Bringing Out Your Inner Martha

Thanks to Jacqueline, as always, for this incredibly fun last post before the final review. What would we do without her to make the Read-a-Longs that much more fun???


No not that Martha! I’m talking about Martha Ballard, our salty New England Midwife of A Midwife’s Tale. I thought that it would be interesting and fun to think about herbal healing not only in the context of the book, but also in our modern lives. You can make the same tisanes, poultices, and syrups as Martha did! Let’s take a look at these preparations one by one.


If you’ve ever had a cup of chamomile tea to relax, or a cup of peppermint tea to soothe an upset stomach, you’ve made an herbal tisane! Tisanes are a simple and lovely way to benefit from healing herbs. Just take a teaspoon of your dried herb of choice (a tablespoon if you are using fresh) and add to a cup of boiling water. Strain after 3-5 minutes, depending on the herb. You may want to add honey which lends its own healing properties as well as a delicious sweetness.

Martha uses chamomile, catnip, lovage, and sage to make tisanes in the book. It seemed that whenever a person was generally unwell, a tisane was made for them. I think that is a good strategy for non-emergencies! I know that if my stomach is upset or I feel I am coming down with something, sometimes all that I need is to curl up with a tisane and rest to feel better.

A word you might have seen in the book is decoction. A decoction is like a tisane made with the tougher, more bark-like parts of plants, steeped longer. An infusion is the leafier parts of plants, steeped longer. The medicinal value is higher in decoctions and infusions because of the longer steep time. If you want to make a decoction or infusion, simmer the herb for about a half hour in water, and strain.


Have you ever put cold, sliced cucumbers over your eyes? Did a grandparent ever tell you to put a cut potato on a bruise (or was that only my wacky family)? Then you have made a poultice! Simply mash herbs, vegetables, or other matter (for example, sometimes grains are used for binding. Martha used “indian meal” which is corn meal) with water or oil to make a paste. You can let it be, or cover with a bit of clean cloth.

Martha made some funky poultices, namely with onions as an ingredient! Onions were used medicinally by both doctors and midwives at the time. They were often put on the feet when one had a fever and/or cold. I will not advise you to make an onion poultice in this post, lest I completely turn you off from herbal healing!

A very easy poultice you can make is for mosquito bites. Simply mix baking soda with a little water to make a paste, and apply to the bites. It’s so soothing and really helps control the itch!

Lavender is a wonderful herb to use in a poultice if you have a rash. Once I was traveling in Italy and had an allergic reaction to the glue in the new shoes I bought. I mashed some dried lavender I had in a suitcase sachet with a fork and some spring water, applied it to my feet, and the hives and swelling were almost gone by morning! It smells so much nicer than onions, too.


Syrups are a little more involved to make. You may have already made a simple syrup to have on hand to sweeten a cold drink. You’re half way there! I’m going to refer you to the amazing folks over at Mountain Rose Herbs who made a fasntastic video on how to make an Elderberry Syrup:

Isn’t that great? I am going to try my hand at this syrup for sure. I could have really used it last spring when I had a cough for two months! I attributed it to reading too much Nineteenth Century Literature. Elderberry syrup would have been a much better alternative to The Brontë Cough of Doom I suffered with.

Martha used many herbal syrups for various ailments. She made a currant syrup, which was probably a bit similar to the elderberry syrup above. I think the worst tasting one had to be syrup of vinegar and onions. No amount of sweetener could make that go down easy.

Of course, this is merely scratching the surface of herbal medicine. If your are interested in learning more about herbs, there are so many books to learn from. If I could only recommend one book, it would be Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health. It’s written in a lively, personable manner, and contains a wealth of information about herbs, effective recipes, and advice for general well-being. If I could only recommend one place to purchase herbs from, it would be Mountain Rose Herbs. I’ve always received excellent customer service from them, and I appreciate the care that they use to source ingredients responsibly.

What did you think about Martha’s use of herbs? Did all of the onion remedies make you wrinkle your nose, too? Do you use herbs for healing? What is your favorite remedy?

…and on to this week’s reading!

Week: Seven
Pages: 270-314

This week’s reading was pretty intense. How can we not mention the Purrinton murders? Ulrich talks about the murders and how they relate to religion and the laws of society, but I can’t help but think Mr. Purrinton was mentally ill. Mental illness must have been a very hidden part of life at this time. It seems the townfolk, Martha included, just put this tragedy in God’s hands and did not think there was something that could have been done to prevent it. What did you think about the Purrinton murders? What else stood out in this week’s reading?

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5 thoughts on “Bringing Out Your Inner Martha

  1. This is sooooo awesome! I love this connection to the book and how your post brings it to life. And I find it so interesting that we still use so many of the same practices without realizing it!

    I’ll be back with my thoughts on the reading as soon as I finish (I tend to get last reading when I know you’re doing the post). ;)

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