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Medieval medicine manuscript with drawings of urine flasks, illustrating the different colors of a patient's urine, with their ailments described alongside, 15th century. Source: © University of Cambridge

Curious Cures: Cambridge to Publish Astonishing Medieval Medical Manuscripts

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The Cambridge University Library has just launched an ambitious new initiative that will result in the public release of an extensive collection of manuscripts from medieval times. The Curious Cures in Cambridge Libraries project is scheduled to continue for two years, and will involve the cataloguing and digitalization of more than 180 medieval medical manuscripts that will be uploaded and made available to scholars and members of the public through the university’s online collection.

Written in French, Latin, and Middle English, these 800-year-old-plus texts contain a wealth of information about medical practices in the Middle Ages . This includes more than 8,000 recipes for medical remedies , which could supposedly cure or alleviate the symptoms of a host of common and not-so-common conditions, syndromes, and diseases diagnosed in people living in the medieval United Kingdom.

Some of these remedies sound reasonable even today. They include plant ingredients that are known to have health-restoring effects. But many of the cures are bizarre and suggest a lack of knowledge about how medical conditions actually developed and progressed.

Drawing of a figure, probably intended to be Guy de Chauliac, author of the surgical treatise 'Cyrurgie' (©University of Cambridge)

Drawing of a figure, probably intended to be Guy de Chauliac, author of the surgical treatise 'Cyrurgie' (©University of Cambridge )

Curious and Questionable Components

Many of the medical recipes scheduled to be transferred to digital form include what project participants describe in a Cambridge University Library press release as “curious or questionable components, in particular those deriving from animals.”

What are those curious components ? Some that are mentioned included substances such as dove feces, eel grease, and fox lungs. One treatment for gout suggests the reader kill a puppy and stuff it with snails and sage, before roasting it over a fire to make rendered fat that can be used as a salve. Still another treatment for gout encourages the sufferer to salt a dead owl and then bake it in an oven until it is so done that it can be ground up into powder. This owl powder would then be mixed with pig’s lard to make another form of healing salve. For those who develop cataracts, another manuscript suggests mixing the chopped-up gall bladder of a hare with honey, and then painting that substance directly on the eye with a feather for three straight nights.

Medical practice in medieval times was known as leechcraft. This reference to bloodsucking water creatures that were frequently applied to the body of ill people to “suck out” toxins highlights the unusual nature of medieval beliefs about disease and healing. A wide range of exotic mixtures were prescribed for various ailments, based on a particular leechcraft practitioner’s ideas about how what healing qualities the specific ingredients possessed.

Diagram of the human body, showing the veins to be opened for bloodletting, 16th century. (©University of Cambridge)

Diagram of the human body, showing the veins to be opened for bloodletting, 16th century. ( ©University of Cambridge )

Presumably medical research at the time included at least some trial-and-error experiments. But the odd and unlikely nature of some of the remedies suggests the results of those experiments may have been ignored on quite a few occasions.

Providing Hope for Human Suffering

The types of cures recommended by medieval medical practitioners seem strange to modern sensibilities. In some cases they might even sound dangerous, or as offering clear evidence of quackery.

But it must be remembered that medieval versions of doctors didn’t have access to the sophisticated medicines and precise diagnostic technology that physicians take for granted in the 21st century. They were trying their best to help people under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, and that may have motivated them to think creatively.

“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 Cambridge University Library manuscript specialist Dr. James Freeman, who is supervising the digitalization project. While some of the illnesses and ailments referenced in the medieval documents are familiar to modern readers, the manuscripts also mention horrific diseases and injuries that are not experienced so frequently (if at all) today.

“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,” Dr. Freeman stated. He believes modern scholars and students will be especially touched when they discover “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’.”

A 14th-century compilation of medical texts in a 16th-century binding of blind-tooled leather over wooden boards. (©University of Cambridge)

A 14th-century compilation of medical texts in a 16th-century binding of blind-tooled leather over wooden boards. ( ©University of Cambridge )

A Medieval Treasure House Opening to the Public

Cambridge’s collection of medieval medical recipes and cures is one of the largest and most detailed found anywhere in the United Kingdom. The manuscripts that contain the 8,000-plus recipes are currently bound in thick handwritten books of great antiquity, and they will not survive into the future unless they are transferred soon to online libraries.

The manuscripts date primarily to the 14th and 15th centuries, with the oldest being approximately 1,000 years old. In addition to the medical recipes, these all-purpose documents also include scientific, alchemical, legal, and religious texts of various types. Many of the manuscripts are in rough condition, inside centuries-old books with crumbling paper and bindings. They will need to be subjected to conservation procedures before they can be opened and transcribed.

“Each manuscript will be accompanied by an accessible introduction aimed at a general audience,” Dr. Freeman said, outlining the end goal of the project. “These will explain what a book contains, place it in a broader context, describe who owned it or pick out something significant about its history. The aim is to help both researchers and the public understand, study and value these unique and irreplaceable artifacts.”

The Curious Cures project is being funded by the Wellcome Trust, which donated £500,000 (nearly $600,000) to support these preservation efforts. High-resolution digital images, full-text transcriptions, and reader-friendly summaries will be available to all online users of the  Cambridge digital library system, which means the manuscripts will be easily accessible to researchers and medieval enthusiasts all over the world.

Top image: Medieval medicine manuscript with drawings of urine flasks, illustrating the different colors of a patient's urine, with their ailments described alongside, 15th century.  Source: © University of Cambridge

By Nathan Falde

Comments

Pete Wagner's picture

A thousand years from NOW, if you took all the literature that now exists and might still then be around as an artifact, and went through it looking for the most sensation bits you could find, and packaged them together for historical purposes, how truly representative would it be of those/these times?  But forget that – people like sensational!

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

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