A Load of Ballokis

Mary Wellesley

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I recently came across an image in a manuscript in the Bodleian Library that made me think of Gwyneth Paltrow. The image, from a late 13th-century medical compendium (Bodl. MS Ashmole 399), shows a woman, who appears to have fainted, being attended by a physician and servants. One of the female servants is wafting a burning feather beneath the patient’s nose. Another is extending a hand towards the patient’s genitals. She is receiving ‘odiferous therapy’, whereby strong-smelling substances were wafted under the nose and the vagina.

This treatment was thought to cure the affliction of the ‘wandering womb’ – a disease first mentioned by Hippocrates and appearing in several medieval treatises – whereby the uterus left its usual position and took a trip around the body. (The word hysteria is derived from the Ancient Greek for uterus.) The tempting aromas wafting from the vagina and repellent aromas wafting from the nasal passages were thought to coax the womb back to its correct position. Not only were wombs thought to wander, but they also had a sense of smell.

No one could believe such nonsense these days, you might think. But the image reminded me of Gwyneth Paltrow’s advocating of ‘vaginal steaming’ on her lifestyle blog, Goop. She recommended a contraption called a ‘mugwort v-steam’, which apparently uses a combination of ‘infrared and mugwort steam’. (Widely condemned by gynaecologists, the post has since disappeared from her site, like an ephemeral medieval text.) The idea of infrared steam sounds modern – or Modernist – but mugwort is a staple of medieval medical treatises.

An early 11th-century Herbarium advises that the plant can soothe sore tendons, ease stomach pain and expel demons. John Arderne, in his influential 14th-century Fistula in Ano, describes how he used mugwort to treat a man who ‘was smyten on his legge vpon þe shynbone’. A Middle English version of the Secreta Secretorum, a pseudo-Aristotelian treatise purportedly addressed to Alexander the Great, suggests that mugwort can be used to treat ‘yville humoures’ in the ‘Ballokis’.

I couldn’t find any reference to mugwort’s ability to cleanse women’s genitals, as suggested by Goop. That isn’t to say, however, that Paltrow doesn’t have access to a medieval text unknown to scholarship, which outlines how the womb, on smelling the enticing infrared aromas of mugwort, sets off towards the v-steam to be cleaned.


  • 24 April 2018 at 3:37pm
    Helen King says:
    Ah yes, the V=steam: I blogged about this, and the use of mugwort, on Interesting that the original post is no longer on Paltrow's site...!

  • 24 April 2018 at 4:23pm
    craig sams says:
    The ancient (and modern) Chinese are also candidates for smug condescension in smoking mugwort matters. The practise of 'moxibustion' is widely applied in Chinese traditional medicine, where 'moxa' or mugwort, is smouldered and put on the end of an acupuncture needle or held directly above a point on the skin. The smoke is indirectly inhaled. Mugwort is regarded as an emmenagogue, i.e it increases blood circulation in the pelvic area and uterus and stimulates menstruation. It is used for treating breech births (i.e the womb isn't pointing in the right direction for a head first birth) as well as for menstrual cramps.
    In European herbal medicine mugwort and its closely-related plant wormwood (both absinthiums) were used to treat menstrual cramps and to ease pain during labour.
    Absinthe is the popular medicine which was banned in
    1910 in Switzerland and then the rest of the world for 10 years, was used to alleviate menstrual cramps. It can be made with wormwood or mugwort for the same medical effect. Perhaps the woman in the picture was suffering from period pains and was resorting to a treatment that has a long history of effectiveness in Western and Oriental medicine. (Conflict of interest declaration: I have been using wormwood and mugwort teas and tinctures on a regular basis since 1965 - which coincides with my last visit to a doctor)

  • 24 April 2018 at 6:08pm
    MajorBarbara says:
    'Traditional Chinese medicine' -- aka exterminating endangered species en masse to satisfy superstitions. Telling me something is 'widely applied in Chinese traditional medicine' may actually be an argument against it. The mere fact that something is 'widely used' or has been used for a long time is not really a good argument for its efficacy; for many centuries people treated epilepsy by dancing around them with beads and rattles to scare the evil spirits out of them, and you could find no shortage of testimonials that it worked.
    I'm not saying there is never any validity to so-called folk cures; e.g., the indigenous South American tribes that chewed coca leaves to relieve pain and boost stamina; the limited use of leeches to regulate blood flow or maggots to debride flesh wounds. But overall, really, I'll stick to evidence-based medicine, which, with all its faults, is rather more credible than some bimbo actress, the not-terribly-pretty-nor-all-that-talented offspring of a rather better actress (does anyone really believe she'd rise above the C list without Blythe Danner's DNA?). Here in the states, conflating 'celebrity' with technical skills in specialized areas, and crediting someone's authority because he or she is famous, has given us Trump for president and the equally fatuous proposition that Oprah Winfrey should succeed him. (Just for the record, I haven't needed a doctor's services in years either ... but if I did need one, I'd go to a real doctor.)

    • 26 April 2018 at 8:55pm
      PoopsieDeutchland says: @ MajorBarbara
      Hi MajorBarbara

      You make some very good points. The rise of, as I call it, "celebrity medicine" is a concern. It's not just Paltrow, whose advocacy of vaginal steaming and cupping is relatively benign when compared with Jim Carey's anti-vax nonsense, but also celebrity chefs who advocate for babies to be fed a paleo diet or bone broths (google Pete Evans).

      Then there are the 'wellness bloggers', many of whom have zero-to-no qualifications or expertise in the area of healthcare. Here in Australia a woman called Belle Gibson wrote a monetised wellness blog about her journey with cancer and how she cured it with a dietary regime - problem was, she never had cancer in the first place which made her therapeutic claims false.

      And, amongst all of that, is the issue which sits at the heart of your comment: therapeutic claims. At the heart of your reply is a fundamentalism about medical care: a binary proposition that you either are with evidence based medicine or you are not ("...but if I did need one, I'd got to a real doctor").

      There are two points about this: the idea of 'evidence based medicine' has been significantly recast (perhaps even misappropriated) away from the idea that evidence should inform clinical practice which is based on the experience of the physician and patient interaction to a model of medicine where evidence solely drives medical care. This has created a fundamentalist binary proposition and your 'real doctor' comment is an example of this. It's possible to walk and chew gum at the same time.

      The second issue is that opponents to non-conventional medical care recurrently fail to recognise that modern practitioners are very well trained; they are trained to recognise 'red flags' and trained to refer and recommend medical investigation and care, where appropriate. Circumstances are also country-specific. I write from Australia as a Chinese medicine practitioner who belongs to the world's only national government-regulated registration scheme. I cannot call myself an acupuncturist unless I am appropriately educated and maintain professional standing. We are registered alongside doctors and others from the medical professions.

      Opponents also routinely believe medical care is totally and comprehensively informed by robust science. It is not and to suggest otherwise is a misappropriation of that evidence. Similarly, such opponents, fail to recognise the growing body of high level evidence which supports some complementary therapies as a superior form of treatment; acupuncture's role in pain relief is one such example and timely, given the current opioid over-prescription issue.

      Anyway, just some food for thought and a reminder that many countries restrict the use of endangered species in herbal medicine (including mine) and that your 'superstitions' often bear out to be rooted in fact. The Chinese medicine model has long recognised the link between the gut and mental health, but biomedicine is only now discovering this (as one example). You never know, one day the world might just discover that liberally dousing one's vagina in the steam of mugwort does, in fact, do more than feel relaxing...

  • 25 April 2018 at 8:40am
    Helen King says:
    Following the comments on folk medicine, it’s worth emphasising that the practices in the medieval manuscript are not folk cures, but those of the learned medicine of the day, based on Greco-Roman sources often transmitted through the Arab world - whereas Paltrow’s suggestions...?

  • 25 April 2018 at 10:42am
    LizzieMarx says:
    Imagery of womb fumigation can also be found in seventeenth century book illustrations – you can read more about it here:

    And on this online exhibition from the Cambridge University Library:

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