Bald's Leechbook and staph infection

Photo: British Library

"Bald's Leechbook" is not a book about blood-sucking worms. It's a medieval tome written in Anglo-Saxon, probably during the ninth century, which outlines the practices of English doctors (sometimes referred to as "leeches" at the time) concerning care and treatment of a variety of human maladies. The book can now be found in London’s British Library.

The title comes from an inscription found in the middle of the book:

“Bald is the owner of this book that he ordered [the scribe] Cild to create. Earnestly I beg all people in the name of Christ that no deceitful man shall take this book from me by force or by any falsehoods. Because no treasure is as precious to me as my books….”

The treatments within this oddly named book might have remained ancient medical curiosities had it not been for a surprising discovery earlier this year. British scientists determined almost by accident that a treatment for an eye infection in the "Leechbook" worked as an effective treatment for a certain type of staph infection, a superbug that caused the deaths of roughly 5,000 people in the United States in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The treatment in question (a mixture of garlic, wine, onion and the bile from a cow boiled in a brass container then left to sit for nine days), was tested at the University of Nottingham’s Center for Biomolecular Sciences as well as Texas Tech University, and researchers were surprised at the effectiveness of the concoction, which killed up to 90 percent of MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, bacteria.

Obviously more testing will need to be done, but the initial results have researchers pleased but puzzled. But you can't argue with success. So what other secrets does this ancient book hold?

Some other archaic medical treatments include:

Headaches: Bind a sample of crosswort to the head with a red cloth.

Chilblains: Create a concoction of eggs, fennel root and wine and spread liberally.

Shingles: This can be treated by a salve made from the bark of 15 types of trees including ash, oak, and apple.

Male impotence: Drinking sticklewort (agrimony) boiled in milk. Boiling the same plant in ale, however, will have the opposite effect.

Excessive bleeding: Apply horse dung to the wound.

Toothache: Place a burning candle as close to the affected tooth as possible in order for the heat to force the worms, causing the pain to crawl out of the tooth.

Bubonic plague: Cut open the sores and apply a paste made from garlic and butter.

Coughs and minor abscesses: Apply balsam. This cure can also be used for “fever (and) apparitions (of) all delusions.”

Kidney stones: Apply a treatment salve of honey and pigeon droppings.

The most bizarre cures, however, were inflicted on the mentally ill. Treatments for all kinds of psychological disorders included drinking petroleum, being whipped with a cord made of dolphin or porpoise skin, and a religious ritual: concoct a complicated mixture including fennel and a variety of leek and then “let Masses be sung over it, let it be made of foreign ale and of holy water; let him drink this … for nine mornings … and let him give alms and … pray to God for His mercies.”

The "Leechbook" even included instructions on performing surgery for correcting a hare lip: “pound mastic [resin from a mastic tree] very small, add an egg white…cut with a knife the edges of the lip, sew with silk, then smear the salve inside and outside or the silk will rot.”

But for now, researchers are going to focus their attention on the MRSA salve.

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How can a 9th-century 'Leechbook' be relevant today?
A 1,000-year-old doctors' manual holds the key to an infection that kills roughly 5,000 people a year.