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Nosebleed: the many virtues and names of Yarrow

By Gabriella Zuccolin

Yarrow. From Dioscorides, De medicinali materia. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Yarrow. From Dioscorides, De medicinali materia.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Before starting my research on anomalous bleeding and vicarious menstruation in medieval and Renaissance medicine, I was already well aware that according to Hippocrates, Aphorism V.33, “in a woman when there is a stoppage the menses, a discharge of blood from the nose is good”. What I did not know then is that the absence or irregular flow of menstruation puzzled physicians and their patients until the beginning of the twentieth century.

Cases of compensatory bleeding – even in men suffering from hemorrhoids or nosebleeds — are so common in old medical literature that a comprehensive list would include endless instances. And the list does not end, as one might expect, when a clear link between menstruation and ovulation was finally drawn in the first half of the nineteenth century, that is to say when the ancient theory of menstruation as primarily having a cleansing and purifying function was finally dismissed in favour of a straightforward connection between menstrual flow and reproduction.

Only the identification of endometriosis, where endometrial tissue is found in abnormal situations outside the uterine cavity, nasal mucosa included, finally transformed the theory of vicarious menstruation into popular folklore in the 1930s.[1] Hence the idea of turning back to the past and trying to study gendered differences through the lens of the nosebleed, often seen as the supreme example of the compensatory bleeding theory. What were thought to be the causes of nosebleeds? Do the remedies used vary between men and women, or between menstrual and other bleeding? And in which cases did physicians provoke nosebleed as a therapy? What might this study tell us about gendered medical theories and practices in the Renaissance?

While looking for answers to my research questions in collections of recipes, which as far as I can see do not include any gendered difference in the omnipresent recipe “ad sanguinem de naribus sistendum/to staunche blode of thy nose”, and only rarely tackle the issue of provoking a nosebleed, I was especially fascinated by the recurrence of one herb with many names: Yarrow-Achillea millefolium. This also was known as Nosebleed, Sanguinary, Soldier’s woundwort, Military Herb, Knight’s Milfoil, Thousand-leaf, Thousand-seal, Thousand-weed, Bloodwort, Staunchweed, Venus’ eyebrow, Carpenter’s Weed, Seven Year’s Love, Snake’s Grass, Sneezewort, Devil’s nettle, Devil’s plaything, Bad Man’s plaything, Old man’s pepper… The herb is drying and binding, and renowned of old for quickly halting any bleeding when applied to external wounds.Homer recounts that the centaur Chiron taught Achilles to use yarrow on the Trojan battlefield when staunching wounds, hence the name of the genus, Achillea; its specific name, millefolium, is derived from the many segments of its foliage.

To provoke a nosebleed, one might inhale a pinch of powdered yarrow or push a rolled up yarrow leaf into the nostrils. A poultice of yarrow applied to the neck or temples could stop a nosebleed. As a wash, it was used to stop bleeding from piles, but as a drink it would help their pain. A cataplasm treated cold fits, sores and bruises. Yarrow was also used for toothache and internal bleeding (including excessive menstrual flow), either as a tea or by chewing the leaves.

Yarrow’s many uses were attested by an army of ancient and medieval medical authors, as well as by renowned early modern physicians and naturalists — Girolamo Fracastoro, Konrad Gesner and Leonardo Fioravanti. In his Considerations touching the Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy (1663), Robert Boyle discussed the different effects of substances “inwardly given or outwardly applied”:

And Mille-folium or Yarrow, besides the vertues it hath inwardly against diseases of quite other natures, being worn in a little bag upon the tip of the stomack, was the secret against agues of a great Lord, who was very curious of receipts and would sometimes purchase them at very great rates; and a very famous physitian of my acquaintance did since inform me that he had used it with strange success (p. 212).

Other evidence of yarrow’s medical success emerged in 2010, after the analysis of plant DNA in Greek-made pills from a 130 BC shipwreck revealed the presence of yarrow.[2] Recent pharmacological studies of medicinal plants mentioned in Anglo-Saxon medical works also confirmed that yarrow may well have been effective for treating wound and bacterial infections and as a febrifuge[3].

But the most detailed description of the virtues of this herb I have found so far is the one given by the botanist and surgeon John Gerard (1545-1612) in his Herball or Generall historie of plantes (1633). The Cambridge Library’s copy contains a funny anecdotal note on Cambridge student life:

The leaues of Yarrow doe close vp wounds, and keepe them from inflammation, or fiery swelling. It stancheth bloud in any part of the body, and it is likewise put into bathes for women to sit in. It stoppeth the laske, and being drunke it helpeth the bloudy fluxe. Most men say that the leaues chewed, and especially greene, are a remedy for the tooth-ache. The leaues being put into the nose do cause it to bleed, and ease the paine of the megrim. It cureth the inward excorations of the yard of a man, comming by reason of pollutions or extreme flowing of the seed (…) the juice be injected with a syringe, or the decoction. This hath been prooued by a certain friend of mine, sometimes a Fellow of Kings Colledge in Cambridge, who lightly brused the leaues of common Yarrow, with Hogs-grease, and applied it warme vnto the priuie parts, and thereby did diuers times helpe himselfe, and others of his fellowes, when he was a student and a single man liuing in Cambridge.

I am not sure how and if this advice could be of any use to today’s students. Browsing the many volumes of medical consilia, observationes and curationes of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, I still have not found examples of therapeutically induced nosebleeds in women. After all, cupping, bloodletting and leeching were considered more handy and controllable options of intervention to interfere with a missing or irregular menstrual flow.

But please do let me know if you spot one!

For some cases of vicarious menstruation, see these posts by Helen King (ear hemorrhage), Lisa Smith  (tongue ulcer) and Sarah Read (leg ulcer). For a case of a menstruating man, see Lisa Smith’s post on “Manly Menstruation?“.

[1] V.S. Skultans, Research Note. Vicarious Menstruation, Social Science and Medicine, 21.6 (1985), 713-14.

[3] F. Watkins et al., Anglo-Saxon pharmacopoeia revisited: a potential treasure in drug discovery, Drug Discovery Today, 16. 23–24 (2011), 1069-75.

Gender Testing in Antiquity

By Laurence Totelin

In my last post for this blog, I examined the role of rennet (in particular, seal’s rennet) in Greek and Roman medicine. As it often happens in research – or at least in mine – once I start looking into something, I can’t stop finding related texts. So over the last two months I have stumbled across quite a few recipes with rennet and/or with seal products. The following recipe caught my attention and gave me some ideas for today’s post. It comes from the Cesti, a collection of recipes and precepts, compiled by a certain Julius Africanus in the third century CE. This collection is not preserved in full, but fortunately there is an excellent recent edition with English translation of the extant fragments.[1] The fragment that interests us explains how to produce male and female horses:

A hare, from the 15th century Dialogus creaturarum, by Nicolaus, Pergamenus
A hare, from the 15th century Dialogus creaturarum, by Nicolaus, Pergamenus

But a male [horse] will be born according to technique if one smears the genitalia of the male horse with hare’s blood and rennet {which is curdled milk extracted from the stomach of a new-born hare}. But a female will be born if one smears the private parts of the female horse with goose fat together with terebinth resin for three days in succession, and positions it for impregnation by the male horse

(Cesti F28. Translation: William Adler).

In ancient theories of reproduction, male semen was thought to act as rennet in cheese making: it coagulated the blood in the female womb. It therefore made sense to choose that ingredient in order to produce a male horse. Using hare’s rennet added to the potency of the recipe, as hares are particularly fertile.

I don’t have such a good explanation for the use of oily and fatty ingredients to produce a female horse: maybe these were chosen because females were considered to be fatter, spongier than males. Gender selection was not, however, limited to horse breeding. In human reproduction too males were preferred. This is plainly clear from, among other things, gender determination tests preserved in one of the Hippocratic treatises, Barren Women (chapter 216):

Those pregnant women who have freckles on their face will give birth to a girl. Those who keep a beautiful complexion, more often than not, will give birth to a boy. If her nipples are turned upwards, she will give birth to a boy; if downwards, to a girl.

These tests simply reflect the stereotypes of the day, whereby a baby girl is less desirable, and will therefore make her pregnant mother look less desirable, with her freckles and drooping breasts. I had never paid much attention to the following tests, but they are probably even richer in meaning:

Take some of [the woman’s?] milk, knead it with flour and shape into a little loaf. Heat it up on a low heat. If it burns, she will give birth to a boy. If it opens up, she will give birth to a girl. Collect some of the same milk on leafs and expose it to the heat. If it coagulates, she will give birth to a boy; if it spreads, a girl.

These recipes draw upon the association between the womb and an oven – the ‘bun in the oven’ metaphor. When exposed to the oven/womb heat, everything that is male (and by nature hotter and more compact) will coagulate and heat up further; everything that is female (and by nature cooler and more liquid) will liquefy further. The ‘female loaf’ will also gape like a mouth (the literal translation of the verb ‘diachanēi), probably evoking the female sexual organs.

Would a family have taken action when such test indicated they were expecting a girl? It is impossible to tell. It is worth noting, however, that a pregnant woman usually only starts producing milk that can be expressed towards the end of her pregnancy, unless she is feeding an older child already. If it is indeed the milk of the pregnant woman that is needed in these recipes, the tests could only have been carried out late in the pregnancy. Any intervention at that stage would have been extremely risky.

[1] M. Wallraff, C. Scardino, L. Mecella, C. Gillar and W. Adler (2012), Iulius Africanus: Cesti. The Extant Fragments, Berlin: De Gruyter.

Dipping Into Ink

By Carrie Griffin

I’ve recently been doing some work on late-medieval recipes that are connected to the production of the material text. I became interested in these short but absorbing instructions while writing a book on practical and instructional writing, in which I have included a chapter on recipes and instructions for ink-making, parchment-making, colour mixing, glue making and so on.[1] I was initially drawn to them because I noticed that a very technical word that is associated with such matters – “glair” – occurs in the Middle English dream-vision poem Pearl (l. 1026). It refers to the white of an egg when it is used as a binding medium for colours in manuscript illumination and decoration.[2] I wondered whether even an educated audience would have appreciated the meaning of this technical word, a term relating to the world of material book-production.

These compelling shorter texts are fantastic gateways into thinking about how the different layers of the construction of a book or document were imagined, as well as how the operated practically. It is important to consider how frequently book and documentary production happened, in the period from c. 1400, outside of the professional contexts of the guildhall and copy-shops like the London establishment run by the scribe and publisher John Shirley. In other words, these recipes facilitate home book production; their proliferation in English (and in other European vernaculars) from the beginning of the fifteenth-century point to more widespread interest in, if not actual instances of, domestic book-making and to the domestic construction of the materials needed to make up a booklet or book.

These recipes circulate in collections that are concerned with more than one aspect of the materials that are used to write, decorate and illustrate, but they can also occur in isolation–copied into blank spaces or on flyleaves–or sometimes in groups of two or three. One collection that I have examined in Oxford, Bodleian Library (MS Douce 54, ff. 21v–31v) preserves approximately forty recipes for dyeing leather, making coloured water, preparing parchment, limning and writing on metal. The collection is introduced with the rubric: “Dowtles here may ye se al the thynges that longyth to a wryter yn al degreys”. One of the instructions offers a method to make a reddish ink that can be used to rule parchment or paper in preparation to write (in part modernised by me):

To make a good colour to rule with: take brazil & shave it well & small into a shell, & put therto new-made glair, & temper it some, & let it stand half a day. & take a little alum, but beware that thou put not over much […]. & [thou] can write therwith & it shall be good.

The recipe calls for brazil, or the reddish dye obtained from brazilwood, to be shaved mixed in a shell with glair. After half a day or so alum is added. The result is probably a dull reddish-brown colour that will be familiar to us from the sometimes clumsily-ruled folios of manuscripts from the later periods.


The overwhelming sense that one gets from these recipes is that the substances used to make them were either made in household kitchens or could be obtained with relative ease.

Another fascinating instruction from the book of Robert Reynes of Acle (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Tanner 407) is one of perhaps ten recipes that tell the reader how to make red, blue, yellow, black and green inks, glue specifically “for bokys”, and other substances. It’s a good example of the extent to which time had to be measured in accurate ways in order for the substance to come together properly. Part of this instruction “For to make black ink” recommends the recitation of a psalm. It asks that the ingredients be gathered together and, once this is done, the ink-maker must “set them over the fire and let them stew the space of this psalm saying, miserere me Deus” (Psalm 51). The recitation of the psalm of course allows for the measurement time but it may also have had implications for the quality of the ink that was produced!

Other recipes of this nature that I have come across from this period confirm my sense that they are intended for interested and practiced readers, thus occupying an interesting space in documentary and bibliographical history. One instruction that I have examined for parchment-making asks that the reader deploy a “a fleshing knife, as these parchmenters use”, suggesting that there is distance between professionals and the readership of the recipe.[3]

The proliferation of these short texts in the commonplace books of the sixteenth century (Reynes, John Colyns, Humphrey Newton and others) suggests that they served a particular domestic function. More widely, as is the case with many recipes from the late-medieval and early modern periods, they are important gap-fillers, allowing us to illuminate aspects of quotidian attitudes and practices that are not always accessible or fully recoverable. And they widen our perspective about scribal culture in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, asking us to imagine a scribe engaged not just in copying but also in making his own materials.

I am happy to say that work on these fascinating texts is set to continue:  Michael Johnston of Purdue University and I plan to begin more sustained work on ink and related recipes – starting with the compilation of a handlist – in the near future.


[1] Instruction and Information from Manuscript to Print for Ashgate’s Material Reading in Early Modern Culture series (2014). See also Instruction and Information from Manuscript to Print: Some English Literature, 1400–1650, The Literature Compass 10.9 (2013): 667–66. URL:

[2] “The wal of jasper that glent as glayre”; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. A. C. Cawley (London: Dent, 1962), pp. 3–47.

[3] This instruction occurs in Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.14.45, p. 101.

Recipes for the Dogs in the Eighteenth Century

By Lisa Smith

John Glaisyer a Quaker anointing a dog with burning vitriol. By Charles Williams, 1806. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
John Glaisyer a Quaker anointing a dog with burning vitriol. By Charles Williams, 1806. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Dog-owners: ever wonder about the care of your faithful companions in times past? You’ll be glad to know that animal health recipes regularly appeared in early modern recipe books. Animal husbandry books, such as Henry Bracken’s Farriery Improved (reprinted several times from 1737 to 1792), are another useful source, as I recently discovered while on a dog blogging kick at Wonders and Marvels.* Animal health was considered to be very similar to human health: a matter of imbalanced humours, but in a coarser body. Remedies for dogs hint at the early modern understanding of dog physiology, as well as the canine ‘lived experience’ of common ailments and treatments.

Dogs were considered to have a naturally hot temperament. In the first volume of the 1789 edition, Bracken noted that dogs lack porous skins and the ability to sweat. If the weather was hot or the dog had much exercise, their “circulating fluids” would be heated by the bodily motions and come out of their mouths instead of through their skin. This had dramatic consequences, “insomuch that their very Breath appears like thick smoke”. I can’t help but wonder what manner of dogs Bracken had seen!

The canine hot temperament predisposed dogs to hot diseases. Bracken reported that dogs often contracted venereal disease through over-heating themselves carnally. Fortunately, the canine body was self-cleansing and would purge the problem through frequent urination (1789). A dog’s most useful trick…

The 1790 edition had several remedies for rabies—something seen as a form of poisoning, like venereal disease or snake-bite. Although rabies was a major concern for humans and livestock, dogs were seen as the primary source. Bracken cautioned that not all madness in dogs was caused by rabies, but might be from a worm that came out in hot weather. The white worm, found underneath the tongue, could be easily removed with a large needle.

Bracken provided remedies for other common canine complaints: mange, soft feet, bleeding, convulsions, poison, megrim [migraine], filmy eyes, ticks, lice and fleas, and sore ears (pp. 128-133). Such ailments reflect the daily life of hunting dogs. They pursued their prey through bushes, where dangers such as snakes and ticks lurked. Cuts, bleeding and wounds were common in dogs, caused when they“stake themselves by brushing through the hedges”. Greyhounds, setters and pointers tended to have paws too soft to scrabble over long distances. A simple treatment to toughen the paws entailed washing them in alum water, then an hour later, in warm beer and butter. These were working dogs; however well-treated, they had occupational hazards.

A barber-surgeon for dogs in Paris. Drawing by L. Choquet.19th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
A barber-surgeon for dogs in Paris. Drawing by L. Choquet.19th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Not all ailments came from work, such as convulsions, megrims or cloudy eyes. The presence of remedies for these problems suggests the emotional and financial value of dogs. Inconvenient chronic problems were tolerated and treated. During a convulsion, the intervention was a matter of common-sense: cool off the dog by dipping its snout into cold water, then give it lots to drink. Other remedies were similar to human ones. For example, the solution for megrims (identifiable by the dog staggering) was to bleed the dog at the base of the tail. In humans, bleeding at the foot would serve to draw the blood away from the head. The eye remedy revealed the care that might be taken with elderly animals. Five or six times, the carer was to dip a fine linen cloth into vitriol and spring water, squeeze it, and “gently” wash the dog’s eyes. This should be done twice a day.

The recipes suggest some of the physical effects of the treatments. The remedy for mange included washing the dog in a liquour of boiled urine and tobacco stalks, followed by a daily breakfast of fresh butter and flour of brimstone. Bracken stressed that the dog would die if it licked itself. A treatment for “deep holes” reveals how carers kept dogs from worrying at wounds before the invention of the head cone. First, the wound needed to be tented with linen dipped in fresh, warmed butter. This should be changed daily and washed with milk. In between changes, it was important to tightly bandage the tent over the wound to keep the dog from pulling it off.

Other remedies were just painful. For bruised joints, the dog needed to be muzzled, presumably to prevent biting, during the application of oil of spike and oil of swallows. When putting oil of turpentine on a fresh wound, the dog’s mouth should be secured as the oil would give a “violent smart” for a moment. Treatments for humans were also often painful, but those patients were less likely to bite.

Small wonder modern dogs dread going to the vet. They’ve probably evolved to avoid our medical care.

* For my other posts on the history of dogs, science and medicine, please see: The Art of Beagling in the Eighteenth Century , Buffon and the Beagle and The Sex Life of Dogs in the Eighteenth Century.