In the rural Brittany of yesteryear, where doctors were exceptionally rare, the populace were happy to utilise the healing power of plants and other natural remedies. Sometimes, the intervention of the local healer or witch was sought but often people were content to apply the ancient wisdom that had been transmitted within the family from generation to generation. The remedies needed to treat the most common diseases and ailments were well known and families had long learned what plants were essential to cultivate near the home.
In Brittany, healers were generally believed to have been bestowed with their curative powers at birth although certain circumstances were thought more auspicious than others. The most powerful healers were held to be found amongst those born on Good Friday afternoon or on the first day of August or on a Friday in March, provided that day was one of the odd days of the month. Similarly, the seventh child born of a family where all six siblings were of the same but opposite sex, was considered destined to be a great healer.
Medication was typically administered here according to the complaint to be treated. The most common remedies involved herbal infusions and decoctions which were either drunk or poured over the seat of the disease. For external ailments and wounds, parts of the plant were directly placed on the body or else the remedy was applied as an ointment in a plaster or as a poultice.
Some healers never applied healing ointments directly to the seat of the disease in the belief that to do so would ‘push’ the ailment deeper inside the body. Instead, the salve was applied to an unaffected part of the body; the healing power of the remedy was thought to enter through the skin and circulate via the bloodstream before attacking the disease which was eventually overwhelmed and expelled in the sweat and excreta of the patient.
Sometimes, plants were worn about the body to cure or protect against illnesses; a Horse Chestnut carried in a pocket was said to protect against rheumatic pains and prevented haemorrhoids. An amulet containing Wormwood or nine cloves of Garlic, worn at night, was said to repel intestinal worms in children; it being popularly believed that worms could travel up to the throat, causing a cough in the patient. There was therefore some method behind the apparent madness of wearing a repellent around the neck to chase away worms.
Diseases were often believed able to be transferred to a plant which, in decomposing, allowed healing in the patient. In other cases, the plant was believed to act as a simple poultice and drain the disease from the patient, such as Garden Heliotrope leaves for abscesses; the smooth face of the leaf was said to extract the disease causing it to dry-out, the rougher side was then applied to dry-out the wound itself.
Some disorders were associated with notions of corrupted blood in the body which had to be removed or purified. For instance, hematomas were considered indicative of bad blood because they could develop into an abscess and a draught of Myrtle leaves macerated in white wine was drank, on an empty stomach, for three consecutive mornings as a means of removing the tainted blood. Boils were often seen as the visible manifestation that one’s blood was tainted and it was then held necessary to drink a decoction of Dandelion roots whose diuretic action purified the blood. Similarly, a decoction of Walnut leaves drunk at the onset of spring and autumn was thought a powerful depurative that refreshed one’s blood.
To cure eye ailments, bunches of Stonecrop that had previously been passed through the smoke of the Midsummer bonfire fire were lit and the resultant smoke was used to fumigate the diseased eye. Similarly, an eye-bath made from Elderflowers picked on the Feast of Corpus Christi were also believed to heal eye complaints, due more to their mystical association with an auspicious day rather than any particularly beneficial chemical ingredient.
To treat an eye disease popularly thought to betray the presence of an evil spirit, a compound consisting of the leaves of Lesser Celandine and nine grains of salt was applied to the little finger of the hand opposite the infected eye. Another remedy involved making the sign of the cross with nine grains of Wheat which were then thrown, one by one, into a bucket of water, while reciting certain charms. The bubbles which then appeared were said to be the evil leaving the patient.
To cure a sore throat, a poultice made of ground Agrimony fried in lard was put on the throat and massaged into the skin with six drops of vinegar. A poultice of crushed Leeks worn against the patient’s neck was also thought effective although the same remedy, placed hot on the lower abdomen, was used to help those who experienced difficulties urinating. Another treatment for a sore throat involved a plaster made from Wheat flour, milk and pepper; the hot dough was wrapped in a cloth and applied to the throat for two hours. To treat swollen glands, Bugleweed root cooked under hot ash with a little salt was eaten twice a day as a remedy.
An infusion of Wormwood and Sage in water was applied directly, twice a day, to treat earache. However, the juice of the Houseleek, sometimes called Wild Artichoke, was the most popular remedy used against earaches here. The plant was thought to possess other wonderful qualities; many Breton farmers cultivated one or two Houseleek plants on the lower parts of their farmhouse roof to preserve their homes against lightning strikes. The plant was also said to immediately wither whenever a sorcerer or witch entered the house.
Hearing difficulties were often confronted with a potion made from equal quantities of Onion juice, ant egg juice and fresh water. Having been left to stand overnight, three drops of this liquid were introduced into the ear canal of one ear before breakfast; three drops were applied to the other ear on the following morning, the treatment being continued for a fortnight.
Two of the most common treatments for toothache involved the application of hot poultices. The first was made solely from Walnut leaves while the other consisted of a compound made from Figs, milk and breadcrumbs applied to the cheek. However, one daring remedy for toothache involved the prolonged chewing of Sea Holly while the healer recited, nine times, a special charm that ended with an invocation to Saint Apollonia, the 3rd century Christian martyr whose teeth were shattered during her torture in Alexandria. A less vigorous remedy was noted in eastern parts of the region, where a Privet branch, cut before dawn, was placed in the fireplace without the patient’s knowledge, in expectation of bringing-on a cure for toothache and other oral maladies such as thrush in infants.
Once cooled, a compound made from crushed Bay leaves that had been cooked in boiling bacon fat, was applied as an ointment to heal burns. The petals of Lily flowers, macerated in vegetable oil, were also used to treat burns but the plant’s petals macerated in lambig (cider brandy) were believed able to heal even the most malignant wounds when directly applied for three consecutive days. This treatment was thought effective in preventing infection and promoting healing.
One cure to treat a cold called for a hole to be carved into an Onion which then needed to be filled with mutton fat and cooked in the ashes of a fire. Once cooked, the burnt skins were removed and the onion applied, as hot as possible, as an ointment to the patient’s feet and stomach. Another unusual remedy against the common cold called for a hot poultice made of boiled Barley flour be placed on the patient’s neck and roasted bacon fat in their ears.
Chest colds and acute bronchitis were treated by drinking a herbal tea made of Apples, Figs, Mallow flowers, Plums and Raisins along with two spoons of honey; the whole boiled for an hour before being filtered and the resultant liquid drunk between meals. This treatment needed to be augmented by rubbing the patient’s neck and chest with a piece of zinc for two minutes, twice a day.
The carnivorous Sundew plant has long been reputed to possess multiple medicinal properties and it was once used against warts, burns and even syphilis. However, it was most widely used to make concoctions that were recommended against painful or incessant coughs, whooping cough and asthma. Many of today’s pharmaceutical drugs and cough syrups contain active components found in Sundews and extracts from the plant are also found in commercial wart treatments. The juice of a Dandelion leaf was also popularly applied directly onto warts in the belief that they would soon disappear.
Tuberculosis was treated with a mix of dried and ground Couch Grass, Marjoram, Mint, Nettle and Thyme that had been macerated in white wine overnight. This concoction was then filtered through a cloth and the resulting liquid drunk in the morning for four consecutive days, followed one hour later with a breakfast of a freshly laid egg.
To rupture boils and abscesses, a plaster containing a compound made of soap, boiled cream and a handful of Sorrel leaves was applied direct to the seat of the disease. A plaster made of Duckweed leaves was also used for the same purpose. The Sorrel’s tender leaves were thought to possess purifying and diuretic properties and laxative broths were often prepared from an infusion of them. Likewise, the boiled root of the Yellow Dock plant was commonly used as a purgative and laxative. Kelp was another plant that was popularly boiled and eaten as a laxative.
Although poisonous when eaten fresh, many remedies for easing the symptoms of gout involved concoctions derived from the petals and leaves of the Buttercup. However, here they were most popularly ground to make a plaster that was worn over the pulse of the wrist. The plant’s leaves were also used to treat headaches; a piece of cloth soaked in vinegar in which Buttercup leaves had been macerated for a fortnight was worn across the forehead as an effective cure.
For those suffering from anaemia or a loss of appetite, drinking an infusion of Gooseberry leaves in hot water was recommended; as much as half a litre, taken on an empty stomach, daily. A more frequent dose of this same drink was used to relieve diarrhoea and dysentery. To ease the pain of a very sore throat it was held necessary to boil the plant’s leaves in water for a third of an hour; while still hot, the patient would then gargle with this water and prepare a plaster, to be worn on the neck, with the boiled leaves. Drinking a herbal tea made from an infusion of the plant’s bark was advised for those people who experienced difficulties urinating.
Growing children were fed Radish to help calcify their bones and to fight rickets and eating the plant’s leaves with a little salt was recommended in order to keep teeth healthy. Similarly, Garden Spurge, also known as Mole Grass, was chewed in the belief that it strengthened teeth. The plant is toxic and when swallowed burns the mucous membranes of the mouth and oesophagus before inducing severe stomach pains. Nevertheless, the plant’s seed capsules were often placed on or in a decayed tooth to ease cases of severe toothache.
To protect against night terrors, children were often given an amulet to wear containing a compound made from Ground-Ivy and lard. Additionally, in the north of the region, Water Arrow, also known as Arrowhead, was put under the beds of boys and balls of Oats under those of girls to help preserve them against such discomfort. To cure children of incontinence, a spoonful of Nettle seeds was mixed into a handful of bread dough; once cooked, the child had to eat a third of the bread each morning before breakfast for three consecutive days.
Weak children, particularly those experiencing difficulties in walking, were sometimes taken to the sacred spring dedicated to Saint Idunet just outside the village of Pluzunet. Here a curious ritual was performed; the ailing child was made to lie on a stone slab popularly known as ‘the saint’s bed’ – local tradition held that this stone was an old druidic altar that the saint had once repurposed as a bed – and restrained there whilst prayers were said for its recovery. The child’s back was then beaten with branches of Broom which were then used to sweep the surface of the stone bed but only after the child’s body had been sprinkled three times with water taken in a cupped hand directly from the fountain. After rubbing the child’s kidneys, the surrounding earth was also sprinkled three times with the fountain’s water. These rites and their focus on two of the primary elements were believed to magnify the healing power of the fountain.
Another curious ritual was also once recommended in the folk medicine of western Brittany; to be rid of ringworm it was said necessary to capture a grey crow while it was building its nest. The bird was tied to a length of string and lowered to the bottom of a dried-up well where it was kept captive for three days. Each morning, before sunrise, it was essential to challenge the crow with a formula that essentially demanded that it reveal the cure in exchange for its freedom. It was said that the remedy would be found at the end of the third day, having been left near the well by the captive’s kinsfolk to secure its deliverance. This plant was Frogbit; a small floating plant resembling the water lily and it was rubbed on the patient’s head for seven days each morning before breakfast as a cure. However, the treatment was believed only effective if delivered to the patient by birds.
In eastern Brittany, it was said that a pregnant woman who touched or even stepped over Common Rue would induce an abortion. The roots to this superstition likely lie in the fact that the plant, when ingested, has been widely noted as a powerful abortifacient since Ancient times. In other parts of the region, an infusion made from Rue was thought to quell nosebleeds. Sometimes an abortifacient medicine, such as a decoction made of Laurel, Mint and Peony, was used to treat epilepsy.
Aurone, also known here as Lemongrass, was another abortifacient that was also used to ease abdominal pain, particularly menstrual pains. The plant, boiled in salt water for ten minutes, also produced a potion that was used to wash infected wounds and external ulcers. A plaster made from a mixture of ground Hemlock and coarse salt was also applied in the treatment of abdominal pain. A wash made from an infusion of Mistletoe berries was recommended for the treatment of female genital ailments. Mistletoe was regarded as a wonderfully versatile plant; made into a poultice, its crushed leaves and berries were used to treat sciatica and rheumatism. To treat jaundice, nine Mistletoe berries were soaked in the urine of a young boy and put into a cloth sachet placed on the patient’s head.
Dried Mistletoe leaves, macerated overnight in cold water, were drunk three times a day to relieve convulsive asthma, whooping cough and jaundice. The same tonic and dosage was also held effective against nosebleeds, haemorrhages, convulsions and epilepsy. One recipe against epilepsy called for Mistletoe leaves to be dried in the oven and ground into a fine powder. During the last three days of the new moon it was necessary, every morning, to drink a little of this powder that had been allowed to macerate in white wine overnight.
A variant of this treatment for epilepsy required a small branch of Oak Mistletoe, complete with berries and leaves, be dried in the oven and finely ground. A little of the resultant powder was taken in wine or cider each morning and evening during the three days before and the three days after the full moon. Thankfully, given its rarity, Oak Mistletoe could be substituted with Apple Mistletoe without any loss in efficacy. Belief in the plant’s efficiency against epilepsy was still strongly held here well into the 20th century.
To treat scabies and other skin diseases, a decoction made from Elderberry leaves, the stems and leaves of the Common Mallow and the root of the Marshmallow was blended with hand-crushed Marshmallow flowers, some Flax seed flour and a little ointment made from Hibiscus flowers; the resultant compound was applied as a poultice. Another poultice to treat the same ailments involved breadcrumbs boiled slowly in milk, to which was added dried and chopped Henbane leaves.
Sometimes, syrups made by boiling the juice of the Common Fumitory or the Wild Pansy together with a little sugar were taken against skin diseases. Another popular treatment involved fumigation or a steam bath of the vapours of boiling Agrimony, Knapweed, St. John’s Wort and Rupturewort together in a cauldron. Other diseases that manifested themselves on the skin, such as eczema, boils, scrofula and herpes, were treated by an infusion of Walnut leaves in water; three leaves were boiled for a third of an hour and the infusion drunk on an empty stomach each morning. However, to deliver a lasting improvement for the patient, it was believed necessary to continue treatment for a very long but unspecified time. Lining the patient’s bed with branches of Bramble was also undertaken as a treatment for eczema; the plant was said to absorb the disease as it wilted.
The treatments for scrofulous diseases ranged from the straightforward to the elaborate. At one end of the spectrum, a strong infusion of ground, dried Acorns in hot water produced a kind of acorn coffee; two bowls of which were drank each morning and evening as a tonic. The roots of Horseradish and Gentiana were mixed with dried Spoonwort and Water Clover leaves as a treatment for scrofula. Having been macerated in white wine for three day, the medicine was ingested each morning before breakfast and in the evening, before dinner. Likewise, a decoction made from the crushed roots of Burdock, Elecampane, Soapwort and Horseradish was drunk three times daily against the same disease.
At the other end of the scale, a mixture of Fumitory flowers in Scabious juice was taken, before breakfast, in the water in which a chicken had been previously boiled. This treatment was supplemented an hour later by drinking a pint of a decoction made from the roots of Impatiens and Elecampane that had been poured, boiling hot, over a handful of Fumitory flowers and allowed to infuse. To this infusion, an anti-scorbutic syrup made from Spoonwort or Horseradish was added before being drank by the patient.
Another popular remedy for all scrofulous engorgements called for the juices of Sorrel, Chicory, Watercress and Soapwort to be blended in equal parts and mixed with a syrup made from a decoction of the roots of Elecampane, Impatiens and Horseradish with a little Barley; taken in the morning before breakfast, a cure within twelve days was expected.
One remedy to dispel fevers required the patient to wear, on one of their pulse points, for two days a plaster made from five cloves of Garlic, five roots of Parsley, a pinch of coarse salt and a little soot taken from the chimney. Another treatment recommended boiling Horse Chestnuts in sweetened milk; the milk was drunk and the Chestnuts eaten every morning before breakfast for three consecutive days. Patients suffering from a pernicious fever were vigorously rubbed, over all parts of their body, with a bouquet of Wormwood while the healer recited certain charms. This done, the healer typically made the patient walk three times around the thorn bush nearest to the house.
While the seeds of the Eagle Fern were long held to possess magical qualities, the plant’s stems were also believed to possess medicinal qualities and these seem to have differed from place to place, for instance in Maël-Pestivien in central Brittany it was applied to treat injuries but just 10km west in Callac it treated skin disorders and another 40km west, haematomas.
Preparations made from Hawthorn Mistletoe were believed to alleviate colic and cure a fever. To treat renal colic, an Onion macerated overnight in white wine was ground to a pulp and passed through a loosely woven cloth before being drunk. Colic in children was thought calmed by an infusion of Cherry stems, Bran and honey while children suffering from hernias were relieved by the application of a Duckweed plaster. The taproot of the Carrot was fed to children in the belief that it made hair grow although a lotion prepared from Boxwood leaves was thought to encourage hair growth in adults losing theirs. However, rubbing one’s cheeks with ant eggs was advised for those who did not wish to have too thick a beard. Another peculiar remedy called for a concoction made from the bark of the Golden Willow that was held good for removing freckles from the face and for drying out wounds.
If we have now abandoned the old medicinal practices which were once so deeply woven into daily life and popular belief, the use of plants for their therapeutic and curative properties remains. Today’s allopathic and homeopathic medicine are re-discovering and re-appropriating the old knowledge for the benefit of future generations.