Animals in medieval medicine

In the entries for eye salves, we first start to see an odd trend in these traditional remedies. While most of them use herbs, a few use fat or gall from animals. Is this medicine or magic?

Both of the leechbooks (lists of remedies in Anglo-Saxons) provide eye salves made from animals, and they are similar but not identical. Bald’s book has a very simple one: put fox’s fat into your eyes. In fact, do it every night for 30 nights as a general cure-all.

Bald’s book suggests another eye salve that sounds more difficult in every way. It starts with oil and a bumble-bee’s honey. Honey was often used to make medicines taste better or as a salve base, but this one specifies a wild bee whose honey is probably difficult to obtain. Into this base, add gall from a raven and a salmon.

Lacnunga has two similar salves. In one, the gall from a raven and a salmon are added to some herbs. A little “sharp juice” makes it a bit wetter, and it’s dropped into the eye through the medium of a piece of linen. In the other salve, bumble-bee’s honey forms the base, with fox fat and bone marrow from a roe deer.

It’s hard to know what to make of these directions from a modern view. It’s impossible to exclude an element of magic, since the bird must be a raven, not just any bird. Is the gallbladder of a raven distinct from others? It’s plausible that bile produced by seed-eating or worm-eating or scavenging birds is different, since they are digesting different things. What about bile from a salmon? I just don’t know.

It’s possible that there’s a unique chemical signature to the honey of the wild bumble-bee, as opposed to all of the wild or domesticated honey bees. Is it likely that this chemical is a break-through substance for treating eyes? It doesn’t seem likely.

It seems likeliest that the efficacy of the salves depended most on the ingredients being hard to obtain. It wasn’t hard to find bile from common farm animals, and pigs are known for production of fat, even in medieval times when pigs foraged for their own food. Foxes are lean creatures; even if you caught a fox and butchered it mainly for its fat, you’d have a small quantity. Same with salmon’s and ravens’ gallbladders or stomachs: small quantities, hard to obtain.

Bumble-bees do make honey, but there’s a reason they aren’t called honey bees. Honey bees stockpile honey for wintering over, but bumble-bees store only a few days’ worth of honey. It would take skill and patience even to find where it was stored, let alone bring it back.

In general, honey has some antibiotic properties, and bile is a mix of powerful chemicals. Ox gall, Wikipedia tells us, has cholesterol, lecithin, taurocholic acid, and glycocholic acid. The other kinds of bile might have any of six acids, which occur in the form of salts. Mixed into water, the salts break down into amino acids like taurine and cysteine.  Taurine crosses the blood-brain barrier and acts as an anti-oxidant; it is a component in today’s energy drinks.

So what happens when you take a bile from specific fish and birds, mix it with hard-to-obtain wild honey, and add fox fat? Really, anything could happen. it’s possible that some chemicals form powerful antibiotics. It’s also possible that representatives of air, land and water unite their magical powers to overwhelm flying venom. Until someone tests these substances, we won’t know.

As before, much thanks to Steve Pollington’s Leechcraft for these medicinal recipes.

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