Today I’m combining February’s calendar page information (yes, I know its the middle fo the month) with monasticism. Bloodletting was an important part of medieval health. If you were a monk you would pop along to the warming-house/room, usually in the late morning or early afternoon having had a snack in the refectory first. Monastic blood letting seems to have been akin to letting a vampire do his worst because accounts suggest that monks might lose up to four pints of blood during a letting. In fact monks were so weakened by the experience that they needed to spend time recuperating without the requirement for labour and with a relaxed dietary regime. On the third day after the bloodletting, the monk joined the rest of the community for some of the offices and might start doing a spot of light reading.
Monks, certainly Cistercians, were bled four times a year including February. Basically the idea was that blood letting was a restorative that sharpened the mind and quenched the kind of urges that might get monks into trouble. If the truth was told the quarterly blood letting probably meant that the monks had more blood taken than they had baths each year.
Candlemas on the 2nd of February ended the Medieval Christmas cycle. It was also often depicted as a time to rest – there are many images of agricultural labourers toasting their feet and warming their hands in front of a roaring fire in February.
The astronomical signs for the month began with Aquarius and ended the month with Pisces. Books of hours contained the astrological symbol for each month because it helped decide on medical practices – so letting blood from mid January to mid February was good because it is good to do things that last only a short while under Aquarius. But once the star sign changed it wasn’t a good idea to have anything medical done to your feet- not sure where you stand on clipping your toe nails as my medieval medical understanding isn’t that well defined.
In fact whilst we’re on the subject of blood letting – it depended on the month as to where blood should be taken and also what condition it was good for.
There is a name for the way in which parts of the body are associated with different zodiac symbols – melothesia – if you please. It had a Babylonian background so we are back to the transference of knowledge via the Arab world.
My head is full of bees and they’re quite happy buzzing around. As a result of the Zoom session which involved an understanding of medieval calendars I have a new bee buzzing gently at the back of my skull! Medieval calendars.
Egyptian Days, of which there were 24 each year, were the days that medieval calendar users believed to have been identified by ancient Egyptian astrologers as unlucky for new projects, battles, setting off on journeys, business deals and also for blood letting amongst other things. Apparently no self-respecting Anglo-Saxon would have eaten a goose on an Egyptian Day. The other way of describing them was as “evil days” which translated from Latin gives us the word “dismal.” And I’m very sorry if your birthday happens to fall on one of the days listed below. It was considered an unlucky start in life.
January 1st and 25th
February 1st and 26th
March 1st and 28th
April 10th and 20th
May 3rd and 25th
June 10th and 16th
July 13th and 22nd
August 1st and 30th
September 3rd and 21st
October 3rd and 22nd
November 5th and 28th
December 7th and 22nd
As with all these things there were those who dismissed bad luck days as superstitious nonsense, one such was the chronicler William of Newburgh who thought they were nonsense – unless you happened to be Jewish in which case England was to the medieval Jewish community what Egypt had once been which accounted for the murder of the Jewish community in York to to mention associated anti-jewish rioting and it was all down to Egyptian days rather than any unpleasantness by the local population.
As if that wasn’t bad enough there were plenty of medieval calendars that also incorporated dangerous hours. By the fourteenth century not only should you have your blood taken from an auspicious location according to the planets but you also had to watch out which day it was and what the time might be.
Egyptian Days can be found at the top of medieval monthly calendars and marked with a letter “D” for evil days.
This matula, or urine sample bottle, can be found in the Museum of London. Ancient civilisations including the Sumerians used urine to diagnose illness and by the medieval period it had evolved into a branch of medicine called uroscopy – or put another way doctors reckoned they could tell which of your four humours was out of balance simply by studying your urine. All they needed to do was look at the colour, the smell and, horror of horror, the taste of the medicine. They even had a handy chart to help them.
In 1426 an innkeeper in Kent was fined for putting a weed into the beer – hops. Jack Cade’s rebellion of 1450 was blamed on hops rather than the ineptitude of the government in at least one instance. The plant was perhaps looked on askance because it originated from the Low Countries. However, by 1597, John Gerard was advocating hops in beer as a remedy to keep the drinker healthy rather than merely as a thirst quencher.
In 1603 Parliament passed an act which forbade hop growers from adulterating their hop flowers with bits of stalk and leaves. By the seventeenth century there was no stopping the growth of hop farming. Indeed in 1710 another act was passed preventing the use of anything but hops.
Traditionally hop garlands and wreaths were hung up every year for good luck. Rather than adding them to beer in spring the new shoots can be eaten (I’ve not tried) – hence the name “poor man’s asparagus.” And of course, a pillow filled with dried hops will apparently send you to sleep. And having lulled you into a false sense of security now is probably a good time to mention that spring was a time for fasting and purging – putting a whole new meaning on the idea of spring cleaning. Hops were just one of the plants used to treat pests and parasites – yellow iris, red current leaves, wormwood and tansy were just a few of the ingredients added to the brew to give you a fresh start after the winter months.
I think I need to end on a more positive note! In 1406 John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, founded the Order of the Hop. He had just become the Count of Flanders and wanted his new subjects to feel appreciated. It was John who helped to popularise hops in Europe. Aside from hops John also commissioned many books, continuing the work of his parents. One of them – the Livre de Merveilles du Monde, contains some rather famous descriptions of journeys to exotic and strange places including Marco Polo’s account of his journey to China. However, the reason why its in this post is because as Celia Fisher explains that the frontispiece of the book depicts hops. The whole of the book is available to view online – just follow the link beneath the image at the start of this post.
Fisher, Celia. (2013) The Medieval Flower Book. London: The British Library
According to Gerard Solomn’s seal will mend a black eye within a coupe of days caused, and I quote, by “women wilfnulnes, in stumbling upon their haste husbands fists.” I make no comment other than to be grateful that Gerard’s humour would no longer be regarded as acceptable in any way shape or form. The roots of the plant will also help heal wounds and mend broken bones.
It took me years and years to find some Solomon’s seal of my own as wasn’t very popular in garden centres at that time. I assume because it grows in such profusion that those with the plant are more than happy to share it – the knack is to find a gardener with the aforementioned plant. Consequently I have been carefully to pot up some of the plant with each successive move I have made and there is always the concern that it won’t like it’s new home but it is currently spreading happily.
The plant is called Solomon’s seal after the marks on the root which are said according to folk lore to come from King Solomon’s seal when he first discovered the plant’s medicinal properties. Rather alarmingly the notes in my dictionary of plants inform me that the fumes that come from he brewed flowers were used to inspire painters and poets and keep evil spirits at bay. I shan’t be eating it anytime soon even if it a very useful medical plant, not least because my Alnwick Poison Garden guide observes that everything about the plant is toxic -it contains saponins and convallamarin demonstrating that medieval medicine really was a case of kill or cure.
Philips, Stuart. (2012) An Encyclopaedia of Plants: in myth, legend, magic and lore. London: Robert Hale