An Old English medical compendium known as the Bald’s Leechbook was possibly compiled during the reign of Alfred the Great in 9th century AD. And while only a single manuscript of the text survives in the British Library, the compendium is known for many interesting medical treatments, including the only known mention of plastic surgery in Anglo-Saxon records (for treating Cleft lip and palate). And back in 2015, a duo of researchers came across another ‘recipe’ for treating stye (infected eyelash follicle). To their surprise, the scholars found that the resulting recreated potion – concocted from a list of assorted ingredients mentioned in the manuscript, did actually demonstrate its effectiveness in dealing with the stye-causing bacteria MRSA.
The project was the fruit of the collaboration between Freya Harrison, a microbiologist at the University of Nottingham, and Christina Lee, an Anglo-Saxon scholar. The recipe in its original form (in the Bald’s Leechbook) roughly read like this –
Take cropleek and garlic, of both equal quantities, pound them well together…take wine and bullocks gall, mix with the leek…let it stand nine days in the brass vessel…
Now while some of these ingredients can be acquired in a straightforward manner, there was the factor of historical discrepancy that could have hampered the concocting process. For example, the 9th century varieties of garlic and leek are quite different from their modern-day counterparts. Similarly, the researchers had to opt for an organic vintage wine sourced from a historic English vineyard. Furthermore from the practical perspective, a brass vessel is quite difficult to sterilize. So instead they utilized glass bottles that incorporated squares of brass sheet.
In any case, after nine days of stewing, the researchers found that the resulting potion had already acted upon and eliminated the soil bacteria that had grown due to the combination of leek and garlic. Encouraged by this chemical reaction, the team then proceeded on to apply the potion on skin samples taken from mice infected with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (commonly known as MRSA, the bacteria that causes stye). To their surprise, the researchers found that the medieval-origin concoction was responsible for killing around 90 percent of the bacteria, a figure that can be compared to modern-day Vancomycin, an antibiotic used for treating MRSA.
Now by observation it was comprehended that the individual ingredients by themselves were quite ineffective in dealing with the MRSA bacteria. Moreover, an older experiment conducted by a different group in 2005 – relating to the same Anglo-Saxon potion, failed as noted by the low death-rate of the bacteria grown in a dish. Both of these factors possibly allude to how it is important to sequentially combine the ingredients with the precise methods.
These notions in turn pose the question – how exactly does the Anglo-Saxon remedy work? Simply put, the researchers are working out the scope of this potion combination, relating to either synergy between the components, or hinting at the formation of a completely new compound. Suffice it to say, further studies are required to gauge the full potential of the potions (or similar drugs) that could be recreated in our modern-times.
And finally, since we are talking about the medical ‘solutions’ from an early medieval manuscript, it should be also noted that some of the practitioners in the middle ages had a penchant for fantastical treatments. An apt example of a remedy from Bald’s Leechbook suggests that a horse in pain be cured by inscribing the words ‘bless all the works of the lord of lords’ on the handle of a dagger – with the author talking about how such pains are usually caused by an elf.
The study was originally presented at the Society for General Microbiology conference in 2015.