I brought up something in the last post that I decided to write about before moving on to the topic of herbal abortion, later this week. I am hoping to illustrate how very important it is to understand the context of a word or phrase. I feel kind of responsible for catching you up to speed because I am citing these old manuscripts and providing links where you can access them for free, so I want to be sure you understand what you are reading.
For decades now half-ass historians and have been sharing misinformation. That’s the name I use for people who begin their biomedical research papers about herbalism with some really shoddy “history” which was probably yanked off another poorly researched paper without the author ever reading the original primary source.
In the Herbal Community™, you are more likely to come across a person who has read, or at least skimmed through a couple of the giant Materia medica tomes but never bothered to actually delve into the medical theory behind them.
They know that the herbals use phrases like herbs that “procure the courses”, or the “suffocation of the Mother”, but they have no idea what that really means. They are probably more dangerous than the people up above. There are a couple of well-known herbalists out there who like to name drop historical authors but whenever I try to engage them in the topic, it becomes abundantly clear they haven’t read much of the author’s work.
Not too long ago, I was asked to participate in a project and was asked to help go through a lot of old medical papers written about herbal adjuncts to sort the “this is okay” from the “this is nonsense,” which surprised me given the lack of letters behind my name. Many papers were tossed aside because they incorrectly cited historical documents or misstated the context of a term. I have an example of a paper we threw out that misstates the meaning of this term.
According to Culpeper, the carrot root and seed work similarly to promote menstrual flow (“women’s courses”) and can beused to treat “the rising of the mother”, which may refer to menstrual obstructions.
No, it absolutely does not. If this were someone who didn’t have access to information that was behind paywalls 15 years ago, I would cut them some slack, but I can show you a paper published in 1948 by John Hopkins that explained the use of the term very well. The information was there if the author had bothered to look. The author is just making up context to fit his hypothesis, because he assumes no one will fact check him. This happens all the time.
The “rising of the mother”, according to Culpeper’s translation of the works of the physician Lazare Rivière, is a ” disease is called by diverse names amongst our Authors. Passio Hysterica, Suffocatio, Praefocatio, and Strangulatus vteri, Caducus matricis, &c. In English the Mother, or the Suffocation of the Mother, because most commonly it takes them with choaking in the throat.”
Early modern physicians attributed the cause of this disease to the “Rising of the Mother “wherby it is somtimes drawn vpwards or sidewards aboue his natural seate, compressing the neighbour parts, & so consequently one another. It may be said to be morbus in situ, in respect of the compression it selfe, causing suffocatiōn and difficultie of breathing.”1
Mother or Matrix were terms for the womb, not a woman, and they literally thought the uterus rose up in the woman and compressed the diaphragm causing a woman to be unable to breath and palpitations of the heart, because the organs were being squeezed. Physicians believed this for a very long time. It was later called “Fits of the Mother” or hysteria. If you read Shakespeare, in King Lear, you will see where he says,
“0, how this mother swells up toward my heart!King Lear Act 2, Scene 4
Hysterica passio, down, thou climbing sorrow,
Thy element’s below.
This has been interpreted as an extension of Lear feeling emasculated at being betrayed by his daughters and having a hysterical fit like a woman would, but it seems to indicate to me that this was not a condition that was exclusive to women.
What is utterly baffling to me is that this is so well known amongst historians that you can find the correct information about this phrase on a homework help website for high schoolers called Shmoop, but our esteemed PhD type up there still chooses to embellish because he knows readers don’t think critically. They don’t fact check primary sources and they don’t ask questions like “What is the context, here?”
Because he is capable of reading words, he’s not wrong that many of the herbs thought to “provoke the courses” were also suggested for this condition. He just didn’t understand what that class of herbs was meant to do. It should make more sense to you after having read my last post. Early modern physicians believed the “rising of the Mother” to result from the same types of obstructed humours that delayed menstruation and suggested herb remedies that removed these obstructions for both conditions. Here is an example.
An Approved Remedy for the Fits of the Mother, and for the Vapors
Take Roots of round and long Birth-wort, Piony, and lesser Valerian, of each two ounces, Castor one ounce, Tops of dried Wormwood, Mugwort, Fetherfew, Tansie, Elder, and Camomil Flowers, of each a handful; having bruised and cut them all together infuse them in two quarts of rectified Spirit of Wine; then distill them according to Art, and keep the Spirit for Use.
This Spirit is very effectual to open the Obstructions of the Matrix, and to suppress the Vapors and Fits that arise from it; you may take of it from one to two or three drams at a time, in some distilled Waters; it may also be put into the Nostrils, applied to the Temples, or upon the Navil.George Hartman 1683
Here you see another term used frequently which is “The Vapors.” Early modern practitioners attributed symptoms such as lightheadedness or fainting, cognitive impairment and mood swings associated with PMS, to fumes that rise from the womb and overcome the mind.
This receipt or something very nearly like it appears in books written by physicians and our manuscript receipt books during the early modern era. Unfortunately, our 19th century “experts” whose works are pretty much copies of these early manuscripts seemed to think the only thing that could obstruct the matrix is an embryo.
This receipt is the reason for warnings about some of these herbs being abortifacients. Apply a little common sense here. If physicians thought these herbs would cause an herbal abortion, they certainly would not be recommending them as remedies for lightheadedness or fainting, which are common in pregnancy.
My interpretation of “rising of the mother” is some sort of anxiety attack that involves breathing difficulties as a choking feeling is mentioned as the differential, but I want to caution you against making reductionistic comparisons like that. It’s been done so much that some people will tell you a consumption is always tuberculosis and dropsie is always pitting edema, neither of which is true.
I hope this blog helps you to understand the context of some of the common terms you might see if you start reading old herbals, but more importantly it drives home how important it is to that you do. It changes everything.
[i] Rivière, Lazare. The Practice of Physick in Seventeen Several Books Wherein Is Plainly Set Forth the Nature, Cause, Differences, and Several Sorts of Signs…Translated by Cole, Abdiah, Culpeper, Nicholas, and Rowland, William. London, England: Printed by Peter Cole … and are to be sold at his shop, 1655. http://name.umdl.umich.edu/A57358.0001.001.
[ii] Hartman, G. (George). The True Preserver and Restorer of Health Being a Choice Collection of Select and Experienced Remedies for All Distempers Incident to Men, Women, and Children…London, England: Printed by T.B. for the author, 1683. http://name.umdl.umich.edu/A42984.0001.001.