Last month, a microbiology lab in Nottingham, England made international headlines when it unearthed a substance that kills methicillin-resistant staph, one of the deadliest superbugs of modern times. The most astounding part about the find? It was a 1,000-year-old Viking potion. “This is something we never, ever expected,” said Christina Lee, the Viking scholar at the University of Nottingham who translated the recipe from Old English. “When this tested positive against MRSA, we were just bowled over.”
Bald’s eye salve, intended to vanquish a stye, was discovered in Bald’s Leechbook, an Old English medical primer that hails from 9th century England. The recipe, which claimed to be “the best leechdom” in existence, caught the eye of Freya Harrison, a microbiologist at the University of Nottingham who moonlights as an Anglo-Saxon warrior on the weekends, as a member of the UK’s oldest and largest Viking reenactment society.
“This all kinda started from me being a big nerd,” Harrison told me over Skype. “When I met Christina, she was eager to talk with a microbiologist, because she has an interest in the history of infection. One of the things she had always wanted to do was test some of these medieval remedies out, to see whether they actually work.”
Together with microbiologist Steve Diggle, the three pooled resources to begin the “AncientBiotics” project, which would identify promising Anglo-Saxon remedies and test their medicinal value using modern science. They never expected their first attempt at replicating a medieval potion would be such a roaring success.
“To be honest, I didn’t think anything would come of this,” Diggle, whose interests lie in bacterial communication and evolution, told me over Skype. “For me, one of the most interesting aspects is asking whether this was a true scientific attempt at a recipe for treating an infection. If so, that completely changes our perspective on Anglo-Saxon medicine.”
A few popular fiction titles I’ve enjoyed reading relating to medieval/historical “primers,” “recipe books” or books of knowledge are: