The Irish Remedy for Witchcraft
“Take of dogs grease well dissolved and cleansed, four Ounces; Of bears Grease eight Ounce; Of Capons Grease, four and twenty Ounces; three trunks of the Misletoe of the Hazle while green, cut in pieces & pound it small[l], till it become moist; bruise together the wood, leaves and Berries, mix all in a vial, after you have exposed it to the sun for nine weeks; You shall extract a green Balsom, wherewith if you anoint the Bodies of the Bewitched, especially the parts most effected and the joynts, they will certainly be cured.”
That was the prescription in a pamphlet The Wonderful and True Relation of the Bewitching of a Young Girle in Ireland, What Ways she was Tormented, and a Receipt of the Ointment that she was Cured with (1699 Full text online). The worst periods of European witch trials were long over, but in 1689 an old woman came by begging at the house of a well-to-do family in County Antrim. A nine year old girl door answered the door and gave the woman some bread and beer. For some reason the witch gave the girl a sorrel leaf which she ate and “it was scarce swallowed by her, when she began to be tortured in her bowels, to tremble all over, and then to be convulst, and in fine, to swon away & fall as one dead.“
Medical doctors were brought in to treat the girl and when they failed to find a cure, minsters were brought in to visit her but, “they had scarce laid their Hands on Her when the child was transformed by the Daemon in to such shaps as a man that hath not beheld it with his eyes, would hardly be brought to imagine.” The witch was arrested, confessed and eventually hung, but told a clergyman on the gallows that curing the girl was beyond her power.
Daniel Higgs, the author of the pamphlet describing the case had actually found the recipe for the ointment in a German medical text from 1579, but took full credit for it’s “rediscovery”. Higgs was a firm believer in demons and spirits and seems to have written the pamphlet, in part, to show atheists and the growing belief in naturalist science proof of God and the effect of spirits in the world. Higgs attempted to find an apothecary to produce the ointment, but they all seem to have turned him down.
We know today that some of the symptoms the girl experienced seem consistent with a rare allergic reaction to sorrel. Sorrel can be unsafe specifically for young children due to its oxalic acid content. Rhubarb leaves, another source of oxalic acid, are reported to have caused death in a four-year-old child. Some people experience stomach pain or cramping, vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea. Other side effects may include difficulty breathing or skin irritation from sorrel allergies. Low levels of calcium in the blood may also occur, which can lead to muscle spasms. Although Higgs does not list all of the ingredients, before using the ointment he gave her a “decoction ex fuga Daemonum of south∣eren wood, Mugwort, Vervene &c.” Southrenwood (Artemisia abrotanum) has been used as a medicinal herb since medieval times. But it’s now recommended that children under 12 should avoid internal consumption of the plant. Both mugwort and vervaine can induce uterine cramps. So it’s possible that this nostrum would have actually delayed the recovery of someone already suffering from a reaction to sorrel -especially when administered to a small child.
Fortunately, in this case the young girl eventually seems to have been “cured” except for “an the dayes of the Ember-weeks, do what she can, she is seized with a certain transient melancholy.”
A more thorough discussion of the incident can be found in the book Witchcraft and Magic in Ireland (right)