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A 15th century medicinal recipe from Co. Louth

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A late 15th century inscribed slate was discovered at Smarmore church, Co. Louth in 1959 and is now on display at the National Museum of Ireland. It contains a medicinal recipe, most likely for a poultice, that would have been applied to an ulcer or wound to aid healing. The recipe uses a variety of wild herbs (listed below) as well as wheat meal, pig’s lard and butter to help bind the poultice together. The text is written in Hiberno-English/Middle English and contains at least two words that appear to have Irish/Gaelic origins. A number of other inscribed slates were also found at Smarmore, one of which contained a cure for horse aliments, so it’s possible that this recipe was  intended for animal rather than human use.

An edited version of the original text reads roughly as follows:

‘Plantago…. of leswort (and) briscán leuis (and) butter (and) set lomis tong (and) lit hockis, grunswilli (and) rathel, suinsquiche (and) peniwrt of wallis, yolkis eggis (and) chicken-meat, qhuetmel (or) ri-mel (or) halich mel (and) fersse buttir ynohg (and) to ellir-wudis red and rotting. Tac a plaster of nettlis and horse mints, weibred and ribw(rt)….lec and drathlens’ (after Britton & Fletcher, 1990)

This a version of the text using modern names for the various herbs 

Weed plantain….. meadowsweet and leaves of silverweed (Irish word: briosclán) and butter and boiled ribwort plantain (lambs tongue) and little/some mallows (hocks) and groundsel and lousewort (rattle), swine grease/lard and wall pennywort, egg yolks, chickweed, wheat meal or rye-meal or similar meal and …butter… and two stems of red and rotting dwarf elder. Take a plaster of nettles (most likely the dead-nettle species), horse-mint, great plantain, ribwort and mistletoe (possibly from the Irish word: druadhlus)’ (after Britton & Fletcher, 1990)

Photos of a number of the plants used in the recipe are shown below, along with their medicinal properties according to various medieval texts. The majority of plants could be used to cure wounds and skin conditions, which would make sense if the Smarmore recipe was for a poultice.

Ribswort Plantain: A cure ‘for earaches, for fever’ (Van Arsdall 2002, 193)

 

Silverweed: A cure for ‘inward wounds, for wounds of the private parts’, ‘used to close up fresh wounds’ (Britton & Fletcher, 1990, 60)

 

Wall Pennywort: A cure for ‘cuts, chilblains and inflammations’. (Britton & Fletcher 1990, 63)

 

Groundsel: A cure ‘for wounds’ (Van Arsdalll 2000, 182), ‘for broken bones, swellings and festering sores’ (Britton & Fletcher 1990, 62)

 

Common Mallow: A cure ‘for bladder pain, for sore tendons, for fresh wounds’ (Van Arsdall 2002, 124)

 

Dead-nettle: A cure ‘for chilled wounds, for swellings, for putrefied wounds’ (Van Arsdall 2002, 137)

 

Louseworth

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Lousewort: A cure ‘for bad fluids in the body, for scaly skin and scab and for toothache’ (Van Arsdall 2002, 138)

 

Chickweed: A cure for epilepsy (Van Arsdall 2002, 126)

 

Horse Mint/Wild Mint: A cure ‘for ear-aches and for itchy skin conditions’ (Van Arsdall, 2002, 129).

 

Dwarf Elder: A cure ‘for stones in the bladder and for dropsy’ (Van Arsdall 2002, 129)

 

Common Plantain: A cure ‘for headache, for stomach pain, for wounds, for infected wounds, for mouth wounds and…’ (Van Arsdall 2002, 120)

 

Meadow Sweet: A cure for ‘fluxes of the blood’, ‘to cure wounds’ (Britton & Fletcher 1990, 60)

 

References

Van Arsdall, A. 2002 Medieval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine, Routledge, London

Britton D. & Fletcher A. J. 1990 ‘Medieval Hiberno-English Inscriptions on the Inscribed Slates of Smarmore: Some Reconsiderations and Additions’ in Irish University Review Vol. 20, No. 1, The English of the Irish: Special Issue (Spring, 1990), pp. 55-72

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9 Responses to A 15th century medicinal recipe from Co. Louth

  1. Mujerárbol May 30, 2014 at 9:23 pm #

    Nice article! I’m just curious about wild herbs Many thanks for the photos. These make me easier to identify the plants and their names both in irish and my own mothertongue, spanish… and then trying to relate their uses and stories.

    • Colm May 31, 2014 at 3:07 pm #

      Thanks Mujerárbol 🙂 Colm

  2. Taf June 1, 2014 at 12:02 am #

    Very interesting. I’m quite surprised at how many of these plants seem familiar. I made the comment on twitter that you could probably make a beer out of those ingredients, and they probably would have in the past, as hops which originally were used for their preservative qualities, as well as for flavour are relatively modern, so they used whatever they could get their hands on, and probably favoured herbs that they were familiar with. Many have fallen out of favour because of varying levels of toxicity, but that was probably one of the reasons certain ones were used. Thanks for taking the time to add more detail to your original post.

    • Colm June 1, 2014 at 12:05 am #

      Thanks, the piece was inspired by your tweet 🙂

    • Paul Brady January 10, 2015 at 3:18 pm #

      Meadowsweet is a good anti inflammatory and painkiller. It was used extensively in the war as it contains the precursors to salicylic acid (aspirin). It makes a good tea which promotes a good nights sleep too!

      Ribwort Plantain is another very useful medical herb as is mallow (good for chesty coughs).

      Many of these herbs have very valid and effective roles in today’s herbal medicine cabinet.

      It’s interesting to see that the same plants have been in use for many centuries as medicines.

  3. Francis June 9, 2014 at 12:40 pm #

    The names meant nothing to me also until i saw the pictures, I’m going to tell my children about these plants on my next nature walk!!

  4. Sara McLain January 10, 2015 at 3:26 pm #

    Fascinating essay, Colm. Most of those herbs in the photos were common on the Ohio farm where I grew up. Perhaps the day will come when we will need them again.

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