Toothache trees


There is an ancient healing tradition that believes pain can be transferred from a sufferer to an inanimate object, or even to a live object such as a dog or cat.  Thus, an item such as a handkerchief belonging to the subject might be tied to the branch of a tree, or cast into running water – or even tied round the neck of a stray dog.  In the case of toothache there are many traditions relating to trees, for example a nail would be knocked into the trunk of a tree, preferably an oak, with the intention of leaving the pain in the tree, rather than in the tooth.

I first came across this idea of pain transference when I was doing medical history research, and I encountered a reference to local belief in toothache trees, written by a Leeds doctor in the Lancet in 1845. But then I happened to come across an oak tree that I thought might be a Toothache Tree, in one of our local Thackley woodlands.  This encouraged me to explore the subject further.

Transferring tooth pain to trees seems to have been quite an ancient and widespread practice, with several variations in the actual method used.  The earliest references come from Roman times, when there was a more complex procedure to deal with the pain of toothache, whereby hair clippings and nail parings of the sufferer were wrapped into a little parcel, and this was then nailed to the tree.  This was developed further elsewhere in Europe: the parcel had to be placed in a hole in the tree, which was then stopped up with a piece of wood from a tree that had been struck by lightning!  If it wasn’t perfectly stopped up, the toothache would escape back to the sufferer. 

The simplest method though is that referred to in the report in the Lancet: straightforwardly driving a nail into an oak tree.   According to writers on superstitions and old cures, this was variously called bottling, pegging or nailing the pain.  Slightly more complicated was the practise of scratching the aching tooth and gum with the nail until blood was drawn, and then driving the bloodied nail into the tree.  A splinter from the tree or a twig could also be used for the same purpose; in some places the appropriate time to do this was before sunrise, in others when the moon was on the wane, but it had to be done in silence – however painful the scraping and blood-drawing process, presumably!  In one or two places in this country it was believed that a splinter from a gibbet where the remains of a murderer still hung should be used, but in this case the splinter didn’t necessarily have to be hammered into a tree, but was effective against the toothache when placed on the troublesome tooth itself, or even simply carried in the pocket.

If that seems a rather desperate way of dealing with the pain, there were others even less pleasant, such as removing the forelegs and one back leg from a live mole and wearing them in a bag round the neck.  Alternatively taking a tooth from the mouth of a corpse, or biting one from a skeleton in a graveyard and carrying them in a bag round the neck would be efficacious. 

Although all the remedies described are applicable to toothache, there were – or are – similar ones throughout the world, and not only relating to the transfer of the pain of toothache.  Specific ailments such as ruptures might be nailed to trees, as well as more general complaints, and of course where oaks are less common trees such as willow or olives have been used.

One vital point made in most places where the superstition existed, however, was that the nail or splinter must never be removed from the tree, or the toothache – or other pain – would escape and attach itself to the person doing so.  So if, for example, a small archaeological study was made of the tree that I suspect to be a toothache tree, this would make dating the nails difficult.  Since the bark of the tree has calloused firmly around the nails they’ll be hard to remove anyway.  If there is also the threat of a curse of toothache, it will have to be a strong and brave person who undertakes the task.  It certainly won’t be me.

When did these traditions die out, at least in England? It isn’t clear from the various authors I looked up, but perhaps we’ll get an idea from examining the tree and the nails professionally.  Dr Flood, when he wrote his Lancet articles in 1845, stated that “… the cures have been effected not by any virtue in the disgusting means employed, but by the influence of the mind upon the body … by the influence of imagination”,  in other words, the placebo effect.  But, sometimes acute pain can lead to desperate measures, and despite what we now know about the placebo effect, simply hammering a nail into a tree (and bearing in mind the infection risk of scraping the inflamed area with the nail first) might still be worth trying when your dentist is too busy to see you for a few days!

Dr H Marvell

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