Old wives’ tales were the first urban legends. They took hold because they represent some kind of truth, or at least seemed to make sense at the time. But who are these “old wives” everybody talks about? Why should they know more than the experts?
Pop quiz: Who would you believe more, a scientist or a bunch of Peruvian Indians? Okay, now add this: In the 1640s, the Peruvian Indians ground up cinchona tree bark and fed it to the sick to lower a fever. A team of Jesuit missionaries noticed this practice, told others about it, and, as a result, the Peruvian Indians’ primitive remedy taught the rest of the world about quinine. Too bad that British Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell—a fierce Protestant at a time when Protestants were at war with Roman Catholics—refused the Indians’ life-saving medicine because it was defended by Catholic missionaries. Cromwell died of malaria in 1658. As the old wives’ tale says, “Civilization advances funeral by funeral.”
Scientists have often been astonished that those old wives really had their act together. Nevertheless, the difference between folk knowledge and “acceptable” scholarship is a conflict that can be traced throughout history. It’;s still creating tension, even in today’;s presumably more enlightened times. In fact,
So where were the old wives while the experts were in college? They were watching, and doing, and sharing with other old wives through the normal activity of conversation. How else, you may ask, would the average person living in medieval times know that the foxglove plant contains digitalis, a drug that (we know today) treats heart disease? Probably by trial and error, and by observation conducted throughout centuries of unrecorded history—the same way that primitive man learned that some mushrooms kill you and others don’;t, that the tides flow in predictable patterns, that salmon swim past the cave at the same time each year, and that when Bernie ate that plant over there, he stopped having chest pains. But when Caleb ate that other plant, he died. So let’;s hear it for Bernie.
Before the scientific method became accepted as an orderly means to codify the wonders of the world into a useful guide to life, human knowledge wasn’;t recorded in books. It was handed down by shaman, medicine men, practitioners, midwives, servants, priests, rabbis, gurus, and Mom and Dad.
That having been said, although some folk knowledge is right, some of it is just plain wrong:
There is always a germ of truth in the aphorisms that inform our culture, even if sometimes you have to blast for it. This chapter explores some of the most pervasive of these maxims and tries to establish or debunk their veracity. Don’;t be surprised if Grandma was smarter than Einstein, even if the only theory of relativity she ever proposed was to your grandfather.