Duncan Campbell Scott

Addresses‚ Essays‚ and Reviews

Literature and Life:  A Booklover’s Corner
[I. A Leechbook of the Fifteenth Century/Primitive Physic]


In the Absence of Mr. Burrell, written by another.

When the physicians left us other the day there was at least one layman who missed the reports of their sessions in The Journal.  The general effect was bewildering; between the number of diseases and the complexities of treatment the layman speedily lost his way, and the result was wonderment, verging on awe that the human body could suffer so much in accident and malady and endure so much in cure.  These conditions have been present ever since the  moment when it occurred to one of our remote progenitors that pain might be relieved, and when he set about it by driving out the evil spirit by charms or, happily, by a sort of animal instinct found a herb that would produce the magical result.  The conditions will last until the human body becomes immune to all disease or until the science and art of medicine attain absolute perfection; contingencies that seem sufficiently remote.  But the general effect of the discussions was the give one a distinct impression of progress and of an awareness in the profession of the immense responsibilities that the ever changing, ever increasing complexities of modern life have thrust upon it.  Thinking of that progress which has been so remarkable within our own time, I was led into a retrospect, a far view into the part, and a speculation as to the effect of recreating an individual of the fifteenth century and submitting him to our present methods of diagnosis and remedy.  His belief in spirits and witch-control would be confirmed, and he would be eager to test some of his contemporary methods of casting out devils.  We would have as great a difficulty in adjusting ourselves to the customs of his age could we step back 500 years and experience the mysteries of the art of healing [page 433] in those days.  What is impossible in the one case is not quite impossible in the other.  For a contemporary of Chaucer there was no vision of the future, but the present can with sympathy look into the past; the record is there and a little imagination covers the dry bones with flesh and sets the blood reflowing.
     Such a record came my way not too long ago and it is so illuminating to that path of progress in the art of healing that it deserves examination.  It is A Leechbook of the Fifteenth Century.  It was published for the Fellows of the Royal Society of Literature under the terms of the Dr. Richards’ trust.  If the few extracts I shall give an examples of the mass of recipes which are heaped together in this repository provoke laughter of even contempt, let them both be charitable; the record of today may need all the charity available in the year A.D. 2437.  The manuscript is the property of the Medical Society of London.  It must have been regarded for hundreds of years as a special treasure—and has come down to us in its original form, with the exception of the binding, which has been renewed.  The date is fixed by a reference to John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, who died in 1444; he is cited as proof of the efficacy of a cure for migraine, “which was proved upon my Lord John Duke of Somerset, in the Lent-time when he went over sea.”  It was a reasonable compound of ginger, nutmeg, cloves, spikenard, anise, elecampane, sugar and liquorice, and Lord John had to take a spoonful in his pottage.  It can be said with certainty the MS. was written in the reign of Henry VI, most probably before the beginning of the Wars of the Roses.  The origin of the contents can be referred to many ages and many countries; most of them came from the works of late Latin writers and from Latin translations of Greek books; Egypt and Byzantium contributed, Arabia and Judea, England, France and Germany—so we have in this document a compendium of those recipes which have survived the wear and tear of rude practice.  The authors of the book had no doubt of its sovereign quality for their advertisement takes this absolute form—

Here beginneth good medicines for a manner of evils that ever man hath, that good leeches have drawn out of the books of those whom men call Archippus and Hippocrates, for these were the best leeches of the world in their time:  and therefore whoso will do as this book will teach him, he may be secure to have help for all evils and wounds and other diseases and sickness, both within and also without. [page 434]

     At this distance in time on may have reasonable doubts, there is some evidence of unfaith in the MS. itself; few of the cures are certified, Probatum Est.  There is plain ignorance, on every page, of the nature of disease, and there is no attempt to define symptoms or trace causes.  The stomach is a sovereign organ and the reader is admonished in these general terms:

All bitter things comfort the stomach.  All sweet things enfeeble it.  Roasted things are dry.  All raw things annoy the stomach.  Whoso will keep continual health must keep his stomach so that he put not too much therein when he has appetite, nor take anything into it when he has no need.

     That seems so far I can discover, to be a sort of adage which is the only one at present applicable, but the following cheerful recipe recommends itself, as there are still men overcome by the wayside and not a few who require warmth about the heart.

A good powder for all manner of sickness in a man’s body, and if a man be overcome by the wayside; it shall destroy all manner of poison and venom, and dropsy and jaundice, and for warming about a man’s heart.  Take smallage-seed, bays, and anise, the root of tormentil, the root of cinqfoil, the root of philipendula, the root of saxifrage, and the seed of stanmarch, sowthistle-seed, powder of liquorice, flower of cinnamon, and of galingale and of ginger.  Bray all these in a mortar and put it together, and use it oft.

     You will note the multiplicity of the ingredients; that is a prevalent characteristic of these ancient methods.  The properties of any single herb or drug were vaguely understood, and to combine them usefully or properly was an undiscovered science.  Anything and everything was mingled in the hope that one element might be efficacious.  Sometimes the treatment took a very definite form.  Imagine yourself an inquisitive burgher of the fifteenth century, and ask your neighbour why he was lighting such a huge fire in his garden.  The answer might be that grandfather’s back was painful and they were preparing a treatment.  You would no doubt recall the procedure:

Take sage, penny-royal, and alexanders, and the red nettle, worm-wood and red fennel roots and all of eight years’ growth.  And then on the ground make a great fire, till the ground be hot a foot deep; and [page 435] then lay the herbs on the ground, and lay a cloth thereon.  And lay the sore side thereon while the heat lasteth, and cover him well about.  And use this, and thou shalt be whole.

     This appears to have been a certain cure, and the following pleasant combination, which should turn out to be a sort of soup, is recommended for a cold:

If a man has a cold.  Seeth a chicken and prepare it with cabbage:  and then take parsley and violet and cresses and pellitory; and pound them together, and take the juice and seeth it with the cabbage.  And then let him sip it.

     I can find no mention of broken limbs, but injuries to the head are provided for:

If the skull of the brain-pan be broken so that the patient may not speak.  Stamp violet and give him to drink first in wine.  And if the right side of head be hurt, stamp violet and bind it to the sole of the left foot.  And if the left side of the head, lay it to the right foot.  And the bone shall rise up, and the patient shall speak again.

     This observation of the effects of brain injury on the opposite side of that injured is both correct and interesting.
     Dr. Warren R. Dawson, who transcribed and edited the MS., observes that there are some interesting surgical directions, such as the use of an anaesthetic drink to render the patient somnolent before operating upon him; but the ingredients do not inspire confidence—the gall of a swine, the juice of a hemlock-root and vinegar.  There is a method for stitching large wounds.  The many ailments of the digestive tract are treated with great particularity with remedies that are sometimes rude, sometimes violent and often noisome.  That word leads me to mention the predilection of these mediaeval healers for disgusting ingredients in their compounds.  Here is one for jaundice:

Dig in the earth and take nine or ten earth-worms, not those that have black knots or grey knots, but those that have yellow knots; and bray them in a dish with somewhat more than a farthing weight of saffron, and give the sick man to drink, fasting with stale ale:  but look that they be ground so small that the sick may not see nor know what it is for loathing.  [page 436]

     The curative properties of the mild and retiring earth-worm are comparatively inoffensive.  The leech of the middle ages, when he was determined on a cure, seems to have been not unwilling to give cause for loathing.  Filth was sometimes a medicament; fluids that are discharged and forgotten, solids that are consigned to mother-earth, were made equal with sweet herbs and roots and meet together in an unsavoury and hostile company.  I am not prepared to make good this assertion for the reader’s eye.  As Robert Burton wrote of a cure for one of his types of melancholy:  “I am not disposed to tell it; if you be very desirous to know it, when I meet you next I will peradventure tell you what it is in your ear.”
     This book was compiled a hundred years later than Chaucer’s age and it is curious to not that magic and all reference to planetary influence has disappeared.  There is a table of unlucky days, the belief in which is very ancient.  You were warned not to marry, start on a journey, begin any great work or let blood on any of these days.  For the benefit of my readers, I state that the unlucky days in July are the 15th and 20th.  In Chaucer’s day astronomy was the basis of the healing art.  It is a temptation to quote the whole of his characterization of the Doctour of Phisic who was “esy of dispense, and kepte what he wan in pestilence”; meaning, in the vernacular, that he was a free spender and knew where his money came from.  Chaucer gives as the reason for his pre-eminence as a physicians and surgeon that he was “grounded in astronomye.”  The planets were more influential then than they are now; none of our learned doctors bother about the ascendent of Mars or Venus when writing a prescription.  But then remedies must be administered at the proper planetary hours.  After a calculation Chaucer’s “verray parfit praktisour,” would “the cause y-knowe and of his hard the roote, anon he gave the sike man his boote” (remedy).  If astronomy was the strength of that age, no doubt Faith is the strength of ours; the prevalent faith that there is a remedy for every ill forthcoming, if not already discovered.  There is the glimmering of faith in the Leechbook and the certainty of cure brightens the pages of similar publications down to our own day.
     Three hundred years after the Leechbook we find John Wesley, the revered Found of Methodism, providing for his widely scattered flock “an easy and natural method of curing most diseases.”  He called his book Primitive Physic.  The first edition was published in 1755, the second in 1760.  He bade farewell to his “tract” (as he called [page 437] it) in 1780.  It survived long after his death; the copy before me is one of the 34th edition, issued in 1836.
     Mr. Wesley gives some general directions, of which the following seems most important:

As to the manner of using the medicines here set down, I should advise, as soon as you know your distemper (which is very easy, unless in a complication of disorders, and then you would do well to apply to a physician that fears God).  First, use the first of the remedies which occurs in the ensuing collection, unless some of them be easier to be had, and then it may do just as well.  Secondly, after a competent time, if it take no effect, use the second, the third, and so on.

     In the reports of the discussions at the conference I noticed with regret that not much progress had been made in relieving that intolerable scourge, asthma.  If I misinterpreted the remarks of the specialist I regret it, but if not, and if asthmas is still intractable, why not test the efficacy of Primitive Physic in the manner recommended by the compiler of the “easy and natural method.”  This would only involve trying in the order given the following five remedies.  I would remark in an unprofessional and purely disinterested way, that is the asthmatical patient survived number four he would surely be cured of life and asthmas at the same time by number five.  “For the asthma:  1, Take a pint of cold water every morning, washing the head therein immediately after; 2, take half a pint of tarwater every day; 3, live a fortnight on boiled carrots only—it seldom fails; 4, take an ounce of quicksilver and a spoonful of aqua sulphurata in a large glass of water at five in the evening; 5, or take from ten to sixty drops of elixir of vitriol in a glass of water, three or four times a day.”
     John Wesley’s Primitive Physic must not be used as a criterion of medicine in the Eighteenth Century, that made such a magnificent contribution to knowledge and practice.  Nor is this reference to it intended to lessen the respect due his noble life.  It is simply one of many publications for popular use.  They have been rendered unnecessary by free clinics and by the medical questionnaires of the Press, conducted by qualified physicians.  The evil spirit of superstition has gone from modern medicine, never to return and unscientific experiment is a thing of the past.  [page 438]


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