The Seeds of Narcosis in Medieval Medicine

The Seeds of Narcosis in Medieval Medicine: The prehistory of anaesthesia in practice?

By Brian Moffat

History of Anaesthesia Society Proceedings, Vol.22 (1998)

Introduction: This paper concerns the recovery, analysis and interpretation of seed caches from the Soutra medieval hospital, situated 17 miles south-east of Edinburgh (Figure 1). Soutra was an important hospital similar in type to that illustrated in Figure 2, and documented as functioning from the 12th to the 17th century, taking care of the sick, the infirm, the poor and the aged, travellers and pilgrims. The Soutra excavation area, on the Anglo-Scottish Via Regia (Royal Road), is shown in Figure 3.

At Soutra, all archaeologcal deposits are screened for the presence of blood, lead (fluid waste belng tainted by passing through lead plumbing) and specific plants known to have been used for medicinal purposes. When these are demonstrated, we infer we are deallng with ‘medical waste’ and exammation and analysis intensifies. According to medieval medlcal manuals including the widely-used De Virihus Herbarum – Concerning the Powers of Herbs, attributed to Macer maceration was a common method of pharmaceutical preparation. It is the consequence of maceration that seed-mixes are discarded as spent; should they be macerated together and remain posl facto together, the precise recipe will be indicated. The unique method of painstaking recovery which we report here leads to the study of actual archaeo-medical practice.

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