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Bygone Beliefs Being a Series of Excursions in the Byways Of Thought H. Stanley Redgrove

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Bygone Beliefs Being a Series of Excursions in the Byways Of Thought

by H. Stanley Redgrove

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OUT of the superstitions of the past the science of the present has gradually evolved. In the Middle Ages, what by courtesy we may term medical science was, as we have seen, little better than a heterogeneous collection of superstitions, and although various reforms were instituted with the passing of time, superstition still continued for long to play a prominent part in medical practice.

One of the most curious of these old medical (or perhaps I should say surgical) superstitions was that relating to the Powder of Sympathy, a remedy (?) chiefly remembered in connection with the name of Sir KENELM DIGBY (1603-1665), though he was probably not the first to employ it. The Powder itself, which was used as a cure for wounds, was, in fact, nothing else than common vitriol,(1) though an improved and more elegant form (if one may so describe it) was composed of vitriol desiccated by the sun's rays, mixed with gum tragacanth. It was in the application of the Powder that the remedy was peculiar. It was not, as one might expect, applied to the wound itself, but any article that might have blood from the wound upon it was either sprinkled with the Powder or else placed in a basin of water in which the Powder had been dissolved, and maintained at a temperate heat. Meanwhile, the wound was kept clean and cool.

(1) Green vitriol, ferrous sulphate heptahydrate, a compound of iron, sulphur, and oxygen, crystallised with seven molecules of water, represented by the formula FeSO4[.]7H2O. On exposure to the air it loses water, and is gradually converted into basic ferric sulphate. For long, green vitriol was confused with blue vitriol, which generally occurs as an impurity in crude green vitriol. Blue vitriol is copper sulphate pentahydrate, CuSO4[.]5H2O.

Sir KENELM DIGBY appears to have delivered a discourse dealing with the famous Powder before a learned assembly at Montpellier in France; at least a work purporting to be a translation of such a discourse was published in 1658,(1) and further editions appeared in 1660 and 1664. KENELM was a son of the Sir EVERARD DIGBY (1578-1606) who was executed for his share in the Gunpowder Plot. In spite of this fact, however, JAMES I. appears to have regarded him with favour. He was a man of romantic temperament, possessed of charming manners, considerable learning, and even greater credulity. His contemporaries seem to have differed in their opinions concerning him. EVELYN (1620-1706), the diarist, after inspecting his chemical laboratory, rather harshly speaks of him as "an errant mountebank". Elsewhere he well refers to him as "a teller of strange things"—this was on the occasion of DIGBY'S relating a story of a lady who had such an aversion to roses that one laid on her cheek produced a blister!

(1) A late Discourse... by Sir KENELM DIGBY, Kt.&c. Touching the Cure of Wounds by the Powder of Sympathy...rendered... out of French into English by R. WHITE, Gent. (1658). This is entitled the second edition, but appears to have been the first.

To return to the Late Discourse: after some preliminary remarks, Sir KENELM records a cure which he claims to have effected by means of the Powder. It appears that JAMES HOWELL (1594-1666, afterwards historiographer royal to CHARLES II.), had, in the attempt to separate two friends engaged in a duel, received two serious wounds in the hand. To proceed in the writer's own words:—"It was my chance to be lodged hard by him; and four or five days after, as I was making myself ready, he (Mr Howell) came to my House, and prayed me to view his wounds; for I understand, said he, that you have extraordinary remedies upon such occasions, and my Surgeons apprehend some fear, that it may grow to a Gangrene, and so the hand must be cut off....

"I asked him then for any thing that had the blood upon it, so he presently sent for his Garter, wherewith his hand was first bound: and having called for a Bason of water, as if I would wash my hands; I took an handfull of Powder of Vitrol, which I had in my study, and presently dissolved it. As soon as the bloody garter was brought me, I put it within the Bason, observing in the interim what Mr Howel did, who stood talking with a Gentleman in the corner of my Chamber, not regarding at all what I was doing: but he started suddenly, as if he had found some strange alteration in himself; I asked him what he ailed? I know not what ailes me, but I find that I feel no more pain, methinks that a pleasing kind of freshnesse, as it were a wet cold Napkin did spread over my hand, which hath taken away the inflammation that tormented me before; I replied, since that you feel already so good an effect of my medicament, I advise you to cast away all your Plaisters, onely keep the wound clean, and in a moderate temper 'twixt heat and cold. This was presently reported to the Duke of Buckingham, and a little after to the King (James I.), who were both very curious to know the issue of the businesse, which was, that after dinner I took the garter out of the water, and put it to dry before a great fire; it was scarce dry, but Mr Howels servant came running (and told me), that his Master felt as much burning as ever he had done, if not more, for the heat was such, as if his hand were betwixt coales of fire: I answered, that although that had happened at present, yet he should find ease in a short time; for I knew the reason of this new accident, and I would provide accordingly, for his Master should be free from that inflammation, it may be, before he could possibly return unto him: but in case he found no ease, I wished him to come presently back again, if not he might forbear coming. Thereupon he went, and at the instant I did put again the garter into the water; thereupon he found his Master without any pain at all. To be brief, there was no sense of pain afterward: but within five or six dayes the wounds were cicatrized, and entirely healed."(1)

(1) Ibid., pp. 7-11.

Sir KENELM proceeds, in this discourse, to relate that he obtained the secret of the Powder from a Carmelite who had learnt it in the East. Sir KENELM says that he told it only to King JAMES and his celebrated physician, Sir THEODORE MAYERNE (1573-1655). The latter disclosed it to the Duke of MAYERNE, whose surgeon sold the secret to various persons, until ultimately, as Sir KENELM remarks, it became known to every country barber. However, DIGBY'S real connection with the Powder has been questioned. In an Appendix to Dr NATHANAEL HIGHMORE'S (1613-1685) The History of Generation, published in 1651, entitled A Discourse of the Cure of Wounds by Sympathy, the Powder is referred to as Sir GILBERT TALBOT'S Powder; nor does it appear to have been DIGBY who brought the claims of the Sympathetic Powder before the notice of the then recently-formed Royal Society, although he was a by no means inactive member of the Society. HIGHMORE, however, in the Appendix to the work referred to above, does refer to DIGBY'S reputed cure of HOWELL'S wounds already mentioned; and after the publication of DIGBY'S Discourse the Powder became generally known as Sir KENELM DIGBY'S Sympathetic Powder. As such it is referred to in an advertisement appended to Wit and Drollery (1661) by the bookseller, NATHANAEL BROOK.(1)

(1) This advertisement is as follows: "These are to give notice, that Sir Kenelme Digbies Sympathetical Powder prepar'd by Promethean fire, curing all green wounds that come within the compass of a Remedy; and likewise the Tooth-ache infallibly in a very short time: Is to be had at Mr Nathanael Brook's at the Angel in Cornhil."

The belief in cure by sympathy, however, is much older than DIGBY'S or TALBOT'S Sympathetic Powder. PARACELSUS described an ointment consisting essentially of the moss on the skull of a man who had died a violent death, combined with boar's and bear's fat, burnt worms, dried boar's brain, red sandal-wood and mummy, which was used to cure (?) wounds in a similar manner, being applied to the weapon with which the hurt had been inflicted. With reference to this ointment, readers will probably recall the passage in SCOTT'S Lay of the Last Minstrel (canto 3, stanza 23), respecting the magical cure of WILLIAM of DELORAINE'S wound by "the Ladye of Branksome":—

  "She drew the splinter from the wound
  And with a charm she stanch'd the blood;
  She bade the gash be cleans'd and bound:
  No longer by his couch she stood;
  But she had ta'en the broken lance,
  And washed it from the clotted gore
  And salved the splinter o'er and o'er.
  William of Deloraine, in trance,
  Whene'er she turned it round and round,
  Twisted as if she gall'd his wound.
  Then to her maidens she did say
  That he should be whole man and sound
  Within the course of a night and day.
  Full long she toil'd; for she did rue
  Mishap to friend so stout and true."

FRANCIS BACON (1561-1626) writes of sympathetic cures as follows:—"It is constantly Received, and Avouched, that the Anointing of the Weapon, that maketh the Wound, wil heale the Wound it selfe. In this Experiment, upon the Relation of Men of Credit, (though my selfe, as yet, am not fully inclined to beleeve it,) you shal note the Points following; First, the Ointment... is made of Divers ingredients; whereof the Strangest and Hardest to come by, are the Mosse upon the Skull of a dead Man, Vnburied; And the Fats of a Boare, and a Beare, killed in the Act of Generation. These Two last I could easily suspect to be prescribed as a Starting Hole; That if the Experiment proved not, it mought be pretended, that the Beasts were not killed in due Time; For as for the Mosse, it is certain there is great Quantity of it in Ireland, upon Slain Bodies, laid on Heaps, Vnburied. The other Ingredients are, the Bloud-Stone in Powder, and some other Things, which seeme to have a Vertue to Stanch Bloud; As also the Mosse hath.... Secondly, the same kind of Ointment, applied to the Hurt it selfe, worketh not the Effect; but onely applied to the Weapon..... Fourthly, it may be applied to the Weapon, though the Party Hurt be at a great Distance. Fifthly, it seemeth the Imagination of the Party, to be Cured, is not needfull to Concurre; For it may be done without the knowledge of the Party Wounded; And thus much hath been tried, that the Ointment (for Experiments sake,) hath been wiped off the Weapon, without the knowledge of the Party Hurt, and presently the Party Hurt, hath been in great Rage of Paine, till the Weapon was Reannointed. Sixthly, it is affirmed, that if you cannot get the Weapon, yet if you put an Instrument of Iron, or Wood, resembling the Weapon, into the Wound, whereby it bleedeth, the Annointing of that Instrument will serve, and work the Effect. This I doubt should be a Device, to keep this strange Forme of Cure, in Request, and Use; Because many times you cannot come by the Weapon it selve. Seventhly, the Wound be at first Washed clean with White Wine or the Parties own Water; And then bound up close in Fine Linen and no more Dressing renewed, till it be whole."(1)

(1) FRANCIS BACON: Sylva Sylvarum: or, A Natural History... Published after the Authors death... The sixt Edition .. (1651), p. 217.

Owing to the demand for making this ointment, quite a considerable trade was done in skulls from Ireland upon which moss had grown owing to their exposure to the atmosphere, high prices being obtained for fine specimens.

The idea underlying the belief in the efficacy of sympathetic remedies, namely, that by acting on part of a thing or on a symbol of it, one thereby acts magically on the whole or the thing symbolised, is the root-idea of all magic, and is of extreme antiquity. DIGBY and others, however, tried to give a natural explanation to the supposed efficacy of the Powder. They argued that particles of the blood would ascend from the bloody cloth or weapon, only coming to rest when they had reached their natural home in the wound from which they had originally issued. These particles would carry with them the more volatile part of the vitriol, which would effect a cure more readily than when combined with the grosser part of the vitriol. In the days when there was hardly any knowledge of chemistry and physics, this theory no doubt bore every semblance of truth. In passing, however, it is interesting to note that DIGBY'S Discourse called forth a reply from J. F. HELVETIUS (or SCHWETTZER, 1625-1709), physician to the Prince of Orange, who afterwards became celebrated as an alchemist who had achieved the magnum opus.(1)

(1) See my Alchemy: Ancient and Modern (1911), SESE 63-67.

Writing of the Sympathetic Powder, Professor DE MORGAN wittily argues that it must have been quite efficacious. He says: "The directions were to keep the wound clean and cool, and to take care of diet, rubbing the salve on the knife or sword. If we remember the dreadful notions upon drugs which prevailed, both as to quantity and quality, we shall readily see that any way of NOT dressing the wound would have been useful. If the physicians had taken the hint, had been careful of diet, etc., and had poured the little barrels of medicine down the throat of a practicable doll, THEY would have had their magical cures as well as the surgeons."(2) As Dr PETTIGREW has pointed out,(3) Nature exhibits very remarkable powers in effecting the healing of wounds by adhesion, when her processes are not impeded. In fact, many cases have been recorded in which noses, ears, and fingers severed from the body have been rejoined thereto, merely by washing the parts, placing them in close continuity, and allowing the natural powers of the body to effect the healing. Moreover, in spite of BACON'S remarks on this point, the effect of the imagination of the patient, who was usually not ignorant that a sympathetic cure was to be attempted, must be taken into account; for, without going to the excesses of "Christian Science" in this respect, the fact must be recognised that the state of the mind exercises a powerful effect on the natural forces of the body, and a firm faith is undoubtedly helpful in effecting the cure of any sort of ill.

(2) Professor AUGUSTUS DE MORGAN: A Budget of Paradoxes (1872), p 66.

(3) THOMAS JOSEPH PETTIGREW, F.R.S.: On Superstitions connected with the History and Practice of Medicine and Surgery (1844), pp. 164-167.

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