“Well loved he garleek, oynons, and eek lekes,
And for to drynken strong wyn, reed as blood”.
Chaucer – Canterbury Tales
The humble onion, at one time every moorland garden grew some sort or another, spring onions, shallots or cooking onions. As I child the kitchen garden was full of each type but with a heavy bias towards shallots. The main reason for this was the family’s penchant for pickled onions which on the face of it seems fairly innocuous. However, take a young boy and a basin full of shallots and then make the former peel the latter and I am sure today it would be classed as cruelty to children. Oh, how I remember the tears and the cuts from the paring knife which stung like a bee when the onion juice got into them. When the task was complete there then came the thought that at Christmas that heavy jar would be produced. Inside were the dark brown, crisp fruits of my labour which when crunched produced a burning akin to a mouthwash of formaldehyde. Eyes squinted, nostrils flared and tongue burnt as precursors to a flood of tears rolling down ones cheek – yeah, I remember the onions alright. Do you know the most cruel aspect of onions – father couldn’t abide them, he would eat nothing that had onions in it yet he grew set after set of them.
However, the humble onion has played a part in the everyday culinary, medicinal and mystical lives of moor folk for centuries. It is thought that the cultivated onion originated in Egypt sometime around 3000BC and the unio was introduced to Britain by the Romans. According to the OED the word first appears in Middle English as unyon or oyn(y)on which doesn’t take a lot of changing to get the ‘onion’ of today. When Bishop Leofric of Exeter died in 1072 he bequeathed a 10th century anthology of poetry known as The Exeter Book or the Codex Exoniensis in which was the following riddle:
“I am a wondrous creature: to women a thing of joyful expectation, to close-lying companions serviceable. I harm no city-dweller excepting my slayer alone. My stem is erect and tall–I stand up in bed–and whiskery somewhere down below. Sometimes a countryman’s quite comely daughter will venture, bumptious girl, to get a grip on me. She assaults my red self and seizes my head and clenches me in a cramped place. She will soon feel the effect of her encounter with me, this curl-locked woman who squeezes me. Her eye will be wet”.
As this page is about the onion there will be no prizes for solving the ancient conundrum although, as the Saxons intended, anyone with a sewer mind could come up with another answer. In 1269 the town of Newton Abbot which lies a few miles to the south of Dartmoor was granted a royal charter to hold a fair in November. This was the time of the feast day of Saint Leonard and the main produce sold at the fair was onions and cheese, today the fair is known as The Cheese and Onion Fair.
Apart from its culinary uses the onion has been used for centuries as a general cure-all for numerous conditions. For hundreds of years it has been said that when cut in half the onion has the ability to absorb odours and germs. During the 17th century plague epidemic it was noticed that people selling onions and snuff did not contract the deadly virus. This was because both onions and tobacco were said to absorb germs. In view of this a raw onion was often put on a saucer and placed in any room where there was the risk of any infection such as a patients sickbed. Conversely, many people thought it bad luck to keep any cut, raw onion in the house where there was no sickness for it would attract germs and disease. The warmed juice from an onion was used to cure earache by simply pouring it into the ear. The pain from a wasp’s or bee sting would be alleviated by rubbing the affected area with a raw onion. Other ailments that it was thought onion could cure was kidney troubles, chilblains, baldness, aching wrists, aching ankles, coughs, and colds. Indeed if a person suspected that they had a cold on its way the sure fire remedy was to suck a raw onion. If the warning signs were ignored and the cold arrived then some drastic action was called for. It entailed chopping an onion and pouring honey over it, this was then covered and left overnight. By the next day a syrup would have formed and to this some horseradish would be added, the jollup would then be taken by the spoonful. Another more palatable moorland cold cure was to drink a soup made from milk and chopped onions for a few days or until the symptoms eased. Following on from this belief many folk would eat as many onions in their diets as possible in the hope that it would ward off any colds or flu. Onion was also used to cure headaches as the following notation from 1550 shows:
“Geue onyons to saynt Cutlake, And garlyke to saynt Cyryake, If ye wyll shurne the head ake“.
Onions were also believed to be able to banish warts, this was achieved by cutting an onion in half and rubbing one half over the afflicted area. The two halves must then be tied back together and buried deep in the ground, as the onion rotted so the warts began to disappear.
But not all the onion superstitions were good for around the Ashburton area the folks believed that if anyone who kept horses or sheep and burnt onion skins in the house then the mares would never produce foals and the sheep would suffer some terrible disease. The onion was also said to be a good indicator of what kind of winter was coming, for:
“If the onion skins be thin
Then a mild winter be a comin’ in;
If the onion skins be thick and tough
Then winter u’ll be cold and rough”.
Schoolboys always considered that if you were due a good caning then the pain could be relieved by smearing your hand with a cut onion before the punishment was doled out. Although how any boy could come by an onion in school time I know not, maybe persistent offenders kept one in their satchels?
The onion would also be used for purposes of divination, in 1570 a man named Goode wrote the following:
“In these same dayes yong wanton Gyrles that meete for mariage bee, Doe search to know the names of them that shall their husbandes bee. Foure Onyons, fiue, or eight, they take and make in euery one, Such names as they do fancie most, and best do thinke vpon. Thus neere the Chimney them they set, and that same Onyon than, That first doth sproute, doth surely beare the name of their good man”.
On the moor and across Devon this tradition was observed on St. Thomas’s Eve (20th December) when a young girl wishing to find out who her future husband was would take an onion for each suitor. The initials of each man would then be carved on an onion with a needle and the onions placed in a dark cupboard. The first onion to sprout would represent the truest of her suitors. Alternatively a girl could put an onion under her pillow on St. Thomas’s Eve and then she would dream of her future husband. In the morning she could then get the juice from the onion, warm it and pour it into her ear to cure the earache she contracted from sleeping on an onion.