Betony, the miracle herb (or: all about Anglo-Saxon vomit)

Aelfric's grammar Har3271 55r
The conjugations of vomit. Ælfric’s Grammar, London, British Library Harley 3271, f. 55r

So far, in this blog, I have mostly written about subjects of deep spiritual significance to the lives of pious Anglo-Saxons: solitary prayer, confession, the healing of the sick, and praying in the words of the great Fathers of the church.

Today, I am going to write about vomit.

Not, you might think, a related topic at all. But, in fact, it is surprising how much puke has to do with prayer. I’ve been looking through the medical and confessional texts that I work on (whilst finding a few other examples via the Old English Corpus online) and come across quite a few mentions of spew – which is, incidentally, the native English word: the verbs spiwan and aspiwan cover the field of vomit and general regurgitation.

Medical manuscripts, are, of course, the first place to look. If a person cannot digest food correctly, the Old English Herbarium, a collection of medical remedies based on plants, has a cure for that:

Wiþ ðon þe man ne mæge his mete gehabban 7 he spiwe ðonne he hyne geðigedne hæbbe genim þonne betonican þære wyrte iiii trymesan gewæge 7 awylled hunig; wyrc þonne lytle poslingas feower þærof; ete þonne ænne 7 ænne on hatum wætere 7 on wine tosomne, geðicge ðonne þæs wætan þreo full fulle.

(De Vriend, ed., Herbarium, p. 34; quoted from version in London, British Library Cotton Vitellius C. iii)

(When a person cannot take his food, and he vomits when he has consumed it: take betony, weigh out four measures of the plant, and boiled honey; then make four little pills of it; then eat one, and one in hot water and wine together; then consume three cups full of the liquid.)

More commonly, however, the medical manuscripts deal with situations where you want the patient to puke. An emetic potion of this kind was referred to as a spiwdrenc – spewdrink – and another medical collection, Leechbook II, devotes an entire chapter to the making of these medicines, although it does not state for which purpose they were used. The Herbarium, however, is more specific. Sometimes, for example, the patient may have eaten something poisonous that needs to be swiftly ejected from the body:

Gif þonne hwylc man attor geþycge genime ðonne þære ylcan wyrte þreo trymessan gewæge 7 feower ful fulle wines, wylle tosomne 7 drince; þonne aspiweð he þæt attor.

(De Vriend, ed., Herbarium, p. 36)

(If any person consumes poison, then take the same plant [betony again], weigh three measures and four cups full of wine, boil them together and drink. Then he will bring up the poison.)

In Anglo-Saxon medicine, body and soul are often intertwined, and nowhere can we see this more than in another common use of the spewdrink: in dealing with demonic influences upon a human being. How you knew that a person was being afflicted by a devil, it is not clear: probably some illnesses were held to be caused by demons. Whatever these were, the patient would be given a medicinal cure as well as spiritual assistance, in the form of a drink to help him/her literally vomit up the infernal influences, as seen in this remedy from Leechbook I:

Wiþ feondseocum men · þonne deofol þone monnan fede oððe hine innan gewealde mid adle. Spiwedrenc eluhtre · bisceopwyrt · beolone cropleac gecnua tosomne do eala to wætan læt standan neahterne do fiftig lybcorna on 7 halig wæter.

(Cockayne, ed., Leechdoms, Starcraft and Wortcunning, vol, II, p. 136)

(For a devilsick person, when the devil wants to ‘feed’ the person or control him from within with disease, an emetic drink: lupin, betony, henbane, garlic. Pound them together, put in ale as a liquid, allow to stand overnight, and put in fifty purgative seeds and holy water.)

Betony, Egerton747 14r
Betony: evidently very useful for vomit. From a 13th/14th century Italian herbal, London, British Library Egerton 747 f. 14r

As for the body, so for the soul. The value of these spiwdrencan did not go unnoticed by writers on confession. It is commonplace for the confessor to be compared to a doctor, administering a cure for the patient’s ills. The patient has soul wounds; the doctor applies a salve. The doctor must cut or burn the patient, but only because he will otherwise die. And, sometimes, the metaphor is vomit. According to a guide for confessors which appears (complete or otherwise) in six different eleventh-century manuscripts:

Ðurh gode lare man sceal ærest hi lacnian, and mid þam gedon þæt man aspiwe þæt attor þæt him oninnan bið: þæt is þæt he geclænsige hine silfne ærest þurh andetnesse. Eal man sceal aspiwan sinna þurh gode lare mid andetnesse ealswa man unlibba deð ðurh godne drenc. Ne mæg æni læce wel lacnian ær ðæt attor ute sy, ne æni man eac dædbote wel tæcan þam ðe andettan nele.

(Roger Fowler, ed., ‘A late Old English handbook for the use of a confessor’, p. 27)

(One must cure them first through good teaching, and with that do so that the man may vomit out the poison that is within him; that is, that he may cleanse himself first through confession. Every person must vomit out sins through good teaching with confession, just as one does poison with a good [medicinal] drink. No doctor can cure well before the poison is out, and nor can any man teach penance to him who does not want to confess.)

Here, as in so many places, we see how closely connected physical and spiritual healing were in Anglo-Saxon culture. I hope to find time for another post before the holiday season; if not, enjoy yourselves, but try not to spiwan from oferdrenc. Mind you, I hear that betony is good for that, too:

Gif man nelle beon druncen nime þonne ærest, onbyrge betonican þære wyrte.

(De Vriend, ed., Herbarium, p. 32)

(If one does not want to be drunk, then first take and eat the plant betony.)

Against drunkenness Harley6258B 6v
A late 12th-century copy of the Herbarium. London, British Library Harley 6258B, f. 6v

9 thoughts on “Betony, the miracle herb (or: all about Anglo-Saxon vomit)

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