Puppy stuffed with snails? Ground baked owl? Cambridge University Library reveals medieval cures

A diagram of the human body, showing the veins to be opened for blood-letting, in the 16th century. 
Credit: Cambridge University Library
A diagram of the human body, showing the veins to be opened for blood-letting, in the 16th century. Credit: Cambridge University Library

Curious medieval cures, including a treatment for gout that involved baking an owl then grinding it into a powder, are to be made public in a new digital archive.

Another unusual recipe, also intended to tackle gout, instructed readers to stuff a puppy with snails and sage royal then roast it over a fire, with the rendered fat used to make a salve.

More than 180 medieval manuscripts are to be digitised, catalogued and conserved over the next two years as part of the Curious Cures in Cambridge Libraries project, run by the Cambridge University Library.

The manuscripts, containing around 8,000 unedited medical recipes, mostly date from the 14th or 15th centuries, with some examples from earlier, the oldest being 1,000 years old.

The texts are from the collections of the University Library, Fitzwilliam Museum and a dozen Cambridge colleges.

Drawings of urine flasks, illustrating the different colours of a patient's urine, with their ailments described above. Credit: Cambridge University Library

James Freeman, leading the £500,000 Wellcome-funded project, said: "For all their complexities, medieval medical recipes are very relatable to modern readers.

"Many address ailments that we still struggle with today: headaches, toothache, diarrhoea, coughs, aching limbs.

"They show medieval people trying to manage their health with the knowledge that was available to them at the time - just as we do.

"They are also a reminder of the pain and precarity of medieval life, before antibiotics, before antiseptics and before pain relief as we would know them all today.

"Other treatments include salting an owl and baking it until it can be ground into a powder, mixing it with boar's grease to make a salve, and rubbing it on to the sufferer's body to cure gout.

"To treat cataracts - described as a 'web in the eye' - one recipe recommends taking the gall bladder of a hare and some honey, mixing them together and then applying it to the eye with a feather over the course of three nights."

A diagnostic diagram linking a patient's age, temperament, the seasons and the elements in the 14th century. Credit: Cambridge University Library

A team of project cataloguers, under the supervision of Dr Freeman, will prepare detailed descriptions of the text's contents, material characteristics, origins and provenance, and place the recipes in their material, intellectual and historical contexts.

The results of the project - high-resolution digital images, detailed descriptions and full-text transcriptions - will be freely available online on the Cambridge Digital Library, opening up the collections to researchers around the world.

"These manuscripts provide brilliant insights into medieval medical culture, and the recipes they contain bring us close to the interactions between patient and practitioner that took place many centuries ago," Dr Freeman said.

"Until now, such texts have been quite difficult for researchers and members of the public to access and analyse.

"A bewildering array of ingredients - animal, mineral and vegetable - are mentioned in these recipes.

"There are herbs that you would find in modern-day gardens and on supermarket shelves - sage, rosemary, thyme, bay, mint - but also common perennial plants: walwort, henbane, betony and comfrey.

The manuscripts will all be available digitally. Credit: Cambridge University Library

"Medieval physicians also had access to and used a variety of spices in their formulations, such as cumin, pepper and ginger, and commonly mixed ingredients with ale, white wine, vinegar or milk."

Some of the entries highlight the violence of medieval life, such as how to determine whether a skull has been fractured after a blow from a weapon, how to staunch bleeding and how to set broken bones.

"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," said Dr Freeman.

"Some of the most moving are those 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 dead child'."

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