Category Archives: herbal medicine

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

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.

Scenes from an Anglo-Norman Kitchen, Part 2: Vegetables Cures and a Drunken Cook

By Winston Black, Assumption College

In my last post, I introduced the twelfth-century verse herbal of Henry of Huntingdon, Anglicanus Ortus (“The English Garden”). This work is mostly medical in nature, but one poem on the medicinal uses of parsley also contains two culinary recipes for savory green sauces used on mutton or pork. Such recipes are rare for the twelfth century, so I wanted to share them here at The Recipes Project. But Henry’s herbal tells us more about twelfth-century cooking than just a couple recipes; through his satirical verse, he presents amusing portraits of contemporary cooks and kitchens.

An early modern interpretation of the Roman kitchen of Apicius.
An early modern interpretation of the Roman kitchen of Apicius.

Henry wrote two poems on parsley, the first of which contains the aforementioned recipes for herby, spicy green sauces. It is near his second poem on parsley that Henry introduces the character of a belligerent cook, and through him demonstrates what may have been common stereotypes about cooks, kitchens, and vegetables. For example, cooks are frequently drunk, garrulous, and rude, and common vegetables are not useful in medicine. The cook fights back, however, and addresses Henry as a “poetling”, a plagiarizing hack, and eventually tells him simply to “go to hell, Mr. Envy”. We shouldn’t assume Henry actually felt this way about cooks in general, but was rather building on a long tradition of animosity against cooks. Satires about cooks, foodies, and kitchens have a long pedigree, appearing in the works of ancient Roman authors like Juvenal and Petronius.

juvenal%2c-country-meal%2c-wenceslaus-hollar
Juvenal, Country Meal. CAPTION: The satirist Juvenal attacked Roman high society, including their meals and pretentious cooks. Here is a simpler country meal, in an early modern printing of Juvenal, illustrated by Wenceslaus Hollar.

In some poems of the Anglicanus Ortus Henry the author poses as Henry the narrator, a pretentious master of medicines. After he finishes five books of the herbal, this Master Henry boasts that he is a great physician and a worthy follower of Apollo:

…thus similar to Phoebus’s physicians, most pleasing to all,
I’ll be read throughout the entire world, I’ll have an eternal name!

 

Suddenly, the cook appears, much as Apollo had suddenly appeared in the first poem on parsley, to criticize his failure to discuss common vegetables:

While I was boasting overmuch, a certain cook smirked and said to me,
‘By Phoebus [Apollo], worthless man, you’re quiet about greater matters,
and have also kept silent about Leeks, and Onions, and Cabbage—
vulgar things, to be sure, but by all means very pleasing.’

Henry then objects:

‘We name herbs, not foods, in our writings,
and these, by Jove, aren’t herbs, since they are foods!’

Simple Roman ingredients. Here, the preparation for a Roman cheesecake.
Simple Roman ingredients. Here, the preparation for a Roman cheesecake.

Henry, as narrator, steps aside, and allows this cook to describe how the vegetables onion, leek, and cabbage can be used in medicine, then adding orache (saltbush), parsley, and garlic. Sadly, the cook does not offer any culinary recipes here, but tries to show up Henry by describing elaborate cures, and namedropping the greatest authorities in learned medicine, like Galen, Hippocrates, Dioscorides, and Cato the Elder. Then, in a tour de force poem about garlic, the cook piles on cure after cure using mundane kitchen vegetables, while calling on more ancient authorities like Pythagoras, Diocles, and Macer. Seemingly out of breath, and apparently drunk, the cook finishes with a brief note of cooking advice, one that is still welcome today:

‘I say that the flavour of no spice will equal it [garlic],
if Pepper is added and ground for a long time.’

Henry the narrator uses this culinary aside as an opportunity to interrupt and take back his herbal. He sends the cook off with good wishes for more alcohol:

‘At last, brother, you’ve returned, stumbling, to your stew pots!
May the gods grant you frequent fruit of the vine as your due.’

This portrait of a cook is not meant to be realistic, since Henry is using it primarily as a tool for criticizing himself and the pretensions of learned physicians. Still, through this cook, we get a glimpse of the standard vegetables and greens in a twelfth-century English kitchen. While these vegetables were undoubtedly common, some of the herbs and spices in the sauces described in my first post were luxury items, like the pepper and costus root. These recipes are thus not peasant food, but neither do they seem intended for the lord’s high table. Rather, they represent the comfort food of a twelfth-century churchman: a dinner of hot mutton with a spicy green sauce, and cold pork the next day for lunch.

Recipes and the “Weird”: A Halloween Rumination

By Jennifer Munroe

Henry Fuseli, Weird Sisters (1783).
Henry Fuseli, Weird Sisters (1783).

We might recall Shakespeare’s “Weird Sisters,” the seemingly-sinister witches from Macbeth. Their “Double, double toil and trouble” resonates in our memories as it does in their incantation before Macbeth: “Double, double toil and trouble: / Fire, burn; and, cauldron, bubble” (4.1.20-21). As All Hallow’s Eve approaches, it seems to me useful to revisit their charms; or, as it were, how we might use our sense of Macbeth’s witches to rethink some of the more unsavory of ingredients in early modern recipes, and how we might use these recipes to rethink our assumptions about the witches.

The Weird Sisters’ “hell-broth” includes such mammalian and amphibious creature parts as “eye of newt,” “Gall of goat,” “Adder’s fork,” “Wool of bat,” and “tongue of dog.” Macbeth is appalled at the concoction they brew, and, as it seems, so are audiences (especially modern).  The witches, so often portrayed today as elusive, macabre, dangerous, even grotesque, have been written into our modern imagination as integral to the darkness engulfing Dunsinane.

But what if their witchy-work is not-so-sinister after all? What if they simply get a bad rap? After all, it is Macbeth who does the killing in the play; they merely prognosticate his actions.

I turn to the manuscript recipe book of Rebeckah Winche, a contemporary source, though not of the kind we typically turn to when we ask about early modern witchcraft. For that, we more often go to Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) or the like. However, such animal ingredients were not uncommon in early modern recipes; and in those books, they certainly do not denote the dark arts. In Winche’s book, we find a series of recipes for “The King’s Evil,” Scrofula (or, tuberculosis), one that helps to identify the disease, and two to cure it:

winchef-63

A redy way to know the deseas called the Kings
evill

Take a grownd worme & lay itt alive to the place greved &
take a green docke leafe or 2 andlay them upon the worme
& bine them to the place at night when the patient goes to
bed & if it be the kings evill itt will turne to dust or poud
=er by the morning otherwise it will remayn dead in his owne
former forme as it was a live

A perfect remydy to cure the desease called the kings evill
Take an ounce of pure yellow bees wax or something more
& an ounce uenice turpentine a good quantity of sheepes
suet clarified. boyle them alltogether & when thay are well
boyled put therein 2 good handfulls of the purest barly flower
clear without weedes then temper this flower with the other
things. then put therein 3 spoonfulls of the urin of a man
childe he being not above 3 years olde then boyle it agane
put itt in some earthen or gally pot & stop itt close, keepe it
for your use: when you use it spread it on a peece of fine
linin or on lether and lay it on the sore plaster waise &
by gods helpe it will cure the patient

A nother for the same deseas
Take a live toade & cut of one of her hinder legs
sewe it up in a pece of silke & hange it presently about the
neck of the party greeved. observe if it be a boy or man that
is greeved then a girl or woman must kill the toade but if
a girle or woman be ill then a man must kill it
this hath cured many however if doth sertanly help the other
remydy or any other you shall apply to the sore (if any) to
worke the better efect & sooner cure.

To diagnose “The King’s Evil,” one is instructed to lay a live worm to the aggrieved area, to fix to the unfortunate worm to  “green docke leafe” and wait to see whether the worm desiccates or remains plump (but still deceased) to determine whether the patient is indeed infected.

And to cure “The King’s Evil,” should the patient (and the worm) be so unfortunate, the practitioner summons not the powers of the otherworld, but the urine of a man-child… or the pieces of a toad, who is taken alive and dismembered, removing one of her “hinder legs,” which is then sewn into a silk parcel and hung from the patient’s neck. If a male patient, a woman kills the toad; if a female patient, then a man.

Certainly, this diagnosis and cure might strike some as hocus-pocus, drawing on superstition more than sound medical training and having no more validity than, say, snake oil or verging on something much darker. However, early modern medicine is flush with examples of such diagnoses and cures, and its practitioners appeared quite ready to employ them.

While early modern men and women used these cures as healers and patients, this sort of household medicine was also (and increasingly) understood as inferior relative the professional medicine of scientists and doctors, as practice not to be trusted—or, as we see so often in depiction of witches, as that which ought make us suspicious of its source and its agents.

So what is it about domestic medicine and cookery that has lent itself to this sort of denigration, or the fear associated with witchcraft that enables its marginalization? After all, early modern domestic medicine is not unlike modern herbal medicine, both of which have been relegated to inferior practice, nudged out by codified and “professional” modes of healing that tend to privilege machinery over touching, pharmaceuticals over tinctures and teas.

By juxtaposing Macbeth’s “Weird Sisters” with the recipes from the Winche book, both of which contain what are often associated with “witchy” ingredients, we focus less on the contents of the concoctions. Instead, we are forced to see the ways in which both highlight ways of knowing that are not easily quantified; this is not the ostensible “objective” knowledge of (early modern) science, but something more murky.

This does not mean they are at best silly frivolities and at worst sinister machinations. For Macbeth’s witches are guilty of nothing more than “knowing” (or foreknowing, since they merely predict his actions); they no more dictate Macbeth’s murderous ambitions than he can direct their appearances and disappearances. Early modern recipe practitioners who administer the earthy worm, who collect and pour the spoons full of man-child urine and dismember the toad and make a modern reader say, “Ew,” arguably did no less to diagnose and cure tuberculosis than the scientists of the day.

And as these amateur practitioners worked their medicine, they were necessarily called upon to observe their patients (and their ingredients) in ways that professional doctors and scientists were beginning to move away from: their tactile contact with worm, toad, urine, human skin, and the intensive observation within natural surroundings (rather than a lab) meant that they had to look, listen, and touch differently. Rather than in the laboratory, such amateur practitioners adapted their cures on site, modified their medicine according to individual need (see the many recipes “for another”) rather than generic conditions.

And so, I wonder if on this All Hallow’s season we might take the opportunity to revisit what seems “weird” about the sisters, and how the ingredients and practices of so many early modern men and women, might help us revisit the seemingly strange aspects of medicine in the period and its relation to its ostensible opposite, science. For in these recipes, the strange, the “weird,” may indeed be the very thing that we have made alien—the intimate connections between person and patient, between animal or plant and human, between self and Other–rather than what has in fact been alien all along.