What lies behind the name? Rest-harrow – A medieval herbal enigma

By Theresa Tyers

‘Mystery, magic and medicine: in the beginning they were one and the same’ so begins Howard Haggard’s 1930s book on the rise of scientific medicine.[1] Exploring medieval manuscripts reveals how magical recipes, charms, amulets and ritual healing all formed part of the everyday ‘medicine chest’ of treatments which were intended to deal with a myriad of conditions. Vernacular plant names are fascinating they can be a key to their uses, for example consoude or bonewort, toutsain, (all-heal) or the astringent sanguines. To modern ears the magical sound of: foxgloves, archangel, biting-grass, moonwort or even weasel-tongue can conjure up images in our minds of strange and wondrous plants. Perhaps the most appealing are those rare vernacular names that bring to life the people who may have encountered the plants as they went about their daily life, whether working out in the field ploughing and sowing, or pilgrims travelling long distances by foot along the byways and highways of medieval England and Europe. They would have had ample time to take in their surroundings as the seasons past slowly by and, take note of the notorious twisted rooted wild pink vetch today called ‘rest-harrow’. The ploughman would have easily recognised this troublesome plant and no doubt dreaded its presence. He knew that if he was to clear the land of this tenacious ‘weed’ it would need to be ploughed well and each piece of the noxious root had to be cleared away before the crop could be set.

Common Restharrow (Ononis repens) flower at Stevenston Beach Local Nature Reserve, North Ayrshire, Scotland. Image courtesy of wikicommons.
Common Restharrow (Ononis repens) flower at Stevenston Beach Local Nature Reserve, North Ayrshire, Scotland. Image courtesy of wikicommons.

Sometime ago I also stumbled across ‘rest-harrow’ but this time it was not in a field but in a reference to an intriguing remedy, one which had been added to others in a popular compilation known as the Lettre d’Hippocrate (MS Oxford, Bodley 86).[2] In this post, I’m going to look at three examples of the use of rest-harrow in medieval remedies which were intended to treat diarrhoea. The remedy is, on the whole, the same one that appears elsewhere around this time. However, there are differences between the versions recorded in these three examples and it is these intriguing differences that prompted me to dig a little further!

The late thirteenth-century manuscript MS Cambridge, Trinity College, O.1.20 is one of the earliest vernacular collections of medical texts, written in French, that we have. The remedy that calls for rest-harrow appears to suggest a magical or ritual element to the healing practice. In this rhymed collection of recipes and remedies ‒ the Physique rimee the author claims that he was compiling the knowledge to introduce those who ‘have no Latin (l. 86) to the useful properties of herbs and plants’, the names of which he notes ‘may already be familiar to them’.[3](Hunt, 1989:144). Among the plants he cites is l’arestboef, a name which is echoed today in the French common-name of L’arrêt-boeuf (Ononis arvensis) and in the English ‘rest-harrow’.

Rest-harrow in the field seek it out

It will be pounded and crushed and cooked,

Then tip this [mixture] into a bowl,

Put into [this bowl] the patient’s feet

So long as their feet are kept in there

To move [go forward] they will have no desire.[4]

A ploughman depicted in a manuscript copy of William Langland’s Piers Plowman (Cambridge, Trinity College, R.3.14, fol. 1v), courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge.
A ploughman depicted in a manuscript copy of William Langland’s Piers Plowman (Cambridge, Trinity College, R.3.14, fol. 1v), courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge.

The compiler who made a number of additions to a group of practical remedies for menesiun in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Digby 86 also recommended the recipe for its use for diarrhoea but perhaps doubting the rationale behind the author of MS CTC O.1.20’s advice he amends the remedy. His version calls for the patient’s legs and knees to be washed often in the concoction while placed in the bowl and he then places the cause of its efficacy firmly in the hands of God.[5] . There is no mention here of the idea which links the efficacy of the treatment with the time spent soaking the legs in the herbal mixture. The final example of the medieval use of this recipe is also cited in a collection that was copied in 1313, (MS CTC O.5.32, Trinity Practica) and although it shares a number of remedies and recipes in common with MS CTC O.1.20 the author, once again, leaves out the reference to ‘rest-harrow’, its connection with ploughing and its supposed efficacy in the treatment of diarrhoea. In this remedy the reference to oxen is reduced to homely instructions which explains that one simply has to cook ‘rest-harrow’ as one would cook the meat from the same beast.[6]

 The traditional use of rest-harrow for urinary problems and stone is well-documented in Herbals and other recipe and remedy collections. The tenacious growing habit of this plant is also evident in the way in which it appears, once again, in later herbals. In 1640 John Parkinson, accustomed to citing the virtues of rest-harrow for urinary problems, gives a number of remedies for the condition in his monumental work Theatrum Botanicum.[7]

The said quantite of the rootes sliced and put into a stone pot close stopped with the like quantite of wine and so set to boil in a ‘Balneo Marie’ for 24 houres is a daintie a medicine for tender stomacks as any of the daintiest Lady in the Land can desire to take being troubled with any of the aforesaid griefes:.[8]

This remedy, tasting sweetly of liquorice, is a far cry from that of the down to earth compiler of the Physique rimee, who cited its use for diarrhoea, and knew of rest-harrow’s infamous reputation for stopping both the oxen in their tracks and their unfortunate ploughman. Perhaps the answer to the conundrum is that he added his own little twist to the remedy in an attempt to help his students. He made the link of the image of the ploughman behind his plough battling with the ‘rest-harrow’ to provide an aide memoire for his students, who already knew the names of plants, but not their hidden virtues. Subsequent authors, unsure of the empirical authenticity behind its efficacy, quickly dropped this author’s curious explanation so that its use in treating diarrhoea has become an intriguing medieval enigma.

MS Cambridge, Cambridge University Trinity College O.1.20 fol. 7va here. Courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge.
MS Cambridge, Cambridge University Trinity College O.1.20 fol. 7va here. Courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge.

 

 

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Footnote: In preparing this piece for the blog I wanted to make sure that there was no evidence that Ononis arvensis (or its relations) had been traditionally used for treating cases of diarrhoea. Anne Stobart and members of the History of Herbal Medicine group quickly responded to my request for advice on its uses. Dr. Henry Oakeley (Royal College of Physicians) and John Adams (Syon Abbey) also provided me with confirmation of its use which they had gleaned from a wide range of Herbals across historical time periods. Everyone’s input, on the whole, confirmed that this medicinal remedy is not usually cited for diarrhoea and as such it remains a medieval medicinal enigma. My grateful thanks to everyone for their help and advice.

[1] Haggard H. Mystery, Magic, and Medicine. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc.; 1933.

[2] Tony Hunt, Popular Medicine in Thirteenth-Century England, D.S. Brewer: 1989, 141.

[3] Hunt, 1989: 144.

[4] L’arestboef ens el chaump querés, Triblé sera, puis le quirés, Puis le versés en une gate, Les piés metes ens au malade. Taunt com les piés la dedens tendra, D’aler avaunt talent n’avra. [4] (Hunt, 1989: 167)          

[5] Et face laver ses genoilz et ses jambs de cel ewe et ceo sovent, si estaunchira od l’aide de Deu

[6]E pernez restbuef e quisez en ewe cum char de buef, destemprez ses pes leinz sic haut cum il purra soufrir, si garra”, Hunt, Anglo-Norman Medicine II, Shorter Treatises, 1997: 273.

[7] For an example of its inclusion in household books see: Elaine Leong, ‘Herbals she peruseth’: reading medicine in early-modern England, Renaissance Studies, 2014

[8] Open access: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/rest.12079/full DOI: 10.1111/rest.12079


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