Efram Sera-Shriar explores an often forgotten or overlooked tradition.
When I used to work for the Science Museum in London, I was often asked by friends and colleagues what my favourite object was in the collection. There is so much fantastic material in the museum’s store, and there are several objects that are dear to my heart. However, one of my absolute favourites is this medical amulet, made from iris root, from around the turn of the twentieth century. At first glance, it is a rather unimpressive and shrivelled up little lump of petrified plant material. The sort of object you would probably completely ignore or overlook when visiting the Wellcome Galleries at the museum. Among the dozens of medical amulets on display in the exhibition cases, the iris root is one of the more basic examples, with no ornamentation or intricate carving. However, through a closer examination of this seemingly uninteresting object, a fascinating and often forgotten story about Jewish medical folk tradition emerges.
Figure 1: ‘Anthropomorphic Iris Root’ Wellcome College, Science Museum Group, Object Number: A132420
One of the earliest known Jewish medical books is Sefer Refuot, which was written by Asaph the Physician during the Byzantine period. The book tells the story of how God supposedly transmitted medical knowledge to the Jewish people and provides a set of general principles for treating various kinds of illnesses. It also promotes healthier lifestyles through regular exercise and a proper diet.
Sefer Refuot was widely circulated among Jewish communities during the medieval period and became a staple read for Jewish healers. Jewish medical folk traditions continued to flourish in Europe with many practices still being used up to the turn of the twentieth century. While some of it is based on herbal remedies not too dissimilar from other medical traditions, others are more customary and less scientific. Take for example ‘Dreckapotheke,’ a pharmaceutical practice that used both human and animal excrement and secretions to treat various kinds of ailments. Fortunately, we don’t rely on this form of medicine for managing our illnesses today, but we do see cultural survivals of it in other forms. Matzo ball soup– sometimes referred to as the ‘Jewish penicillin’ — springs to mind. The broth is said to be full of sickness-fighting chicken fluids. Thus, the roots of using the soup as a remedy for treating fevers connects to an older belief in the curative powers of Dreckapotheke medicines.
The iris root amulet at the Science Museum is emblematic of this Jewish medical folk tradition. Said to be anthropometric in shape, it was originally collected by the late Victorian folklorist Edward Lovett around 1900 in Whitechapel, London. It belonged to an elderly Jewish man and was said to possess curative powers that could reduce gum pain. Lovett credited this practice as being a specifically Jewish one.
At the time of its collection, Lovett was researching material for his book, Magic in Modern London (1925). Like many folklorists in this period, Lovett was deeply concerned about the loss of traditional beliefs and customs, especially among urban groups such as the Jewish community in the east end of London. He, therefore, sought to preserve as many of these folk practices as possible by amassing testimonies and old curios such as the Iris root. When he eventually published his book in the mid-1920s, Lovett devoted a whole section to the amulet titled, ‘Orris Root for Cutting Teeth.’
Why do objects such as the iris root amulet matter? There are many answers one could give, but I like how the Iris root provides a little vignette into the traditional cultural practices and beliefs of Jewish people, which are so often forgotten or overlooked. These stories tend to be marginalised in big museums such as the Science Museum in London, where gallery narratives typically focus on big discoveries in the history of science, technology, and medicine. But these smaller narratives about the past are important too. For many Jewish families, the use of these kinds of amulets or folk remedies would have been common practice and more representative of daily life. Thus, they are an important part of Jewish medical history.