Friday, 4 October 2013

Monastic maladies and cures for the plague

Magazine and newspaper articles are forever telling us to stop smoking, start exercising, eat “superfoods”, cut out bread, drink less coffee and so on. This week I take a look at some late medieval dietary advice and cures for diseases scribbled by the monks of Worcester Cathedral priory in a sixteenth-century register.  These snippets on  monastic diet and medicine feature as part of the library’s current exhibition, ‘Life in a Benedictine monastery’, so be sure to call to the North and West cloisters of Worcester Cathedral to see photographs and full transcriptions.

Poster for the library's exhibition, 'Life in a Benedictine monastery', located in the north and West cloisters until October 16th 2013. Copyright © Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)
The collection of cures and dietary advice in a sixteenth-century monastic register is a mere four folios in length, written by one scribe in middle English, dating to around 1540. At the bottom of the first of the four folios  (pictured below) is a rather amusing list of foods “which dothe hurte the eyes”. The list of foods that hurt the eyes include some obvious candidates, such as onions (a nemesis of your blogger), and garlic. The list also warns that reading immediately after supper is bad for the eyes, as is “drunkenness, lechery […] sweet wynes and thycke wynes”.

Recipes: "meates whiche hurteth the tethe", "meates ingendryng flewme", and "meates whiche dothe hurte the eyes". Photograph of AXII, fol. 166 v. Reproduced by the permission of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)

The thickness of wine, how watered down it should be, and the implications that this would have on health was a matter of debate in the middle ages. The Dominican General Chapter regulations from Narbonne (1243), for example, stated that the infirm and young members of the Order should only drink watered down wine. The Fransiscan Minister-Gerald of Odone was perhaps too well acquainted with the problems of consuming thick wines; he wrote in 1331 of the headaches, digestive problems, and corruption to the four humours that could be caused by drinking wine. Written in a fifteenth-century hand in the margin of a manuscript held in the Cathedral Library is the below recipe for a hangover cure, suggesting that the monks at Worcester similarly had experience of the damage potent wines could do. Titled “A medicine for drunken men”, the author advises:

“Give to him that is prone to drunkenness the lung of a sheep or a ram for meat.  Afterwards, however much he drinks, he shall feel no drunkenness.  Similarly give to him that is drunk the burnt ashes of a swallow and he shall never be drunk.  Experience says that it is certain.”

 Whilst the author claims “experience says that it is certain” that upon consuming the above a person will be cured of drunkenness, I wouldn’t recommend trying this one at home. I would recommend pizza as my preferred cure for drunkenness.
In addition to foods that damage the eyes, the sixteenth-century monastic register also contains lists of foods that hurt the teeth and engender phlegm (see above), and you can see transcriptions of these too in the current exhibition in the Cathedral’s north and west cloister.

Of particular interest to your blogger, who curated the exhibition, were the recipes on the last two of the four folios, aimed at curing specific diseases. One recipe is described as “a medcyne for the gowt”.
Gout or podagra was a common medieval ailment, linked to the overconsumption of luxury foods, sugars and beers. Given the variety of spices, meats, fish and so forth that  made up the Benedictine diet over the course of a year, it is unsurprising that the monks would have sought out a cure for gout. Here is a modernized transcription of the remedy (cat owners- BE WARNED)  

“Take good grains and sit in them up to the knees for the space of an hour and a half and then after […] dry your legs clean and for one day and knight sit your legs before the fire and after that take a wild cat’s skin and lay the flesh-side to the sore”.

Gout was similar to rheumatism in terms of pain and so sitting by a fire, warming the inflamed skin and soothing it with a soft material like cat’s skin, was probably fairly comforting to the sufferer. If anyone has knowledge of the use of catskin or other skins in medieval medicine, I’d be interested to know what the healing properties of these skins were thought to be, and to how widely they were used.  

"Yf a man be stryken w[t] the plage". Photograph of AXII, fol. 170 r. Reproduced by the permission of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)
Finally, the register also includes two “cures” for the plague, pictured above. Neither of the two plague cures refer to sores on the skin, nor to swellings, making it likely that they were intended to treat pneumonic plague rather than the bubonic strand of the disease. The author of the first of the plague cures is Dr. Bentley, who was the physician to King Henry VIII. The language of the instructions is typical of medieval cures, in so far as they provide rather vague measurements of quantity and time: “take a handful of sage and a handful of rue and a handful of elder leaves and a handful of red brier leaves and stamp them all together in a mortar and strain them through a linen cloth” etc. 
This first plague cure tells us that over the course of a fortnight you should drink one spoonful of the cure daily after a period of fasting. Yet somewhat worryingly, as soon as you take the first spoonful, the author kindly informs us that you will come down with a fever for the next 33 days! Apparently, things don’t get any better with this “cure” as, after you’ve taken the fifteenth and presumably final spoonful, you come down with a fever for the rest of the year.
Phew, these recipes make me rather appreciative of lemsip. If you want to find out more about these medieval recipes or read them up-close, pop into the cloisters of Worcester Cathedral where you will see them on the exhibition board entitled, “Caring for the sick”. Please leave your comments in the visitor comments book. ‘Life in a Benedictine monastery’ is free to view until the 16th of October, 09:00-17:00.

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