Mad dogs and Englishmen—and chickens

I’m passing over many remedies in Leechcraft that follow a sensible, generic pattern: “take these 3 herbs and boil them in wine, let the patient drink it.” “Boil this herb in butter, mix in another herb, apply to wound.” Many of them sound plausible. Another generic pattern is a long list of herbs to be ground together and mixed into butter as a heal-all salve. This, too, sounds at least plausible. There are simply so many of these remedies that unless readers wanted to know about a particular ailment, such as breaking up stones in the bladder, I don’t want to write about them. Of course, the risk of seeking out the interesting ones is that it may distort the overall picture of traditional medicine in the early Middle Ages.

Remedies for dangerous bites stand out from general wound care. There is more attention to snake bites in the Herbarium, which was compiled in Anglo-Saxon from Latin sources. Bald’s Leechbook is more interested in bites of spiders and dogs. However, the Herbarium addresses rabies in particular: the bite of a mad dog. It probably didn’t work, but it’s interesting.

The remedy is in an entry for the herb ashthroat, which may be the herb now called verbena or vervain. It is first prescribed for hardening of the arteries, stones in the bladder, liver disease, and wound care. Its use in snake-bite and spider-bite is unremarkable, following the generic pattern of boiling pounded twigs and leaves in wine, and applying it to the wound.

For the bite of a mad dog, the verbena (probably crushed) is mixed with an equal amount of wheat seeds. This mixture is laid into the open wound. The wheat is there to absorb moisture, probably to draw out the venom. When it appears to be swelled up with moisture, it is removed from the wound and tossed to the chickens. This is a test: will the chickens eat it? If the chickens refuse to touch it, the procedure must be repeated with fresh verbena and wheat until all toxicity is gone.

I don’t know what to make of this test. They seem to assume that chickens can sense the infection in the grain. Or is this just a test of how successfully the wound is being drained at all? Will chickens avoid grain that has gotten blood on it? This seems unlikely to me; the chickens I’ve known don’t mind picking each other bloody. Has anyone in the last 1000 years tried it, or has this chicken lore died out? My father, an amateur chicken farmer, didn’t know either. The internet is only interested in whether chickens can get rabies (answer: no, but isolated cases happen).

Other Herbarium entries recommended for the bite of a mad dog are used in conventional ways, just laid into the wound plain or infused in wine. Only this one treatment has the chicken test.

Bald’s Leechbook suggests using houndstooth, or houndstongue, to treat dog bite. This plant is toxic to cattle because its natural insecticides are so powerful. It has a long history in herb lore; it was regularly used in medicine into the modern age, decocted into various brews and teas. But it’s likely that its use for dog-bite is mostly due to its leaves being shaped like a dog’s tongue. Natural magic’s first principle was that anything shaped like the body part or attacker could help with the ailment.


This entry was posted in Med. and Magic. Bookmark the permalink.