1,000 Year-Old Book Full of Plant-Based Remedies Now Digitized and Put Online

A 1,000 year-old manuscript called the Cotton MS Vitellius C III, which outlines the medicinal benefits of plants and animals, has been digitized and put online.

Nature over nurture

Sometimes when we’re feeling under the weather, pills just don’t come up to expectations and they don’t even prevent you from getting ill again. After all, you can never be immune from the common cold. But if you want to enjoy a healthier lifestyle, a lot of people swear by herbal remedies and the ‘you are what you eat’ mentality.

In this age of clean eating, veganism and wellness, we’re all being told that a healthier life is a happier life. The common factor with all these eating trends is natural ingredients and utilizing the healing effects of mother nature herself. However, this is not some brand new, revolutionary idea; Anglo-Saxons were onto the herbal jackpot centuries before us, as this manuscript proves.

The manuscript focuses on plant pharmacology accompanied by stunning illustrations that outline various treatments. Did you know you could cure body odor by simply simmering artichokes in wine? And when it comes to chest pain, leave the Rennies at home and give licorice root a try! Of course, you have to take these medical remedies with a pinch of salt as some tend to combine fact and legend. For example, one entry suggests that you grow dragonswort in dragon’s blood and another gives very detailed instructions about how to pull out a mandrake root.

Each entry in the manual is incredibly thorough. It has the plant or animal’s name in numerous languages and “descriptions of ailments it can be used to treat; and instructions for finding and preparing it.” The animal lovers amongst you will be pleased to hear that the manuscripts has “translations of Late Antique texts on the medicinal properties of badgers” as well as “medicines derived from parts of four-legged animals.”

The last of its kind

These manuscripts were commonplace in Anglo-Saxon culture but this manual in the British Library is the only one around today. Alison Hudson, the project curator said that the origin of the manuscript has been attached to the monasteries in Canterbury and Winchester.  “No one knows for sure how this manuscript was used or even where or by whom it was made,” she said. “Its production has been associated with monastic scriptoria at Canterbury and Winchester, due to its style of decoration and script, but this is by no means certain. Monasteries in those areas functioned both as centers of natural and supernatural healing and also as libraries and centers of learning.”

The manuscript is written in Old English, but it is actually a translation of a text that was supposedly written by Pseudo-Apuleius, a 4th century writer. Further research now suggests that the original text was written by several  Late Antique writers whose texts were compiled together.

The manuscript experience

The manuscript is available in the British Library’s online manuscript section. You can also use their magnificent high resolution tool which allows you to see the detailed drawings in all their glory. You can also zoom in on all the script to find out the various healing properties of animals and plants. You might find yourself charmed and amused by the seriously outdated drawings of our four legged friends, but then again, it’s not like you’re going to go off searching for a mandrake root to cure your chest pain.

Or maybe you will, in which case remember to take your dog with you.


Photo Credits: Hyperallergic, Open Culture.

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