226: Folklore of Hertfordshire

I’ve been reading through Doris Jones-Baker’s “The Folklore of Hertfordshire” which has a small section on traditional charms and remedies. It’s interesting to see how many of these folk beliefs may have gone on to influence what would eventually become Appalachian and then later Ozark folk medicine. Part of the work I’m doing with this blog is to hunt out those customs and beliefs that influenced Ozark folk healing. To find out the European, African, as well as the Native origins of many of the folk remedies we have, and then to look at those traditions and customs that were wholly different and seemingly born of this land, out from among these people.

“Holed flints were hung in barns or with brasses on harness as charms against diseases in horses.”

The use of hole-stones, or hag-stones, in Appalachian and Ozark folkways is fairly common. Vance Randolph talks about folks carrying them around, or hanging them up in barns, or even around the bedposts to keep away evil influences.

“Around Harpenden, in West Hertfordshire, a bit of raw meat was rubbed on the warts and then buried in the ground: it was supposed that as the meat rotted so the warts would disappear.”

Another common Ozark remedy for warts. In addition to raw meat, a potato can be cut in half, rubbed on the wart, then buried outside. The idea being that as the potato, or meat, rots away the wart will rot away as well.

“Toothache, was thought to be caused by a tiny wriggling worm in the tooth which, once it had entered, had to be driven out to obtain relief…Once afflicted, a good smoke of the magical and evil-smelling henbane seed was said to be a cure.”

The same belief about the worm in the tooth can be found in the Ozarks. Hillfolk here, however, resorted to blowing tobacco smoke on the tooth, or keeping a little “chaw” of tobacco next to or surrounding the afflicted tooth.

“For shingles some resorted to a mixture of the blood of a black cat’s tail – a black cat was lucky in Hertfordshire –  with the juice of houseleek and cream, warmed and applied to the blisters three times a day.”

This may be a belief that contributed to the Ozark and Creole shingles remedy involving the blood of a black chicken. Cream is also used in Ozark and Creole remedies for shingles, in addition to wheat flour and sometimes elderberry leaves.

“For sore throats there was the woollen sock, preferably red, sweaty, and warm, wound around the neck before going to bed.”

Sweaty socks around the neck are a common cure for sore throats in Ozark folk medicine, although I’ve never heard the connection to the color red. In Cajun/Creole folk medicine, however, there’s the use of red flannel, thought to represent healthy blood or warmth.

What’s maybe the most interesting discovery while reading this book is that according to Jones-Baker, in Hertfordshire the use of the word “yarb” for a medicinal plant was common, and they often called herbal remedies “yarb teas”. This is interesting for me because outside of the Appalachians and Ozarks I’ve never heard the use of the word “yarb” before. This is an interesting revelation and may be a possible origin for the Ozark use of the word. When looking at Ozark-speak or Ozark language, researchers over the years have often marveled at how much of the dialect is made up of rural Elizabethan English mixed with Scots Gaelic and a smattering of Native loanwords. It wouldn’t surprise me if the word “yarb” had it’s birthplace in the rollings hills of Hertfordshire.

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