Thousands of bizarre medieval recipes for treating diseases, including gout, to be digitized

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Curious medieval remedies, including a treatment for gout that involved baking an owl and then grinding it into powder, are being shared online with the public by Cambridge University Library.

Another unusual recipe, also intended to combat gout, instructed readers to stuff a puppy with snails and royal sage and then roast it over a fire, using the rendered fat to make a salve.

Over the next two years, more than 180 medieval manuscripts are to be digitized, cataloged and preserved as part of the Curious Cures project in Cambridge Libraries.

The manuscripts, containing some 8,000 unpublished medicinal recipes, date mostly from the 14th or 15th centuries, with some examples from earlier times, the oldest of which are 1,000 years old.

The treatment with the owl would also have resulted in the bird being covered in salt before its crushed remains were mixed with fat from a boar.

The mixture would then be applied to the sufferer’s body in hopes that it would cure gout.

Another prescription for treating cataracts recommended taking the rabbit’s gallbladder, mixing it with honey, and then applying it to the eye with a quill.

The texts come from the collections of the university library, the Fitzwilliam Museum and a dozen Cambridge colleges.

Curious medieval remedies, including a treatment for gout that involved baking an owl and then grinding it into powder, are being shared online with the public by Cambridge University Library. Above: The recipe with the owl

Another recipe (pictured) for treating cataracts recommended taking the rabbit's gallbladder, mixing it with honey, and then applying it to the eye with a quill

Another recipe (pictured) for treating cataracts recommended taking the rabbit’s gallbladder, mixing it with honey, and then applying it to the eye with a quill

A digitized diagram from Cambridge University Library showing a naked man and the veins that could be opened for bloodletting, which was a common treatment for various diseases at the time

A digitized diagram from Cambridge University Library showing a naked man and the veins that could be opened for bloodletting, which was a common treatment for various diseases at the time

The gout treatment where an OWL was baked

Modern English version

For all gout. Take an owl

and pluck it and open it like you would

eat it and salt it well and put it in it

an earthenware pot and place a tile on it (i.e. over the opening of the pot)

and put in a hot oven

when people put in dough (e.g. to bake bread) and when

they bring it out, see if

The owl is ready to make powder

off or leave it until it is.

Then beat the owl to powder and temper it

with boar fat and ointment

the wound (part of the body) with it (while sitting) by the fire.

Middle English version

For all gout take an oule

and drag it and open it however you want

eat him and salt him well and kill him

a erthen pot and ley a til theron

and put in a hot oven

when men sette in dow and whan

they pull out lok whethir

He is ready to make powder

von and elles leave stonde to him

than to powder and temper it

with boris gres and anoynte

the Sor Bi the Fer

James Freeman, leader of the £500,000 Wellcome-funded project, said: “Despite their complexity, medieval medicinal recipes are very relatable to modern readers.

“Many address complaints that we still have to struggle with today: headaches, toothaches, diarrhea, coughs, body aches.

“They show medieval people trying to manage their health with the knowledge that was available to them at the time – just like us.

“They also evoke the pain and uncertainty of medieval life, before antibiotics, before antiseptics and before pain relief as we would all know it today.

“Other treatments include salting an owl and baking it until it can be ground into a powder, mixing it with boar fat to make an ointment, and rubbing it on the sufferer’s body to cure gout.

“To treat cataracts – described as a ‘mesh in the eye’ – one recipe recommends taking a rabbit’s gallbladder and some honey, mixing the two, and then applying it to the eye with a quill for three nights.”

A team of project catalogers, led by Dr. Freeman provide detailed descriptions of textual content, material properties, origin and provenance, and place the recipes in their material, intellectual and historical context.

The results of the project – high-resolution digital images, detailed descriptions and full-text transcripts – will be freely available online at the Cambridge Digital Library, making the collections accessible to researchers around the world.

“These manuscripts offer brilliant insights into medieval medical culture, and the recipes they contain bring us closer to the interactions between patient and doctor that took place many centuries ago,” said Dr. freeman

“Until now, such texts have been quite difficult for researchers and members of the public to access and analyze.

“A bewildering variety of ingredients—animal, mineral, and vegetable—are mentioned in these recipes.

“There are herbs found in modern gardens and on supermarket shelves – sage, rosemary, thyme, bay leaf, mint – but also common perennials: whaleweed, henbane, citrus and comfrey.

“Medieval physicians also had access to and used a variety of spices in their recipes, such as cumin, pepper, and ginger, and commonly mixed ingredients with beer, white wine, vinegar, or milk.”

Drawings of urine bottles, illustrating the different colors of a patient's urine, with their ailments described in the rondelles above, 15th century

Drawings of urine bottles, illustrating the different colors of a patient’s urine, with their ailments described in the rondelles above, 15th century

The manuscripts, containing some 8,000 unpublished medicinal recipes, date mostly from the 14th or 15th centuries, with some examples from earlier times, the oldest of which are 1,000 years old.  Above: A compilation of medicinal prescriptions displayed in an original 15th-century leather case

The manuscripts, containing some 8,000 unpublished medicinal recipes, date mostly from the 14th or 15th centuries, with some examples from earlier times, the oldest of which are 1,000 years old. Above: A compilation of medicinal prescriptions displayed in an original 15th-century leather case

Drawings of urine bottles, illustrating the different colors of a patient's urine, with the ailments described beside them

Drawings of urine bottles, illustrating the different colors of a patient’s urine, with the ailments described beside them

A 14th-century diagnostic chart linking a patient's age, temperament, seasons, and elements

A 14th-century diagnostic chart linking a patient’s age, temperament, seasons, and elements

The prescription for treating cataracts stated that the treatment was “guaranteed” to cure the condition.

Some of the entries highlight the violence of medieval life, such as how to tell if a skull is broken after being slashed with a weapon, how to stop bleeding, and how to repair broken bones.

“Behind every recipe, however distant, is a human story: experiences of illness and pain, but also a desire to live and be healthy,” said Dr. freeman

“Some of the most moving are those remedies that speak of the hopes or tragic disappointments of medieval people: a recipe ‘to induce a man and woman to have children’, to know whether a pregnant woman is having a boy or a girl carries, and “to rescue a woman from a dead child”.’

For the Cambridge Digital Library see https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/

An anti-sweat recipe included in a compilation of household information

An anti-sweat recipe included in a compilation of household information

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