A Wise Woman’s Medicine….

Herbal medicines and remedies have in recent years seen a rise in popularity. In the past they were dismissed by many doctors but thanks to studies and research during the last twenty or thirty years, their benefits are now being taken much more seriously….

Holland & Barrett Chrisinplymouth via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/chrisinplymouth/4451251992/

Depending on the doctor, sometimes alternative medicines and treatments are available on prescription; a recent survey suggests two-thirds of doctors believe such treatments should be available on the NHS. Acupuncture, homeopathy, osteopathy, chiropracy and herbal medicine are all now regulated…. Other practices such as aromatherapy, massage, reflexology and meditation, although there is no regulation, are still considered as being beneficial and may be recommended. Chinese medicine and crystal healing are still dismissed as there is not enough scientific evidence….

A qualified medical herbalist will have a BSc (or the equivalent) in herbal medicine – and will have the same skills at diagnosing as a GP, having studied orthodox as well as plant medicine….

Of course, herbal medicines and remedies have been with us since the year dot…. The Romans, Greeks and Ancient Egyptians all used them as did many before them….at the end of the day there was little alternative and it was to remain so until we began to study medicine in a more scientific way….

Image: Public Domain Source: Wikipedia

During the Middle Ages most villages and neighbourhoods would have had a ‘wise woman’ (occasionally it could be a man – maybe a monk – but generally it was a female role). She would have knowledge of herbs, ointments and poultices – and may well have offered prayers and charms to help the process. Often she was a midwife too and people may have even sought her guidance when their livestock fell ill…. She was a valuable, respected member of the community – her knowledge having been handed down from generation to generation….

For more physical ailments people would have possibly visited the barber….many were able to perform surgical operations, pull teeth and set broken bones. A priest may have been called in to treat somebody with a mental illness ~ to drive out the ‘demons’….

A travelling barber-surgeon examining a man’s head: a group of locals watch with interest…. Etching. Image: Wellcome Collection CC BY

Generally, up until the 13th Century the Church had stood in the way of medicine, declaring it to be an unrespectable profession. A renewed interest in learning meant universities began to teach young men medicine…. In the beginning the Church was still very much in control, university trained physicians had to have a priest present to aid and advise when they administered to a patient….

13th Century illustration showing the veins…. Image: Public Domain Source: Wikipedia

The trained medical world was completely male dominated – women were excluded from universities…. It was also dominated by wealth – as only the rich could afford its services. The poor had to remain reliant on the popular healers, such as the wise women. Professionally trained doctors disapproved of this ‘folk-medicine’, keen to protect their own livelihoods and status…. It would hardly come as a surprise then if we were to learn that they did little to discourage the witch hunts that were to become epidemic across Europe and Britain during the 14th-17th Centuries….

Nobody knows the exact figure of how many were executed for witchcraft during this period. The number varied tremendously from country to country; for example in Germany there were some 26,000 recorded deaths – whereas, in Ireland there were just 4…. Studies have drawn conclusions that out of some 110,000 recorded trials – in total 60,000 resulted in conviction and consequently execution – three-quarters were women….

Image: Wellcome Collection CC BY

Five of these executions took place in Wales; the first was that of Gwen ferch Ellis (Gwen the daughter of Ellis) in 1594….

Gwen was born around 1542, in Llandyrnog, Vale of Clwyd, in Wales. At a young age she went to live with an uncle, where she remained until she married….

Her first husband died after only 2 years of marriage…. In 1588 Gwen remarried – this time it was to a miller and they lived at his mill in Llanelian-yn-Rhos; husband number two died 18 months later…. So, she married for a third time, a man from a neighbouring parish, Betws-yn-Rhos – and this is where they settled; the fate of this third husband is unknown….

According to records Gwen earned a living by spinning and weaving linen cloth…. She was also a healer, mainly of animals but would help people, especially children, when called upon…. She would make herbal remedies and salves and offer charms to help with the healing in exchange for small goods and food items…. Her charms always began “In the names of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost”…. so they were actually more prayers than spells…. Verbal and written charms were not uncommon at the time….


Gwen was good at healing and was proud of her expertise; the wealthy sought her help as well as ordinary folk…. She struck up a friendship with a woman of the gentry, Jane Conway of Marle Hall, Conwy. Jane had an affair with Thomas Mostyn – a prominent gentleman of the time – Gwen knew of this affair, which in itself put her in a difficult situation…. Jane had a falling out with Mostyn and so it is thought she wanted revenge upon him…. Whilst Mostyn was away Jane invited Gwen to stay with her at Mostyn’s home – it is believed Jane persuaded her friend to leave a charm – although this is something Gwen denied ever doing….

However, a charm was found….one of a rather sinister nature…. This one was written from back to front, thus making it a bad spell rather than a healing one…. Accusations began to fly – Gwen’s friends advised her to flee but she was adamant she had done nothing wrong….

Gwen was arrested by William Hughes, Bishop of Asaph. At the initial investigation, held at Llansanffraid Church, seven people gave evidence against her, 5 men and 2 women…. 60-year-old widow, Elin ferch Richard of Llanelian-yn-Rhos claimed Gwen had sent her son insane…. Bailiff William Griffith ap William of Betws-yn-Rhos claimed she had put a demon in his drink. He also added she was responsible for his friend’s broken arm and the bewitching of his wife – who had become paralysed, losing the use of her arms and legs…. Another, Griffith ap Hughes of Betws stated that Gwen had made his sick brother, David ap Hughes, worse by giving him salt…. But the most damning accusation was that she had killed a man through her witchcraft….

Gwen’s home was searched. A statue of Christ rising from the dead and a bell without a ringer were found….this ‘evidence’ was enough for the authorities to associate her with the old Catholic ways….

Gwen was not afraid of the Bishop; she stood up to him and continued to protest her innocence…. However, she was found guilty at this initial investigation and taken to stand trial at Denbigh Court…. Here the verdict was upheld – Gwen was hung in Denbigh town square….

Gwen was the first wise woman to be executed in Wales, 31 years after witchcraft had been made a crime punishable by death in the UK. Most of those accused in Wales spent a brief period in prison before their cases collapsed. Gwen, for all intents, appeared to be simply no more than a healer – who, had she kept herself to herself and not got involved in the affairs of the gentry – would most likely have seen her own case collapse….

The witch trials were indeed viewed by many as a way of preventing women from being involved in medical practices…. It wasn’t until 1865 that Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became Britain’s first female doctor and she had to use ‘back-door’ methods to gain this recognition. In 1876 universities finally allowed women to attend….

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. Image: Wellcome Collection CC BY

Hospitals as we know them now did not start to emerge until the 18th Century. People in Britain had to generally pay for health care right up to 1948 – when our National Health Service was founded. Even at the beginning of the 20th Century a doctor’s visit could equate to half a week’s wages…. Sometimes treatment was available at Voluntary Hospitals; others sought help from religious communities, such as convents…. For those too sick or too poor the workhouse offered a primitive infirmary….

Perhaps nowadays we don’t always realise how lucky we are – we have the NHS. Maybe we take it for granted; sometimes we criticise it and yes, it is overstretched….but occasionally we should remind ourselves of how life was before it…. We give thanks to all those who work within it ~ keeping it going and looking after all of us….

Please…. If you have read this post through to the end – then I assume you found it of interest and I hope you’ve enjoyed it…. If you have found this via Facebook, a little ‘like’ for the Cottage Capers’ page would be very much appreciated – a like and follow would be even better…. I’m not trying to sell you anything – I’m simply a blogger trying to establish myself…. Many thanX

Ride that broomstick…!

When you think of a witch, what image do you conjure up? Is it the one of an unkempt, old crone – dressed in black, with a flowing cape and pointy hat? Is she stirring a cauldron or flying on a broomstick, with her faithful cat? Where on Earth does this notion come from? Blame it on the drugs….

Going Home tsbl2000 via Foter.com / CC BY-ND Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/68942208@N02/16365078410/

Our vision of what a witch should supposedly look like is a fairly recent concept…. Go back to the pictures drawn by Medieval artists, during the times of the mass hysteria surrounding witchcraft – and a very different story is depicted….Wanton, naked women, cavorting with the Devil – if they did happen to be clothed, it was likely to have been in very ordinary attire of the day; any hat would most probably have been a simple bonnet. It wasn’t until the early 1700s that Western European artists began to draw witches with long pointed hats, possibly to symbolise devil horns, an indication to ‘dark magic’ – very likely coming from the Salem witch trials, after witnesses claimed to have seen the Devil himself – ‘a large man in a high-crowned hat’…. Later, during Victorian times, children’s books elaborated and exaggerated the image, adding the long black flowing cloak….

“Witches” Artist Hans Baldung 1508 Source: R.Decker, Hexen, Frontispiz (2004) This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art

Back in the Middle Ages the World would have been a very scary place to live in….lack of scientific knowledge meant answers to the unexplained had to be found elsewhere…. For any situation – good or bad – that could not be accounted for by the obvious – it had to be down to magic…. People lived in constant fear of otherworldly beings….ghosts, fairies, monsters, witches…. At the same time, life was hard in so many other ways – not least the challenge of providing enough food to feed the family; not having the option of nipping to the local supermarket meant finding supplementary foods for the diet in any way possible – foraging was common-place….It is hardly surprising therefore, that certain plants were happened upon that had adverse effects on the body and mind – (indeed, the beginnings of our modern-day medicine can be attributed to some of these discoveries)…. Some of these discoveries would have actually of provided effects on the mind that some would have found rather pleasurable….

We may consider drug taking for recreational purposes a modern-day problem but people have been using mind-altering drugs since prehistoric times…. The earliest evidence of an alcoholic beverage dates back to 7,000-6,600 BC. Pottery shards discovered by archeologists, in the ancient Chinese village of Jiahu, were found to have remnants of an alcoholic drink consisting of ingredients such as rice, honey and fermented fruit….

Archeological finds in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras suggest hallucinogenic mushrooms were used between 500 BC and 900 AD. Fossil remains of a hallucinogenic cactus – ‘San Pedro’ – were found in a Peruvian cave and date back to between 8,600 and 5,600 BC. Finds in Northern Mexico and Southern Texas of Mescal bean seeds, dating from the end of the 9th millennium BC to 1,000 AD, all point to evidence Mankind has used hallucinogens almost from the beginning of his time on this planet…. A long with proof of opium being used from the mid 6th millennium BC, to South Americans chewing cocoa leaves 8,000 years ago and Argentinians smoking pipes as far back as 2,000 BC – it seems Man has always been getting high on some kind of drug or other….

So, what were they up to in The Middle Ages? As is so often the case, many a discovery is made by accident…. Bread has long been part of the staple diet of the World and Rye-bread would have been the most common type consumed in Medieval Europe…. Rye is susceptible to a fungus called ‘Ergot’ – eaten in large quantities this fungus can be fatal but smaller amounts cause a hallucinogenic reaction. Accounts from between the 14th and 17th Centuries record Europeans dancing through the streets, jabbering nonsense and foaming at the mouth after consuming Rye-bread infected with Ergot. Very often, large groups of people would carry on like this until they collapsed from exhaustion; when asked, they frequently claimed to have seen wild visions…. It became known as St. Vitus’s Dance – so named after the 4th Century Sicilian martyr, St. Vitus – Patron Saint of Dancers. We would nowadays liken the effects of Ergot to those of LSD….

Human nature, being what it is, meant there were those keen to experiment and gain knowledge to exactly what certain plants could do to the body – not always with the best of intentions…. Dabbling with ‘herbal remedies’ and in some cases outright poisons formed the basis of many an accusation of witchcraft….

Witch’s tools http://www.chrisbirds.com via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/118292762@N02/16339427989/

In 1324, Lady Alice Kyteler was the first ever accused witch in Ireland….after some very damning evidence collected with which to condemn her…. Alice Kyteler was born as an only child in 1280 – By all accounts, those who knew her, thought her to be arrogant and bossy – she wasn’t much liked…. However, certain aristocratic gentlemen seemed to find her attractive and she went through a quick succession of wealthy husbands, each coming to an untimely end…. Rumours began to circulate…. At the age of 44, Alice was on her 4th husband, Sir John Le Poer…. Eventually, as the rumours became more rife, Le Poer became suspicious and carried out a search of his wife’s bed-chamber…. What he found were items referring to the Devil and evidence that Alice was an expert in the art of poisoning. Drawing the conclusion that she intended him to be her next victim, Le Poer sent his finds to the Bishop of Ossory….

The Bishop, one Richard De Ledrede, was a man on a mission – he was obsessed with exposing witches…. Alice, her son – William Outlawe (from her first marriage) and her personal maid, Petronilla de Meath, were all arrested….

The rumours continued to grow, stories became embroidered – tales of her sacrificing animals, performing black magic in local churches and carrying on with a strange man called Robert Artisson – who some believed could manifest himself as a black cat – (was this a symbolisation of the Devil?) – all added fuel to the fire…. The Bishop, although he hunted rigorously, never did manage to find this elusive man….

It all became too clear that Alice had indeed murdered her previous 3 husbands and aimed to kill her 4th…. Her reason? Pure greed, a desire to gain more money….

However, the Bishop did not have the power to bring Alice to trial…. Witchcraft and sorcery was overseen by the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, who happened at the time to be a certain Roger Outlawe, a relative of her first husband…. Outlawe and other rich relatives supported Alice and had the Bishop imprisoned within a castle for 18 days…. On eventually regaining his freedom, De Ledrede resumed his quest to bring Alice to justice….but by then she had fled to England, leaving behind her maid and even her son to face the consequences…. William begged for forgiveness, which he was granted – but in return he had to pay for a new roof for St. Mary’s Cathedral…. The maid, Petronilla did not have such luck – under torture she admitted Alice had taught her the art of witchcraft…. She was flogged and burnt at the stake on November 3rd 1324…. Alice was never heard of again….

Burning witches, with others held in stocks 14th Century Author: Anonymous Public Domain Source: http://molcat1.bl.uk/llllmages/Ekta%5Cmid/E124/E124110.jpg

There are many plants Alice could have used to make her poisons…. Some of the most common belong to the Solanaceae family. Consisting of approximately 98 genera and some 2,700 species, many of these plants will be very familiar to us today….potatoes, tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, chillies, foxgloves, petunias, tobacco and deadly nightshade to name but a very few….

Written references to deadly nightshade being used as a ‘flying ointment’ go back to at least the 9th Century…. Deadly nightshade, if taken orally, can speed up the heart and be fatal; however, when applied to the skin in small quantities it can cause hallucinations…. People began to make the connection to how certain plants could make an impact upon them and started to experiment in how to use them safely…. Mixing a concoction of deadly nightshade, hemlock, henbane, mandrake and wolfbane, usually in a base of animal fat, produced a potent balm called ‘flying ointment’…. All of these plants contain hallucinogenic chemicals known as ‘tropane alkaloids’ – causing vivid dreams that take the user to another world of fantasy – full of pleasure….feasting, dancing, singing and loving…. (apparently)….  Perhaps not so much ‘black magic’ but simply chemistry…. For those who found the World a particularly hard place to live in back in the day – such escapism must have been so very tempting…. For women, particularly, exploring their own sexuality, liberation and self-pleasure – totally unthinkable at the time – this would have been seen as a link to the Devil himself….

However, ingesting any of these ingredients causes a problem, in the form of nausea and vomiting. It became realised that the body can absorb in other ways….namely through the sweat glands – particularly those located in the armpits and genital regions….

Now…. I have often wondered why witches are associated with broomsticks – but never in a million years would I have suspected a reason such as this…! The broomstick, or besom broom, a symbol of feminine domesticity – yet at the same time, a phallic, sexual symbol – or perhaps in the case of the witch – one of femininity gone wild and out of control….

Image from page 293 of “St. Nicholas [serial]” (1873) Internet Archive Book Images via Foter.com / No known copyright restrictions Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebook images/14772736232/
The besom broom was often used in Pagan fertility rituals….poles, pitchforks, brooms – in fact anything resembling a phallic object – were carried by folk dancing through the fields, jumping as high as they could, to encourage the crops to grow…. Then there is the traditional ‘jumping of the broomstick’, a feature of the Wicca hand-fasting ceremony – the broom being a reference to new beginnings, sweeping away the old…. The besom is also used in Wicca to cleanse and purify a space which is to be used for a ritual ceremony – sweeping out negative energies….

Jumping the broom! morgan.cauch via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/67297972@N04/6444876189/

So, why the connection with the witch of the Middle Ages? For that, we need to refer back to the application of that ‘flying ointment’…. Having discovered it could be applied to the sweat glands, especially those that are in a very intimate place if you happened to be a woman, a utensil was required in order to apply it…. What better than the handle of one of the most common household items – the humble broomstick!! Yes, I’m serious….they really did do just what you’re thinking…. It puts a whole new definition on ‘riding that broomstick’…!

“In rifleing the closet of the ladie,
they found a pipe of oyntment,
wherewith she greased a staffe,
upon which she ambled and galloped
through thick and thin….” – English historian Raphael Holinshed – 1324 –
with reference to the evidence collected against Lady Alice Kyteler…

“The vulgar believe, and the witches confess,
that on certain days or nights they anoint a staff
and ride on it to the appointed place or anoint
themselves under the arms and in other hairy places….”
– Theologian Jordanes de Bergamo – ‘Quastio de Strigis’ – 1470

I will never look at a broomstick in the same way again….

Besom in the Corner It’sGreg via Foter.com / CC BY-ND Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/itsgreg/514745734/

Strew thy floor with herbs….

After a month of having a poorly rabbit living in the bathroom I have got used to constantly clearing up a trail of straw and hay that seems to find its way around the rest of the house…. In days gone by that would have been perfectly normal in this old place; in fact, the floors would have been totally covered with the stuff….

When we first took possession of this cottage, one of our first jobs was to take up the brick floors of the bathroom and what is now the dining room. The brick was prone to drawing up moisture and so constant damp floors were an issue.  That said, even that – in its time – must have been an improvement on what was there before….plain, simple compacted mud. Yes, we often joke about living in a place with mud floors, this old cottage had literally just that….

The kitchen has old Victorian flagstones (unfortunately they are un-aesthetically pleasing – so now provide a base for wooden laminate flooring) but this floor too would once have been plain mud….

Grander abodes may have had stone floors – but mud or stone, neither offered much in the way of home comfort when left bare…. So, to overcome this, the floors would have been covered with reeds, rushes or straw. This made a soft ‘carpet-like’ covering, providing a little warmth and helping with cleanliness by soaking up spillages (and worse)….as in days gone by it wasn’t unusual for the inhabitants to share their dwelling with their most valuable assets….their livestock. Of course, cows, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens are difficult to house train….

strew 1
Photo credit: Shy Goats Daveography.ca via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/raptortheangel/14685132727/

As if the smell of ‘eau de goat’ constantly lingering in the air wasn’t bad enough – the people probably didn’t smell much better either, as folk did not tend to bath much in the Middle Ages….

Then there were the other uninvited household inhabitants to be considered; rats, mice and other scampering rodents….and with these creatures came fleas, lice and ticks; the straw covering the floors and providing the stuffing for mattresses….an absolute haven for them….

Some households may have replaced the straw or reeds on a fairly frequent basis but the majority would have only changed them a couple of times a year, some may have not bothered at all…. Quite possibly a new layer would just have been added as required, the bottom, rotting layers staying in place for years….

In a previous blog I talked about how nose gays were used by people to overcome unpleasant odours – that was not the only way powerful smelling herbs were used to mask rancid, disagreeable whiffs….

All areas of the home, kitchens, dining halls, sleeping areas would have had herbs strewn amongst the floor covering. They would have been put amongst the straw of bedding and scattered across tabletops….any where they could release their sweet aromas….

When scattered on the floor the herbs would be crushed underfoot when walked upon; some herbs were chosen for their scent, others because they acted as a deterrent to insects, such as fleas….

The best strewing herbs according to Thomas Tusser’s “Five Hundred Good Points of Husbandry” (1573) were:- Bassel (basil), Bawlme (lemon balm), Camamel (chamomile), Costemary (costmary), Cowsleps and Paggles (cowslips), Daisies of all sorts, Sweet Fennel, Germander, Hysop (hyssop), Lavender, Lavender Spike, Lavender Cotton (santolina), Marjoram, Mawdelin, Penny Ryall (pennyroyal), Roses of all kinds, Red Myntes, Sage, Tansy, Violets and Winter Savery….

Many other herbs may have been included; mint, thyme, rosemary, meadowsweet, wormwood, rue, sweet woodruff…. Pennyroyal was used particularly as a flea or tick repellent and meadowsweet was a fond favourite of Queen Elizabeth I…. Part of the purpose of the Mediaeval and Elizabethan garden was to grow herbs for strewing….

Of course, it wasn’t just private abodes that had mud or stone floors, just about all buildings did, including churches. Church pews did not arrive until the 1400s; in fact, our very own church, St. Mary and All Saints, here in Dunsfold, is reputed to have the very first pews in the Country. Before seating was available those attending Services had to stand, kneeling when required to pray…. Only the rich could afford cushions, so it is not hard to imagine the discomfort such floors caused to the knees….

Once again the floors would have been strewn with rushes and herbs….making things a little more comfortable and at the same time disguising nasty odours from the unwashed bodies of the congregation packing the church, or perhaps those of the deceased buried under the church floor…!

Each year, typically in the late summer, the old, rotten rushes were cleared out ready to be replaced. It didn’t take long for the process to become an annual Parish event…. It became an excuse for villages across the Land to celebrate and party when the church’s rushes were replaced; a celebration with revelry, feasting, drinking and Morris dancing….

The rushes were taken to the church in carts, in what was to evolve into Rush Bearing Processions. The rush-cart would be decorated with garlands of flowers (which were then used to decorate the inside of the church) and often silver plate items, borrowed from those in the community fortunate enough to own some….and then the cart would have been pulled along by a team of men….

The processions became competitive, with each village trying to ‘out-do’ the next…. Competition was intense, to who had the biggest and best cart…. Possibly due to the large quantities of ale consumed, sometimes brawls broke out between opposing teams…. It was not unusual for church ministers to refuse entry into their churches of rowdy rush-bearers….

Sweet flag, a strongly aromatic perennial plant, was introduced to Britain during the 1500s and became the centre-piece of rush-bearing ceremonies. A versatile material, with medicinal and culinary uses, it was also used on some English cottages as thatching….

strew 7
Photo credit: Sweet Flag milesizz via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/8583446@N05/3690603555/

Each church tended to allocate one day in the calendar for the ceremony. By the 16th Century, the bells were rung and ale, wine and cake were provided for the rush-bearers. Each church has a patron saint allocated to it at the time of consecration; an annual feast (wake) was held on the nearest Sunday to the official feast day of the allocated saint. By the 18th Century the rush-bearing ceremony usually formed part of the church’s feast day….

Rush strewing in churches died out in the early 1800s, as floors became flag-stoned…. Records show that one of the last was the church in Saddleworth, North Yorkshire, its floors were covered until 1826. Nowadays, certain areas, mainly confined to the North West areas of Cheshire and Lancashire, (although a small part of West Yorkshire participates too), have revived the tradition. Processions attract large crowds of spectators; the carts are highly decorated, with teams of men pulling them, whilst the ladies ride on top…. Who knows, perhaps it will become a celebration which spreads to the rest of the Country….let’s face it, nothing’s changed in that respect….any excuse to party….

The tradition of the little girl at a wedding, preceding the bride with a basket of petals and herbs comes from herb strewing…. Herbal weddings are becoming increasingly popular. Very often newly wed couples are showered with natural confetti, either fresh or dried. Many people like to make their own, maybe blending certain flowers and herbs to convey a personal message, they may incorporate: lavender – for luck and devotion, rose petals – for love, marjoram – for joy and happiness, chamomile – for patience and sage – to wish a long life….

To gather herbs for strewing in the home, they need to be picked in dry weather and it is best to hang them upside down in bunches to dry….

strew 15
Photo credit: Dried Herbs Caitlinator via Foter.com / CC BY Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/caitlinator/4534924413/

To make a herb powder for use in the home:

1 cup borax : 1/2 cup salt : 1/2 cup powdered mint : 1/2 cup powdered rosemary : 1/2 cup powdered mug wort : 1/2 cup dried lavender

Herbs can be ground in a coffee grinder or spice mill (kept solely for the purpose) to make powder

Mix dry ingredients together – add 12 drops of essential oil of choice…. Sprinkle on rugs and carpets; leave overnight and vacuum in the morning….

Another easy tip: sprinkle lavender under rugs and doormats, to keep rooms smelling sweet – the scent is released when the lavender is crushed when the rug/mat is walked upon….

Happy strewing….

strew 16
Photo credit: A pile of dried lavender herb fotografeleen via Foter.com / CC BY-SA Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/fotografeleen/7839750708/









Standing at the cross roads….

Ever found yourself at a cross-roads wondering which way to go? That’s where I am right now – hypothetically of course….

In 2008, I took a room in an antiques centre, located in a former mill. It is a rambling, quirky, centuries-old building – home to some 70 dealers, a real Aladdin’s cave, brimming with all manner of antiquities.

xroads 14
Photo credit: getsurrey.co.uk

I filled my room to the rafters with all sorts of vintage and antique goodies; china, linen, collectables, paintings, small items of furniture…. As far as I was concerned I was indulging my passion and earning a living at the same time….

It was November 2015, I was at home alone, working on some pieces for the Mill, with the radio on for company – when there was a news flash….a local antiques centre was on fire…. I knew instantly it was us….

I was incredibly lucky, my room was completely unscathed; unlike many of my fellow dealers who lost their entire stock, if not to the fire itself but through smoke and water damage. It was heart breaking….

What followed was a frantic few days of packing boxes and shifting furniture to clear the building. Being November, daylight hours were restricted, there was no electricity, it was cold, damp, with the smell of smoke thick in the air – safety measures required hard hats to be worn…. Still, resolve and morale remained high – we were all convinced we would be back in and trading again come Summer….

That was 18 months ago – due to complicated insurance issues work has not yet begun to repair the damaged building; meanwhile, my stock is in storage – waiting….

xroads 13
Photo credit: farnhamherald.com

I love the Mill, I find it hard to imagine trading from anywhere else. I have viewed another centre and I have dabbled at selling on-line….but I soon discovered that wasn’t for me…. So, up to this point I have simply chosen to ‘wait it out’. However, since it is now painfully apparent nothing is going to be resolved in the near future, decisions have to be made….

I could look for an alternative venue, continue to wait or dispose of my stock through auction and consider a new career challenge…. at least I have choices. Being a woman in the 21st Century I am free to make my own decisions, which is probably more than could be said for the womenfolk who have lived in this house before me….especially those in its very early days….

When this house was first built in the mid to late 1300s, life would have been ruled by feudal obligations. Possibly this cottage would have been the home of a lesser yeoman or more affluent villien and his family; it is not grand by any means but it is well constructed and in its time would have been quite substantial. Life for a yeoman or villien’s wife would have been tough….

Most people in Mediaeval Europe and Britain lived in small rural communities and made their living from the land. In some respects the life of a peasant woman was less restricted in the confines of her class than those in aristocracy. Generally, women had little control over the direction their lives took them in. Society in the  Middle Ages was heavily influenced by the Bible….women were deemed inferior to men, morally weaker and likely to tempt men into sin….all this stemming from Eve. Women were conditioned to remain silent, letting their menfolk make decisions on their behalf. Fathers arranged marriages for their daughters, who were usually married off as teenagers and then became responsible for managing their new home, whether a castle or a hovel….

xroads 7
Photo credit: Medieval Village, WA Tuzen via Foter.com / CC BY-ND Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tuzen/14551399513/

A peasant woman’s day may have typically started at 3am. She would have been expected to work in the fields alongside her husband; ploughing, sowing, harvesting, haymaking….

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Photo credit: Image from page 273 of “Mediaeval and modern history” (1905) Internet Archive Book Images via Foter.com / No known copyright restrictions Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14758267726/

There may have been livestock to raise – lambing in the Spring, shearing mid-June. Poultry needed tending (nearly always a woman’s job)….and of course, she also needed to manage the household chores too. There would have been cheese, butter and bread to make, food to be preserved ready for the Winter, the vegetable plot would have needed maintaining – growing vegetables for the family’s pottage…. A certain amount of time would have been spent foraging for nuts, mushrooms, berries and fruit…. Floors had to be swept and straw replaced, rush lights needed to be made. She would have sewed new clothes for the family, washed and mended when necessary…. Then she would have to have found time for her spinning and quite possibly weaving too…. Unless living as a free-woman and hence excused, she would also have been expected to help with the harvest of her lord as well as that of her own family’s land…. On top of all that, she probably had a tribe of children to bring up….

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Photo credit: Image taken from page 267 of ‘English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages-XIV.Century… Translated from the French by Lucy T.Smith…Illustrated’ The British Library via Foter.com / No known copyright restrictions Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/11199869396/

Knowledge of a trade could have made a girl a good marriage prospect, especially if it happened to be one that could be run from home, such as weaving, brewing or baking. Extra income for the household was always welcome….

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Photo credit: “Middle Ages” spinner P Torrodellas via Foter.com / CC BY-NC Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ptorrodellas/143041021/

Cottage industries were small businesses where people produced their own goods and sold them either from home or by ‘hawking’ them in the streets, possibly using a mobile cart. A small business would have been eligible to join a guild, an association of artisans or merchants. Most small businesses were owned and registered with the guild by a man – his wife, daughters, sisters and mother were his ‘workforce’. Women connected to a family business would have been allowed to join the guild via their fathers or husbands. By learning the family trade, very often a woman would have been permitted to continue the business in the event of her father or husband’s death. Sometimes, although it was the man of the house registered as the owner, it could be the woman who ran the entire business….

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Photo credit: Medieval tincaster hans s via Foter.com / CC BY-ND Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/archeon/7481668890/

Even if a woman was a member of a guild, generally she was still very restricted. For example, a pastry maker was only permitted to carry one box of biscuits at a time in order to sell from….and of course, women were paid less than their menfolk even if they were doing the same job. Many widows inherited property and businesses and were able to carry on and run them very successfully, sometimes they became very financially well-off; if this were the case it was often not in her best interest to remarry…. Some widows ran the financial side of their deceased husband’s business but would have had employees to carry out the work….

After the black death new opportunities arose for women wishing to prosper. Due to a shortage in the skilled workforce a woman with a trade could rent premises, take on apprentices and run a business; she could even write a will to determine what would happen to it in the event of her death…. Married women could choose to trade separately from their husbands, they were known as ‘femme soles’. In order for a woman to do so, she had to make a public declaration of her sole status and to be able to trade her application had to be approved and granted. Those in urban areas may have become shop or inn keepers. London’s population halved after the plague, opportunity was everywhere for women. In the early 15th Century one third of brewers paying dues to the Brewers Company were women, some were single, some married, some widowed. However, there is little evidence of women being in public office, where they may have had authority over men….and as the population recovered and increased women faded back into the background, once again it became a man’s World….

Many women had multiple jobs to help make ends meet….very often she would have had her children in tow; as soon as they were old enough they would have been expected to help out….

Some women may have held the position of a domestic servant to a wealthier family. There were other employment options as well of course, prostitution was one…. Although frowned upon by the Roman Catholic Church and regarded as a sin, it was tolerated to a degree as the belief was that it helped curb rape and sodomy; towns and cities had designated areas where prostitutes could ply their trade…. Midwifery was solely a female occupation; although English universities barred female medical practitioners, midwives delivered babies and attended to other women’s health matters, as men were terrified of childbirth…. Midwives had no formal training as such, they relied purely on experience….

Childbirth in the Middle Ages was an extremely risky business, both for mother and infant; in fact childbirth was the greatest hazard a Mediaeval woman faced…. If a woman survived her childbearing years she was likely to outlive her husband. There was no real medical help available if problems arose, no procedures or techniques when dealing with breech births. If the pelvic opening was too small for the baby’s head nothing could be done; Caesarean sections were only performed if either mother or child had died and were carried out without anesthetic….

Any mother will tell you giving birth is no picnic but when we consider the horrors that childbirth in the Middle Ages often entailed, it is hardly surprising to learn that many women found the thought of becoming a nun a more attractive prospect than becoming a mother…. Nearly 10% of women in Mediaeval England and France never married in the traditional sense – many opted to marry the Church instead. Indeed it had its benefits….it gave the opportunity to gain an education; many writers, artists, educators, healers and botanists gained their knowledge through the Church….

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Photo credit: Image from page 207 of “The story of the middle ages; an elementary history for sixth and seventh grades” (1912) Internet Archive Book Images via Foter.com / No known copyright restrictions Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14797864713/

Although women were restricted in what was essentially a World run by men, there is little doubt that without the sheer gutsiness of our Mediaeval sisters, the World at that particular time would have come to a grinding halt…. There is that familiar saying: ‘behind every successful man stands a strong woman’….which appears to have its origins in the 1940s – but I wonder if it was inspired by women of the Middle Ages….

I, for one, am thankful I am a woman of now, rather than then…. I can make my own decisions, follow the career path of my choosing – my destiny is not determined by my husband’s trade…. Good job really, I can’t imagine myself wielding a chainsaw….



















































































































































Are you superstitious….?

It was whilst foraging in the garden the other day, looking for wild strawberry leaves to tempt a poorly rabbit that I am caring for, that I came across a white spider…. My instinctive reaction was to recoil in horror – not because I have any fear of spiders, they don’t usually bother me – but because of something my mother always says….

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I don’t think I have ever actually seen a pure white spider before…. I have come across some very pale ones which I thought to be white but this little fella was unmistakable….

A bit of detective work (good old Google) meant I was able to identify the arachnid as a crab spider (misumena vatia). Apparently, it is quite a common chap here in the South of England and can often be found between April and September. Usually they prefer yellow or white flowers, which are good camouflage, so they can pounce on unsuspecting flies and bugs, trapping them in their crab-like front legs. The interesting thing about these particular crab spiders, is their ability to change colour to match their surroundings. This can take a few days but they are able to appear white, yellow or green….

So, now you are probably wondering what all the fuss was about…. Why my horror at finding what is fundamentally a harmless little creature just minding its own business? Well, ever since I can remember my mum has always told me that to come across a white spider means a death is soon to occur, either within the family or someone closely connected to it….

Being of a superstitious nature, it wasn’t just the identification of this small soul I was Googling, I wanted to see if I could find any reference to the old wives tale…. I discovered all kinds of beliefs surrounding our eight legged friends; money spiders bringing wealth, how seeing a spider weave its web in the morning is a bad omen, killing a spider means extreme bad luck and having cobwebs in the house is seen as lucky – but nowhere could I find anything about the impending doom and gloom a white spider is supposed to bring….in fact all my searching revealed quite the opposite. To find a pure white spider is a sign that changes for the better are due to arrive and an increase in wealth could well be in store….

So, where did Mum’s belief stem from? When I asked her, she told me it was something her granny always used to say…. This got me thinking about how such tales and folklores vary from region to region and from family to family. Superstitions are often a family ‘thing’, passed from generation to generation, it gives a sense of belonging. Most of these beliefs involve luck, whether the bringing of good fortune or keeping misfortune at bay…. Many require some kind of ritual; an action we repeat which is symbolic – to give us security and comfort…. A vast majority of the superstitions we know today can be traced back to the Middle Ages or even before….

During Mediaeval times, the World was both a wondrous and terrifying place; due to the lack of scientific understanding, general illiteracy and yet a need for an explanation of the unknown, people turned to other sources for answers – namely magic, evil spirits, witches and demons…. The World became obsessed with witchcraft, it is estimated some 200,000 people were executed after being accused of practising it…. I have already touched on some of the ways people protected their homes from witches in a previous blog (Within these walls…) – but there are so many other superstitions and their associated customs and rituals that also originate from this time….

Throwing spilt salt over the left shoulder is something I for one have done on occasion but never really knowing why. Back in the Middle Ages, salt was an extremely expensive commodity, certainly not to be wasted. Rather than just discard spoiled salt, why not try to get some use from it….by chucking it over the shoulder, into the eyes of any evil spirit that might just happen to be lurking behind….

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Keeping evil out of the house was a priority. Placing rosemary by the door was thought to deter the likes of witches; growing ivy on outside walls was also meant to protect a property. An iron horseshoe above the door made a witch hesitate before entering a building. It had to be the correct way up to prevent the luck from escaping and it had to have come off of the horse naturally rather than being purposely removed….

Sometimes evil spirits could sneak into the home unnoticed – they could hide in things brought indoors, such as between the leaves of certain vegetables, like cabbages and lettuces. Do you cut a cross into the bottom of your Brussel sprouts whilst preparing them for the pot? Contrary to belief, doing so doesn’t help them to cook any better – it comes from an old belief that tiny demons hide inside them. If these demons happen to be swallowed, they can enter the body….

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Occasionally accidents happen, such as the breaking of a mirror. In the Middle Ages it was commonly believed that the reflected image was actually the soul of the person looking into the mirror; so if it were to break, it meant the fracturing of the soul…. To counteract the predicted forthcoming ill-luck, it was necessary to wait for seven hours before clearing up the broken shards and then disposal required burying them outside, under the light of the moon….

Great pains were taken to avoid tempting ill-fate, something we often do unconsciously today. How many times have you stepped off the pavement in order to divert from walking under a ladder? When a ladder is in position, for example leaning against a wall, it forms the shape of a triangle. The triangle is the sign of the Holy Trinity; it was once thought to be seriously unlucky to break the triangle by walking through it….

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Thirteen, for some, is an extremely unpopular number. The number of people at the Last Supper equalled thirteen, the thirteenth guest being Judas – he who betrayed Jesus. The Crucifixion occurred on a Friday – thus explaining the superstitions surrounding Friday the 13th…. For centuries people avoided having thirteen diners around the table….in fact having thirteen at a gathering could warrant being accused of witchcraft….

The term ‘bless you’ comes from times of the plague. It was at this time that people began to cover their mouths and noses when sneezing, to stop the spread of germs. Saying ‘bless you’ was thought to stop the Devil from entering the body during the sneeze….

Of course, there were lots of ways to entice good luck, many of which have stayed with us. Crossed fingers for instance, making the sign of the cross, to protect from bad luck and evil spirits – we all do it when willing something positive to happen…. (or perhaps when making a promise we don’t intend to keep)…!  Touching wood is another; this comes from the old belief that sacred trees, oak, ash and hawthorn, had spirits that protected from evil and demons….

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Tossing a coin into a wishing well stems from the idea that certain wells and pools were the home to water spirits – coins were thrown in as offerings….hoping a wish would come true…. Of course, nowadays many a charity may benefit from our wishful thinking….

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Then there are occasions that require good luck blessing rituals….such as weddings. Bridal clothes were considered to be especially luck – there was once a time when a bride could expect to have the clothes she wore physically ripped from her….gradually, the focus moved on to the  garter, which represented sexuality and fertility. Batchelors would fight to obtain the garter as the belief was that he who gained it would be delivered of a beautiful, fertile wife….

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Photo credit: acme via Foter.com / CC BY  Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/acme/5926093323/


Cutting the wedding cake was a ritual born of the belief that if a bride did not cut the first slice then the marriage would be childless….

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Photo credit: Image from page 425 of “Frolics at Fairmount” (1910) Internet Archive Book Images via Foter.com / No known copyright restrictions Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14755803805/

Still today, we follow so many wedding traditions that have been with us for centuries. The same can be said for so many other areas of our lives, all those little quirks that have stayed with us…. So, whatever superstitions you observe, be it black cats, avoiding the cracks in the pavement, not putting you umbrella up indoors, saying ‘white rabbit’ on the first day of a new month or looking for four-leaf clover…. Be lucky X ….

Oh look! I’ve just spotted a pair of magpies outside….

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