Stuffed puppies and baked owls: Bizarre medieval cures for everyday ailments revealed

·3 min read
More than 180 medieval manuscripts are to be digitised, catalogued and conserved over the next two years as part of the Curious Cures in Cambridge Libraries project - Cambridge University Library /PA
More than 180 medieval manuscripts are to be digitised, catalogued and conserved over the next two years as part of the Curious Cures in Cambridge Libraries project - Cambridge University Library /PA

Gout, so often thought of as the preserve of gluttonous aristocrats of old, is a notoriously painful condition. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that medieval patients were willing to resort to stuffed puppies and powdered owls in hope of a cure.

Rendered fat from a roasted puppy stuffed with snails and sage and baked owl ground to a powder and mixed with boar’s grease are just two treatments detailed by a University of Cambridge project to digitise thousands of medical manuscripts from the Middle Ages.

The two-year project will see over 8,000 handwritten medieval recipes from documents from across Cambridge's colleges and library and the Fitzwilliam Museum collections digitised and placed online for the first time.

They will then be freely available to members of the public to access.

The majority date from the 14th and 15th centuries, although the oldest is from a thousand years ago.

Also included are highly detailed anatomical drawings as well as legal, liturgical, alchemical and literary documents.

'Medieval medical recipes very relatable'

Many are in dire need of conservation work before they can be scanned and uploaded. The project has been made possible by £500,000 of funding from the Wellcome Trust.

"For all their complexities, medieval medical recipes are very relatable to modern readers. Many address ailments that we still struggle with today: headaches, toothache, diarrhoea, coughs, aching limbs," said James Freeman, who is leading the project.

"They are also a reminder of the pain and precarity of medieval life, before antibiotics, before antiseptics and before pain relief as we would know them all today," he added.

"Some of the most moving are those remedies that speak of the hopes or tragic disappointments of medieval people: a recipe 'for to make a man and woman to get children', to know whether a pregnant woman carries a boy or a girl, and 'to deliver a woman of dead child'," said Dr Freeman.

Drawings of urine flasks, illustrating the different colours of a patient's urine, with their ailments described in roundels above - Master and Fellows of Trinity College/Cambridge /PA
Drawings of urine flasks, illustrating the different colours of a patient's urine, with their ailments described in roundels above - Master and Fellows of Trinity College/Cambridge /PA

As well as common complaints, the medical texts reveal some of the violence of medieval life.

There entries on how to determine whether a skull has been fractured after a blow from a weapon, how to staunch bleeding and how to set broken bones.

Despite the puppies and owls, most recipes made use of more quotidian, readily available garden ingredients.

"There are herbs that you would find in modern-day gardens and on supermarket shelves - sage, rosemary, thyme, bay, mint - but also common perennial plants: walwort, henbane, betony and comfrey," said Dr Freeman.

"Medieval physicians also had access to and used a variety of spices in their formulations, such as cumin, pepper and ginger, and commonly mixed ingredients with ale, white wine, vinegar or milk."

Despite that, some ailments still called for more unusual solutions. A medieval Briton afflicted with cataracts is advised by one recipe to blend a hare's gall bladder with honey and apply it to the affected eye with a feather.