Category Archives: Digital History

Ancientbiotics: Medieval Medicines for Modern Infections

By Erin Connelly

In 2015, Youyou Tu jointly won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the development of a new therapy (Artemisinin) to treat Malaria, a disease which has been on the rise since the 1960s. Significantly, the antimalarial component was successfully extracted from the plant Artemisia annua only after consulting the instructions found in the ‘ancient literature’ of traditional herbal medicine.

As the drugs (chloroquine or quinine) used to combat the malarial parasite have experienced decreased efficacy, such is the case with a wide range of conventional antimicrobials. In fact, major pharmaceutical companies and government agencies have identified antimicrobial resistance as one of the most pressing concerns for global health. The World Health Organization (WHO) stated in September 2016 that antimicrobial resistance is ‘an increasingly serious threat to global public health that requires action across all government sectors and society.’

In response to this threat to global health, the Ancientbiotics team was formed. Originally based at the University of Nottingham, the team is an interdisciplinary group from the Arts and Sciences comprised of microbiologists, medievalists, parasitologists, wound specialists, and pharmacists, who are united by the belief that novel avenues of antibiotic discovery are crucial, along with the shared conviction that the past can inform the future. At the same time that Youyou Tu was awarded the Nobel Prize for her work with malaria, the Ancientbiotics team was investigating a tenth-century Anglo-Saxon remedy for eye infection, known as Bald’s eyesalve. The full paper is available here.

Recipe for an eyesalve from Bald’s Leechbook, England (Winchester?), mid-10th century, Royal MS 12 D XVII, f. 12v. Image and caption credit: British Library
Recipe for an eyesalve from Bald’s Leechbook, England (Winchester?), mid-10th century, Royal MS 12 D XVII, f. 12v. Image and caption credit: British Library

The 1,000-year old recipe has been shown to effectively kill a range of microbes, including, but not limited to, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Klebsiella pneumoniae, Escherichia coli (E. coli), and leishmania. All of these species are causes of chronic, opportunistic, drug-resistant, or difficult to treat infections. While each ingredient in the eyesalve demonstrates some antimicrobial activity on its own, what is remarkable is that only in the combination of ingredients, exactly as specified by the medieval instructions, do we see the synergistic, potent antimicrobial effect in clinically realistic infection models.

An interview on Radiolab with Freya Harrison and Christina Lee is available to explain the full story of Bald’s eyesalve.

Clusters of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) Image Credit: Annie Cavanagh, Wellcome Images https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/
Clusters of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) Image Credit: Annie Cavanagh, Wellcome Images
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

The Ancientbiotics project also extends to medical texts of the later medieval period. The Lylye of Medicynes (Lylye) is one such text that offers a diverse range of recipes, including many promising treatments for infectious disease. The Lylye is the only extant Middle English translation of Bernard of Gordon’s Lilium medicinae; it exists in one fifteenth-century manuscript (Oxford Bodleian Library MS. Ashmole 1505). The Lylye is most notable for its pharmaceutical content. There are nearly 6000 individual ingredients in the text; 3500 of those ingredients are contained in 360 specific recipes, which represent over 110 disease states (many of which include symptoms of infection). One of the eye recipes is currently being tested at the University of Nottingham and research is ongoing to identify those ingredients which interact with the same antimicrobial synergy found in Bald’s eyesalve.

Lylye of Medicynes, Oxford Bodleian Library MS. Ashmole 1505 Image Credit: Erin Connelly
Lylye of Medicynes, Oxford Bodleian Library MS. Ashmole 1505 Image Credit: Erin Connelly

I am also working on the first published edition of the whole text of the Lylye in order to allow accessibility for increased scholarship. A forthcoming paper (2017) in the proceedings from the 8th Annual Disease, Disability, and Medicine in Medieval Europe conference (‘Treating Infected Wounds in the Middle English Translation of Bernard of Gordon’s Lilium medicinae’) conveys in greater detail the potential of this text to be mined for antimicrobial recipes.

You may read a little bit more about the Lylye of Medicynes in these short blog posts from 2014: ‘ȝif it be a pore man . . .’: Healthcare for the Rich and Poor in the Lylye of Medicynes and ‘þe best mylke is womman milke’: Does Breastmilk Heal?

As a truly interdisciplinary effort between the Arts and Sciences, the Ancientbiotics project has opened new and significant pathways to antimicrobial drug discovery, but it has also challenged the popular categorization of the medieval period as a ‘Dark Age,’ and the centuries-long pattern of dismissing medieval medical texts as ‘unenlightened’ by reason and scientific discovery. In a paradigm-shifting manner, the efficacy of medieval medicines against modern infections instead shows that medieval practitioners were operating within a lengthy tradition of observation and experimentation with recipes that may inspire present day research.

UK Medical Heritage Library

By Lisa Smith

german-national-cookeryThis just in: the UK Medical Heritage Library is now available. From 28 October, it will be fully integrated into Historical Texts, but for one glorious day — TODAY — it is completely open.

I spent yesterday at a Live Lab workshop hosted by JISC in which researchers had an opportunity to spend time playing with the datasets. This meant I indulged in trying out the new platform to look for things like vampires, pain, and cookery smells–as you do–while giving feedback to people who were actually thinking about tools to make the dataset even more useful.

flowers-and-flower-loreBut as for you, dear readers, there is much to capture your interest. Folk medicine? Oh yes! Plant folklore? Most certainly! Cookery? Absolutely! Plus, so much more.

Go. Go now! And explore. It is a delight.

EMROC 2nd Annual Transcribathon!

Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.600.
Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.600.

Like early modern recipes? Enjoy puzzle solving? Then… how about joining in the 2nd Annual Transcribathon, hosted by the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective?

This virtual transcribathon will be taking place on 9 November–and all you need to join is a computer and an internet connection! And NO EXPERIENCE is necessary.

This year, EMROC will be working on the recipe book of Lady Grace Castleton.

For more details on the event and how to join, please see the announcement on the EMROC website.

Looking at Paper and Recipes…

By Elaine Leong

Earlier this year, when the daffodils were in full bloom, I shared the fruits of my recent research with the readers of this blog. My current project, ‘Papering the Household: Paper, Recipes and Technologies in Early Modern England’ explores the intersection of early modern recipes and paper making and paper use.

Folger Shakespeare Library, Manuscript v.a. 456, fol. 28r.
Folger Shakespeare Library, Manuscript v.a. 456, fol. 28r.

In that post, I marveled at the myriad of ways in which early modern householders utilized paper in their production of a range of medicinal and health-related products – as plasters to apply medicines, as a means to preserve drugs and, in some cases, to separate mixtures. A good example is the recipe to heal a bruise showcased in the image above. This week, over at the Shakespeare’s World blog, I explore the way householders used paper in culinary and, in particular, baking recipes. Paper, it turns out, was a crucial tool for early modern home cooks. Bakers used floured paper to line cake and biscuit tins and to mold and shape sugar confections such as almond lozenges and cheesecakes. There was also one fascinating instance where paper was employed as a way to gauge the heat of one’s oven. Once I started looking, uses of paper began to crop up in recipe after recipe.

When I reflect upon my adventures in research paper and recipes, two key thoughts spring to mind. First, my previous notions of paper-use in early modern England were woefully misguided. While certain kinds of paper were undoubtedly expensive and largely used for writing and book production, many other kinds of paper were in constant use and re-use in the period. For example, grocers were in the habit of wrapping foodstuffs in brown paper. The same paper was then used or, most probably, re-used to make medicinal plasters and to line cake and biscuit tin. While we might think of the more expensive seized white paper as reserved as letter paper and book production, it seems that it was also used for making marchpane, drying apricots and stopping nosebleeds. Early modern men and women used paper in a wide range of contexts that we’re only beginning to uncover.

Secondly, I was also struck by the collaborative nature of the research. As many of you know, shifting through the hundreds and hundreds of recipes in early modern recipe collections to look for use of a particular material is not easy task. Lucky for me, I’ve had immense help from the communities of two “citizen transcription” projects. The first is the Early Modern Manuscripts Online Collective (EMROC) in which students transcribe and encode manuscript recipe texts in classrooms. The second is Shakespeare’s World, a Zooniverse project creating transcriptions of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s manuscript holdings.

Members of these two projects helped me in different ways. EMROC members collectively produced full-text transcriptions of Johanna St. John and Rebekah Winche’s recipe books. With the “find” function in Word, entries with paper-use were a snap to locate. The community at Shakespeare’s World, on the other hand, has been looking out for and tagging recipes with paper as they work their way through the digital archive. Using the channel #paper, they have created a data set of more than twenty examples of paper-use from ten different manuscript recipe books in just a few months. I am grateful to the members of both these projects for their help.

Clearly, my project is enriched and extended by our collective efforts and my analysis of paper-use in recipes owes much to students on campuses in the USA and Canada and to the energetic community at Shakespeare’s World. With citizen science projects such as Zooniverse (which hosts Shakespeare’s World) our research methodologies are continually changing and expanding. I might have begun my research on recipes in the wooden carrels in Duke Humphrey’s Library but a few years on, the research landscape has definitely shifted.

View of the Bodleian library at oxford in Oxonia Illustrata (Oxford, 1675).

For one thing, with the modernization of the Bodleian, readers now engage with early modern manuscripts in the Weston Library rather than Duke Humphrey’s… But also with digitization projects, many of us now read our manuscripts on our computers rather than at the archive. I miss the musty smell and crackly pages of a seventeenth-century manuscript, but I’m also delighted for new research possibilities offered by new digital tools and thrilled to be part of large communities of fellow citizen scientists.

Of course, this idea of “crowd sourcing” research is not new. Recipe collecting could be considered an early form of citizen science. After all, our historical actors quickly realized that calling on their friends and family was the most effective and quickest way to gather tried and trusted medical and culinary knowledge.

Speaking of collaboration and communities, in my journey to explore paper and recipes I have encountered a number of scholars working on cognate projects. Over the three Tuesdays, I would like to share some our discussions on the theme of paper and recipes with you. Next week, Orietta da Rold offers us rich evidence of paper-use in medical recipes in late medieval England, reminding us that the story I tell for seventeenth-century England was one with a long history. On August 16, in a special post on the Layfield manuscript, Hillary Nunn demonstrates how following the trail of paper brings up unusual questions and unexpected connections. In the final post of the series, Gabriella Szalay introduces us to the work of the eighteenth-century German naturalist Jacob Christian Schäffer (1718-1790) who conducted a series of “paper trials” in a bid identify raw materials (other than linen rags) to make paper.

Together, this series of posts on paper and recipes demonstrates the wealth of questions inspired by looking at an everyday object: paper.