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It’s Not Easy Being Green: 3 Cures for Green Sickness, “The Virgin’s Disease”

Which is something people legitimately used to think existed.

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In the 21st century, there are a few ways we can turn green. In addition to being hit by too much gamma radiation, we can also get kind of greenish from nausea (I’m looking at you, Taco Bell waffle taco) and become “green with envy” (like how I feel when I see pictures of people who visit the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica).

In earlier centuries, though, green sickness was something else altogether. On the same spectrum of “women’s diseases” as hysteria and the wandering womb (which is pretty much what it sounds like), green sickness was signaled by pallor, lethargy, and weakness, and was mostly thought to afflict young virgins.

In broad strokes, the medical theory was that until a young woman had her period, her humors built up in her womb in a sort of rotting, festering swamp.

If you were a young woman suffering from the “virgin’s disease,” you had options, some more pleasant than others:

1. Become a Woman of Steel

In order to clear the obstruction, one standard cure was to drink “steel water.” Steel filings and steel powder were boiled in white wine, usually with sugar and spices. The patient was also instructed to exercise frequently. The steel would clear the blockage and together with the exercise would get the humors flowing again.

Green sickness was so common, many women had cures written in their home recipe books. This one from the recipe book of Joanna St. John, from The Wellcome Collection in London, is simple and to the point:

Another for the Green Sickness, Mrs. G. Shatterton

[Take] half a quarter of an ounce of pearl in powder, an ounce of powder of steel, cloves, mace, and nutmeg, each half a quarter of an ounce. Dry the spice and make them into a fine powder and sift it, then take a quarter of a pound of loaf sugar, beat and finely sifted. Mingle these well with a knife and take as much as will lie on a six pence morning and afternoon at 4 o’clock, using as much exercise as you can.

(You can find the original here.)

2. Avoid sloth (not the cute kind)

green sloth

In her 1675 book The Gentlewoman’s Companion; or, a Guide to the Female Sex, Hannah Woolley refuses to put up with any hijinx or shenanigans from the young whippersnappers lolling about looking green:

How to cure the Green-Sickness.

Laziness and love are the usual causes of these obstructions in young women; and that which increaseth and continueth this distemper, is their eating Oat-meal, chalk, nay some have not forbore Cinders, Lime, and I know not what trash. If you wuould prevent this slothful disease, be sure you let not those under your command to want imployment, that will hinder the growth of this distemper, and cure a worser Malady of a love-sick breast, for business will not give them time to think of such idle matters.

And get off her lawn, too.

3. An injection of, erm, sperm.

A man’s seed was thought of as a sort of catalyst that could “settle” the womb, allowing the humors to evacuate—thus, some thought the fastest cure for green sickness was simply to have sex.  In the anonymous folk song “A Remedy for the Green Sickness,” a young woman knows the pain and misery caused by her festering humors—and also knows the cure:

A Handsome buxom lass lay panting on her bed,

She looked as green as grass, and mournfully she said:

Except I have some lusty lad to ease me of my pain,

I cannot live, I sigh and grieve,

My live I now disdain

But if some bonny lad would be so kind to me

Before I am quite mad, to end my misery,

And cool these burning flames of fire

Which rage in this my breast,

Then I should be from torments free and be forever blest.

(Luckily the lad in the chamber next door overheard her miserable complaints and was most happy to, ahem, ease her pain.)

All of which goes to prove (come on, you know you were waiting for this)… it’s not easy being green.

Want to learn more? These books are great:

Helen King, The Disease of Virgins: Green Sickness, Chlorosis, and the Problems of Puberty. It was from this book that I first learned about the steel as a cure for green sickness.

Sara Read, Menstruation and the Female Body in Early Modern England. Read does a really great job of talking about sexual “cures” for green sickness

(top photo via Anna Fischer, sloth image via Christian Mehlführer, Wikimedia Commons)

Jennifer Sherman Roberts has a PhD in English literature and spent a lot of time studying the history of science and medicine. She is now a writer living in Oregon with her family, two guinea pigs, and one very freaky greyhound dog. You can find her on her website, or on Twitter @jshermanroberts.

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