10 truly bizarre old Norfolk health remedies
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Modern medicine has come a long way - and when you read some of the old-fashioned remedies people in Norfolk used to use, you’ll realise what a blessing this is.
Today we have anaesthetic, antibiotics, disinfectant and painkillers.
Centuries ago, people in Norfolk had spiders, woodlice, goose dung, snails, potatoes, mustard seed and wart charmers.
While there is much to be said for old-fashioned wisdom, bear in mind before you consider any of these traditional cures that it used to be considered good practice to secure a year of good health by spending six weeks in springtime washing your hands, face and neck in fresh urine every morning…before drinking a wine-glassful of your very own home produce.
We would strongly suggest you do not try any of these remedies at home, although we highly doubt you’d want to.
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These remedies come from Norfolk Folklore (volume 40, 1929) and were collected by Mark R Taylor in a bid to “…try and make some record of these old customs and beliefs before it is too late.”
1. Chills and fevers
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The gentleman who is immortalised in stone on Norwich’s Haymarket, Sir Thomas Browne, once lived where Pret a Manger now stands. He claimed to have found a failsafe number of remedies for fevers, two of which involved goose dung stewed in warm beer and live spiders swallowed as the filling of a sandwich. Delicious. And; waste not want not, any spare goose poo can be used on the head to treat baldness.
Should you try it? In a word? No.
Norfolk Folklore suggested a range of remedies including eating snails without their shells or drinking the slime that drips from them or swallowing woodlice alive.
Any truth in this? A little. Mucus from brown garden snails kills one particular species of bacteria in laboratory experiments which can cause bloodstream infections, pneumonia, chronic wound infections and respiratory infections in people with cystic fibrosis.
Consume sheep’s droppings. If that doesn’t clear the blockage, you’ve just added another vehicle to the traffic jam.
Is eating sheep poop a good idea? It's another clear 'no'.
A common Norfolk ‘cure’ was to carry a small object in your pocket – either a potato, a nutmeg, a chestnut, a piece of sulphur, a gold ring or a piece of bryony root. A popular drink for the condition involved mustard seed and black pepper stewed in old beer and taken while observing a fast. A marshland remedy was to wear parts of a mole around the neck depending on what part of the body was afflicted: so, if the rheumatism was in the legs, you’d wear the mole’s legs in a bag around your neck.
Should I try the beer? You’d do better to use the mustard seed on a bandage and apply to your swollen joints – heat some warm mustard seed oil and apply to a strip of material. No need to waste a good pint.
The most common cure was wart-charming. In Norfolk Folklore, it reads: “A lady in West Norfolk wrote to me that, when she was a girl, an old man in the village, a noted wart charmer, was dying. Having no one of his own folk to whom to pass over his power, he sent for the parson’s daughter and told her the secret. This she could never divulge, or the power would be lost." No access to a wart charmer? Rub a piece of stolen meat or fat over the wart and then bury it.
Does wart charming work? Lots of people think so. We don’t suggest you go down the stolen meat route, though, for many reasons that include criminality and stench.
6. Whooping cough
Tie a live dab to a child’s chest and allow it to flap itself to death (the fish, not the child). Hang two spiders or woodlice in a bag round the child’s neck and allow them to die (the creatures, not the…oh you get the picture). Put some of the child’s spittle in a piece of meat and give it to a dog to eat. Hold the child with its head down through the seat of an outdoor privy.
I don't have a privy: will my en-suite do? No comment. Safe to say you should definitely not try this at home!
To treat a swelling of the thyroid gland, simply rub the swelling with the hand of a dead person of the opposite sex. From Norfolk Folklore: “A woman at Attleborough took the opportunity of employing the hand of a man killed in a railway accident. She said it was a horrible experience as ‘he wer’nt a nice corpse’.”
Is this treatment a good idea? No. Going to a doctor is a good idea.
8. Nose bleeds
Ask nine people to tie a knot in a strand of red silk hung around the person who is suffering’s neck. This spell is more effective if the knots are tied by persons of the opposite sex to the person whose nose is bleeding.
Wouldn’t the piece of red silk be more use as a handkerchief? You might think so.
Norwich shops on London Street and Gentleman’s Walk used to sell strings of blue beads to ‘cure’ bronchitis. The Bronchitis Beads were worn around the neck from childhood until death in the hope of preventing bronchitis. The beads never left contact with the skin and were sometimes buried with a person. Blue was a magical colour thought to ward against sickness.
Did bronchitis beads work? No. But you have to applaud Norwich shopkeepers for finding a way to make money from magic.
Apply a fresh cobweb. Spider webs have been used for wound dressings since the first century AD, perhaps because spiders were considered to be ‘lucky’. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s character Bottom says: “I shall desire you of more acquaintance, good master cobweb, if I cut my finger, I shall make bold of you.”
Does it work? Apparently, ‘arachnicillin’ may actually be real: the chemical coating that spiders cover their webs with does have an antiseptic and anti-fungal quality and webs are rich in Vitamin K, which helps with clotting. We still suggest conventional medicine when it comes to wounds and burns.