Loadstones Are a Girl’s Best Friend: Lapidary Cures, Midwives, and Manuals of Popular Healingin Medieval and Early Modern England
Harris, Nichola E. (SUNY–Ulster)
The Sacred and the Secular in Medieval Healing I: Images and Objects
Sponsor:AVISTA: The Association Villard de Honnecourt for the Interdisciplinary Study of Medieval Technology, Science, and Art and Medica: The Society for the Study of Healing in the Middle Ages
Organizer: Barbara S. Bowers, Ohio State Univ., and Linda Migl Keyser, Univ. of Maryland
Presider: Carol Neuman de Vegvar, (Ohio Wesleyan University)
What is lapidary medicine? It was medical practice based on the natural virtues of stones. It was not about magic, just the natural, physical properties of stones, like salt. How was it applied? Loadstones were often worn as jewellery: amulets and rings, or placed in direct contact with the body, such as a compress. Medieval medicine was a triad of plants, animals and stones.
The loadstone – Magnetite (a geode), is naturally magnetised and attracts iron. Eagle Stone, Aetites, look like eggs, therefore were attributed to fertility and birthing.
Many authors wrote about the attributes of these stones in various treatises. Dioscorides mentions both of these stones in his text . Magnes supposedly can discern if the woman is chaste or an adulteress and was also used as a medical test of faithfulness. The Eagle stone, when shaken, prevents miscarriage when tied around the left arm. During delivery, if tied around the leg it prevents birthing pains. Pliny the Elder also wrote that Eagle Stone, when wrapped in animal skins, prevents miscarriage. Marbode of Rennes, in his work, “On Stones” c. 1096, produced this text but as a poem. It talks about over 60 stones and is easily memorised so that it can be repeated to others, the purpose behind it written as a poem was ease of transmission. In Marbodes text, Eagle Stone sets the mind at ease and prevents miscarriage; the definitions change slightly from text to text. Albertus Magnus’ “Mineralia” (Book of Minerals), was not as popular as Marbode’s text as it was written more for scholars. Loadstone was not just for testing fidelity, it could bring about love, make your wife obedient, make your wife more docile, and therefore make for a happier marriage. The myth was that Eagle Stone was only found in the nest of eagles and that without them,eagles can’t breed. That is why they were considered good for the prevention of miscarriage and ease of giving birth. Loadstone was considered dangerous to ships; if there were a lot of loadstones lying around, it could rip your ship apart by magnetizing.
Between 1473-1700 the stones appear in popular advice manuals after the end of the Middle Ages. 240+ separate editions were printed. “So that everyman might be his own physician”; this allowed access to healing without seeing a physician. Nicholas Culpeper wrote “A Directory of Midwives” (1662 edition). It was one of the most popular books in the Early
Modern period. Culpeper again reiterates that Eagle Stone prevents miscarriage or abortion and the easing of pain during childbirth. There were 23 editions over 50 years; “The Woman’s Doctor” was also written by Culpeper and translated into 3 languages. The book details how loadstone was mixed with other ingredients to place as a plaster on a woman as a drug.
Did people really buy these ingredients? Physicians were too expensive, as were apothecaries, so a lot of people were “do-it-yourselfers”. They read these books and made their own medicine. A stone could be bought and re-used for years, it was not discarded after one use so it was not too difficult to purchase. In the 1600’s, they were selling Eagle Stones in apothecaries, c. 1675. (Estwick and Coningsby 1675 Inventory),paid 1£ for a loadstone in 1675, for 1/4 ctw. The stones gave women peace of mind as well as a mind-body connection. By the 1700’s, use of loadstones had begun to fade out but they were still an accepted and established form of medicine well into the 1700’s.