Category Archives: Plants and Herbs

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.




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: 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
Clusters of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) Image Credit: Annie Cavanagh, Wellcome Images

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.

Tales from the archives: Green sickness, red plants

In September, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 470 posts in our archives and over 117 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.)

But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month, I want to share a post by Helen King on the green sickness. In this post, Helen asks why red plants feature so prominently in treatments for the green sickness. She suggests that the redness of the plants was meant to restore a proper menstrual flow. I have chosen this post not only because of my interest in ancient gynaecology, but also because it features a photo of a copy of William Langham’s ‘Garden of Health’ (1597) held in my own institution, Cardiff University. Time for a little trip to  the Special Collections and Archives I should think.

I hope you enjoy it! And if you have any favourites you want us to revisit, please send in your nominations


By Helen King

I’ve been interested for a long time in green sickness, a condition affecting girls at puberty that involved menstrual suppression, often along with some sort of dietary ‘blockage’. The remedies for it, over the 400 or so years that it was recognised as a disease, raise all sorts of problems. For example, in the 19th century it was seen as a form of anaemia, so iron was prescribed. In the 17th century, before that level of knowledge of blood existed, ‘steel filings’ were often part of the remedy, and iron is a constituent of steel. So, how did they know to use steel? Or was this nothing to do with the iron content, but instead about steel being imagined as ‘cutting through’ the blockages?

Langham’s text. From . Copyright: Cardiff University, used with permission.

William Langham wrote ‘The Garden of Health’ in 1597. It was based on earlier recipe collections, and I came upon it when I was thinking about using recipes to tease out what exactly was supposed to be causing the symptoms – so, if the recipe involved plants that were clearly evacuative, then this could suggest that the cause of the disease was seen as a blockage. Langham arranged plants in simple alphabetical order, rather than arranging the material under the names of diseases; but, as part of his accessibility, he also gave a list of conditions with references to the different plant entries where the reader could find out more.

Langham gives a range of recipes for green sickness. One is packed full of ‘red’ plants –

‘seethe powder of the Keyes [i.e. the ash tree] with Betonie, red Sage, red Mynts, and Magerom [marjoram] in running water from a pottell [= 2 quarts] to a quart, and drink thereof a good draught with sugar warme morning and evening’

Elaine Hobby pointed out to me that this recipe also appears in 1677 in ‘The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight’ by ‘T.P.’ (possibly Hannah Woolley), but with ‘red Fennel’ instead of ‘red Mynts’. There was a second edition of Langham in 1633, and maybe the author used this.
So what’s all this red about? Betony, sage and marjoram often appear together in later collections as a gentle sternutatory. Red sage and betony are used against bilious attacks. Ash keys feature today on ‘wild food’ sites with the warning that they are very bitter and need to be boiled several times before eating, but what was used here was the ripe seed, dried and then reduced to powder. The ash-powder is used elsewhere for the stone (by provoking urination), jaundice and dropsy.

So maybe there’s something here about getting rid of obstructions. But to me, all this redness suggests the colour of blood, and the use of running water also makes me think that this is aimed at restoring or establishing a normal menstrual flow. How do we balance the known effects of the plants chosen, with the symbolic power of red? Comments please!

Helen King is Professor of Classical Studies at the Open University, UK. Her book on green sickness is  The Disease of Virgins.

You can find more of Helen’s thoughts on the green disease in this recent The Conversation article  also available in the Guardian

‘Take the sprigs of Oak trees’: Medicinal recipes and tree ingredients

By Anne Stobart

As a herbal practitioner, I have long been interested in historical uses of trees from folklore to domestic practices related to health. Recently, I have been looking at early modern medicinal recipes to consider how people might have obtained tree-based ingredients. Here, I briefly overview recipes in several English printed seventeenth-century books, the highly popular Choice Manuall of Rare and Select Secrets (1653) [1] and compare with a later publication Medicinal Experiments, or, a Collection of Choice Remedies (1692).[2]

Elizabeth Grey, A Choice Manuall. Frontispiece of 1671 edition.
Figure 1. Elizabeth Grey, A Choice Manuall. Frontispiece of 1671 edition.

Trees can be defined as large woody perennial plants, often self-supporting with a single stem and having branches at some height from the ground. Many medicinal items can be obtained from trees including fruits, flowers, leaves, roots, sap, bark and twigs, and provide ingredients for medicinal recipes. These can be readily distinguished as sourced either from native and naturalised trees in the British Isles or from trees native to other countries and regions. Most native trees are regarded as having considerable folklore use, although the actual records evidencing such uses may be partial.[3 ]

Young oak seedlings (author’s photograph).
Figure 2. Young oak seedlings (author’s photograph).

In Elizabeth Grey’s Choice Manuall (Figure 1), just under a third of the recipes, 112 altogether, contain ingredients originating from trees. Of these, 19 recipes can be identified as using parts of native trees – mainly ash, elder, hazel, hawthorn, holly, oak (Figure 2). Some recipes are simples, involving a single key ingredient, often based on leaves or fruits that might be available in the hedgerow at certain times of the year. Amongst recipes for bruises is the instruction to ‘Take the sprigs of Oak trees, and put them in paper, roast them, and break them, and drink as much of the powder as will lye upon a sixpence every morning’ (p.77). Another more complex recipe for distillation of ‘Aqua composita for the Collick and Stone’ (p.137) calls for birch leaves and haws, or the fruits of hawthorn (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Hawthorn berries or haws
Figure 3. Hawthorn berries or haws (author’ s photograph)

Some tree-based ingredients, such as bark (often called rind), may have required some effort to obtain. The use of bark dried to a powder appears several times, as in this example:

“For the Strangullion or the Stone.

Take the inner rind of a young ash, between two or three yeares of growth, dry it to pouder, and drinke of it as much at once, as will lye on a sixpence in Ale or White wine, and it will bring present remedie: The partie must be kept warm two hours after it.”(p.88)

Another recipe uses the inner bark of elder seethed with daisy roots in a butter ointment for an inflamed throat (p.90). Obtaining bark, particularly its removal from the tree and preparation, could require tools with sharp edges. If taken from the entire circumference, bark removal would cause the death of the branch or tree. Some tree barks were readily available because they were felled for other purposes such as timber, but they were destined for use in tanning leather. Apart from building needs, trees produced other valuable crops from fuel and fodder for livestock. Although some trees might have been accessible in a hedgerow, many were in woodlands or fields, requiring permission to access their produce, and these rights or ownership could be subject to conflict [4].

However, ingredients from native trees were few in number compared to exotic trees in the Choice Manual recipes. The great majority of tree-based ingredients (83%) were imports derived from tree bark and fruits, such as cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, as well as resins such as myrrh and frankincense. Other fruits and nuts such as dates and walnuts were included in medicinal broths and syrups. Recipes for external preparations often called for oils deriving from almond or olive trees. These items were generally products to be purchased from an apothecary or spicer.

Such imported ingredients were also popular in the later seventeenth-century recipe book of Robert Boyle’s Medicinal experiments, which included tree-sourced items in fourteen recipes. There were no native trees to be seen, with the exception of oil of juniper which was probably of European origin and purchased. Boyle’s recipe book contained a (relatively) new introduction from North America which was sassafras (Sassafras albidum, Figure 4). The aromatic bark and roots were particularly noted for their medicinal uses, and sassafras appeared in recipes for ‘A Lime water for Obstructions and Consumptions’ and ‘A Stomachical Tincture’ (pp. 12, 88).

Figure 4. Sassafras tree leaves (Wikipedia)
Figure 4. Sassafras tree leaves (Wikipedia)

In comparing these two English recipe books, from mid to late seventeenth century, we see that the popular Choice Manual included a range of native tree items, but such native sources were not included in Medicinal Experiments. However, both books included many exotic tree-derived ingredients, and Boyle’s book of recipes added a new item of sassafras from the Americas. I hope to investigate further how the uses of tree ingredients developed in the early modern period.

[1] Elizabeth Grey, A Choice Manuall of Rare and Select Secrets in Physick and Chirurgery (London: R. Norton, 1653).

[2] Robert Boyle, Medicinal Experiments, or, a Collection of Choice Remedies, for the Most Part Simple, and Easily Prepared (London: Printed for Sam Smith, 1692).

[3] On folklore see David E. Allen and Gabrielle Hatfield. Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain & Ireland (Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2004) and Fiona Stafford, The Long, Long Life of Trees (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

[4] Nicola Whyte, Inhabiting the Landscape: Place, Custom and Memory, 1500-1800 (Oxford: Windgather, 2009).