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….

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Agnes Waterhouse ~ the first British hanging for Witchcraft….

Agnes Waterhouse was born around 1503 and lived in the village of Hatfield Peverel, near to Chelmsford, Essex – and she was the first woman in Britain to be hanged for witchcraft….



Agnes was known locally as ‘Mother Waterhouse’, which would suggest she may have been a wise woman and healer. It appears she was rather an argumentative woman, repeatedly falling out with her neighbours…. In July 1566 Agnes was accused of witchcraft – along with Elizabeth Francis (believed to be her sister) and Joan Waterhouse, her 18-year-old daughter….



Elizabeth had a cat; a white spotted one called ‘Sathan’ – or Satan – given to her by her grandmother, ‘Eve of Hatfield Peverel’ – who taught her grand-daughter the secrets of witchcraft when she was 12 years old…. Sathan was able to talk; he taught Elizabeth how to make magical potions – and promised her a lifetime of riches – a promise that indeed appeared to have been kept, as she always had sheep in her pasture….

Sathan would do anything for his mistress – all he asked for in return was bread, milk and a drop of blood – her blood – which she provided by pricking herself and allowing him to suck from it….leaving spots on her skin never to disappear….

As a young woman Elizabeth took a fancy to an Andrew Byles – a man of wealth – to be her husband…. Sathan promised to get him for her….but in order for it to be possible she must allow Byles to ‘abuse’ her – which she did. Only things did not quite go to plan – for afterwards Byles refused to marry her. Enraged Elizabeth ordered Sathan to ‘waste his goods’ (destroy his property)…. Still not content she demanded the cat ‘touch his body’ (cause illness) – and so he did…. Byles subsequently died from his illness….img_0353

Soon after Elizabeth discovered she was carrying Byles’s child – so Sathan advised her which herbs to take to cause a termination of the pregnancy….

Elizabeth set her heart upon another man, Francis….although not as rich as Byles she decided she must have him and so set her trap…. After sleeping with him, once again she fell pregnant – they married and a daughter was born to them some three months later….

It was not a happy union, the pair fought constantly – family life was not as Elizabeth had expected; so when the child was just 18 months old she got Sathan to kill her….and inflict a lameness of the leg on to Francis – from which he never recovered….

By now Elizabeth had somewhat tired of it all – and this included Sathan who she’d had for some 15 years…. It so happened that she encountered Agnes one day, who was on her way to the ovens to bake some cakes…. Elizabeth decided to bestow the cat upon her as a gift – telling her that all she needed to do was feed him bread, milk and a drop of blood and he would do anything she wanted….in return Agnes gave Elizabeth a cake….


Agnes was eager to try out the cat’s skills…. She asked him to kill one of her pigs – more than willing to prove himself Sathan obliged. Having fallen out with a couple of her neighbours Agnes then got him to kill three hogs belonging to Father Kersey and drown a cow owned by Widow Gooday…. Each time Agnes rewarded Sathan with a chicken and a drop of her own blood. Realising the power at her fingertips Agnes began causing no end of mischief for her neighbours….ruining their brewing and butter making amongst other things…. Sathan taught her the art of witchcraft, how to terminate pregnancies and helped her to kill people…. As she wasn’t getting along with her own husband Agnes arranged his demise too – she spent 9 years as a widow before things finally caught up with her….

Eventually, for whatever reason, Agnes too had had enough of Sathan, he was beginning to cause her problems; so, she turned him into a toad – he was far easier to keep under control this way….


It was while she was away one day that her daughter, Joan, decided to amuse herself by playing with him…. Feeling hungry and as her mother had left no food, Joan went to the house of a neighbour to ask for some bread and cheese…. On arriving she encountered the neighbour’s daughter, 12-year-old Agnes Brown – who refused to give her any food. On returning home, Sathan offered her his help….providing she gave him her soul – Joan agreed to this…. Sathan went to visit the young Agnes and found her churning butter. The toad manifested himself into a demon – a black dog with horns – and asked the child for some butter….when she declined he then set about terrorising her….

butter 3
Image from page 10 of “The days of long ago, and Immortality (Antithesis of “The Rubaiyat”)”(1909) Internet Archive Books via Foter.com / No known copyright restrictions Original image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14790395683/

By now people were becoming suspicious of the tragic events and goings-on that seemed to surround Agnes and her cat…. It was after the death of yet another of her neighbours, William Fynne, who died on the 1st of November 1565 having suffered from an illness said to have been caused by her, that the accusations were finally officially made….

Agnes, Elizabeth and Joan were brought to trial in Chelmsford in July 1566, accused of witchcraft…. Agnes was cited as having caused illness that resulted in the deaths of William Fynne and her husband and also the deaths of her neighbours’ livestock…. But the evidence that actually convicted her was when the 12-year-old Agnes Brown testified against her…. Agnes’s first examination was on the 26th July, followed by a second one the following day….at which she confessed and pleaded guilty….

King Henry VIII had made witchcraft a felony punishable by death in 1542; some say he did this as he thought Anne Boleyn was a witch trying to harm him with her craft….img_0354

Agnes was hanged on the 27th July 1566. At her execution she asked God for forgiveness; when asked she said she prayed often but always in Latin to hide her doing so from Sathan, as he would not allow her prayers…. Along with her repentance she also added to the list of accused crimes…. She told of how she had sent Sathan to damage the goods of a tailor named Wardol and to do him harm….but the cat returned to her and said he was unable to do as he had been bade as Wardol’s faith in God was too strong. Agnes also confessed she had been practising witchcraft for 25 years….

Elizabeth was given a lighter sentence – but 13 years later she herself was hanged for a further conviction…. Joan was cleared during the trial; she had testified against her mother and Elizabeth helping to convict them – and so saving her own skin….

Agnes has been an inspiration for many writers and artists since – people remain fascinated by the story…. When we stop to consider what life was like back then it is hard to visualise how it must have truly been. In this modern scientific World that we live in, we know cats can’t talk to us, no matter how it sometimes seems like they can…. They certainly don’t go around killing pigs, cows and people and they definitely can’t turn themselves into demon dogs anymore than we can turn them into toads….

We also now have an understanding of that terrible illness dementia…. Many of us know only too well the heartbreak of having a loved one who suffers from this dreadful disease – the confusion, forgetfulness and sometimes argumentative, aggressive behaviour….

One can’t help wondering if the case of Agnes and Elizabeth centred on mass hysteria, the mischief of a 12-year-old girl, a couple of old ladies suffering from dementia and their obsession with a cat…. How many ‘witches’ hanged were actually people suffering from diseases of the mind? Not having any other means to explain odd, erratic, confused or aggressive behaviour it would not be surprising if people had considered those affected to be under the influence of the Devil himself….

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/