One of the most embarrassing things to have to wear in childhood was the ‘sock of shame’, the white stretch covering on one foot which informed the swimming fraternity that you had verrucas. Wearing that sock made you feel like some kind of leper, and you prayed that you wouldn’t have to suffer this public humiliation for too long.
Warts and verrucas usually go away on their own, although it can take months or even years. Although they are harmless, they can be itchy or painful, but mostly are just plain embarrassing. They are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), and spread to others via contaminated surfaces or close skin contact. They are more easily spread if the skin is damaged or wet, hence the need for those eye-catching socks.
Most of us will have suffered from them at some point, and the embarrassment associated with them stretches back through many centuries. Due to poor hygiene and overcrowded living conditions, our medieval forebears suffered far more with them and a whole plethora of purported cures sprang up, as my dad mentions in his column from 4th October 1980.
‘There is an old belief in this village that dandelion milk will cure warts,’ he says, and adds, ‘One equally curious cure practised in the Helmsley district was to dip the affected hands into the trough of water used by a blacksmith to cool horseshoes.’
I resorted to my trusty friend (inherited from Dad), the ‘Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland’ and was amazed to find it devoted no less than 12 pages to the subject of warts! The large number of traditional cures is due to the fact that in the old days, people’s hands and feet were literally covered in them, and so people would be desperate to get rid of them. Today, it is more common to see just one or two.
Plant-based cures were very common, and although the recommended plant might differ from area to area, the method of application was very similar. Top of the list were broad and runner beans. You would split the bean pod in half, then rub the sticky sap on to the affected area. Some also believed that after doing this, you had to press the pod back together, then bury it, and as the pod decayed in the earth, so your warts would disappear. Dandelion milk was the next most common application, followed by celandine, apples and potatoes.
In some areas it was believed that applying raw meat to warts would cure them, and although it didn’t seem to matter which meat was used, what was essential was that the meat had to be stolen. Similar to the plant-based cures, after application, the meat had to be buried, and as it rotted away, so the warts would vanish. Another essential element of this method, and one that occurs in a number of beliefs, is that the burial must take place in absolute secret. It is mentioned as far back as 1579 in ‘A Thousand Notable Things of Sundry Sorts’ written by Thomas Lupton, and persisted well into the 19th century.
One of the most ancient of cures involves eels, and features in a 13th century manuscript from the ‘Physicians of Myddfai’, a succession of famous and revered doctors who lived in Carmarthenshire, Wales. It goes: ‘Take an eel and cut its head off, anoint the parts, where the warts are situated, with the blood, and bury the head deep in the earth; as the head rottens, so will the warts disappear.’
There were also wart ‘charmers’, who specialised in magical cures. Some would touch the warts with special herbs while reciting a charm, while others would count each wart while touching them with the herbs. These two methods would only work if carried out by one who possessed the ‘gift’ for curing warts.
Possibly the cruellest cure involves the humble snail. You rub the snail on your warts then, with a pin, you prick the snail as many times as the number of warts you have, then stick the snail on a blackthorn hedge, and as the snail withers and dies, so will your warts.
I’m not sure I could ever do that to a poor snail, but I might give the runner beans a go if ever the needs arises.
Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 2nd October and the Gazette & Herald on 30th September 2020