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Folk Museum
Apothecaries, herbalism, astronomy and superstition
The contents of this small but fascinating museum reflect the everyday lives of local people in centuries past. For the majority, until quite recently, medicine was a matter of self-help. Unable to afford a doctor, people often found ingenious ways of making sense of sickness, using a mixture of superstition, folklore and witchcraft.
Many of these ‘folk cures’ seem today, not only absurd, but also somewhat gruesome. Common treatments included wearing a dried pig’s bladder – cut open and smeared with goose-fat – as a chest protector in winter, or carrying a pair of mole paws in your pocket to ward off rheumatism!

Aromatic herbs and plants, often grown in specially cultivated “Physic Gardens”, were also used to ward off “bad air” thought to cause disease.

Superstition and folklore existed alongside the practice of religion and the healing traditions of the medieval Catholic Church. One such example in the Folk Museum is a piece of bread baked on Good Friday in 1939. It was once believed such bread would never go mouldy, and even cure a variety of ailments.

However, Physicians treating wealthy patients made use of what were then ‘cutting edge’ theories and applications, such as astronomy and astrology. Similarly, Zodiacs and birth-charts were consulted to tell the right time for blood-letting and other surgical procedures.

Ordinary folk had to resort to the less refined services of Barber Surgeons whose trade included dentistry, blood-letting and other minor surgery. The local Apothecary shop dispensed a wide variety of cheap pain-killing drugs, such as laudanum (opium) and tobacco.

The museum also has an extensive collection of smoking paraphernalia. Increasing use of manufactured cigarettes resulted in the most serious public health failure of the twentieth century.
Access Information
Folk Museum
2-3 Castle Street
Cambridge
CB3 0AQ
UK
Entrance: Castle Street
Wheelchair access? Yes, except for one display room.
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Published 2009 University of Cambridge
The Old Schools, Trinity Lane,
Cambridge, CB2 1TN, UK
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