What is “Medical Folklore”?

In its broadest sense, “folk medicine” can be used to refer to such things as holistic medicine, midwifery, and medical beliefs and practices unique to individual family traditions. A stricter interpretation of the term may exclude traditional practices such as those procedures commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic (Indian) medicine. Regardless of how exotic these traditions may be to someone more accustomed to modern medicine as it is practiced in the Western world, the remedies, diagnostic practices and beliefs which have sustained the lives of Chinese and Indian people for centuries have long histories and are still greatly respected for their simplicity and efficacy.

Despite the differences of opinion regarding traditional medicine’s place in the realm of folk medicine, our encyclopedia presents entries detailing various aspects of traditional medicine, as we believe that these have much to contribute to one’s broader understanding of folk medicine. We will not cover material on “alternative medicine,” the holistic/homeopathic tradition which views the body as a whole system rather a sum of its many cellular parts. Although this holistic view may be in accordance with some of the cosmology represented in folk medicine, we do not believe that alternative medicine is folk medicine; it is not assocaited with any sociological group. Certainly, if one were to distinguish such a group from a given population by selecting all those persons within that population who practice alternative rather than traditional or modern medicine, that group may be part of a distinct society. Our concern, however, is that alternative medicine is not a type of folk medicine with its own history, but is an alternative medical practice derived from the traditions of many other genuine, folk medical belief systems .

“Folklore” is the culture, customs, and beliefs of a particular ethnic or geographic group, based on that sociological group’s traditions, introduced by the society that produces it, transmitted, often by demonstration, to the youth within that society, and preserved by other traditions belonging to that society. “Medical folklore,” then, refers to the curative and preventative beliefs and traditions a particular sociological group holds which effect diagnosis and treatment of its members’ illnesses and diseases. Some of these beliefs and practices rest in the group’s cosmology, religion, and superstitions. As these traditions are reflective of the traditions of the society, folk medicine is often sensitive to the lives led by the group’s members, and often takes into account a patient’s spiritual and emotional needs in addition to his or her immediate physical needs.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, folklore is the study of traditional beliefs, legends and customs, current among the common people or a popular fantasy or belief. Medicine is the department of knowledge and practice which is concerned with the alleviation and prevention of disease in human beings, and with the restoration and preservation of health. The province of the physician in the Western medical tradition is the art of restoring and preserving the health of human beings through the administration of remedial substances and the regulation of diet, habits, and conditions of life.

Folk medicine is often referred to as traditional medicine, primitive medicine or herbal medicine, medicinal plants, and medical anthropology. In general, the practice of traditional medicine has been associated with indigenous peoples on every continent, and has appeared to a limited extent in Western countries; the evolution of Western medicine has served to decrease general acceptance of traditional medicine. However, there are beliefs endemic to every culture that relate in some way to the maintenance of health through modification of diet or style of life through traditional means.

We hope that these guidelines for our definitions for folk medicine prove helpful as you use our Encyclopedia, and furthermore, that our Encyclopedia proves itself to be a useful resource for your research needs.

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