Plants were a vital source of potential cures in the Middle Ages, and the mandrake was considered to be one of the most powerful of these. However, you needed a hungry dog to help you catch one!
The Old English Herbarium, dating from around the 10th century, is a collection of medical remedies based on much earlier works. Surviving in four manuscripts, it offers cures from over 185 plants and herbs, including basil, nettle and coriander. The cures can range from simple ailments like headaches and pimples to dealing with more serious medical issues such as snake bites and broken bones.
One of the most interesting sections of the Old English Herbarium is about the mandrake plant. The root of this plant had an unusual shape – it vaguely resembled a human with two arms and two legs. Moreover, the plant is a highly toxic hallucinogenic. Throughout the Middle Ages the mandrake had a lot of folklore surrounding it, often being depicted as a cross between a plant and human being. It was also considered very valuable for its medicinal use, with medieval works claiming it could cure many types of illnesses.
The Old English Herbarium includes this section on how to obtain a mandrake, which apparently was not a simple process:
This plant called mandrake is large and glorious to see, and it is beneficial. You must gather it in this manner: when you approach the plant, and you will recognize it because it shines at night like a lantern, when you first see its head, mark around it quickly with an iron tool lest it flee from you. Its power is so great and powerful that it wants to flee quickly when an impure person approaches it.
Because of this, you must mark around it with an iron tool, and then you must dig around it, being careful not to touch it with the iron; however you can dig the earth strenuously with an ivory staff. When you see its hands and feet, fasten them. Take the other end and fasten it around a dog’s neck (make sure the dog is hungry). Throw some meat in front of him so that he cannot reach it unless he snatches the plant up with him. About this plant it is said that it has such great power, whatever pulls it up will quickly be deceived in the same way. Because of this, as soon as you see that it has been pulled up, and you have power over it, immediately seize it, twist it, and wring the juice from its leaves into a glass bottle.
The text then offers six cures from using the mandrake:
1. For headache and for sleeplessness, take the juice and smear it on the face, and use the plant in the same way to relieve headache. You will be surprised at how quickly sleep will come.
2. For earache, take the juice of the same plant mixed with oil of spikenard and put it into the ears. You will be surprised at how quickly it cures.
3. For gout, even if it is severe, take three pennies’ weight from either the right and left hand or from either hand of this plant and powder it. Give it to drink in wine for seven days, and the person will be cured; not just that the swelling will go down, but it will also relieve nerve spasms and cure pain, both in a wonderful manner.
4. For insanity, that is for possession by devils, take three pennies’ weight from the body of the mandrake plant and give it to drink as easily as the person is able in warm water. He will be quickly cured.
5. Again, for nerve spasms, take one ounce by weight from the body of this plant and pound it into powder. Mix it with oil and then smear it on whomever has the aforementioned condition.
6. If anyone perceives any grievous evil in the home, take the mandrake plant to the center of the house – as much as one has of it – and it will expel all the evil.
The text of the Old English Herbarium has been translated in Medieval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine, by Anne Van Arsdall (Routledge, 2002).