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Medieval Cough Medicine

Most people today who are suffering from a cough will usually buy a brand name medicine like Robitussin or Mucinex. In the Middle Ages, those seeking a treatment for a cough would also seek out a physician or a pharmacist. What kind of medicine were they given?

Here are five recipes, dating back to the ninth century, for creating medicine to treat a cough. They come from the writings of Sabur ibn Sahl, who worked as a physician and pharmacist in Iran, gaining enough of a reputation that he was hired by the Abbasid Caliphate and moved to Baghdad. Some of his writings survive, including The Small Dispensatory, which lists over 400 medicines that cover a range of ailments.

This includes several recipes to treat coughing. Typically, Ibn Sahl will explain what a particular medicine is good for, then lists the ingredients and how they should be prepared, and finishes by explaining the final product – either a liquid that one drinks, or as a pill or pastille (a lozenge) to be eaten. Several ingredients are used in more than one recipe, such as liquorice, saffron and sugar, while others could be derived from plants common in the Middle East. It is interesting to note that liquorice is now used as a natural remedy for coughing.  In some cases ibn Sahl also adds bits of information about the weight of the ingredients (a dirham would be the equivalent of just over three grams).

While we don’t encourage you to make use of these recipes to treat your own illness, we do think that it is interesting to show how medieval healers were also trying to treat their patients.

The preparation of the sebesten decoction which is useful against cough, pleurisy, pain in the chest, and pleural

Take appropriate quantities of scraped crushed liquorice roots, sweet soft seedless raisins, dried figs, sebesten, jujubes, and maidenhair; cook this to obtain its water, and drink on its own or together with oils – God willing.

The preparation of a pill for the treatment of cough

Take tragacanth, the oil of plum stones, the peeled seeds of serpent melon, the capsules of the light-coloured poppy, wheat starch, purslane seeds, liquorice rob, saffron, white sugar candy, and candy twenty dirham each. These ingredients are brought together by pounding and straining them, as far as possible, through a cloth of silk, and then by kneading them with fresh water. This is formed into flat pills, and put under the tongue when required.

The preparation of another pill for the treatment of cough

Take the peeled seeds of serpent melon three dirham; liquorice roots eight dirham; pulsane seeds one dirham. These ingredients are brought together by pounding and straining them, as far as possible, through a cloth of silk, and then by kneading them with egg white. This is formed into flat pills, and put under the tongue at night.

Another confection which is useful against moist cough, emphysema, trapped wind, and it astricts the belly

Take white sugar candy four dirham; Oriental frankincense ten dirham; opium three dirham; saffron half a dirham. These ingredients are brought together by pounding and straining them through a cloth of silk, and then by kneading them with combfree honey. This is stored in a vessel, and a potion may be made by using it in a quantity of chickpea.

The preparation of the poppy pastilles which are useful against spitting of blood, fever, cough, and pain in the chest.

Take stalkless red roses and gum-arabic two dirham each; tabasheer and saffron half a dirham of each; liquorice rob, wheat starch, tragacanth, and poppy capsules two dirham each. These ingredients are brought together by pounding and straining. This is formed into pastilles weighing one dirham each, dried, and drunk with wine boiled down to one quarter or the infusion of alhagi for the treatment of hot fever and bloody expectoration, with hyssop-water for the treatment of cough, and with wine boiled down to one third for the treatment of spitting of blood.

The Small Dispensatory, by Sabr ibn Sahl, was translated by Oliver Kahl and published by Brill in 2003. Click here to buy this book from Amazon.com

Top Image: A doctor and his patient, from British Library MS Harley 3140 fol. 39 



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