Tag Archives: sleep

‘Dwale’: A Medieval Sleeping Drug in a Seventeenth-Century Receipt Book

Elizabeth K. Hunter

As part of my research into early modern sleep disorders, I have been examining the wide variety of sleep remedies available in England at the time.  Browsing through the manuscript receipt collections at the Wellcome Library in London, I came across one with this unsettling title:

To make a drinke to cause a man to sleepe till hee bee ript

Take 3 spoonfull of the gall of a barrow swine and for a woman of a gelt swine and 3 spoonefull of hemlocke the iuyce and 3 spoonefull of henbane and 3 spoonefull of the wilde nep [bryony] and 3 spoonefull of lettice and 3 spoonefull of popy and 3 spoonefull of eysell [vinegar] and medle them all together and boyle them a little and cloe them in a glasse well stoped and put therein 3 spoonefull to a pottle [half a gallon] of good wine and medle it well together till it bee used and lett him that shalbe cut sitt against a good fire and make him to drinke thereof untill hee bee asleepe and then mayst thou surely carve him and when thou sure hast donne thy cure and wouldest haue him to awake take vinegar and salt and wash his temples therewith and his wound and hee shall awake imeadiately. [Wellcome MS 373, fo. 99r-v]

Figure 1. A patient about to undergo a surgical operation, early 1700s. A man approaches with a cup containing a fortifying or anaesthetic drink. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

Rather different from the milk thistle possets and linen-wrapped compresses of rose water and poppy seeds I was used to, this was clearly not a remedy for sleeplessness, but a powerful drug intended to ‘knock’ a patient out who was about to undergo surgery.  It was written down by a woman called Jane Jackson in a book of recipes for physic and surgery she compiled in 1642.

Although the name of the drug does not appear anywhere in the source, upon further investigation I discovered that this is dwale, a recipe that had been in circulation in England since the twelfth century.  The Middle English word dwale (pronounced dwahluh), is derived from Old Norse dwol, dvalar, dvali meaning ‘sleep’ or trance’.  Well known in the medieval period, it is mentioned in famous works of literature, such as The Canterbury Tales and the fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman.

Dwale was still known about in England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, as can be seen from publications from the time.  Thomas Lupton included it in his book of secrets A Thousand Notable Things (1579) – ‘This I had also out of an olde wrytten booke’, he wrote.[1]  More suggestive of use in actual practice is Thomas Bonham’s inclusion of it in his collection of recipes for surgeons, published in 1630, where the ingredients are in Latin.[2]  It is likely that Jane Jackson copied it down from a similar publication.

Figure 2. Illustration of four poisonous plants – (clockwise from top left) hemlock, henbane, autumn crocus and wild lettuce. All except crocus were ingredients in English sleep medicine. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

What is striking about dwale is the potentially deadly mixture of poisonous plants with gall and wine.  It is based on ingredients associated with sleep since ancient times – henbane, wild lettuce and the white opium poppy.[3]  The anaesthetist Anthony J. Carter has hypothesised that, at one point, it may also have contained another ‘sleepy’ herb, mandrake.  At some point Bryony, a plant native to England that bears some resemblance to mandrake, has been substituted.[4]


While wild lettuce and white poppy were sometimes included in bed-time drinks and possets, henbane and mandrake were considered highly dangerous, and it is very rare to find a sleep recipe that recommends using them in anything other than topical medicine.  Jackson’s version of the recipe also contains the poison hemlock, and Linda Voigts and Robert Hudson found a number of fifteenth-century recipes for dwale that included the even more lethal plant morel (deadly nightshade).[5]  All these plants were considered useful in sleep medicine because they were believed to cool the humours, reducing the temperature in the brain.  Used excessively, however, they could be too effective, causing the body to fall into a lethargy from which the patient would never recover.

The inclusion of dwale in seventeenth-century sources demonstrates the continuity between medieval and early modern sleep medicine, and provides further evidence of the use of poisons in surgical anaesthetics around the world.  We will never know whether Jane Jackson ever attempted to use it to help a patient undergoing surgery, but her interest in copying it down is an indication of the ambitious nature of domestic medicine in relation to surgery (as has been written about by Seth LeJacq).  It is also further evidence of the importance of knowledge of handling poisons in early modern medicine, as discussed on this blog (here and here).  This was particularly important in sleep medicine, in which the ‘coldness’ of the traditional ingredients could be fatal.


If you would like to read more about the use of poisons in early modern sleep medicine, see my article “To Cause Sleepe Safe and Shure”  published in Social History of Medicine.


This research was funded by a Wellcome Trust Medical Humanities Award “Midnight Vapours: Sleep Disorders in Early Modern England, 1550-1700” [Grant No. 109069/Z/15/Z]

[1] Thomas Lupton, A Thousand Notable Things, of Sundry Sortes (London, 1579), p. 79.

[2] Thomas Bonham, A Chyrugians Closet (London, 1630), pp. 244-245.

[3] Ioanna A. Ramoutsaki, Helen Askitopoulou, Eleni Konsolaki, ‘Pain Relief and Sedation in Roman and Byzantine Texts: Mandragoras Officinarum, Hyoscyamos Niger and Atropa Belladona,’ International Congress Series: The History of Anesthesia, 1242 (2002), 43-50.

[4] Anthony J. Carter, ‘Dwale: An Anaesthetic from Old England,’ British Medical Journal, 319 (1999), 1623-1626, at p. 1624.

[5] Linda E. Voigts and Robert P. Hudson, ‘A Drynke Ϸat Men Callen Dwale to Make a Man to Slepe Whyle Men Keerven Hem: A Surgical Anesthetic from Late Medieval England,’ in Sheila Campbell and David Klausner (eds), Health, Disease and Healing in Medieval Culture (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1992), pp. 34-56.

The Disappearance of Charms from a Fifteenth-Century Notebook

By Laura Mitchell

Snake amulet, N. London, c. 1870-1916. To treat back pain. Image Credit: Wellcome Collections, London.
Snake amulet, N. London, c. 1870-1916. To treat back pain. Image Credit: Wellcome Collections, London.

Studying medieval charms can bring to light a lot of intriguing social practices and help us to understand what sorts of everyday worries occupied the mind of a medieval person. It can also be an exercise in frustration at the limitations of our information. The Trinity College Library MS O.1.57 manuscript (Cambridge) offers just one such case. This household notebook was originally copied and owned by the Haldenby family and members of their household compiled in the first half of the fifteenth century.[1]

The manuscript contains texts that range from medical recipes to physiognomy to gunpowder recipes. The Haldenby family was part of the lower gentry of fifteenth-century Northamptonshire and the book reflects a significant sub-section of the gentry who, along with members of the secular clergy, were interested in medical and scientific texts.

The Haldenby family and its household also seems to have had an interest in magical or quasi-magical texts, including the Serpentium corius, a group of magical and non-magical experiments using snakeskin, texts on the virtues of plants and animals, which include a number of items of natural magic, and an ad hoc book of secrets containing charms and magic tricks in their notebook, as well as the charms. The charms themselves are nothing extraordinary as far as fifteenth sensibilities go: a charm against fire, three medical charms, a charm to catch a thief, and a love charm (discussed in a previous entry).

Of particular interest to me for this post are three of charms scattered throughout the manuscript: charms for a sore, for sleep, and to catch a thief. All three were originally labelled as charms, but at some point in their history these titles were partially or completely erased by carefully scraping them off.[2] Now these headings are only visible under UV light!

The charm for a sore began with the heading “<A charme> for þo felun” and the sleep charm ended with “Þis is <a charme> for a man þat may not slepe.” The charm to catch a thief originally had an elaborate heading below the charm that consisted of a face and scroll that read “Carmen pro fures” [Charm for thieves], although the heading, like those for the medical charms. In addition to being erased, the thief charm was also partially covered by a later pen drawing, making it especially difficult to see even under under UV light.

Complete erasures of objectionable texts often occurred, as in the Arundel MS 342 (British Library), in which instructions for conjuring spirits has been partly erased.[3] The Sloane MS 513 (British Library) also suffers from an admittedly shoddy attempt at censure of its copy of the Ars notaria. These cases, at least, were more problematic magic rituals.

Examples of two much later French charms (18th century) to hold or to stop snakes. Source: Wellcome MS 4171.  Photograph: Lisa Smith.
Examples of two much later French charms (18th century) to hold or to stop snakes. Source: Wellcome MS 4171. Photograph: Lisa Smith.

However, in TCC O.1.57 there was only a partial erasure. It is impossible to know when these erasures happened: was it in the generation immediately following the original owners? Was it the sixteenth-century owners? The latter seems unlikely given their inclusion of a love charm in the sixteenth century. Moreover, why remove only the title and not the content? This mysterious eraser may have wanted to take advantage of the contents of these charms while publicly denying their true nature.

It seems clear that whoever erased these titles was more concerned about the perceived nature of their book rather than the reality. Indeed, the charm to catch a thief could easily have been cut out entirely without affecting any other text in the book. Less clear is why there was such a concern, since such charms were used throughout the early modern period (as Lisa Smith recently discussed for an eighteenth-century manuscript). Perhaps the owners simply felt particular concern about the respectability of their book at one point in time… It is doubtful that we will ever know.

[1] Genealogical entries regarding the Haldenby and Mortemer families give the manuscript a terminus post quem of 1454.

[2] The other three charms do not have such obvious headings.

[3] Sophie Page includes an image from the Arundel manuscript in Magic in Medieval Manuscripts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 39.