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Significance Medical texts from the Middle Ages are often dismissed as being rife with accounts of ineffective potions, superstitious rituals, and beliefs associating the causes of disease with the supernatural.
While these accusations may often prove true, this leads to the quick assumption that we have nothing of modern clinical relevance to learn from such texts.
Experiments and Results The full translation of the recipe for Bald’s eyesalve (given by Harrison et al., 2015), is as follows: species – probably onion or leek] and garlic, pound well together, take equal amounts of wine and oxgall [bovine bile], mix with the alliums, put this in a brass vessel, let [the mixture] stand for nine nights in the brass vessel, wring through a cloth and clarify well, put in a horn and at night apply to the eye with a feather; the best medicine.species such as garlic, onion and leek produce a variety of compounds such as ajoene, allicin and flavonoids – which can have adverse effects on bacterial biofilm formation, quorum sensing (cell-cell communication) and virulence.
Systematically sifting through the tomes of medieval hocus-pocus may help to reveal novel antimicrobial compounds, or could perhaps enable the rediscovery of other forgotten medicinal recipes which may be valuable as we enter into the post-antibiotic era.
The description of the “baneful sores” suggests considerable suffering, and given the possibility that ‘water-elf disease’ was incurable at the time, not only would the sick person have had to endure an extensive illness, it seems he/she may also have had to endure the humiliation and discomfort of being cloaked in different kinds of plants; drenched in beer and holy water; and subjected to a verbal assault in the form of some nutter muttering incantations. While reading it is interesting to consider whether or not ‘water-elf disease’ or any of the other ailments described, had microbiological origins.
Some sources seem to suggest that the painful sores, watery eyes, itchy skin and severe fatigue of ‘water-elf disease’ are characteristic of conditions such as chickenpox and measles (Carr-Gomm and Heygate, 2010).
Further research is planned to investigate how and why this works.
The testing of the ancient remedy was the idea of Dr Christina Lee, Associate Professor in Viking Studies and member of the University’s Institute for Medieval Research.