Monday, April 16, 2012

Honey to Cure What Ails Ye

I snapped this perfectly rotten photo last week on a visit to the newly installed Islamic wing at the Metropolitan Museum. (Here's a link to a far superior photo of it on the Met's site.)

Leaf from an Arabic Translation of the Materia Medica of Dioscorides, 1224
It depicts medicine being made from honey in an ancient pharmacy. Which of course got me to wondering, what sorts of curative properties were ascribed to honey in the Middle Ages? Apparently, lots. Hot plaster spread with honey and pigeon dung was used to treat kidney stones. A similar plaster smeared with goat dung, honey, and rosemary was used for gout. "Excess humors" were treated with an enema of herbs, honey and water inserted into a clyster pipe, itself fashioned from a pig's bladder. Surgeons daubed honey on wounds, already aware that it acts as a minor antiseptic. And a latter-day snake oil called "treacle" – honey mixed with some 64 herbs and other substances – was touted as a cure for fevers, heart trouble, epilepsy, plague, and many other ailments.

But honey's curative renown stretches much further back than medieval times. About 2700-3000 years further, in fact, to various Egyptian documents – the so-called Edwin Smith, Hearst and Ebers papyri – which are among the oldest extant medical texts. In them, Isis herself is said to have prepared a headache poultice for Ra out of coriander and honey. Cough was treated by having the patient inhale a mixture of honey, cream, milk, carob, colocynth, and date kernels. And a recipe for the treatment of diarrhea instructed the maker to boil together green onions, freshly cooked gruel, oil and honey, wax, and water. Drink up!

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