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Medieval Medical Recipes

The man that will of leechcraft lere
Read over this book and he may hear
Many a medicine both good and true
To heal sores both old and new" Anonymous introduction to a compilation of medical recipes in rhyming couplets, 15th century

To what medical uses did medieval practitioners put dove faeces, fox lungs, salted owl or eel grease? How might one aid a man with a weak bladder or swollen testicles, or a woman with 'grinding the womb' or who 'travaileth of child'? What remedies were available to the medieval sufferer of daily complaints such as headache, toothache and aching limbs, or more grisly ailments such as 'rankled wounds' or 'canker that breeds in a man's mouth'? How might the image-conscious rid themselves of freckles, whiten their faces or solve bad breath?

Curious Cures in Cambridge Libraries is a Wellcome-funded project to conserve, catalogue and digitise 186 medieval manuscripts that contain in excess of 8,000 unedited medical recipes. In addition, it will harness cutting-edge Handwritten Text Recognition technology by using Transkribus to produce full-text transcriptions of these recipes. This will open their contents to health researchers in the humanities and social sciences, enabling keyword and faceted searching and detailed comparative analysis on a scale not possible hitherto. This will not only help researchers to pinpoint recipes relevant to their work, but will also enable them to understand how this kind of medical knowledge evolved, how recipes were tried and tested over time, and what connections might exist between such practical recipe books and scholarly medical treatises.

Building on the successful collaborations of the recently completed Polonsky Foundation Greek Manuscripts project, the Curious Cures manuscripts are drawn from collections across the University: from the University Library, which is leading the project, from twelve colleges (Clare, Corpus Christi, Emmanuel, Gonville & Caius, Jesus, King's, Magdalene, Pembroke, Peterhouse, St John's, Sidney Sussex and Trinity), and the Fitzwilliam Museum. High-resolution digital images, detailed catalogue descriptions and full-text transcriptions of each manuscript will be brought together and made freely accessible on the Cambridge Digital Library.

The project encompasses manuscript compilations of dozens or even hundreds of medical recipes, known as receptaria, but also medical and non-medical texts that contain recipes on their peripheries as added texts or marginal annotations. The manuscripts were made between the 11th to the 16th centuries, with most dating to the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries. Many of the recipes are written in Latin, and some in French, but a substantial proportion are written in Middle English, and illustrate the beginnings of the circulation of medical knowledge in the vernacular language of this country.

A wide range of ingredients - animal, mineral and vegetable - are mentioned in these recipes. There are herbs that are known today - such as sage, rosemary, thyme, bay and mint - as well as common perennial plants: walwort, henbane, betony and comfrey. Ingredients were often mixed with common products such as ale, white wine, vinegar, milk or honey, but medieval physicians also exploited international trade networks, using cumin, pepper, ginger and other spices in their formulations. There are also many strange and curious ingredients recorded in the recipes, in particular those derived from animals: the use of roasted puppy fat as a salve to treat gout, or the gall bladder of a hare as a component in a treatment for 'web in the eye'.

Digitisation of these manuscripts will place medical recipes in their material contexts, revealing how they are arranged and presented on the page - while detailed descriptions of the manuscripts' textual contents will situate the recipes in their intellectual contexts, showing the different routes by which medical knowledge was recorded and disseminated. Evidence of production and provenance contained in these books may also help researchers to understand where and by whom these recipes were used. Conservation of the manuscripts will also enable the manuscripts to be digitised safely and ensure both their long-term preservation and accessibility to future generations of researchers.

For more details about the project, including blogposts about the manuscripts and the project's activities, see the Curious Cures project webpage.


Medieval Medical Recipes