traditional medicine

An ancient Anglo-Saxon book of plants has a cure for the common cold, but you may not like it

The only surviving ‘Old English Herbal’ book bears similarities to Ayurveda – except for a few key ingredients.

According to an ancient Latin text on traditional herbal remedies, drinking a concoction of white wine boiled with artichokes can rid one of body odour.

The illustrated text titled Cotton MS Vitellius C III is believed to have been written in the fourth century and contains details about medicinal plants that can cure everything from chest pains to the common cold. The book has been in the archives of the British Library in London for decades and bears similarities to the foundation of Ayurveda medicine.

The Cotton MS Vitellius C III is the only surviving “Old English Herbal” and is attributed to several 4th century writers, whose texts were compiled to create the collection. The yellowing pages of this tome were recently made available online as part of British Library’s digitisation project along with the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

A page from 'Cotton MS Vitellius C III' (Image courtesy: British Library).
A page from 'Cotton MS Vitellius C III' (Image courtesy: British Library).

For centuries, old Sanskrit texts like the Sushruta Samhita or Charaka Samhita, have been followed to understand traditional Ayurvedic medicine. Together, they describe the use of over 700 plants, such as ginger, coriander, cinnamon, and sandalwood. According to the Charaka Samhita, onions are excellent for digestion, good for heart, eyes and joints. Furthermore, a paste of bulbous garlic roots, onions and breast milk, when applied to the nose, can cure hiccups and shortness of breath. According to The Legacy of Caraka, written by MS Valiathan in 2003, exploring the cures mentioned in the Charaka Samhita, garlic juice also helps in relieving “all types of insanity and female genital complaints”.

The benefits of garlic are also celebrated in the Cotton MS Vitellius C III. The writers declare it as one of the “most splendid” herbs. The book instructs: “For the pain of the womb, take this plant, pound it, and lay it on; it relieves the pain.”

A page from 'Cotton MS Vitellius C III' (Image courtesy: British Library).
A page from 'Cotton MS Vitellius C III' (Image courtesy: British Library).

Each page of the British Herbarium features an accompanying illustration of plants and animals. According to Alison Hudson, project curator at the British Library, “There are details like names of the plants in various languages; descriptions of ailments it can be used to treat; and instructions for finding and preparing it.” Hudson wrote in a blog entry: “Remedies for poisonous bites are marked out with drawings of snakes and scorpions. For instance, a snake appears near the entry for sweet basil, called ‘snake plant’ (naedderwyrt), because it was reported to grow where snakes were found and to be useful against injuries caused by snakes.”

A page from 'Cotton MS Vitellius C III' (Image courtesy: British Library).
A page from 'Cotton MS Vitellius C III' (Image courtesy: British Library).

Some of the remedies mentioned in the book make use of plants vegetables that are commonly found and used in India, such as mint, cabbage and fennel.

Mint, or pudina, is beneficial in getting rid of pimples when its juice is mixed with sulphur and vinegar. But, according to the book, this ointment must be applied with a feather to work. The book also mentions cabbage as a remedy for swelling along with being able to cure gout; when mixed with aged lard or animal fat and fennel it can fix coughs, shortness of breath and bladder pain.

A page from 'Cotton MS Vitellius C III' (Image courtesy: British Library).
A page from 'Cotton MS Vitellius C III' (Image courtesy: British Library).

Hudson writes that the practicality of the remedies suggested in the book are highly debated and the illustrations are not always very useful for identifying plants and animals in the wild. A page dedicated to Streawberian, or strawberry, shows the red berries growing on trees but looks nothing like the fruit as we know it today. Another entry shows a monkey and what seems to be an elephant, but the only familiar thing about the creature are its tusks.

The elephant as it is drawn in 'Cotton MS Vitellius C III' (Image courtesy: British Library).
The elephant as it is drawn in 'Cotton MS Vitellius C III' (Image courtesy: British Library).

According to Hudson, the book also includes mythical lore about the many plants which often play a part in the instructions on how to use the plants for practical purposes. She gives the example of the mandrake, which according to the book, “[i]s said to shine at night and to flee from impure persons”. The page features a drawing of a human body with roots extending from the feet and hands and a foliage where a head should be. “To pick it, the text claims you need an iron tool (to dig around it), an ivory staff (to dig the plant itself up), a dog (to help you pull it out), and quick reflexes,” Hudson writes.

The mandrake as drawn in 'Cotton MS Vitellius C III' (Image courtesy: British Library).
The mandrake as drawn in 'Cotton MS Vitellius C III' (Image courtesy: British Library).

An English translation of the work, Medieval Herbal Remedies – The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine by scholar Anne Van Arsdall, was published in 2002. In the introduction, Arsdall wrote about why the text is still relevant:

“For many decades, the Herbarium has been depicted as having been nearly useless in Anglos-Saxon England because it is a translation of a Latin work, the issue being whether the plants mentioned would have been available in the British Isles and whether the Anglo-Saxons actually used (or were capable of using) remedies from a supposedly foreign, continental tradition. Such a depiction is demonstrated here to be erroneous and the intent of this work is to present the Herbarium in a new and more positive context within the mainstream of Anglos-Saxon and European medieval healing practice.”  

A page from 'Cotton MS Vitellius C III' (Image courtesy: British Library).
A page from 'Cotton MS Vitellius C III' (Image courtesy: British Library).
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