Anglo-Saxon medicine relied primarily on plant-based remedies, from artichokes simmered in wine to cure smelly armpits to licorice root for soothing pains of the chest, liver, or bladder. Such natural treatments filled the pages of books known as “herbals.” The British Library owns the only extant illustrated Old English herbal, which is about 1,000 years old, and it recently digitized the entire manuscript and uploaded it online for public perusal.
Known as the Cotton MS Vitellius C III, the 10 x 7″ reference is filled with colorful drawings of plants of all kinds, associated with cures for everything from sore loins to fresh wounds to severe gout. Its digitization comes as part of the library’s massive project, organized with the Bibliothèque nationale de France and funded by the Polonsky Foundation, to make available 800 illuminated manuscripts from both European collections by November 2018.
The text to this Old English herbal was previously translated into modern English by Anne Van Arsdall in her book Medieval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine, first published in 2002. That book is itself a translation of another text attributed to a fourth-century writer known as Pseudo-Apuleius — likely a name representing multiple Late Antique authors, as project curator Alison Hudson writes on the British Library’s blog.
“No one knows for sure how this manuscript was used or even where or by whom it was made,” Hudson told Hyperallergic. “Its production has been associated with monastic scriptoria at Canterbury and Winchester, due to its style of decoration and script, but this is by no means certain. Monasteries in those areas functioned both as centers of natural and supernatural healing and also as libraries and centers of learning.”
Numerous writers worked on the herbal through the centuries, and their markings offer clues to its function over time. A 12th-century hand added chapter numbers to the table of contents, suggesting that he or she wanted the manuscript to be used as a reference to research specific plants. More annotations were added up to the 16th century that identify the plants in Latin, Anglo-Norman French, and English, demonstrating the book’s continued use.
The illustrations that adorn more than 100 of the herbal’s pages are captivating on their own. Each accompanies short descriptions of a remedy and how people may prepare it (although these entries may not have actually served as practical guides). Small winged creatures appear above a treatment for spider bites, for example, and a snake and scorpion in battle illustrate a recipe made from dried heliotrope and wine, which was purportedly used to heal a serpent’s bite or a scorpion’s sting. A drawing of a dog accompanies one of a mandrake because those seeking the root were supposed to use a canine to successfully deceive and trap the magical plant.
Animal parts, too, were part of this medical lore, and the herbal features some of these wild remedies. The bile from an ox’s gallbladder apparently served as an antiseptic for wounds, bull testes were used to boost the sex drive, and consuming the womb of a hare was recommended to conceive a male child. All kinds of animal drawings accompany these entries, including species non-native to the British Isles, like a monkey and an elephant — one that looks nothing like your typical pachyderm.
While many of these recipes seem wacky to contemporary readers, researchers estimate that about half of them involve ingredients that are still used in modern medicine, Hudson said. But still, as she warned: “Don’t try any of these at home.”