Medieval Medicine at Herstmonceux Castle

In a fifteenth century castle in the heart of the East Sussex countryside, a small but dedicated group of students chop herbs, grind spices and carefully measure liquids into glass bottles. Their aim is simple, to offer relief to others suffering with various medical ailments. It may surprise you to learn that this scene is not taking place in 1441, but rather in 2021. But do any of these ‘remedies’ actually work? Medieval medicine does have something of a bad reputation, largely thanks to the work of historians who claimed that the discipline did nothing but stand still for centuries.[1] However, as our students discovered, medieval remedies could be effective, and some are still even used today.

BISC students carefully assess their ingredients.

In a special workshop run by Dr Claire Kennan (Medieval Historian and Research Coordinator), Guy Lucas (Gardens and Grounds Manager) and Beth Richan (Director and Lecturer in Health Studies and Bachelor of Health Sciences Programmes) students from the ‘History and Philosophy of Health and Healthcare’ course came together to make lotions, potions and cures from original medieval recipes using plants and herbs from across the Herstmonceux Castle Estate. To ease a headache (vapours to the brain) students made a soothing camomile tea using a recipe by the thirteenth century physician Arnau of Vilanova; for a more intense headache or migraine a cooling poultice was made from barley, betony, vervain and lavender using a recipe from a fifteenth century Leechbook. For patients suffering with aching joints, oil of roses was prepared and to prevent hair loss a medieval leave-in conditioner was created using star anise, coriander, sage, mint, hyssop and violet flowers.[2]

Patients showing a sample of their urine for diagnosis by the physician Constantine the African.
Image available under the Creative Commons Licence.

The Herstmonceux Castle Estate sits within 300 acres of woodland and gardens where many of the traditional ingredients for medieval medicine can be grown. The plants and herbs used by the students in their medicine making have long been known to have health benefits. Camomile, for example, is highly regarded for its calming properties and is often used as a soothing drink before bed, it also has anti-microbial properties, settles stomachs and soothes pain. Betony is known to have anti-inflammatory properties and lavender is still used widely today to help with sleep, soothe headaches and induce a general feeling of calm. Rosa Canina, one of the UK’s native rose species, is especially high in Vitamin C which is known for its skincare benefits and its seeds were historically used to treat scurvy. Sage has been used to aid digestion, relieve cramps, act as a salve for cuts and burns, kill bacteria and reduce inflammation and swelling – this plant’s reputation as a remedy for illness is acknowledged in its scientific name (Salvia Officinalis) which is derived from the Latin word salvere meaning ‘to be saved’. Mint is another herb still used widely today as a natural remedy for all manner of ailments, in particular it is famous for easing queasy stomachs, calming stress and anxiety and promoting restful sleep. The slightly less familiar Hyssop was historically used to help heal cuts and bruises. Considering the medicinal qualities of these herbs and plants it is easy to see why medieval people would have turned to them in an age before the advent of paracetamol.

Medieval medicine was largely based on keeping the body’s four humours (blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile) in balance. Each of these humours was associated with a particular element (fire, water, earth and air) and had certain qualities (hot, dry, wet, cold). It was believed that an imbalance in the bodily humours would cause ill-health and to get better you needed to re-balance your humours through diet, exercise, rest, medicines or surgical procedures, including bloodletting or cupping. Humoural Theory dominated western medicine from Antiquity (most notably in the works of Hippocrates and Galen) right down to the nineteenth century.  But the Middle Ages also saw the emergence of important developments including hospitals and universities which allowed for medicine to continually develop as a practice.  

Triptych showing the Hôtel Dieu in Paris c. 1500. The comparatively well patients (on the right) were separated from the very ill (on the left). Image available under the Creative Commons Licence.

As early as the sixth century dietary advice was being given to promote good health. In his On the Observance of Foods, the Byzantine doctor Anthimus noted that:

if food has been prepared well, it helps towards good digestion, but if it has not been cooked properly, it causes a heaviness of the stomach and bowels. It can even engender indigestible fluids, together with smelly hiccoughs and violent belching. [3]

‘Dietary Advice for a Merovingian King’, Medieval Medicine, pp. 77-9.

Medieval people understood that eating the right foods, prepared in the right way, was essential for their wellbeing. Certain foods could even improve your health, as Hildegard Von Bingen, a Benedictine Abbess and medical writer (among other things), remarked:

Nutmeg has great heat and good moderation in its powers. If a person eats nutmeg, it will open up his heart, make his judgment free from obstruction, and give him good disposition.

Hildegard Von Bingen, Physica (1153).

Hildegard goes on to give a recipe for biscuits using nutmeg which will:

calm all bitterness of the heart and mind, open your heart and impaired senses, and make your mind more cheerful. It purifies your senses and diminishes all harmful humours in you. It gives good liquid to your blood and makes you strong.

Hildegard Von Bingham, Physica (1153).

As part of our Medieval Medicine Workshop the students were treated to a modern-day version of Hildegard Von Bingen’s ‘Biscuits of Happiness’ and they certainly hit the spot! For anyone wanting to have a go at some medieval-inspired baking (for therapeutic reasons of course) we have provided the recipe for you below.

Hildegard Von Bingham’s Biscuits of Happiness

Ingredients:

  • 300g spelt flour
  • 200g butter (cubed)
  • 100g sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • A pinch of ground cloves

Method:

  1. Sieve your flour and spices into a mixing bowl and stir.
  2. Add in your sugar and stir again.
  3. Add in the cubed butter and mix with your hands until you have something resembling fine breadcrumbs.
  4. Crack in your egg and mix until you have a sticky dough.
  5. Using greaseproof paper, roll your dough up into a long cylinder and leave in the fridge for 1 hour until it is firm.
  6. After 1 hour, remover the dough from the fridge and slice into discs about 1 cm thick.
  7. Place on a baking tray and bake at 160 degrees Celsius for 7-9 minutes (until ever so slightly golden).
  8. Remove your biscuits and place them on a wire rack to cool.
  9. Sprinkle with sugar and enjoy!

Dr Claire Kennan

With thanks to Guy Lucas, Beth Richan and the students of IDIS 173 ‘History and Philosophy of Health and Healthcare’.


[1] William Osler, The Evolution of Modern Medicine: A Series of Lectures Delivered at Yale University on the Silliman Foundation in April, 1913 (Yale University Press, 1921), p. 84.

[2] Recipes taken from ‘Tried and True: Medical Experimenta by Arnau of Vilanova’, in Faith Wallis ed. and trans., Medieval Medicine: A Reader (University of Toronto Press, 2010), pp. 401-405; ‘Of Herbs and Simples’ in Maggie Black, The Medieval Cookbook (The British Museum Press, 1992), pp. 136-8.

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