“For all wikked humours of ballocqs”! Some glimpses into how fifteenth-century people made sick people better.

Today’s working day at the British Library turned up a little gem of a medieval manuscript. British Library MS Additional 19674 is a late fifteenth-century book of medical recipes ranging from the most minor ailments (such as having red eyes from rubbing them too much), to the most severe (adder bites, the death of an unborn child, major head wounds). This book is the stuff of an historian’s dreams. Furthermore, there is evidence that these recipes were actually prepared and used: for example, one recipe states that the earl of Warwick’s wife used the remedy.

I chose a selection of recipes that jumped off the page to me to present in this blog, as amazing insight into the manner in which late-medieval people attempted to make themselves and others feel better in times of illness and distress. I should add, I transcribed these in a quick half-hour before hometime, so am not standing by any of my transcriptions as fully accurate – go and check it out yourself!

To begin with perhaps the most severe. That moment when your dear friend has received a wound that may in fact bring him to the end of his mortal coil. You have treated him, perhaps using one of the other recipes from the book, and you are now seeking to know whether he is going to pull through:

“For to knowe yef thy goode freend in hys sikenesse whether he shal lyive or dye” (folio 16v)

(To know if your good friend will live or die)

“Take v croppes of verveyne in thy right hande and ley them in thy lyft hand and seye over them in Ϸe worship of the v woundes of criste the pater… And seye thus “I coniure you the croppes in the vertue of the woundes that he suffred on the roode tree for to bye mannes soule out of thraldome that the man that is sike telle me the soothe through Ϸe vertue of god whether he shal die or lyve of his sykenesse”….

Take five crops of vervain (from the genus verbena) in your right hand and then lay them into your left hand and say over them, in the worship of the five wounds of Christ the father…  thus “I conjure you thee crops in the virtue of the wounds that [Christ] suffered on the rood tree in order to buy man’s soul out of slavery that the man who is sick tell me the truth, through the virtue of god, whether he will survive his sickness”

This is a fascinating insight into the belief in the omniscient power of the Almighty, to command the voice of a man and empower him to reveal his own destiny to his anxious friend.

(Above) – “Nine kinds of Head Bandages” Bologna, Biblioteca Universitaria gr. 3632, folio 385r. From the Mackinney Collection of Medieval Medical Manuscripts – http://www.lib.unc.edu/dc/mackinney/

Also in British Library MS Additional 19674, we have a very serious remedy, for a very serious ailment:

“For the swellyng of the Ballocqs” (f. 14r)

(I think the title is self explanatory)

“Take beane mele and vinegr and tempre them to gydr and make a plastr and ley Ϸerto, but lete it come in noo fyre for it mot be colde and yf you haue grene benes stampe them and compine them with hony and make a plastire and leye it to Ϸe ballocques al colde. [Also take ….] Also take wermode and stampe it in bene mele and powder of comyn of eche 1 liche moche and tempur them with white wyne and frye them to yder and make a plaster and put into lewke warme and this good for all wikked humours of ballocqs. Also when thou takest awey the plastr wesshe thi ballocqs with warme vinegre at eche tyme for this is preued.”

Take bean flour  and vinegar and temper them together and make a paste and lay it thereto, but do not put it over the fire, for it must be cold. If you have green beans, smash them together and combine them with honey and make a paste of that and lay it to the testicles cold… Also take wormwood and smash it into the bean meal and cumin powder (the same amount of each) and temper them with white wine and fry them together and make a paste and put it into luke warm water. This is good for all ailments of the testicles. Also, when you take away the paste, wash the testicles with warm vinegar each time, for this is proven.

But what if your ailment was not life-threatening, or as distressing as swollen testicles, but annoying, disruptive and probably the cause of much amusement (or agitation) to your bedfellow?

“For a man or woman that speken moche in theire slepe” (f. 19r)

(For a man or woman who speaks a lot in their sleep)

A Victorian image of the serene medieval sleeping beauty, by John Collier: but what to do if she jabbers in her slumbers?

“Take the croppes of [?] and verveyne I-liche moche and stampe them and temper them with vinegre and streyne them and yeve the sike to drinke Ϸeroff last when he gooth to beddde and late hym vse thus ix dayes and he shal leue his spekyng fro thens forth”

Take the croppes of [?] and vervain (the same amount of each) and smash them together and temper them with vinegar and strain them. Give to the sick person to drink thereof, right before he goes to bed and let him use this for nine days and he will stop his talking from thens forth

Simple! I need to look at this again to get the other ingredient alongside the vervain, but I think I have the perfect remedy for any of my own snoozy ramblings!

This was one of the most fascinating manuscripts that I have had the pleasure of viewing, and I hope you enjoyed these excerpts too!


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