Tudor Remedies: Moss


Moss shows up in 16-17th century recipe and remedy books as an aid to stop bleeding caused by accidents with all manner of cutting tools and weapons.


In his book The Good Husvvifes Ievvell, published in 1585, Thomas Dawson included a recipe "For to staunch bloud" which recommended that you "take Bole Armoniake and Turpentine and make a plaister, and lay it to. Also take the mosse of the Hazell tree, and cast it into the wound and it will staunch forthwith, and the longer that it is gathered the better it is." A drier moss would have been preferred as it soaked up blood better.

Some of the other ingredients mentioned were Bole Armoniake which was a fine clay brought from Armenia and turpentine, a resin from coniferous trees. A plaister is the name for a medicinal mixture which is spread onto a piece of cloth or leather and then applied to the body.


Nicholas Culpeper included moss in his herbal and he pointed out that "each moss doth partake of the nature of the tree from whence it is taken" , oak and hazel moss being recommended over other types.

Each plant was believed to be governed by a planet and moss was said to be under the dominion of Saturn; maybe because the planet is associated in astrology with rocks/stones and moss was "held to be singularly good to break the stone, and to expel and drive it forth by urine, being boiled in wine and drank." Due to its Saturnine signature moss was considered cooling and therefore useful to remedy illnesses caused by heat.

Moss was also recommended for the following afflictions:

* bruised, boiled and applied to the body, for inflammations and pains caused by gout

* taken as powder in wine, for vomiting, bleeding, heavy periods, dropsy, stomach problems and hiccups

* fresh moss steeped in oil, boiled and applied to the temples and forehead, to help with headaches

* in an ointment, against "lassitude, and to strengthen and comfort the sinews"

In addition to tree and ground moss, another variety is mentioned by John Gerarde in his Herball and later, in 1737, by French pharmacist Pierre Pomet, in his Compleat History of Druggs. They both described Muscus ex cranio humano which means, in plain English, moss growing on human skulls. Pomet called it Usnea because of its resemblance to oak moss. It was believed it had special properties and Pomet explained that London druggists sold these skulls with moss upon them. The skulls were brought from Ireland and belonged to men who had died violent deaths or had been hanged on gibbets. Powdered and taken with wine, it allegedly cured "the falling evil and the chin-cough (whooping cough) in children".


Illustration of Muscus ex craneo humano from John Gerarde's The Herball

The highly valuable skull moss was one of the ingredients of an ointment which the alchemist and professor of medicine Oswald Croll included in his book Royal and practical chymistry in three treatises. The ointment had to be prepared in September/October, when the Sun is in Libra, and the recipe asked for boar fat boiled in red wine, dried boar's brains, sandalwood, mummy from Egyptian tombs and hematite stone. All the ingredients were mixed together to make an ointment which was kept stored in a box.

Now, you'd think the ointment was applied to the patient's wound, but no, Croll advised that the weapon which caused the wound must be anointed or, if the weapon was absent, a piece of willow wood should be dipped in the patient's blood, dried, placed in the box with the ointment and left there. Meanwhile the wound was to be cleaned with patient's own urine and bound every morning with fresh linen cloth! Although using moss growing on skulls to heal cuts sounds horrifying, moss does have some real merit as it was in fact used as a dressing during the First World War, when it was discovered that a particular type of moss, called Sphagnum, has mild antiseptic properties as well as being very absorbant.

Sources:

John Gerarde, The Herball

Nicholas Culpeper, Complete Herbal

Pierre Pomet, Compleat History of Druggs

Oswald Croll, Royal and practical chymistry in three treatises