What remedies were available to the medieval sufferer of toothache, gout, fever or trembling hands? How might one aid a man with ‘scalding of thy pintil’ or a weak bladder – or ease the pain of a woman with ‘grinding in the wombe’ or who ‘travaileth of child’?
Curious Cures in Cambridge Libraries – a new two-year project to digitise, catalogue and conserve over 180 medieval manuscripts – has launched at Cambridge University Library. It will focus on manuscripts containing approximately 8,000 unedited medical recipes and will bring together unique and irreplaceable handwritten books from the world-class collections of the University Library, Fitzwilliam Museum and a dozen Cambridge colleges in the 813-year-old university.
The manuscripts include recipe compilations and medical texts, but also scientific, alchemical, legal, literary, liturgical and devotional books, illustrating the many different routes by which medical knowledge of this kind was recorded, shared and transmitted during the medieval period.
There are some rather strange components among the common or garden ingredients – in particular, those deriving from animals. A treatment for gout involved stuffing a puppy with snails and sage royal and roasting him over a fire: the rendered fat was then used to make a salve.
“For all their complexities, medieval medical recipes are very relatable to modern readers,” says Dr James Freeman, who is leading the £500,000 project funded by the Wellcome Trust. “Many address ailments that we still struggle with today: headaches, toothache, diarrhoea, coughs, aching limbs. They show medieval people trying to manage their health with the knowledge that was available to them at the time – just as we do. They are also a reminder of the pain and precarity of medieval life: before antibiotics, before antiseptics and before pain relief as we would know them all today.
“Other treatments include salting an owl and baking it until it can be ground into a powder, mixing it with boar’s grease to make a salve, and rubbing it onto the sufferer’s body to cure gout. To treat cataracts – described as a ‘web in the eye’ – one recipe recommends taking the gall bladder of a hare and some honey, mixing them together and then applying it to the eye with a feather over the course of three nights.”
Most of the manuscripts date to the 14th or 15th centuries, with some examples from earlier centuries, the oldest being 1,000 years old. They include richly illuminated manuscripts, academic treatises with elaborate medical diagrams, and simple pocket-books designed to be carried around and perhaps made by medical practitioners themselves. A substantial number are in centuries-old bindings, with some in need of significant conservation before digitisation can begin.
Cambridge’s collections of medieval medical recipe texts are one of the largest and most significant collections in the United Kingdom. Many are written in Latin, and some are in French, but a substantial proportion are written in Middle English, and illustrate the beginnings of the circulation of medical knowledge in the vernacular language of this country.
A team of project cataloguers, under the supervision of Dr Freeman, will prepare detailed descriptions of the text’s contents, material characteristics, origins and provenance, and place the recipes in their material, intellectual and historical contexts.
The results of the project – high-resolution digital images, detailed descriptions and full-text transcriptions – will be made freely available online on the Cambridge Digital Library, opening up these collections to researchers around the world.
“These manuscripts provide brilliant insights into medieval medical culture, and the recipes they contain bring us close to the interactions between patient and practitioner that took place many centuries ago,” Dr Freeman adds. “Until now, such texts have been quite difficult for researchers and members of the public to access and analyse.
“A bewildering array of ingredients – animal, mineral and vegetable – are mentioned in these recipes. There are herbs that you would find in modern-day gardens and on supermarket shelves – sage, rosemary, thyme, bay, mint – but also common perennial plants: walwort, henbane, betony, and comfrey. Medieval physicians also had access to and used a variety of spices in their formulations, such as cumin, pepper, and ginger, and commonly mixed ingredients with ale, white wine, vinegar or milk.”
As well as day-to-day complaints, these recipe books reveal some of the troubling and grisly ailments that afflicted medieval people: flesh that grows in a man’s eye, virulent ulcers, fistulas and cancers. Some highlight the violence of medieval life: how to determine whether a skull has been fractured after a blow from a weapon, how to staunch bleeding or set broken bones.
“Behind each recipe, however distantly, there lies a human story: experiences of illness and of pain, but also the desire to live and to be healthy,” added Dr Freeman. “Some of the most moving are those that remedies that speak of the hopes or tragic disappointments of medieval people: a recipe ‘for to make a man and woman to get children’, to know whether a pregnant woman carries a boy or a girl, and ‘to deliver a woman of dead child’.”
The project team’s transcriptions will open the manuscripts’ contents to health researchers and historians of medicine, enabling keyword searching, surveys of treatments for specific ailments, or quantitative analyses of particular ingredients or preparatory techniques.
Introducing you to the Ring of Urine this #MondayMorning! This diagram was used to help diagnose illness via the colour of their urine – not too dissimilar to how doctors check for infection today!
— Cambridge University Library (@theUL) August 22, 2022