Medieval Medicine – and Mystery!

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that I’m a history buff – especially if it has anything to do with herbs. This last week I rediscovered an old friend: Brother Cadfael.

My only interaction with the good Brother to this point was the PBS series based on the books. Sir Derek Jacobi starred in 13 episodes that aired over four years in the 1990’s. For some reason, I felt a distinct urge to reacquaint myself with him and bought the entire series of 20 books. (Yes, I treated myself … big time.)

If you’ve never heard of him, Brother Cadfael is a fictitious 12th century Benedictine monk living in the very real Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England. The author, Ellis Peters (pen name of Edith Pargenter) was a native of Shropshire and did some rather thorough research not only into the history of the area but also into medieval medicine and herbs of the time. From what I’ve read elsewhere, the history, down to who the Abbott was during those times, is accurate. From my own research, I can tell you her medieval medicine is also quite accurate.

Brother Cadfael came to the tonsure late … he was a Crusader and man of the world until taking his vows in his 40’s. (Remember, life expectancy was low back then – the average man lived only until his mid-30’s.) By the time of the Chronicles, he’s in his late 50’s and although relatively spry, is considered an old man.

Throughout his travels and now cloistered career, he develops a love of plants and knowledge of their uses, and is the Abbey’s herbarist. I’d give my eye teeth to have the time – and money – to develop an herbarium (herb garden) such as Peters describes. In between tending gardens, making herbal remedies and attending six services a day, he seems to get caught up in one trouble after another.

He does know his plants and you can hear his voice echoing in virtually every modern herbalist. In the Second Chronicle, One Corpse Too Many, he says to a young woman, “All things of the wild have their proper uses, only misuse makes them evil”. Truth!

My favorite book thus far is the third in the series, Monk’s Hood.  The victim is poisoned by an oil rub made by the good brother for muscle ailments with, you guessed it, Monkshood as one of the ingredients. Her description of the herbal oil, its therapeutic applications and its baneful nature are spot-on. What herbalist with a bent for the baddies wouldn’t love this one?

If you’re looking for a peek into medieval medicine and want to be entertained at the same time, you can’t go wrong with these books. Or at least the PBS series if you can’t bring yourself to read.