Just as we do today, people in the medieval period worried about their health and what they might do to ward off sickness, or alleviate symptoms if they did fall ill. Here, historian Toni Mount reveals some of the most unusual remedies commonly used…
Medicines in the medieval period were sometimes homemade, if they weren’t too complicated. Simple medicines consisted of a single ingredient – usually a herb – but if they required numerous ingredients or preparation in advance, they could be purchased from an apothecary, rather like a modern pharmacist.
Although some medical remedies were quite sensible, others were extraordinarily weird. They all now come with a health warning, so it’s probably best not to try these at home…
1) St Paul’s Potion for epilepsy, catalepsy and stomach problems
Supposedly invented by St Paul, this potion was to be drunk. The extensive list of ingredients included liquorice, sage, willow, roses, fennel, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cormorant blood, mandrake, dragon’s blood and three kinds of pepper.
Although this sounds like a real witch’s brew, most of the ingredients do have some medicinal value: liquorice is good for the chest – it was and continues to be used to treat coughs and bronchitis; sage is thought to improve blood flow to the brain and help one’s memory, and willow contains salicylic acid, a component of aspirin. Fennel, cinnamon and ginger are all carminatives (which relieve gas in the intestines), and would relieve a colicky stomach.
Cormorant blood – or that of any other warm-blooded creature – would add iron for anaemia; mandrake, although poisonous, is a good sleeping draught if used in small doses, and, finally, dragon’s blood. This isn’t blood at all, and certainly not from a mythical beast! It is the bright red resin of the tree Dracaena draco – a species native to Morocco, Cape Verde and the Canary Islands. Modern research has shown that it has antiseptic, antibiotic, anti-viral and wound-healing properties, and it is still used in some parts of the world to treat dysentery – but I’m not sure it could have done anything for epileptics or cataleptics.
2) A good medicine for sciatica [pain caused by irritation or compression of the sciatic nerve, which runs from the back of your pelvis, all the way down both legs]
A number of medieval remedies suggested variations of the following: “Take a spoonful of the gall of a red ox and two spoonfuls of water-pepper and four of the patient’s urine, and as much cumin as half a French nut and as much suet as a small nut and break and bruise your cumin.
Then boil these together till they be like gruel then let him lay his haunch bone [hip] against the fire as hot as he may bear it and anoint him with the same ointment for a quarter of an hour or half a quarter, and then clap on a hot cloth folded five or six times and at night lay a hot sheet folded many times to the spot and let him lie still two or three days and he shall not feel pain but be well.”
Perhaps it was the bed rest and heat treatments that did the trick, because I can’t see the ingredients of the ointment doing much good otherwise!