A concoction of wine, garlic, an Allium species (such as leek or onion), and oxgall (cow bile) sounds like something that could be thrown into a large black kettle and stirred to the words: “Double, double, toil and trouble. Fire burn and cauldron bubble ... .”
This mixture, however, when allowed to stand in a brass vessel for nine nights, was actually prescribed for the treatment of styes, an infection of the eyelash follicle, 1,000 years ago.
The recipe is one of many found in medieval medicine books that had, until recently, been dismissed, along with much that came out of what is popularly known as the “Dark Ages,” as unenlightened by science or reason.
But opinion on that is changing, especially after a 2015 study showed that the afore described remedy—known as Bald’s eyesalve—was a successful antimicrobial agent.
With the advancement of modern medicine a millennium later, though, why are researchers still interested in these formulas?
“There is an urgent need to find novel drugs to fight antibiotic-resistant infections,” said Erin Connelly ’04, who is part of an ancientbiotics team, a group of medievalists, microbiologists, medicinal chemists, parasitologists, pharmacists, and data scientists from multiple universities and countries, working to find answers in medical history to this pressing global threat.
An estimated 700,000 people die annually from drug-resistant infections. It is estimated that that number could rise to 10 million by 2050 if new drugs are not developed.
Connelly, who graduated with a degree in biology, also had a side interest in medieval studies, which she pursued at Calvin by taking an Old English interim class as well as "The history of the English language" with professor Jim Vanden Bosch.
“While the two (biology and medieval studies) seem incongruous on the surface, these two streams of knowledge work quite well together when pursuing our research in natural medicines,” Connelly said.
As a student at Calvin, she researched molecular oncology at the Van Andel Institute in downtown Grand Rapids. She went on to earn a PhD in medieval English from the University of Nottingham, with a special interest in medieval medical texts and the relevance of medieval medicine for modern infections.
While in graduate school, Connelly got involved in the Bald’s eyesalve study, and its success helped launch her doctoral project: preparing the first-ever edition of the Lylye of Medicynes, a 15th Century Middle English translation of the major work of a significant medieval physician, Bernard of Gordon.
She transcribed and edited the text for the modern reader, which involved more than just word-for-word translation.
“There’s often a way of interpreting something that is completely different than how it appears in the text,” she said. “For instance, a Middle English text might read, ‘apply to the patient and say the pater noster twice,’ ” she said. “While that sounds religious—like they were hoping that prayer would work—it’s actually a way of keeping time through the use of a well-known text for the application of the treatment.
So it appears superstitious or religious—not scientifically based—and medievalists are essential for textual interpretation,” she said. “It’s important to put the language in societal and cultural context to understand it.”
Connelly’s current work as a CLIR-Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow for Data Curation in Medieval Studies at the University of Pennsylvania involves creating a database of ingredients used in the 360 recipes found in the Lylye of Medicines. It is an arduous process, but the hope is to find significant ingredient co-occurrences, especially in combinations that were used to treat infections.
“We are finding combinations that could be useful,” she said. Plantago, for example, is a common plant that is often used with vinegar, wine, and pomegranate, according to Connelly.
“Interest in medicinal plants is only increasing,” said Connelly. “There are a lot of things on the horizon. We believe that novel routes to drug discovery in the past could inform the future.”