Horrifying Medieval Remedies Revealed in Ancient Manuscripts

(CNN) — While today you might eat a bowl of chicken soup to fight off a cold, a new project that uncovered manuscripts up to 1,000 years old reveals the strange medical remedies recommended in the medieval era.

The violence of medieval society is detailed in the recipes, from gruesome animal-derived treatments to advice on how to mend broken bones or determine if a skull has been fractured.

The UK’s Cambridge University Library has launched a two-year project to digitize, catalog and preserve the more than 180 medieval manuscripts containing some 8,000 unedited, handwritten medical prescriptions.

Most of the manuscripts date back to the 14th or 15th centuries, with the oldest being 1,000 years old. Some are simple pocket books designed to be carried around and could have been made by doctors themselves, according to a Cambridge University news release on Wednesday.

Drawings of urine bottles, illustrating the different colors of a patient’s urine, with his ailments circled above, 15th century. Credit: The Masters and Fellows of Trinity College; cambridge

Recipes usually consist of a short series of simple instructions, similar to a cookbook or recipe book today.

In the texts, there are common ingredients that we are familiar with today, including herbs like sage, rosemary, thyme, and mint, as well as spices like cumin, pepper, and ginger.

However, there are also some questionable ingredients, particularly those derived from animals.

Prescription “for sweating sickness”, inserted in a compilation of domestic information, 15th century. Credit: Cambridge University Library

Do you suffer from gout? A medieval treatment was to stuff a puppy with snails and sage and roast the animal over a fire. The extracted fat was then used to make an ointment.

An alternative recipe called for salting an owl and baking it to a powder and mixing it with boar fat to make an ointment to rub on the victim’s body.

What about cataracts? One recipe suggested mixing hare gallbladder with honey and applying it to the eye with a feather. This is a three night treatment.

Diagram of the human body, showing the veins being opened for blood draw, 16th century. Credit: The Masters and Fellows of Trinity College; cambridge

“These recipes are a reminder of the pain and precariousness of medieval life: before antibiotics, before antiseptics, and before painkillers as we would all know them today,” said James Freeman, a specialist in medieval manuscripts at the Library of the University of Cambridge who leads the Curious Cures project.

“Behind each recipe, no matter how distant, there is a human story: Experiences of illness and pain, but also the desire to live and be healthy. Some of the most moving are those remedies that speak of hopes or tragic disappointments of the medieval people: A recipe ‘for making a man and a woman have children’, for knowing whether a pregnant woman is carrying a boy or a girl, and ‘for giving birth to a woman from a dead child,'” he added.

Diagnostic diagram relating a patient’s age, temperament, seasons, and elements, 14th century. Credit: The Masters and Fellows of Trinity College; cambridge

Flesh that grows in the eye of man, virulent ulcers and cancers are just some of the disturbing ailments revealed in the recipe books that affected medieval people.

Digital images of the manuscripts, along with detailed descriptions and transcripts produced by the project’s cataloguers, will be published and freely available for anyone to access in the Cambridge Digital Library, Freeman said.

“The goal is to help both researchers and the public understand, study and value these unique and irreplaceable artifacts,” he added.

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