A group of scientists are gathered around a beaker. In it is a peculiar mixture: garlic, onion, and a section of a cow’s belly. Anyone watching them could be forgiven for thinking that they have gone off the rails entirely. After all, the potion that they’re formulating sounds like something a witch might concoct. But in reality, this formula might just prove to be effective against a very real and potentially deadly bug.
The group has come from the University of Warwick in England, an institution that’s recognized globally for its educational virtues. More to the point, the team members are all beacons of science and reason. So what has led Dr. Blessing Anonye, Jessica Furner-Pardoe, and Dr. Freya Harrison to turn to such unusual medicinal components?
Well, the researchers are actually basing their work on an old recipe for an eye treatment. This is known as “Bald’s eyesalve,” which itself was extracted from a manuscript called Bald’s Leechbook. The remedy dates back roughly 1,000 years, but the scientists were left aghast at how positive an impact it had on a certain ailment today.
Bald’s Leechbook is essentially a series of remedies compiled and presented in the Old English language. The elixirs contained within had derived from a range of civilizations, such as Rome, Greece, and Britain itself. One particular section of the book even details a recipe that seems to have come from Jerusalem.
Bald’s Leechbook is full of recipes that were aimed at aiding people suffering from ill health. However, there are also directions for potions designed to overcome more mystic and metaphysical ailments. Some formulas, for instance, advised people on how to create ointments that would protect them from ominous creatures such as elves and goblins.
The collection took its name from a reference in one of its passages. Here, the text translates to modern English as, “Bald owns this book, which he ordered Cild to write… Nothing is as dear to me as this treasure.” The reference to leeches, meanwhile, appears to derive from the Old English term læca, which referred to a doctor of medicine.
The remedies contained within Bald’s Leechbook illustrate the connectivity of Europe from as early as the third century. After all, numerous herbs referenced in the text were actually native to the Mediterranean region. And other ingredients that were mentioned came from even further afield. Yet still, here they were in a British medical book.
In medieval Britain, plant life was at the heart of medical practice and treatment. Healers would sometimes use foreign vegetation to treat an ailment, while they’d use native plants on other occasions. Indeed, they could even use a combination of the two. A huge number of plant species could make up a single remedy.
On top of the vast array of herbs that people put to use, they also mixed more ghastly components into remedies. These might have included things such as worms, saliva, liver, urine, and pigeon’s blood. And just as with some of the herbal treatments, a number of these more grisly ingredients were rather useful.
It might seem amazing that these medieval concoctions were sometimes rather effective. But in some cases they were actually similar to contemporary medicines. In Bald’s Leechbook, for instance, an ointment made of nettles is described because it supposedly helped to ease muscle discomfort. Comparable balms are actually on the market and used today.
Of course, medical practices during the Anglo-Saxon period of English history weren’t entirely rational. There was undoubtedly a healthy dose of mysticism involved, mixed up with some genuinely effective methodology. But practitioners of the time were arguably more scientific in their approach than we today tend to presume they’d been.
Sometimes reasonable medical theories existed in medieval Britain, but they were tinged by pseudoscientific elements. For example, records from the period suggest that a relatively solid understanding of how a fetus develops existed. But it was also thought that an overdue pregnancy could prove deadly for an expectant mother – especially during the nighttime on Mondays.
Broadly speaking, bloodletting was a common practice in medieval medical treatments in Europe. This essentially involved draining a patient of their blood by piercing the blood vessels of the arm or neck. By the end of the 19th century, this practice had predominately fallen out of favor, though there are certain circumstances in which it’s used today.
Medieval medical practitioners, however, did demonstrate a certain degree of scientific knowledge with regard to their approach to bloodletting. They knew, for instance, that it was a bad idea to drain an excessive amount of blood. Plus, they were aware that undertaking the practice in summertime was unwise, as it would increase the possibility of infection.
There aren’t many records of surgeries in medieval times, but other forms of evidence suggesting the practice have been noted. Archaeologists, for example, have been able to tell us that trepanation surgery used to take place. Such a procedure would have involved boring a hole directly into a patient’s skull.
Education in medieval Britain was closely tied to the Church. As such, religion similarly played a massive part in the medical practices of the period. Prayers were often incorporated into treatments, as was the usage of charms. We can say, then, that mysticism was definitely a big consideration in medicine.
It could be argued that contemporary medical practices have been shaped by these more mystical habits of old. For example, the Anglo-Saxons often undertook healing ceremonies based around the unit of nine. This, perhaps, is similar to the almost ritualistic manner with which patients today are told to take antibiotics at three points in a day.
Maybe that particular argument is a bit of a stretch, but there’s no question about the significance of antibiotics in modern medical practices. Used to overcome harmful bacteria in the body, antibiotics are almost revered in contemporary times. After all, they’ve revolutionized medicine, turning untreatable illnesses from the past into manageable conditions.
Having said that, antibiotics have been around for thousands of years – they just weren’t recognized for what they were. In ancient Egypt, for instance, physicians treated infections by applying bits of mold-infested bread to wounds. But before the usage of antibiotics became more formalized, bacteria-related deaths were rampant in society.
Antibiotics only started to become properly understood towards the end of the 19th century, thanks to a German doctor named Paul Ehrlich. Having observed that coloring agents would stain some of the bacteria he applied them to, but not other cells, he came up with a theory. If some bacterial cells are affected by specific substances, and others aren’t, then you should be able to kill some and not damage others.
In 1909 Ehrlich realized that a substance known as arsphenamine could treat syphilis. Essentially, then, Ehrlich had come up with the first antibiotic of modern times. But it would be another three decades until the term “antibiotic” entered into the lexicon, after it was first used by a microbiologist called Selman Waksman.
Another huge development in the history of antibiotics came in 1928, when Alexander Fleming made an historic, albeit accidental, discovery. Having left a sample of bacteria exposed for a period, it became contaminated by a type of fungus called Penicillium notatum. This had led to the eradication of the bacteria.
Realizing what had happened, Fleming sought to isolate the fungus and to grow it himself. He did so, then discovering that it was extremely good at killing bacteria, even in low doses. More importantly, his new treatment wasn’t as toxic as other disinfectants that the medical world was employing during that period.
Penicillin – as the antibiotic that derived from Penicillium notatum is known – was soon medically trialed. And it quickly became evident that it was an effective treatment, eventually being used to deal with genuine ailments. The government of the United States went on to lend its support to the antibiotic’s development.
With the outbreak of World War II, the importance of penicillin was illustrated even more plainly. Soldiers across Europe who’d been injured in the line of duty were being treated with the antibiotic. After the war had come to an end, it had even become widely known as “the wonder drug.”
Antibiotics remain as a vital part of medicine today, capable of overcoming infection and ultimately saving people’s lives. But a problem has arisen in recent times as a result of these drugs being as popular as they are. Because of their prevalent usage, antibiotic resistance has emerged as a serious issue.
When bacteria are said to be resistant to antibiotics, it means that they can’t be eradicated by such drugs. This situation has largely come about because of the general overuse of antibiotics throughout society. Nowadays, 23,000 people a year are said to die because they’ve been exposed to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
There are a number of different antibiotic-resistant bacteria around today, but one of the most infamous is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Known as MRSA for short, this is an infection that often manifests itself upon a person’s skin. It tends to spread among people with immune systems that have already been compromised.
We can split MRSA into the separate categories of hospital-acquired (HA-MRSA) and community-acquired (CA-MRSA). HA-MRSA is an extremely dangerous infection, often requiring that antibiotics be introduced directly to a patient’s body using an IV. CA-MRSA, on the other hand, may be overcome with the help of antibiotics that are taken orally.
Despite the existing treatments for superbugs such as MRSA, however, the World Health Organization has stated that antibiotic resistance is among the most serious dangers to humanity. Bearing that in mind, any new means to treat such infections are of pivotal importance. But wouldn’t it be a surprise to learn that a potential treatment had already been created in medieval times?
Well, it seems that this might well have been the case. Amazingly, the Bald’s Leechbook medical textbook – which today resides in the British Library – contained a certain recipe for treating eye infections. Translated from Old English by Nottingham University’s Dr. Christine Lee, this formula consisted of onion, wine, garlic, and the bile salts of cattle.
Translated into modern English, the text reads, “Take cropleek and garlic, of both equal quantities, pound them well together. Take wine and bullocks’ gall, of both equal quantities, mix with the leek. Put this then into a brazen vessel, let it stand nine days in the brass vessel. Wring out through a cloth and clear it well, put it into a horn, and about nighttime apply it with a feather to the eye.”
Following this medieval recipe, a group of microbiologists from Nottingham University created the remedy. They then applied it to three strains of bacteria that are particularly hard to eradicate. Amazingly, the mixture appeared to be extremely effective at destroying one strain in particular. This, incredibly, was none other than MRSA.
To understand why, we need to first grasp some fundamental facts about bacteria. You see, these microorganisms can live as singular “planktonic cells,” or they can exist in the form of a multicellular “biofilm.” To help get a better sense of this latter term, we can say that the plaque that accumulates on teeth is an example of a biofilm. Antibiotics find it difficult to destroy biofilms.
The concoction in Bald’s Leechbook has garlic in it, which itself contains a substance called allicin. This could prove effective against bacterial planktonic cells, but it wouldn’t help much to destroy biofilms. From this, we can deduce that it’s the whole recipe that’s effective, rather than any of its individual components.
One of the researchers involved in this study was Dr. Freya Harrison, who discussed her team’s work in a July 2020 statement. She said, “We have shown that a medieval remedy made from onion, garlic, wine, and bile can kill a range of problematic bacteria grown both planktonically and as biofilms. Because the mixture did not cause much damage to human cells in the lab, or to mice, we could potentially develop a safe and effective antibacterial treatment from the remedy.”
Harrison went on, “Most antibiotics that we use today are derived from natural compounds. But our work highlights the need to explore not only single compounds, but mixtures of natural products for treating biofilm infections. We think that future discovery of antibiotics from natural products could be enhanced by studying combinations of ingredients, rather than single plants or compounds.”
Dr. Christina Lee, the person responsible for translating the recipe from Bald’s Leechbook, has also spoken publicly about the remedy. Associated with the University of Nottingham’s English department, Dr. Lee obviously has a less scientific outlook than Dr. Harrison. Nonetheless, her perspective is extremely important and worthy of bearing in mind.
Highlighting the importance of a multifaceted approach, Dr. Lee stated, “Bald’s eyesalve underlines the significance of medical treatment throughout the ages. It shows that people in Early Medieval England had at least some effective remedies. The collaboration which has informed this project shows the importance of the arts in interdisciplinary research.”
Research such as this is important for those who concern themselves with the study of history. But perhaps more vitally, it’s extremely valuable for scientists looking to develop new medicines for our current age and beyond. Sometimes, the past holds some secrets that ultimately can have a huge bearing on the course of the future.