rote or having access to them through others, was an important expedient should the worst happen. It was better to be prepared than not to have anything to fight back with.
This article originally appeared on Alun Withey
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