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How a 17th century herbalist’s home inspired The Hemlock Cure

How a 17th century herbalist’s home inspired The Hemlock Cure

Hidden in the Derbyshire Dales, in a hollow where the crags of the Dark Peak meet the hills of the White Peak, is the village of Eyam – an ancient place, settled in Anglo-Saxon times, known by some as ‘the plague village’.

In the autumn of 1665, a delivery from London of clothing and cloth arrived at the tailor’s house in Eyam, bringing with it rat fleas and the bubonic plague they carried. Within a few days, the tailor’s journeyman, George Viccars, had fallen ill and died. As the disease spread steadily from house to house, the wealthier villagers were able to escape, having other homes to flee to. But tenant farmers, lead miners and labourers had nowhere else to go, and couldn’t afford to leave their livelihoods behind.

In June 1666, with more than seventy dead and cases rising rapidly, the rector, William Mompesson, persuaded his parishioners to quarantine the village. The decision meant certain death for many, but they succeeded in preventing the plague from spreading beyond the village boundary. What occurred is an astonishing story of community sacrifice, and forms the backdrop for my fictional novel, The Hemlock Cure.

A tiny spark – I must write about this place! – came to me, back in 2008, when I was looking round a cottage for sale in Eyam. I knew little of the village’s history at that point, but was enthralled by this old, atmospheric home that had once belonged to Humphrey Merrill: village herbalist when the plague struck. It was, astonishingly, the first time that the house had been on the open market (having previously been passed down through the family). Remarkably, it still had some of Merrill’s old vials and tiny pan scales in a little cupboard in an alcove. These evocative remnants kindled a longing within me to set a novel not just within Eyam, but within the herbalist’s cottage itself.

As I wandered through those low-ceilinged rooms, stepping across worm-eaten oak floorboards, I imagined bunches of herbs strung up to dry from the beams overhead, and pictured unusual ingredients – dried earth worms, woodlice soaked in boiled oil, toads and bezoar stones – waiting upon the shelves. This serendipitous visit had gifted me a setting, a nod in the direction of a character or two, but it would be more than a decade before I would begin the process of writing my story – one of ambition and persecution, bravery and belonging.

What I discovered, during my research, is that it wasn’t only male herbalists and apothecaries, midwives and ‘cunning women’ who made medicines in 17th century England. In fact, women at all levels of society in the early modern period, whether rich or poor, were involved in creating herbal remedies of one kind or another for the health and wellbeing of their families and communities. Large houses often had a ‘stillroom’ – a place set apart from the smoky kitchen, where confectionery, preserves, cosmetics and medicines were prepared. It was the woman of the house who oversaw the work of the stillroom, meaning that many gentlewomen worked with herbs too.

Women of limited means could create infusions, which were boiled over a fire. Decoctions involved steeping harder substances (like bark) in hot water for hours, even days. If you could afford the alcohol required for steeping then you would be able to make a tincture, and if you had sugar at your disposal then medicinal cordials, syrups and lozenges became an option. But it will only ever have been gentlewomen and apothecaries who possessed the expensive equipment and quantities of ingredients required to make the more complicated and luxurious remedies – distillation being the most prized and sophisticated of all.

Distillation involved heating a liquid to create a vapour in a container called an alembic or still, then cooling the vapour to produce another (scented or flavoured) liquid. The process was necessary to produce ‘waters’ and essential oils. An apothecary’s laboratory and a gentlewoman’s stillroom therefore boasted furnaces, stills (copper, pewter or glass), pans, skillets, funnels, sieves, gallipots, graters and vials. Distilling was a demanding process associated with skill and high status; distilled substances were regarded as ‘perfected’ and therefore highly sought after.

Poisons played an interesting role, with diseases themselves often viewed as poisons within the body, involving putrefaction that needed to be drawn out or dried up using astringent or poisonous substances: the principle of curing ‘like with like’. Arsenic and antimony were rubbed into the skin or used in a poultice, or simply worn against the flesh, held in place with strips of cloth. Henbane, also known as black henbane or Stinking Nightshade, was used to treat rheumatism, toothache and persistent coughs, despite all parts of the plant being highly toxic and fatal even in small doses. Mandrake, often referred to as The Devil’s Turnip, also poisonous, was used to treat stomach complaints, and as an antidote to other poisons as it induces vomiting.

Poison has, throughout history, been regarded as a woman’s weapon, and it has been interesting to reflect on this in regard to women’s roles in the production of medicines – the knowledge this gave them, and the fear and suspicion that knowledge will sometimes have cultivated in the men around them. Once I began reading about the 17th century world of medicine and poisons, how could I resist taking the reader to this fascinating place? When I look back, it is perhaps no surprise at all that Humphrey Merrill’s home inspired a suspense and secret-filled story, with an apothecary and his daughter at its dark heart.

Joanne Burn’s The Hemlock Cure is published in paperback by Sphere on 23 March 2023

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