September 26, 2022

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While nowadays you might have some chicken soup to fight a cold, a new project unearthing manuscripts up to 1000 years old reveals the bizarre medical remedies recommended by those in the medieval era.

The violence of medieval society is detailed in the recipes, from gruesome animal-derived treatments to advice on how to set broken bones or determine whether a skull has been fractured.

The UK’s Cambridge University Library has launched the two-year project to digitise, catalogue and conserve the more than 180 medieval manuscripts containing approximately 8000 unedited, handwritten medical recipes.

Zodiac Man: a diagram illustrating which signs of the Zodiac governed which parts of the body. Cambridge University in the UK is digitising medieval medical manuscripts. (Cambridge University Library)

Most of the manuscripts date to the 14th or 15th centuries, with the oldest being 1000 years old. Some are simple pocketbooks designed to be carried around and could have been made by medical practitioners themselves, according to a news release from the University of Cambridge Wednesday.

The recipes typically comprise of a short series of simple instructions, similar to a modern-day prescription or cookery book.

In the texts, there are common ingredients that we are familiar with today, including herbs like sage, rosemary, thyme and mint, as well as spices such as cumin, pepper and ginger.

This is a remedy for the “sweating sickness”, a seasonal disease that killed many in the Middle Ages. (Cambridge University Library)

However, there are also some questionable ones, particularly those deriving from animals.

Suffering from gout? One medieval treatment involved stuffing a puppy with snails and sage and roasting the animal over a fire. The rendered fat was then used to make an ointment.

An alternative recipe proposed salting an owl and baking it until it could be ground into a powder and mixed with boar’s grease to make an ointment to rub onto the sufferer’s body.

What about cataracts? One recipe suggested mixing a hare’s gall bladder with honey and applying it to the eye with a feather. This was a three-night course of treatment.

“These recipes are a reminder of the pain and precarity of medieval life: Before antibiotics, before antiseptics and before analgesics as we would know them all today,” said James Freeman, a medieval manuscripts specialist at Cambridge University Library who is leading the Curious Cures project.

“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.

“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 a dead child.'”

The colours of a person’s urine could reveal their ailments, according medieval physicians. (The Master and Fellows of Trinity College)

Flesh that grows in a man’s eye, virulent ulcers and cancers are just some of the troubling ailments revealed in the recipe books that affected medieval people.

The digital images of the manuscripts, together with detailed descriptions and transcriptions produced by the project catalogers, will be published and made freely available for anyone to access on the Cambridge Digital Library, said Freeman.

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“The aim is to help both researchers and the public understand, study and value these unique and irreplaceable artefacts,” he added.

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