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White Girl Medicine – The Anglo-Saxon/ Celtic Leech Woman.

September 2, 2020

Step 1: Know who you are and call yourself your proper name.

In case you haven’t guessed yet, I don’t come from around here. Where I come from is way over there, up in the Northern Hemisphere where Cod swim through icy waters, moss and blue bells cover forest floors and you are faced with choices like whether to go with the itchy-but-warm wooly socks or no socks but suffer chill blain prickled feet later.

Yes I’m a cold-climate earthling whose blood has a tendency to run thick and slow thanks to my genetic propensity towards inflammatory disease as coded into my DNA (83% English/ NW European). But it’s not that I like or don’t feel the cold as such, I have terrible circulation (or internal central heating as I like to call it) for someone who is supposed to be designed for THAT type of weather. However, I’m accustomed or habituated to it, even after 16 years in Australia. I can cope, feel at home, enjoy the snugglyness of a colder day. My bones grew strong and thick in spite of it I guess and where my circulation failed to get an A grade, the stout frame that I got from my grandma more than made up for it.

And then there’s my skin. My skin is what you’d call white but it isn’t a pink white, not like the white of those who came to the north many generations before me. Those, the Celts only are only 17% of me. Their skin, their white skin is the type that goes almost Blue in the cold – a Blue not quite as deep as the Woad they traditionally used to paint themselves up for ceremony, but one that becomes almost transparent in the cold. A thin skin? Maybe but thin and strong – these people lacked no life force! Theirs is a skin that pulses with a visible vitality, offering only a very slight obscuring of the veins below. I carry this skin only as a hint but my skin is not white like that, my white skin is yellow. My skin still remembers how to turn brown (or at least mildly orange or Golden if you are being nice about it) when the sun shines for long enough, but when it doesn’t shine it turns sallow and if it shines too much it turns red.

This skin, my skin appears thick, strong and clean. It obscure most signs of pulsing life while young, presenting us with an opportunity -a blank canvas on which to write our own narrative. But skin is dynamic and that ‘perfect’ skin doesn’t last. This skin, our skin, softens and sags under its own weight as it ages and it ages fast. It crinkles and folds our stories into layers and we carry those layers, the ones we curated and controlled during our yesterdays, on the outside, reminding us of our fragility and encouraging us to dive into our depths.

My hair joins this narrative with its golden-cum-mousy flecks that are now turning grey. This is Anglo hair – a contradiction, being both thin or fine and thick or plentiful at the same time. It still remembers how to curl and does so in knots on a bad day, ringlets, bounce or body on good. My hair is always preparing a water-proof layer in case of rain storms which is less useful now the keeper of this hair bathes daily (Anglo Saxons were’t big on bathing unless it was for medicinal use) and instead leaves me looking quite the greasy biker! Lastly it remembers its value as a potential scarf or blanket, defying me and my dislike of trips to the hairdresser by growing fast and long, long enough for plaits which it can easily be woven into on account of the central highway shaped parting that my hair respects as it grows.

My body shape, my skin, my hair tell me what my DNA results and family history already confirmed, that I am a mix of Anglo Saxon and Celtic blood. I was right when, aged 8, I felt I was really a fairy and that I should be living in the forests…

Step 2: Know your playing field.

During my time working as a cosmetic chemist, teacher and researcher I’ve lost track of how many hours I’ve spent researching and re-creating products and services based on the practices of ‘others’.

An aside: using the term ‘others’ to refer to people outside of your ‘in’ group is not the best phrasing but in this case, a personal reflection it seemed apt as one is something, even if that ends up being many ‘somethings’ it logically follows that one is also ‘not’ things as well…

One such ‘other’ project centres around Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Medicinal Plants, especially their potential for use in cosmetics. I love doing this work (Australia is my home by choice) and it’s something I do very often both with and without the direct input of Aboriginal people. However, it’s not something I feel in my bones, it’s something I feel through my bones. What I mean is that I approach and learn about this history and present through eyes that are rooted in an Anglo Saxon/ Celtic tradition. When I read about Australian magic, Dreamtime stories and the Spirit world I’m experiencing it through my ‘woodland fairy’ lens. When it comes to finding patterns in how plants were or are used or digging deeper into different ways to use plants in new formulations I’m using my ‘hands on the land, gotta learn from this and survive’ instincts.

I guess that sounds obvious and is not exactly groundbreaking – anyone who has ever been through therapy would know that we are a product of our histories and that we have inbuilt preferences and bias, likes and dislikes but what I’m suggesting is something a bit deeper than that, something that doesn’t really ‘fit’ the ‘underneath it all we’re all the same’ narrative. I don’t think we are all the same underneath it all actually and further, I think that’s why we’re all so awesome and interesting.

Outside of that example I’ve dived into other realms of research too such as Organic farming, Vegan friendly, Palm free, Chinese medicine-inspired, Ayurvedic tradition, Honey and bee products, African oils and grown ingredients, Mediterranean inspired, Hemp based, Punk rock inspired, Middle Eastern, French Aristocratic, White Witch Inspired and Old English Country Garden but not ever THIS.

Illustration for the Dandelion Fairy from Flower Fairies of the Spring. A boy fairy sits beside a dandelion flower. 300.1.7 FF Spring 7 1923

Anglo Saxon/ Celtic cosmetics anyone?

Cosmetic brands inspired by English flora and folk exist or at least have existed over the years. Generations of us English people have experienced Yardley, Crabtree and Evelyn, Moulton Brown and Penhaligons Perfumery. Then there are the traditional herbalists which promote English botanicals – Baldwins and Culpepers Herbal shop – the latter seems to have changed its business structure more recently but when I lived in the UK and was working as a cosmetic ingredient sales representative I’d visit them sometimes. Modern brands that still thrives from promoting some aspect of Englishness include Rimmel with it’s “London Look” and Jo Malone with her inspiring scents-of-England fragrance ranges (although she doesn’t just stick to English stuff). Then, inspired by a financial crash followed by the experience of living with BREXIT hanging over ye olde English people’s heads we have the return to Post War Pride with the brand Soap and Glory

Two things that ‘googling’ brands steeped in Englishness highlighted for me:

  1. The ‘English = Western’ thing.

I noticed when scrolling that Indigenous English herbs are mostly categorised as ‘Western’. This makes sense when you pan out and see that there are then ‘Chinese’ and ‘Ayurvedic’ herbs for sale but makes less sense when you think about what that term means. Now without going down a ‘call things by their proper name’ rabbit hole it may be worth remembering that ‘Western’ is a politically loaded word:

Western is used to describe things, people, ideas, or ways of life that come from or are associated with the United States, Canada, and the countries of Western, Northern, and Southern Europe.

I feel weird about seeing this. I’ve been travelling happily down a path that feels like it’s opening up to me then BANG, I’m hit by a catch-all phrase which feels heavy and reductive. I make a mental note to explore this further but later.

2. That a products Englishness can be sold as an attitude, a historical time-point, a lineage or a botany.

This is no doubt the case for any product, that it can market its self based on one or another aspect of its origin but I am noticing the power of that more strongly with the English products because I know this subject best. I’m also noticing the privilege that exists in this example and the pitfalls that privilege brings with it.

England takes up a lot of space in word history and as a consequence lots of people know her stories – World Wars, Royal Families, Edgy London Fashion and the fact that this is a ‘green and pleasant land’. It’s easy for a brand to come across as very English while doing very little – we, the audience have enough education to fill in the gaps for you – you can’t really say that about every country or even every region and still expect to pick up a global following. This up-side quickly turns to a down-side when you realise that the stories we tell over and over again are basic and behind those stories sit quiet folk-based histories and nuances that are being lost. Again, lots to think about.

Step 3: Know your ancestors, grow your roots.

Behind the big history, the pomp and ceremony, the noted dates and places, the attitudes and chaos sits the everything…

When I refer to myself as Anglo Saxon I’m referring to the ancestors of mine that most likely moved into Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire as part of two peoples- the Angles and the Saxons. These people came from what is now Germany, possibly via Denmark and then across to the English Midlands (where I’m from). They came at the same time as the Jutes and Frisians. The Celts came much earlier, between 750-12BC and so were already there when these other folk arrived! In addition to the above were the Picts (Scotland) and the Britons (still under Roman influence) and together they did a good job of arguing amongst themselves until the Vikings joined in (between roughly 800-1150CE). While still under attack from Viking raids England also got taken over by the Normans, signalling the end of this period of history and the start of modern Britain.

Bald and his Leechbook.

During this historical period a chap called Mr Bald set about collecting recipes and charms (spells) from the good folk of England and writing them down. His book – Bald’s Leechbook – translates to ‘physicians book’ – Leech being a derivative of Laece which in turn is a derivative of Laki – Physician. This compilation is dated at around 900 CE and gives us great insight into how the people of England looked after themselves and kept well.

The Angles, Saxons and Celts came to Britain holding mainly pagan religious beliefs but these were gradually overlaid with Christianity due to the powerful role the Christian church played across the nation- it being at the centre of Royal life. This combination of what would become an organised state religion, affecting taxes, business, language and civic life blended with at least 6 different local traditions and languages and interrupted by frequent wars from both inside and outside your home lands would have been quite something to experience!

Medicine and self-care for the common folk was rooted in nature and applied with more than a little dash of mysticism and ritual. Bald’s book uncovers this in great detail and makes for fascinating reading now that it has been translated into modern English. I mentioned Chill blains in my opening and these, it seems, could be remedied by applying a honey balm infused with meadowsweet, cuckoo flower and oak bark! Now that sounds like a rather pleasant and somewhat logical way to treat cold and itchy feet but that can’t be said of all the recipes. Animal bile was often used as an emulsifier and it wasn’t uncommon for recipes to call for pigeon blood, bears grease, weevils, faeces, spittle, snails or urine! Then there’s the magic part, some herbal tinctures were to be taken only after singing out a spell or performing a ritual, it’s all quite fun to sit an imagine now but at the time I’m sure it felt like quite a mental burden to get all of these aspects perfectly right in order to avoid your own demise!

Deeper into the forest we go…

There’s more to being a white girl than just being western and there’s more fun to be had examining Anglo Saxon and Celtic medicine than what I’ve shared here.

Illustration for the Shephard’s Purse Fairy for Flower Fairies of the Winter. A girl fairy stands, slightly turned to the left, holding a frond of shepherd’s purse. 300.4.7 FF Winter 7 1923

Hopefully wherever you are from, wherever you are now, you’ve had your appetite sufficiently whetted to stay with this journey. Next we’ll go deeper into the ingredients cupboard of the Anglo Saxon medicine woman as we attempt to re-thread the relationships between plants, place and people.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. ladyhawk hawk permalink
    September 3, 2020 12:33 am

    Your WordPress program is looping n to rally screwed up Posting any comment us totally useless

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      September 9, 2020 8:57 am

      I’m not sure what you mean. It seems to be working for people but I could be wrong- can you screenshot this to show me what you are experiencing please? Only if you can be bothered of course.

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