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Popular or folk medicine

Juniper plant, used by folk healers in order to regulate womens' fertility.

Juniper plant, used by folk healers in order to regulate womens' fertility.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

For most of history, ordinary people could not afford the services of a university-trained physician when they became ill. Their first port of call would have been local healers. These were not elite doctors, but claimed medical expertise nonetheless. These healers came from many different backgrounds: in Rome, for example, they were often slaves, ex-slaves or wise women. Historians call this once thriving and influential tradition ‘popular’ or ‘folk’ medicine.

Across different times and places, these popular healers tended to believe that the body existed in a delicate balance with nature, the heavens and the spirits. Their advice and remedies reflected this. They often gave ill people an amulet in order to ward off evil spirits. These could be employed along with natural remedies derived from plants that were physically similar to the affected part of the body, a theory known as the doctrine of signatures. Just as often though, a popular healer may well recommend a remedy based on the opposite of symptoms. Headaches, for example, were thought to have arisen from excessive heat, so sufferers were told to bathe their feet in cold water.

From at least as far back as the 1600s, elite, university-trained doctors sought to discredit this common tradition. Yet it was not as removed from elite medicine as they claimed - nor was it as ineffective as they liked to think. Folk healers throughout Europe used small quantities of smallpox to immunise people well before this practice found elite favour in the 1800s as vaccination. Modern investigations have also revealed the medical effectiveness of many of the herbal remedies that folk healers employed.


L I Conrad, M Neve, V Nutton and R Porter, The Western Medical Tradition, 800 BC – 1800 AD (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)

R Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present (London: HarperCollins, 1997)