Skip to main content
Move the World.
medieval medicine

Lead Image © paseven / Adobe Stock

In his titular epic, the warrior Beowulf — easily the most metal of your high school English class characters — faces the human-devouring monster Grendel, who sneaks into a king's hall and slaughters his men at night. Undaunted, Beowulf ditches his weapons, lies in wait in the dark, rips the beast's arm off and — at least in my imagining — beats him with it.

(It's pretty awesome.)

Now, faced with human-devouring monsters of our own generation, scientists are exploring the same mists of the past that Beowulf moved through, hunting for modern cures in medieval medicine.

Our relentless carpet bombing of bacteria with antibiotics has given rise to a new, more formidable foe: the superbug. The bacteria who have survived our attacks and developed resistance have become all but impervious to traditional antibiotics — and unfortunately, they don't have tear-off-able arms.

To head off the microscopic uber Grendals, researchers are racing to find compounds that can act as powerful new antibiotics capable of stopping superbugs, and medieval medicine may hold clues.

A remedy in a medieval manuscript known as Bald's Leechbook may prove the importance of studying these potions.

Ancient Medicine, Modern Efficacy

Medieval medicine holding up to modern scrutiny may seem a long(bow) shot. But among the alchemical potions and spiritual superstitions and outright wrong theories of the past — you're imbalanced, four humors of health!; dissipate, miasma theory! — there are occasional gems.

Ancient medicine from as far back as ancient Egypt and Hippocrates has yielded significant results; both suggested using the bark of a willow tree for pain relief. The Royal Society proved the bark effective in 1763, but Bayer didn't start selling it as aspirin until a couple hundred years later.

Closer to today, researchers at Emory University discovered some promising compounds in plant-based medicines from the Civil War. Cut off by Lincoln's embargo from precious resources — including medicine — the Confederates commissioned a book of plants native to the area that could be used as medicine.

According to VICE's Rob Dozier, the resulting manual, informed by the practices of Native Americans and slaves, was dusted off by a team at Emory University. Led by Cassandra Quave, a professor of dermatology who is also trained in ethnobotany — the study of plant-based medicine in various cultures — they found that some of the plants proved to have antimicrobial properties, aimed directly at some of the war's smallest combatants, like Staph.

"I think it's important to look towards our past to try to understand better how these treatments worked," Quave told VICE. "We can leverage that historic knowledge to develop better, innovative therapies for the future."

Double, Double Toil and Trouble (for Bacteria) 

This new study, published in Scientific Reports, builds off Anglo-Saxon expert Christina Lee's previous research into one ancient remedy, known as Bald's eyesalve. The research was the result of Ancientbiotics, a cross-disciplinary group of researchers from the University of Nottingham (yep, really) and the University of Warwick in the UK, as well as American scientists.

Ancient medicine from as far back as ancient Egypt and Hippocrates has yielded significant results.

The Ancientbiotics team recreated the eyesalve potion — a concoction first recorded in 905 CE — in 2015. In both lab mice and in vitro studies, the medieval medicine proved to be effective against Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Incredibly resistant to antibiotics, this Gram-positive Grendel can cause deep, painful abscesses and can penetrate even deeper into bones, blood, the heart, and lungs — a potentially fatal turn of events.

Ancientbiotic's continued quest has also found Bald's potion to be effective at preventing bacteria from creating biofilm. 

A biofilm is kind of what it sounds like: a blanket of bacteria that grows on a surface. This layering can work like a shield, making superbugs even harder to kill. The medieval potion was found to have anti-biofilm properties, stopping a whole suite of nasties from forming biofilms — but only if the ingredients were used in combination.

The potion's ingredients are pretty wild: onion, garlic, wine, and cow's bile salts. But no single ingredient was found to be responsible for the results. 

"Most antibiotics that we use today are derived from natural compounds, but our work highlights the need to explore not only single compounds but mixtures of natural products for treating biofilm infections," University of Warwick microbiologist Freya Harrison said in a press release. 

The Bottom Line

The future of finding new antibiotics from ancient and Medieval medicine could be improved by studying the ingredients in combinations, said Harrison. Bald's eyesalve, for example, could lead to new treatments for infected wounds, like diabetic lower extremity ulcers.

The medieval potion was found to have anti-biofilm properties, but only if the ingredients were used in combination.

As one may expect from a potion from one of the world's earliest known medical books, Bald's eyesalve does have some adverse effects: chief among them, low-level damage to human cells. But since the damage was minimal, Harrison said, it still holds potential for new superbug treatments.

Science is scrambling for those treatments, trying everything from training the body to fight drug resistant bacteria to teaming up with viruses called phages to using, appropriately enough, dragon's blood.

Getting different scientific disciplines together may prove key, and that includes for unlocking the secrets of ancient and medieval medicine. Lee isn't a microbiologist, and the microbiologists need Lee's translation.

"Bald's eyesalve underlines the significance of medical treatment throughout the ages," Lee said in the Warwick release. 

"It shows that people in Early Medieval England had at least some effective remedies. The collaboration which has informed this project shows the importance of the arts in interdisciplinary research."

Up Next

Virology
Fighting Superbugs with Viruses
Fighting Superbugs with Viruses
Watch Now
Virology
Fighting Superbugs with Viruses
This Yale scientist's experimental treatment is a Texas woman's last resort.
Watch Now

Ben Chan searches sewers, lakes, and pig farms all around the world for bacteriophages (bacteria-destroying viruses) that could help fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as “superbugs.” Paige is a young woman in Texas with cystic fibrosis who is suffering from a drug-resistant infection; Ben’s experimental phage therapy is her last resort. We follow Ben as he travels from his laboratory at Yale to Lubbock,...

Dispatches
Training the Body to Fight Off Drug-Resistant Bacteria
Training the Body to Fight Off Drug-Resistant Bacteria
Dispatches
Training the Body to Fight Off Drug-Resistant Bacteria
A new strategy, called host-targeted defense, could help solve antibiotic resistance by upgrading the immune system.
By Zahidul Alam

A new strategy, called host-targeted defense, could help solve antibiotic resistance by upgrading the immune system.

On the Cusp
How Virtual Reality is Changing Medicine
How Virtual Reality is Changing Medicine
On the Cusp
How Virtual Reality is Changing Medicine
From virtual hearts to immersive battlefields, doctors and scientists are using virtual reality to transform medicine
By Brandon Stewart

From virtual hearts to immersive battlefields, doctors and scientists are using virtual reality to transform medicine

Superhuman
Is the Miracle Medicine of the Future About to Become the Totally Real Medicine of...
Is the Miracle Medicine of the Future About to Become the Totally Real Medicine of the Present?
Superhuman
Is the Miracle Medicine of the Future About to Become the Totally Real Medicine of...
Gene therapy uses a virus to replace missing or defective genes. It sounds counterintuitive, but it could be the...
By Mike Riggs

Gene therapy uses a virus to replace missing or defective genes. It sounds counterintuitive, but it could be the key to curing previously incurable diseases.

Animals
The Real Mother of Dragons
Real dragons
Watch Now
Animals
The Real Mother of Dragons
Meet the scientists using dragon blood to fight superbugs
Watch Now

If you thought dragons existed only in the domain of historical fantasy fiction like Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, think again. Dragons are real and their blood just may be our biggest hope when it comes to tomorrow's antibiotics. Dragons Are Real The largest of any earthly lizard, Komodo dragons walk the earth to this day. They’re not only real, but they’re also much like their larger, fictional counterparts, fit...

Genetics
Can RNA Editing Catch Up To CRISPR?
rna editing
Genetics
Can RNA Editing Catch Up To CRISPR?
Developed in the 1980s, RNA editing was overshadowed by CRISPR. But the last few years have seen a resurgence of interest in the gene editing technique.

Developed in the 1980s, RNA editing was overshadowed by CRISPR. But the last few years have seen a resurgence of interest in the gene editing technique.

Coronavirus
Can Old Vaccines Be New Weapons Against COVID-19?
repurposed vaccine
Coronavirus
Can Old Vaccines Be New Weapons Against COVID-19?
Well-established vaccines using weakened pathogens provide general immune benefits. Now researchers are proposing them to help fight COVID-19.

Well-established vaccines using weakened pathogens provide general immune benefits. Now researchers are proposing them to help fight COVID-19.

Genetics
Genetic “Off Switch” May Lead to New Breast Cancer Treatment
Breast Cancer Treatment
Genetics
Genetic “Off Switch” May Lead to New Breast Cancer Treatment
A much-needed triple negative breast cancer treatment could center on the suppression of a single gene identified in a new Tulane University study.

A much-needed triple negative breast cancer treatment could center on the suppression of a single gene identified in a new Tulane University study.

The New Space Race
Here's What Happens to the Human Body in Outer Space
Here's What Happens to the Human Body in Outer Space
The New Space Race
Here's What Happens to the Human Body in Outer Space
As the idea of colonizing space becomes mainstream, it’s important to keep in mind that traveling in outer space...
By Mike Riggs

As the idea of colonizing space becomes mainstream, it’s important to keep in mind that traveling in outer space does some crazy stuff to our bodies.