Stupes, Fomentations, Compresses, Poultices & Plaisters

What’s in a name? To Grandma Lukie they were either ‘Stupes’ or ‘Plaisters’.
So what’s the difference? If you look at dictionary definitions you’d run yourself round in circles; I’m not sure that they know the difference …..

The only thing that the dictionaries agree on is that both the word ‘Stupe’ and the word ‘Plaister’ are archaic terms.

Given that Grandma Lukie was born in 1896 I’m not surprised at that, and I certainly haven’t heard either term used since my childhood. I’ll stick with the more modern terms to avoid the confusion.

  • Compresses – the term now more widely used for Stupes or Fomentations. Although I’m sure at some point in deepest , darkest history there must have been a difference; I’d say it was before Grandma Lukie’s day. The dictionaries seem to think that both Stupes and Fomentations were Poultices (they weren’t). Compresses can be applied hot, warm or cool.
  • They consist of a piece of natural fibre cloth, dipped in a solution (usually an infusion or decoction) which is then wrung out and pressed against the body part. In this way they combine the knowledge of the external use of herbs with the science of hydrotherapy. Tinctures or herbal oils can also be used. How to make and use a compress will be done as a seperate post.
  • Poultices – which also used to be referred to as ‘Plaisters’ (a term that went on to become our modern plaster) are a different technique and used to achieve different outcomes. They also involve herbal solutions and natural fibre cloth; which may be where the confusion comes in. In a poultice the solution is more like a thick, gooey paste (think peanut butter) and the cloth is used to hold it in place. They are very effective when used to ‘draw things out’. A modern example would be the use of Magnesium Sulphate Paste covered with a plaster to draw out a splinter. The herbal paste can be applied directly to the skin or between two layers of very light fabric i.e. cheesecloth. This is then wrapped in layers of cloth to secure it against the affected part.

I always remember when I was little Grandma Lukie telling me that they were called ‘Plaisters’ because you plaistered the herbal solution on; and she did, with a wooden spoon. How to make Poultices is another post.

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