Doctors giving medicine.

Medieval Medical Books Could Hold the Recipe for New Antibiotics

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Further research may show that some medieval medicines were more than placebos or palliative aids, but actual “ancientbiotics” used long before the modern science of infection control. This idea underlies our current study on the medieval medical text, “Lylye of Medicynes.”

Middle-English leech-book, containing medical receipts, including some charms; a Latin-English Glossary of herbs; short tracts on urines, the cure of wounds, uses of herbs, etc

Middle-English leech-book, containing medical receipts, including some charms; a Latin-English Glossary of herbs; short tracts on urines, the cure of wounds, uses of herbs, etc. (Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0 )

A Medieval Medicines Database

The “Lylye of Medicynes” is a 15th-century Middle English translation of the Latin “Lilium medicinae,” first completed in 1305. It is a translation of the major work of a significant medieval physician, Bernard of Gordon . His “Lilium medicinae” was translated and printed continuously over many centuries, until at least the late 17th century.

The text contains a wealth of medical recipes. In the Middle English translation, there are 360 recipes – clearly indicated with Rx in the text – and many thousands more ingredient names.

As a doctoral student, I prepared the first-ever edition of the “Lylye of Medicynes” and compared the recipes against four extant Latin copies of the “Lilium medicinae.” This involved faithfully copying the Middle English text from the medieval manuscript, then editing that text for a modern reader, such as adding modern punctuation and correcting scribal errors. The “Lylye of Medicynes” is 245 folios, which equates to 600 pages of word-processed text.

Page from the Lilium medicinae.

Page from the Lilium medicinae. ( Luna Imaging )

I loaded the Middle English names of ingredients into a database, along with translations into modern equivalents, juxtaposed with relationships to recipe and disease. It is very time-consuming to format medieval data for processing with modern technologies. It also takes time to translate medieval medical ingredients into modern equivalents, due in part to multiple synonyms as well as variations in modern scientific nomenclature for plants. This information has to be verified across many sources.

With our database, we aim to find combinations of ingredients that occur repeatedly and are specifically used to treat infectious diseases. To achieve this, we are employing some common tools of data science, such as network analysis , a mathematical method to examine the relationships between entries. Our team will then examine how these patterns may help us to use medieval texts as inspiration for lab tests of candidate “ancientbiotic” recipes.

Word cloud from the Lylye of Medicynes

Word cloud from the Lylye of Medicynes. Erin Connelly

In March, we tested a small portion of the database to ensure that the method we developed was appropriate for this data set. At present, the database contains only the 360 recipes indicated with Rx. Now that the proof-of-concept stage is complete, I will expand the database to contain other ingredients which are clearly in recipe format, but may not be marked with Rx.

We are specifically interested in recipes associated with recognizable signs of infection. With Bald’s eyesalve, the combination of ingredients proved to be crucial. By examining the strength of ingredient relationships, we hope to find out whether medieval medical recipes are driven by certain combinations of antimicrobial ingredients.

The database could direct us to new recipes to test in the lab in our search for novel antibiotics, as well as inform new research into the antimicrobial agents contained in these ingredients on the molecular level. It could also deepen our understanding of how medieval practitioners “designed” recipes. Our research is in the beginning stages, but it holds exciting potential for the future.

Top Image: Doctors giving medicine. Source: The Knight with the Lion

The article ‘ Medieval Medical Books Could Hold the Recipe for New Antibiotics by Erin Connelly  was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.

Comments

Most interesting article. Has anyone done something similar with ancient Chinese, Indian or Native American medicines?

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