Revolting Remedies from the Middle Ages. Edited by Professor Daniel Wakelin. Published by the Bodleian Library Oxford.
Under the Dreaming Spires of Oxford – well Oxford University to be precise – a group of students have compiled and transcribed this entertaining selection of remedies from medieval manuscripts in the Bodleian Library Here in their book – Revolting Remedies from the Middle Ages, edited by Professor Daniel Wakelin, the remedies are reproduced with one page in the original Middle English and a translation on the facing page in modern English (1). Make no mistake about it, this little book is a delight, and if it doesn’t raise a chuckle even on the most glummest of days then nothing will. It should be remembered the remedies in the book have been chosen for their sheer wackiness. This places them apart from the numerous other more sensible, mundane remedies that medieval people used, perhaps if they could not afford a doctor, but which in some cases, would have been a better and safer option, with many of the ingredients such as verbena and fennel still used in the herbal supplements used today. However, returning to the book, not all of the remedies included therein were for nasty diseases or debilitating illnesses but cover a wide spectrum of conditions ranging from a Leaky Bottom/For goyng out of the foundement to those who had an annoying abundance of zits – or zitties to be precise – or even unwelcome freckles/frekenes – to those who wished, understandably, to stop dogs barking at them. There was also solutions for those who were uncomfortable with people staring at them such as making yourself disappear. Worryingly a remedy for returning oneself back to visibility was not included. Perhaps the invisibility wore off gradually in its own good time? Great fun but not without its risks.
The students who took part in Professor Wakelin’s course, which teaches people to read manuscripts from the seventh to the sixteenth centuries ‘tested their research skills on these medical manuscripts: the handwriting and the medical terms are a challenge. But having sat in the library pained by this work, they came back cured by laughter at the rude or remarkable remedies they found. They hope, now that they’ve transcribed and translated them, that you will enjoy them too’(2). Well I for one thoroughly enjoyed them and heartily recommend this charming little book. Below is just a sample of the delights therein. For clarity it should be noted the illustrations are not included in the book.
A scribe busy at his work. BL.Royal I 8III, f.24 the British library
For goying out of the foundement/For a Leaky Bottom
Tak henne egges and seth tham in vynegre, and mell it with oyle of lorellmes and sett thin ars theron oft times, till it be hole. Another: Tak poudre of herte horne and cast to thin ars. Another: Tak frankencence and seth it in water, and wesche the sore therwith, and late the breth go vp in to the foundement.
Take hens eggs and boil them in vinegar, and mix it with oil of laurels, and sit your arse in it many times until it’s healed. Another. Take powder of a hart’s horn and put it up your arse. Another take frankincense and boil it in water, and wash the sore with it and let the steam from it go up your bottom.
To save one from sword or gone ore any wepen/To protect yourself from a sword, gun or any other weapon
Write thes words and letters in virgin parchment and carri them aboute you : ff velle tofetis achætum + zadit + tizadit + zadan abi atit + zadne et = æd b + abiat + + + b x in + d + + h + z + o + eliam + l + ff + m + P + v + j. Yf you be in dought of thes, prove it apon a dogge which is all rede.
Write these words and letters on blank parchment and carry them around with you: ff velle tofetis achætum + zadit + tizadit + zadan abi atit + zadne et = æd b + abiat + + + b x in + d + + h + z + o + eliam + l + ff + m + P + v + j. If you doubt this will work test on a dog which is completely red.
This poor gentleman obviously did not have the necessary paperwork with him on the very day he needed it the most….
However in the eventuality that the above did not have the desired effect and one found oneself badly bashed up – although still alive – help was still available:
For a man that is sore ybete/ For a man who’s been painfully beaten
Tak weyhore and boyle it in good feyn ale, and drynk it ferst a morwe and last an evene; and make hym a bed in hot horse dongge, and ley hym therinne.
Take cudweed and boil it in fine ale, and drink it first thing in the morning and last thing at night, and make the patient a bed in a pile of steaming horse dung, and lay him in it.
The remains of one unfortunate who did not survive the horse dung treatment being examined by 21st century archaeologists. With apologies to the Museum of London (MOLA).
For swellynge of ballokys/For swollen bollocks
Take bene mele and vyngre, and tempere hem well togidere and make a plaster thereof, and ley therto, but lete it come a ny no feer, for it mote be colde. And if thu have gret benys, stampe hem and tempere hem with hony, and make a plaster, and ley to the sore al colde. Also take rewe and wermode, stampe hem in a morter, and temper hem togidere with hony, and make a colde plaster, and ley therto.
Take ground beans and vinegar, and blend them well together, and make a plaster from it, and lay it on the swelling, but never let it get close to the fire because it must be cold. And if you have large beans, grind them and blend them with honey, and make a plaster and lay it on the sore all cold. Also, take rue and wormwood, grind them in a mortar and blend them well together and make a cold plaster and lay that on the swelling..
Medieval manuscript illustrations of gentlemen with swollen bits being a slight tad too explicit for this blog, here, instead, is a depiction of a man with earache. Hopefully this will suffice……..
Treatment for earache. Artwork from the late 13th-century French work ‘Li Livres dou Sante’.
For love/For love
Take thi swetyng yn a fayre bason and clene and afterwarde put hyt yn a wytrial of glas, and put therto the shavyng of the nedder party of thy fete and a lytyl of thy oune dong ydryet at the sune, and put therto a more of valurion. And take to drynke, whane that ever ye will, and he schall love the apon the lyght of thyn yene. And thys ys best experiment to gete love of what creature that thou wolt. And Y, Gelberte, have ypreved that ofte tymys, for trewthe.
Catch your sweat in a nice clean basin and afterwards mix it with sulphuric salt, and add to it some shavings from the back of your feet and a little of your own dung dried in the sun, and add a root of the herb valerian. And take a swig whenever you want, and he will love you as soon as he catches your eye. This is the best proven method to win love from whomever you want. And I, Gilbert, have proved this many times in truth
Gibert gets lucky yet again… ‘Tender Embrace’ artist Master of Guillebert de Mets c.1425. Flanders. Walters Art Museum.
Medicine for a man that is costyf/Medicine for a man who is constipated.
Tak and roste oynones, and ley to his navele, ymenged with may botre, and make hym wortes of hockes and stanmarche, percilie of violet; and gyf hym ete therwith sour bred, and drynke smal ale; and gyf hym a subposotorie of a talwe candele in hys fundement. And so use it, for thou be hol.
Take and roast onions, and lay them on his navel, mixed with unsalted butter, and make him a vegetable stew made of mallow plants, horse parsley and parsley of violet, and give them to him to eat with sour bread, and give him light ale to drink, and give him as a suppository a tallow candle up his bottom. And do all this, so that you get better
To mak a man to pyse wele/To make a man piss well.
Take him and set hym in a vat nakyd, and close hym upe to the hede drafe, as it comyth fro the ale, the space of an owre. Than wache hym in hoot water, and brynge hym to bede, tyl he have wel slepte.
Take him, and put him naked in a vat, and cover him up to the head in new dregs that have come from brewing the ale, for an hour long. Then wash him in hot water, and put him to bed until he’s slept well.
Another maner medicyne to make heer to growe/ Another kind of medicine to make hair grow
Take ladanum, and disolve it in puryd hony; and take an herbe that hatte capillus verginis (that is to say mayden heer) and stampe hym in a morter of bras, and hony therwith. And when it is smale inowghe, wryng it thurw a canevas, and put therto the ladanum, and set it on the fyre, and lete it boyle or velme but onys, and set it doun and let it kele. This wil make heere grewe ovyr alle.
Take the resin of the citrus bush and dissolve it in purified honey, and take a herb called capillus virginis (that is Maidenhair fern) and grind it in a mortar made of brass, with honey in it. And when it’s ground down finely enough strain it through canvas, and add the resin and set it on the fire, let it boil or bubble over only once, then take it off the fire and let it cool. This will make hair grow everywhere
Beehives. Tacuinum Sanitatis (14th century)
For the emerawdys/For haemorrhoids
Take botyr and talwghe, bote claryfied, and white oyle and alum icalcit, of all ylyche moche. Sette hem in a panne over a leuke fyre, til they been resolvyd. Than sette it doun and stere it, til it be colde. Anoynte hym that hath the emerawdys wyth this oynement, as far wythine the fundement as thou mayst, and then take a rostid oynoun and, as hoot as he may suffre, bynde it to his fundement. Serve hym thus ofte and he schal be hole.
Take butter and animal fat, both purified, and white oil and a reduction of alum salt, the same amount of each. Set them in a pan over a lukewarm fire, until they’re liquefied. Then take it off the fire and stir it, until it’s cold. Anoint the man who has the haemorrhoids with this ointment, as deep inside his bottom as you can, and then take a roasted onion and, as hot as he can bear, bind it to his bottom. Treat him like this often and he’ll soon get better.
For bledyng at the nose/For a nosebleed.
Yif a man blede at the nose, take and ley his ballokkys in vinegre; and take a clowte and wete it wel in vynegre, and than wete wel the place bytwene his browys and al his forhed. And if it be a woman, take and ley hir brestys in vinegre. And it schall staunche anoone ryght.
If a man is bleeding from his nose, grasp his bollocks and lay them in vinegar, and take a cloth and douse it well in vinegar, and then wet the spot between his eyebrows and all his forehead. And if it’s a woman, grasp her breasts and leave them in vinegar, and the nosebleed will stop right away
I hope you have enjoyed these delightful, if rather earthy, examples of our ancestors remedies for their, sometimes, embarrassing medical problems. As Professor Wakelin points out the remedies also leave us with an insight into the ‘ingenuity and bravery of the men and women of the Middle Ages’ who paved the way for today’s medications and herbal treatments that we sometimes take for granted. Bravo and we salute you!
Two women exchange a remedy. Le Régime de Corps c.1265. British Library MS Sloane 2435
- Daniel Wakelin is the Jeremy Griffiths Professor of Medieval English Palaeography in the Faculty of English, University of Oxford.
- Revolting Remedies from the Middle Ages. p.11. Ed.Prof. Daniel Wakelin. Bodleian Library.
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