Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

Celtic Studies professor unearths centuries-old medicinal recipes, publishes article

November 28th, 2019
Dr. Ranke de Vries

While researching another project, StFX Celtic Studies professor Dr. Ranke de Vries came across a fascinating text that talked about the use of animal dung in medieval medicine—to treat common ailments like baldness and snake bites.

Intrigued by the information she found, Dr. de Vries has published the text, with translation and notes, in a new article in the North American Journal of Celtic Studies. The text has never before been edited. 

“Nobody has looked at this text up to now, which means that these recipes have been hidden away in this manuscript for roughly six centuries,” she says. 

She says she came up with the idea for the article quite by accident. “I came across the text as I was doing some research for a completely different article about medieval medicine. When I was looking through the manuscript description for TCD MS 1343, I saw that it contained this short text on medicinal uses for animal dung, which I found intriguing,” she says. 

“What type of animal dung was used, and what on earth would that be good for? Did doctors use fresh dung? As it turns out, most of the Irish recipes involve dried and burnt goat dung, which was considered beneficial to cure a range of afflictions, from alopecia (localized hair loss) to bites from venomous animals – but dung from sheep, cows, mice, and birds are also present.”

She says one of the things she did not realize before she did research for this edition was that animal dung was used in medical recipes long after the Middle Ages. 

FASCINATING FIELD

What interested her about the research?

“First of all, I find medieval medicine as a field is utterly fascinating, as the principles behind it are so fundamentally different from modern medicine. To us, most of it may seem idiosyncratic at best, and downright lethal at worst. A modern reader might wonder what the value of studying medieval medicine might be, when so much progress has been made in the field of medicine since then. And that is a valid question. 

“When you look at medieval medical recipes, many of them contain highly toxic ingredients, mercury, for example, or various kinds of lead, and you should absolutely never try to make them at home, or use them in any way whatsoever. But there are some recipes, like a recipe for eye salve found in the Anglo-Saxon Bald’s Leechbook from the ninth century, that have been shown to be quite effective against MRSA, caused by a bacterium that is resistant to many types of antibiotics.”

She says in a time when antibiotics are becoming less effective, the thought of maybe coming across a recipe that can be used to cure modern disease is alluring.

She says the topic of medicine in medieval Ireland is something that has not been studied very much until relatively recently, even though there are around 100 manuscripts containing medical material, dated to the 14th century and after, and new texts are found periodically

Part of the relative lack of research has to do with the fact that the texts themselves are quite challenging – they are filled with technical terms, and the manuscripts contain lots of abbreviations as they were written for use by medical families, who of course knew the material very well. 

“I really liked the challenge of editing such a text, and it is always exciting to be able to work on something that nobody has ever looked at before – these recipes have not been studied for 600 years,” she says. 

“Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the recipes themselves are also quite interesting – mouse pellets, for example, were thought to help against kidney stones. You have to wonder whether that has anything to do with the size and shape of the pellets…”

Dr. de Vries says she is delighted that the article has appeared, and hopes that students and scholars alike find it useful, and that it will inspire people to take up studying medieval medicine.

MEDICAL RECIPES 

Found in a 15th-century manuscript written in Irish Gaelic, the manuscript, titled TCD MS 1343, is currently held at Trinity College, Dublin. The text is essentially a collection of medical recipes that contain various kinds of animal dung, along with an explanation as to what ailment each type of dung cures. 

For the edition, she says she first looked at the original text in the digitized manuscript, which can be found on the Irish Script On Screen project. 

“As texts in medical manuscripts tend to use a lot of abbreviations, I first had to determine what the abbreviations stood for, which took a while—one particular symbol had me stumped for a couple of months. I then translated it and attempted to explain any particularly tricky or unclear sections. The Irish Gaelic text refers a number of times to Avicenna, a very famous medieval Persian physician who lived in the late 10th and early 11th century. Avicenna wrote, among many other things, a work called the Canon of Medicine. The Irish writer of our text likely did not use the original Arabic text, but a Latin translation of the Canon. This meant that in order to be able to compare the two versions, I had to translate a few paragraphs from the Latin translation as well. I am very grateful to my StFX colleagues Professor Ed Carty and Dr. Donna Trembinski, who were kind enough to assist me in that translation.”

INTERESTING MATERIAL

Incidentally, she says, the manuscript has a lot of other interesting material. She is currently working on a few fragments from the same manuscript that deal with mandrake, the number of bones in the human body, rhubarb, and different units of measurement. 

Dr. de Vries says she actually took her transcriptions for these latest fragments into the medieval medicine course she is currently teaching, and students helped her find background information for the various sections, which was really useful. She also received help in transcribing the fragments from students in her Selected Topics course on medieval manuscripts.

 

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