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]
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. 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. It is likely that Jane Jackson copied it down from a similar publication.
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. 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.
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). 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]
 Thomas Lupton, A Thousand Notable Things, of Sundry Sortes (London, 1579), p. 79.
 Thomas Bonham, A Chyrugians Closet (London, 1630), pp. 244-245.
 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.
 Anthony J. Carter, ‘Dwale: An Anaesthetic from Old England,’ British Medical Journal, 319 (1999), 1623-1626, at p. 1624.
 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.