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Illness and Home Remedies in Classic Literature

Updated on June 26, 2011

Illness and Home Remedies in Literature

Sickness and suffering — along with a never-ending search for relief — are a part of the human condition that is well documented in classic literature.

Boils burst. Gout grates. Poxes, pustules and plagues have paraded through many a plot. So have many minor aches and agues.

Across the centuries, suffering heroes and villains have tried eradicating physical ailments — both real and imagined — with a shifting array of potions, plants, prayers and pills.

These are the home remedies of literature.

Perhaps some worked. (Who wouldn't try a teaspoonful of chamomile tea, à la Peter Rabbit?) But just as often, the "prescriptions" in classic literature show the endless gullibility of the desperately ill and the nonchalant avarice of the purveyors of unproven "cures."

There's a certain timelessness to the limits of human wisdom, medical and otherwise.

Photo by E. A. Wright / Mr. Woodhouse, a character in Jane Austen's novel Emma, favored baked apples for promoting good health.
Photo by E. A. Wright / Mr. Woodhouse, a character in Jane Austen's novel Emma, favored baked apples for promoting good health.

From The Tale of Peter Rabbit

"I am sorry to say that Peter was not very well during the evening. His mother put him to bed and made some camomile tea; and she gave a dose of it to Peter!

'One teaspoonful to be taken at bedtime.'"

The Drinking Cure

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The Work: The Tale of Peter Rabbit

The Author: Beatrix Potter

The Backstory: One bad little bunny has romped and chomped his way through a cantankerous neighbor's garden and, inevitably, has come to grief.

The Illness: Possibly a slight head cold (from exposure) combined with exhaustion and guilt over losing yet another suit of clothing.

The Sufferer: Peter Rabbit, "who was very naughty."

The Physician: Peter Rabbit's mother, Old Mrs. Rabbit.

The Home Remedy: "Camomile" (chamomile) tea.

Efficacy: Undisclosed at the story's end.

The Modern Cure: Medicine has yet to deliver a fail-proof method for banishing a cold. Nor has it yet devised a means for permanently purging the memories of a humiliating day.

From The Decameron

"They... walked abroad, carrying in their hands flowers or fragrant herbs or divers sorts of spices which they frequently raised to their noses, deeming it an excellent thing thus to comfort the brain with such perfumes, because the air seemed to be everywhere laden and reeking with the stench emitted by the dead and the dying and the odors of drugs."


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The Work: The Decameron

The Author: Giovanni Boccaccio

The Backstory: When the Black Death starts to devastate the Italian city of Florence in 1348, a small group of young people escape to a villa in the countryside for what becomes 10 days of non-stop storytelling.

The Illness: Most likely the bubonic plague.

The Sufferers: That year, nearly the entire population of Florence. (The plagues of the 14th century would end up wiping out a good swath of the population in Europe and Asia.)

The Prescriber(s): Citizens of Florence who chose neither to lock themselves away in hiding nor to drink themselves into a debauched oblivion. This was their "middle course."

The Remedy: Pomanders, bouquets and herbs.

Efficacy: According to Boccaccio, the results were indistinguishable from intentional intoxication: a few lived; many died.

The Modern Cure: Antibiotics.

From Nicholas Nickleby

"'... We don't want any foolery about the boys. They have the brimstone and treacle, partly because if they hadn't something or other in the way of medicine they'd be always ailing and giving a world of trouble, and partly because it spoils their appetites and comes cheaper than breakfast and dinner. So, it does them good and us good at the same time, and that's fair enough I'm sure.'"

Proper Nutrition

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The Work: Nicholas Nickleby

The Author:
Charles Dickens

The Backstory:
Mr. and Mrs. Squeers are the ruling tyrants of a small empire: a boarding school. The small subjects are tortured even as their "health" is carefully maintained.

The Illness:
Childhood ailments, fevers and malnutrition.

The Sufferers:
The youngsters in the care of the Squeers, who promise "every comfort of a home that a boy could wish for."

The Physician:
Mrs. Squeers, a firm opponent of obstinacy.

The Remedy: Brimstone and treacle (sulphur ore and sugar). From the novel:

"Mrs Squeers stood at one of the desks presiding over an immense basin of brimstone and treacle of which delicious compound she administered a large instalment to each boy in succession using for the purpose a common wooden spoon which might have been originally manufactured for some gigantic top and which widened every young gentleman's mouth considerably they being all obliged under heavy corporal penalties to take in the whole of the bowl at a gasp."

Efficacy: The couple's financial prospects brighten with every dose.

The Modern Cure:

From Macbeth

Macbeth: Cure her of that! Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased, pluck from the memory of a rooted sorrow, raze out the written troubles of the brain, and with some sweet oblivious antidote cleanse the stuffed bosom of the perilous stuff which weighs upon the heart?

Doctor: Therein the patient must minister to himself.

Macbeth: Throw physic to the dogs, I'll none of it!

Stopping Treatment

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The Work: Macbeth

The Author: William Shakespeare

The Backstory: Lady Macbeth is suffering a guilty conscience over an ambition-fueled killing spree.

The Illness: Sleepwalking and an obsessive need to clean the hands of invisible blood.

The Sufferer: Lady Macbeth. Her torment becomes physical and she can get no rest.

The Physician: A doctor who considers this case untreatable. As he puts it: "unnatural deeds do breed unnatural troubles."

The Remedy: Leave her alone with her conscience. From the play:

"Infected minds to their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets: More needs she the divine than the physician. God, God forgive us all! Look after her; remove from her the means of all annoyance, and still keep eyes upon her."

Efficacy: The result is death/suicide.

The Modern Cure: Hard to say. There are fewer witches and swords roaming Scotland these days.

From Huckleberry Finn

"'Well, I'd been selling an article to take the tartar off the teeth — and it does take it off, too, and generly the enamel along with it — but I stayed about one night longer than I ought to, and was just in the act of sliding out when I ran across you on the trail this side of town, and you told me they were coming, and begged me to help you to get off. So I told you I was expecting trouble myself...'"

Good Oral Hygiene

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The Work: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The Author: Mark Twain

The Backstory: Huck's adventures temporarily put him in the company of two true American rascals, the Duke the the Dauphin. Both dabble in doctoring.

The Illness: Bad teeth.

The Sufferer: The good people in the towns along the Mississippi River.

The Physician: An ornery "rapscallion," the Duke of Bridgewater, whose other specialties include scamming grieving families and procuring paying customers for a singing-geography school.

The Remedy: The duke's "patent medicine."

Efficacy: Unsatisfactory. This oral care product tackled tartar and tooth with equal ferocity.

The Modern Cure: Dentists and toothpaste.

From Emma

"He loved to have the cloth laid, because it had been the fashion of his youth, but his conviction of suppers being very unwholesome made him rather sorry to see any thing put on it; and while his hospitality would have welcomed his visitors to every thing, his care for their health made him grieve that they would eat."

One [Baked] Apple A Day...

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The Work: Emma

The Author: Jane Austen

The Backstory: One minor "plague" for the heroine of this tale is her health-obsessed father. The man's closest confidante is the local apothecary, and his many fears crimp travel, partying and "unwholesome" feasting for the rest of his family.

The Illness: Indigestion, coupled with a weak constitution.

The Sufferer: Mr. Woodhouse, a self-described invalid.

The Physician: Ostensibly the local doctor, Mr. Perry, but in reality, Mr. Woodhouse is devising his own complicated treatment plan.

The Remedy: A strict diet. Intake of food is limited mostly to thrice-baked apples and gruel. Thoroughly boiled parsnips and eggs are acceptable. Asparagus is iffy. Cake is a huge no-no.

Efficacy: The health of Mr. Woodhouse does not noticeably improve under this regimen.

The Modern Cure: Mr. Woodhouse is partly correct: It's true that consuming too much wine, cake and rich food is not healthy, while taking a daily walk is. On the other hand, his level of worry about the little things in life is still acutely annoying.


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    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Voted up and awesome! I loved this one! But what - no leeches? No bloodletting?