Henbane and Horehound

Toothache must have been a frequent problem in medieval times. With our standard of dental care, we lose awareness of just how chronic and potentially dangerous tooth problems can be. From chronic minor tooth pain (the sort that gets “referred” to other teeth so you don’t know where it’s coming from) to lethal infections, teeth were a never-ending problem.

Bald’s Leechbook suggests chewing pepper for toothache. When Bald’s book was compiled in the 11th century, this traded spice from southern India must have been restricted to castle cooking and medicinal use. Would pepper help with teeth? It might; it has antibiotic properties.

When pepper was not available, doctors turned to a very dangerous European plant: henbane, which is also called Stinking Nightshade. Henbane is very poisonous, but used with care, it is a narcotic and can induce hallucinations. Bald’s recipe calls for its root to be boiled in vinegar or wine, as a liquid to soak the tooth in. However, Steve Pollington in Leechcraft suggests that the primary reason that they turned to henbane was not that it was an effective narcotic, but rather because its fruit is shaped like a tooth. It’s possible!

Sore throat and lung ailments both enter the leechbooks as coughing. “Against coughing” there are many remedies, but in first place comes horehound. We know this as an old-fashioned candy flavor, but it actually refers to two different plants, the black and the white horehound.

White horehound is a kind of mint, and it is still used to make throat lozenges. However, when it’s boiled, it becomes bitter and nauseating, and works as a purgative. Black horehound is a completely different plant, Ballota nigra. It was known to farmers as the plant that cattle refused to eat because it had such an unpleasant smell. When boiled, however, it may be less volatile. Both are good for lung ailments; a modern herbal reference suggests that black horehound is the more effective medicine, acting directly on mucous membranes.

But Bald’s recipes call for “marrubium,” the Latin name for white horehound. He calls for it to be boiled with honey in some cases, or boiled in combination with many other herbs (betony, agrimony, wormwood, lupin, radish…it’s a long list). When boiled with these other herbs, it can be used to make a barley porridge. Bald suggests treating a man with serious lung disease by giving him warm herbal drinks first thing in the morning, alternatively at times feeding him the medicated barley porridge.

In one suggestion, the patient fasts overnight, takes the herbal brew on an empty stomach and immediately lies down on his right side, with his arm stretched above his head. I don’t know what the effect would be. Any guesses?

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