An Old French Poem on the Treatment of Wounds

In July we looked at the herbal list inserted into the Worcester Cathedral Library Manuscript catalogued as F.157. This is not the only surprise to be found among the pages of its 240 sober sermons. Near the beginning, an extra leaf has been inserted containing a poem in Anglo-Norman French on the treatment of wounds with herbs and other remedies. The top and bottom of the page are badly damaged but the central section is still readable with just over 100 lines of rhyming text in two columns on both sides.

 

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

Capital letters in blue and red mark different sections of the poem as well as lines drawn in black ink, and the word Altre meaning Next. Some of the headings begin sections on different types of treatment:

 

Treatments for these problems are described using a variety of plants and other natural products as shown in the next quotation:

 

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

The quotation shows the simple form used in the poem – lines with four stresses and rhyming in pairs: terfoil (clover) and miel (honey), i (there) and si (thus). The rhymes are not always exact!

Other plants mentioned in the poem include linois (linseed), malve (mallow), rosel (reed), polipodie (fern), ecorce (dry bark), poret (leek) and buttuns (rose hips). Many such herbs were of course freely available and used by ordinary people in the absence of other known or affordable treatments. Benedictine monasteries copied ancient texts and became repositories of knowledge on the practice of medicine. Insights into the medicinal properties of herbs were often quite accurate and plants remain today an important source of medical resources.

A number of other substances were needed and often used:

Encens (incense) was probably frankincense. It is derived from a tree resin which is a natural antibacterial substance secreted by the tree to protect it from attack by insects and fungi, as well as to speed the healing of wounds made in the bark. Peiz (pitch) is derived in the same way. Mel (honey), cire (beeswax) and alcohol are also natural antibacterials.

And at the end of the poem is some further prose writing on herbal medicine. This is mostly in Norman French but has a few lines of Latin and the odd word of English! This certainly suggests a clerical author, speaking French from a well-to-do childhood, educated in Latin as an officer of the church, and knowing English, the language of the common people!

 

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

And of course it should be remembered that such remedies as these were kept for practical reasons. They were needed in real life for ordinary people. Qualified doctors were few and far between, and could cost a lot of money – and in any case their practice of medicine sometimes depended on similar recipes!

Tim O’Mara

 

 

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