The York medical manuscript consists of a series of therapeutic texts intended to restore the patient’s health.1Most of the texts are collections of herbal recipes or receptaria. These collections contain plasters, ointments, syrups, powders or waters (amongst other things), made from herbs, gems and metals, to cure diseases or conditions such as headaches, gout or epilepsy. They date back to classical times and follow a head to heel sequence known as a capite ad calcem order.
Contents of recipes
Recipes are generally formulaic. They have:
- A heading that points to the illness or condition the remedy is going to heal. E.g. For gout that is in the bones; for an abscess in a woman´s breast.2
- A list of the plants, minerals and animal or chemical ingredients needed: e.g. Take the grease of sheep tallow, the juice of the celery, the juice of the willow, the root and leaves of belladonna and unused wax.
- The measures and weights required: e.g. Take an ounce of parsley, an ounce of olive oil, two ounces of storax, two ounces and a half of calamint, half an ounce of both mastic and frankincense and two ounces and a half of gum Arabic.
- The instructions to follow to prepare the remedy: e.g. and then boil everything (the ingredients in 2) in a pan, and when they are well-boiled put them in a cloth and then in an ointment box.
- Details about its administration (amount, frequency, right time, duration) and storage: e.g. put it in a cloth, and in the evening when you go to bed put it in your ear; drink for four days or more if you have the need; eat a spoonful in the morning and another in the evening.
Examples of herbal recipes in the York medical manuscript
This is how recipes look like in the York medical manuscript (and other medical manuscripts for that matter!):
‘When a woman has great pain in her breast, take the cinquefoil (Potentilla reptans) and mix it well with swine’s grease and lay it on a cloth and wrap the sore’ (fol. 84v).
‘For a skin eruption. Boil the patient’s urine until it is thick as honey and anoint the sore with it’ (fol. 100).
‘For the menstrual flow. Take the juice of mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) and wheat flour and make bread and bake it and eat it’ (fol. 105r).
‘These are the 5 herbs called the 5 lances that men could apply to a wound: white dittany (Dictamnus albus), wood avens (Geum urbanum), sanicle (Sanicula europaea), common daisy (Bellis perennis) and scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis). Likewise, these five herbs draw the infection out of wounds, that is, greater celandine (Chelidonium majus), common madder (Rubia tinctorum), ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), sanicle (Sanicula europaea) and tormentil (Potentilla tormentilla). These 7 herbs are good for festered wounds, that is, celery (Apium graveolens), herb Robert (Geranium robertianum), bugle (Ajuga reptans), sanicle (Sanicula europaea), hemp (Cannabis sativa), mullein (Verbascum thapsus) and sage (Salvia officinalis). These 7 herbs, together with the 5 lances and other herbs, are good to heal wounds by drawing out infection’ (fol. 89r).
Irrational and superstitious as it may sound, herbal remedies appear along with charms and prayers in receptaria. Charms played a significant role in the patient’s healing. By invoking saints and martyrs, they appealed to divine intervention, as seen in the example below.
This remedy to heal a wound involved the preparation of an ointment and the enchantment of a plate of lead:3
‘A medicine that is good to heal the wound of a man who is not injured to death. Make five crosses in a plate of lead: a cross in every corner and a cross in the middle. During the mass say one Our Father and one Hail Mary for each cross to honour the Five Wounds of our Lord Jesus Christ. Then lay the plate above the wound and say thus: ‘as truly as the wounds of our Lord Jesus Christ didn´t rankle, fester or stink, this wound has no power to rankle, fester or stink, but make it heal thoroughly by the will of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Say three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys in the name of the Father and Son and the Holy Ghost. Ask the one who is hurt to say three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys to the one who is in charge, and make sure the plate does not touch the earth once it is charmed. Lay it on the wound for three days. After the third day take the juice of madder, and wash the wound. Put the lead back on it until it is healed; and if it stinks lay it above. This is a good ointment’ (fols. 128v-129r).
Crosses in charms
Charms accommodate drawings of crosses from time to time, and they usually appear between the names of the saints. Practitioners probably made the sign of the cross on their patients’ bodies or in the air, when encountering these crosses. Pretty much like priests did in church.4The repetition of the saints’ names and the touching of the patient’s skin possibly created a soothing and relaxing, and therefore curative, effect on the patient.5Unfortunately, many of these crosses were scratched out from medieval manuscripts during the Reformation.
The York medical manuscript also contains other texts to prognosticate and diagnose diseases and their outcomes. As they were not particularly academic, they would have been helpful to any medical practitioner. Many of these texts include diagrams you will see here and in future posts: i.e., a bloodletting-zodiac man (below), a sphere of life and death, a palmistry chart, and a urine wheel.
Theory of the four humours
Medieval practitioners thought that the human body, and by extension the human mind, was a microcosm which, besides being contained in the macrocosm (also known as cosmos or universe), functioned parallel to it. The macrocosm was composed of four elements (water, fire, earth and air) and qualities (dryness, moistness, heat and cold), which corresponded to four bodily humours (phlegm or mucus, yellow bile or choler, black bile and blood). The supremacy of a humour over the rest resulted in a marked definition of the individual’s temperament, who could be ultimately melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine or choleric.6An imbalance of the humours resulted in sickness, and required methods like bloodletting to restore the patient’s corporal equilibrium.
Knowing when to bleed the sick was an essential part of the treatment, as otherwise the patients’ lives could be at risk. For that reason, before applying a treatment, practitioners had to check the celestial bodies. That’s where the bloodletting-zodiac man comes in. The bloodletting-zodiac man is an anthropomorphic figure that provides information about bloodletting procedures. This information, which frequently appears in two separate figures (bloodletting man and zodiac man), occurs in a unique diagram in the York medical manuscript.
The bloodletting man shows how to cure an ailment by cutting the patient’s veins. Thus, an arrow that points at its right ear reads: ‘behind the ear for old sicknesses’. Another caption whose arrow points at the neck states: ‘for a pustule in the neck’. The zodiac man, on the other hand, indicates the parts of the body that could not be bled when the moon was in relation to their specific zodiac houses. For instance, it was not recommended to bleed a patient´s chest under Leo´s influence.
More fascinating medical diagrams in my next posts! Stay tuned or subscribe to Becky’s Medieval World to receive notifications of new posts!
- There is a general description of the manuscript in this post.
- All translations are mine.
- I talk about the symbolic representation of the Five Holy Wounds in the Alliterative Morte Arthure and Lydgate’s poems in R. Cubas-Peña, ‘Echoes of Medical writings in the Romances of the Lincoln Thornton Manuscript and Cambridge University Library MS FF. 2.38’, in Texts and Territories. Historicized Fiction and Fictionalised History in Medieval England and Beyond, ed. by H. T. Düzgün (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2018), pp. 121-145. You can read some pages here
- E. Duffy, ‘Charms, Pardons and Promises: Lay Piety and “Superstition” in the Primers’, in The Stripping of the Altars. Traditional Religion in England c. 1400-c. 1580 (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1992), pp. 266-298 (p. 266).
- I owe this idea to Dr Irina Metzler, who reminded me of traditional healing practices in Catholic communities.
- For further details, see C. Rawcliffe, Sources for the History of Medicine in Late Medieval England (Michigan: Western Michigan University, 1998) or https://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/anatomy-and-physiology/anatomy-and-physiology/humours.