Weapon salve, tooth hangers and other ‘sympathetic’ cures

In my previous blog post I wrote about the use of Lapis Judaicus, a ‘stone’ used to cure bladder stones, as a form of sympathetic medicine. Sympathetic medicine is a term used to refer to historical medical practices in which a cure is ‘sympathetically’ related to the condition it treats; it relates to, involves, depends on, acts on or is effected by ‘sympathy’, a real or supposed affinity, correspondence, or occult influence, as the OED puts it. The more I read and thought about it, the more I realized that the relationship between cure and disease in sympathetic medicine can take many different forms. We can roughly distinguish between material and immaterial sympathetic medicine. The latter would be spells and incantations, but as my regular readers will understand, I am more interested in the various appearances of material sympathetic medicine. So far, I have been able to distinguish three different kinds, but I’d love to hear about other examples!

Similarity of colour, shape or substance

19th century, silver and tooth. Deutsches Medizinhistorisches Museum Ingolstadt, Inv.-Nr.  12/028. Photograph: M. Kowalski.
Hanger to cure toothache. 19th century, silver and tooth. Deutsches Medizinhistorisches Museum Ingolstadt, Inv.-Nr. 12/028. Photograph: M. Kowalski.

Probably the most common and widespread were cures based on the idea that substances similar in colour, shape or substance to the body part, bodily fluid, or cause of the patient’s misery would make a good cure. Well into the eighteenth century, apothecary handbooks were full of recipes containing predominantly red ingredients that were prescribed to strengthen the blood or the heart. Similarly, snake-like grasses were recommended to cure snakebites, powdered human skull to alleviate a headache, et cetera. Another curious example of this ‘similarity principle’ I saw in an exhibition at the Charité Museum in Berlin last year: a nineteenth-century human tooth in a silver hanger, to be worn around the neck to cure toothache.

The cause as the cure

A marble relief from Herculaneum. Achilles scrapes rust from his spear into the wound of Telephus. Source: http://www.monsalvat.no/grkmyths.htm
A marble relief from Herculaneum. Achilles scrapes rust from his spear into the wound of Telephus. Source: http://www.monsalvat.no/grkmyths.htm

Another strain of material sympathetic medicine is that in which the cause of the ailment is also used as the cure. The oldest example I know of is described in the classical legend of Telephus, who was wounded in battle by Achilles’ spear. The wound only healed when scrapings from the spear were applied to it. It is this same principle that underlies a nineteenth-century paramedical practice that  is still used by some today, namely homeopathy. In my book, I also mention an eighteenth-century poem in which Achilles’ spear is used as a metaphor for the budding practice of inoculation, but when you think about it, that’s not entirely the same of course: inoculation is preventive medicine.

The pars pro toto treatment

The third kind of material sympathetic medicine I call the ‘pars pro toto kind’, for want of a better name: treating bodily material of the patient (like excrements) or the object or substance that caused the ailment rather than the patient himself. The most famous early modern example I know about is weapon salve: a substance applied to the weapon that caused a wound, rather than to the wound itself. It was already hotly debated by the seventeenth century, as has been described in detail in this blog post by Issei Takehara as well as in Dutch by professor Mart van Lieburg, and it had all but disappeared by the eighteenth century.

Do you have a favourite example of an early modern sympathetic cure? Please share!

Published by mariekehendriksen

I am a historian of science, art, and ideas, with a particular interest in material culture, art and knowledge theory, the history of sensory perception, and digital humanities research methods. I currently work at Utrecht University as a postdoctoral researcher within the ERC-funded project Artechne. I received my PhD from Leiden University in 2012 and have held fellowships at institutions such as the National Maritime Museum in London, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. The topics of my publications range from historical anatomical collections, medicine chests and anatomical preparation and modelling methods to the production of coloured glass, the transformation of alchemy in the Netherlands, and the emergence of the concept ‘technique’ in art theory. If you would like to contact me, please send an email to info@mariekehendriksen.nl or use the contact form below. I am happy to answer questions regarding my research and publications or early modern history of art, science and medicine more generally, and to engage in public outreach activities.

2 thoughts on “Weapon salve, tooth hangers and other ‘sympathetic’ cures

  1. Great blog. What I find ironic is that many of these cures are still on sale at my local alternative-medicine backslash new-age store, and that a statistically significant number of people line up to buy crystals, oils and cauldrons. Keep up the fine work, from Erik a theoryofirony.

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