1,000-Year-Old Illustrated Guide to the Medicinal Use of Plants Now Digitized & Put Online

If you don’t much care for mod­ern med­i­cine, entire indus­tries have arisen to pro­vide you with more “alter­na­tive” or “nat­ur­al” vari­eties of reme­dies, most­ly involv­ing the con­sump­tion of plants. Pub­lish­ers have put out guides to their use by the dozens. In a way, those books have a place in a long tra­di­tion, stretch­ing back to a time well before mod­ern med­i­cine exist­ed as some­thing to be an alter­na­tive to. Just recent­ly, the British Library dig­i­tized the old­est such vol­ume, a thou­sand-year-old illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­script known as the Cot­ton MS Vitel­lius C III. The book, writes the British Library’s Ali­son Hud­son, “is the only sur­viv­ing illus­trat­ed Old Eng­lish herbal, or book describ­ing plants and their uses.” (The sole con­di­tion note: “leaves dam­aged by fire in 1731.”)

The man­u­script’s Old Eng­lish is actu­al­ly the trans­la­tion of “a text which used to be attrib­uted to a 4th-cen­tu­ry writer known as Pseu­do-Apuleius, now rec­og­nized as sev­er­al dif­fer­ent Late Antique authors whose texts were sub­se­quent­ly com­bined.” It also includes “trans­la­tions of Late Antique texts on the med­i­c­i­nal prop­er­ties of bad­gers” and anoth­er text “on med­i­cines derived from parts of four-legged ani­mals.”

(Some­how one does­n’t imag­ine those lat­ter sec­tions play­ing quite as well with today’s alter­na­tive-med­i­cine mar­ket.) Each entry about a plant or ani­mal fea­tures “its name in var­i­ous lan­guages; descrip­tions of ail­ments it can be used to treat; and instruc­tions for find­ing and prepar­ing it.”

Quite a few of the species with which the guide deals would have been direct­ly known to few or no Anglo-Sax­ons in those days, and some of the entries, such as the one describ­ing drag­onswort as ide­al­ly “grown in dragon’s blood,” seem more fan­ci­ful than oth­ers. As with many a Medieval work, the book freely mix­es fact and lore: to pick the man­drake root (pic­tured at the top of the post), “said to shine at night and to flee from impure per­sons,” the guide rec­om­mends “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.” You can behold these and oth­er pages of the Cot­ton MS Vitel­lius C III in zoomable high res­o­lu­tion at the British Library’s online man­u­script view­er. While the reme­dies them­selves might nev­er have been par­tic­u­lar­ly effec­tive, their accom­pa­ny­ing illus­tra­tions do remain strange and amus­ing even a mil­len­ni­um lat­er — and isn’t laugh­ter sup­posed to be the best med­i­cine?

via Hyper­al­ler­gic

Relat­ed Con­tent:

1,000-Year-Old Man­u­script of Beowulf Dig­i­tized and Now Online

2,000-Year-Old Man­u­script of the Ten Com­mand­ments Gets Dig­i­tized: See/Download “Nash Papyrus” in High Res­o­lu­tion

The Art of Swim­ming, 1587: A Man­u­al with Wood­cut Illus­tra­tions

The Turin Erot­ic Papyrus: The Old­est Known Depic­tion of Human Sex­u­al­i­ty (Cir­ca 1150 B.C.E.)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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