This is a repost from my research blog, Gemæcce.
Both the BBC and Archaeology (and then lots of others, such as the New Scientist) picked up the story from the University of Nottingham about the so-called miracle eye salve in Bald’s Leechbook, an Old English book of remedies written, some believe, in the ninth century. The researchers at Nottingham were amazed at the efficacy of the salve, which uses two species of Allium (garlic and onion or leek), wine and ox-gall (bile from a cow’s stomach), made in a brass vessel, strained, and left to cool for nine days before use.
They tested it in vitro and then topically on wounds in vivo on scraps of skin taken from mice infected with Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). It worked, killing 90% of bacteria—about the same as the antibiotic vancomycin. The researchers were “blown away” and “genuinely astonished.” The key, apparently, is the nine days’ steep, which turns the mix into “a kind of loathsome, odorous slime.”
Both Hild and Breguswith could have told them it worked. From page 161 of the US edition of Hild*:
Hild and her mother worked side by side in the still room. They stood hip to hip and shoulder to shoulder: Hild was now as tall as Breguswith. While her mother rinsed an ox horn with hot vinegar, Hild strained the onion and garlic mash, steeped in a copper bowl for nine days with wine and bull’s gall, through a fine cloth. When the liquid was clear, Hild poured it carefully into the clean horn. Breguswith pushed in the wooden stopper and Hild warmed beeswax to seal it. In winter, when eyelids were red and angry, they’d dip a feather into the mixture and use it to paint a line along the eyelash roots to treat styes. Eye infections were always worse in winter when everyone crowded together and the fires smoked.
This kind of remedy doesn’t happen by accident. It’s the end result of a long process of treatment, observation, and adjustment. It drives me nuts when people talk as though Anglo-Saxons were superstitious fools. Yes, no doubt some of them were. But some, clearly, were clever and careful people. As one of the readers who pointed this news out to me said (thanks, Terry!), Breguswith knew a thing or two…
* page 159 in the UK edition