In the novel I’m currently working on, the hero catches a cold. This was partly to enable the heroine to visit him while he’s in bed (it’s a bad cold) and also to give him the opportunity to notice that she cares about him. Since she’s picked up a bit of knowledge about what to do with sick people, I thought I’d find out how she might look after someone with a cold.
Although it’s unlikely that my heroine would be aware of what the great medical minds of the Middle Ages thought about colds, I started with Medieval Medicine: A Reader. This book contains texts on medical subjects from the sixth to the sixteenth century.
I often read blogs while I’m having breakfast. If that’s what you’re doing and you’re at all squeamish, I recommend you come back later.
In the early Middle Ages, the main objective of someone treating a cold was to remove the mucus from the head (according to the Natural Remedies of Pliny). An infusion of cabbage leaves was recommended for this. A mixture of the juice of black beetroot and honey administered through the nose would also do the trick. In summer you could decoct clover by mashing it and boiling it in water. The patient would drink the result.
The writer also recommends gargles: one made of mustard, turnip seed, pepper, nasturtium seed, rocket, oregano and celery seed mixed with honey and hot water; and one made of mustard seed, sweetened vinegar, stavesacre ( a poisonous delphinium), hyssop heads and honey. I think honey might have been considered a bit of a cure-all in the Middle Ages, although it was more likely included in the gargles to disguise the taste of the other ingredients.
On top of this the patient was to avoid wine and baths and being out in the cold. In some ways this resembles the remedies of my childhood, in that we were given honey in hot milk and told to ‘wrap up warm’. In the days before central heating, not having a bath when you had a cold was a very sensible idea, so we didn’t.
By the thirteenth century things hadn’t changed much. In On the Properties of Things Bartholomew the Englishman suggested a decoction of roses in rain-water to be applied to the nostrils, except when there was a lot of sneezing going on. Alternatively, laudanum, frankincense, storax and castoreum might work. Storax was a resin obtained from tree bark. Castoreum is secreted from the anal sacs of the beaver and was mostly used to induce vomiting. Somewhat surprisingly, it’s used today as part of a substitute for vanilla flavouring and to flavour cigarettes. Yes, I did suggest you read something else while you’re having breakfast.
On the Properties of Things was a very popular work and was translated into English and French in the second half of the fourteenth century.
My heroine probably has a couple of recipes for gargles and she has a herb garden at her disposal. I doubt that administering an infusion of cabbage leaves to him would endear her to the object of her affections, though.
Medieval Medicine: A Reader – ed. Faith Wallis