STUNG by nettles? Rub the rash with a dock leaf. Who doesn’t know that? And it appears it was always so. The Anglo-Saxon chronicles of the late 9th century recorded it. In 1386, in Troilus and Creseyde, Chaucer quoted an ancient charm to be recited as the leaf was applied: ‘Netle in, dokke out.’ Folk practice and herbal advice down the centuries confirmed the idea and it was surely no coincidence that nettle and dock so often grew in close proximity. The efficacy of the dock leaf in countering the chemicals released by Urtica dioica may be dismissed by modern pharmacology (the rubbing action may be what matters most), but generations have sworn by it.
Relief from nettle stings was only part of a wider medicinal bounty apparently offered by dock leaves. Their virtue was declared in Bald’s Leechbook, a 9th-century collection of ancient medical lore (a manuscript of it is held by the British Library), as a remedy for ‘water-elf sickness’, an ancient expression that covered skin eruptions including chicken pox, measles and ergot poisoning (‘leech’, a dismissive word supposedly based on the use of the slimy annelid for bloodletting, derives from laece, Anglo-Saxon for doctor).
Bald’s text declares: ‘I have wreathed round the wounds the best of healing wreaths, so the baneful sores may neither burn or burst, nor find their way further, nor turn foul and fallow, nor thump and throb, nor be wicked wounds, nor dig deeply down: but he himself may hold in a way to health.’
The familiar broad-leaved dock Rumex obtusifolius had a variety of folk names, some reflecting its practical application. Butter dock arose from the dairy-farming practice of wrapping butter blocks in the leaves to keep them cool on the way to market. Doctor leaf was an East Anglian tribute to its value as an instant wrap for a bleeding scratch. Elsewhere, it was bitter dock, kettle dock, blunt leaf and smair dock. Rural folk appreciated the cooling and soothing effect of fresh leaves placed in their shoes. When tobacco arrived on these shores, gentlemen lined their pouches with dock leaves to keep the contents moist.
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