Baked owl powder and roasted puppy fat among bizarre medieval cures revealed in Cambridge University project

Undated handout photo issued by Cambridge University Library of drawings of urine flasks, illustrating the different colours of a patient's urine, with their ailments described in roundels above. Curious medieval cures, including a treatment for gout that involved baking an owl then grinding it into a powder, are to be shared with the public online by Cambridge University Library. Issue date: Wednesday August 17, 2022.

Baking a salted owl and grinding it into powder to treat gout is one of the bizarre suggestions found among thousands of medieval medical remedies.

Stuffing a puppy with snail and sage, roasting it over a fire and using the fat to make a salve, is another suggested gout cure.

Someone suffering from cataracts hundreds of years ago would be advised to mix the gall bladder of a hare with some honey and use a feather to apply it to their eye.

The treatments are among 8,000 medical recipes contained in 180 medieval manuscripts – mostly dating to the 14th or 15th centuries – that are being digitised by the Cambridge University Library.

However, some date back even earlier, with one being 1,000 years old.

They also give an insight into the violence of medieval life, with advice on how to discover if a skull has been fractured after a weapon injury, as well as how to set broken bones and stop bleeding.

Some contain detailed illustrations and show doctors used a “bewildering array of ingredients” – animal, vegetable and mineral, said project leader Dr James Freeman.

“For all their complexities, medieval medical recipes are very relatable to modern readers,” he said.

“Many address ailments that we still struggle with today: headaches, toothache, diarrhoea, coughs, aching limbs.

“They show medieval people trying to manage their health with the knowledge that was available to them at the time – just as we do.”

Undated handout photo issued by Cambridge University Library of drawings of urine flasks, illustrating the different colours of a patient's urine, with their ailments described in roundels above. Curious medieval cures, including a treatment for gout that involved baking an owl then grinding it into a powder, are to be shared with the public online by Cambridge University Library. Issue date: Wednesday August 17, 2022.
Image:
Drawings of urine flasks, illustrating the different colours of a patient’s urine, with their ailments described above
Undated handout photo issued by Cambridge University Library of a diagnostic diagram linking a patient's age, temperament, the seasons and the elements in the 14th century. Curious medieval cures, including a treatment for gout that involved baking an owl then grinding it into a powder, are to be shared with the public online by Cambridge University Library. Issue date: Wednesday August 17, 2022.
Image:
A diagram linking a patient’s age, temperament, the seasons and the elements in the 14th century

Dr Freeman added: “They are also a reminder of the pain and precarity of medieval life, before antibiotics, before antiseptics and before pain relief as we would know them all today.

“Other treatments include salting an owl and baking it until it can be ground into a powder, mixing it with boar’s grease to make a salve, and rubbing it onto the sufferer’s body to cure gout.”

Undated handout photo issued by Cambridge University Library of drawings of urine flasks, illustrating the different colours of a patient's urine, with their ailments described alongside. Curious medieval cures, including a treatment for gout that involved baking an owl then grinding it into a powder, are to be shared with the public online by Cambridge University Library. Issue date: Wednesday August 17, 2022.
Image:
The texts are being digitised and transcribed and will be made available online

The texts come from a dozen Cambridge colleges, the Fitzwilliam Museum and the University Library, and are being preserved as part of the £500,000 Curious Cures project.

Full transcriptions of the remedies and high-res images will be made freely available in the Cambridge Digital Library as cataloguers work through the texts over the next two years.

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