The Alphabet of Galen: Pharmacy from Antiquity to the Middle Ages

A Critical Edition of the Latin Text with English Translation and Commentary by Nicholas Everett

University of Toronto Press, 2012
ISBN: 9780802095503

In order to heal injuries and cure diseases, medieval men and women turned to the natural world – plants, stones, animals – for possible treatments. Since ancient times various medical cures have been developed, some strange and others insightful, to deal with many illnesses and conditions.

The Alphabet of Galen is a medieval text that circulated widely throughout the Mediterranean region between the seventh to thirteenth centuries. It was named after the ancient physician Galen of Pergamum (c.129-217 AD) but was actually written much later, and contains over 300 natural products, ranging from Myrrh to Deadly carrot. Most entries explain where the item comes from (some common, while others can only be imported from far distant lands such as India or Africa) and what ailments they can cure, including treating wounds, stomach problems, constipation or even poor eyesight.

Nicholas Everett, associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Toronto, has completed the first English translation of this text, which is now available from the University of Toronto Press. Here are a sample of some of the medieval cures and medicines.

Medieval Cures from The Alphabet of Galen

Celery – Celery is a plant which grows in the garden and is known to everyone, and its seed is even better known to be useful for medicine. It is put in purgatives and antidotes. It is a heating agent with quite sharp properties, and a reliable diuretic.

Butter – Butter is made from the milk of cows and sheep. The best, however, is that made from sheep’s milk, when it has a slightly reddish hue and is very fatty. It is made by placing the milk in a deep cask, at the mouth of which is a small wheel with a stick attached that is submerged into the cask and used to stir the milk for a long time. The fattiest elements then rise to the surface and are skimmed off and stored in a vase. The best butter is therefore that which contains the most fat and is made from the sheep’s milk in summer. It has gently loosening properties and therefore seems to help specifically with vaginal pains and swellings, and similar complaints in other sensitive and delicate places, and also with dryness in the lungs.

Cumin – The cumin with the strongest properties appears to be that procured in Ethiopia, followed by that in Africa. All cumin gently softens and can be warming, hence it is good for flatulence and stomach cramps, is a powerful pain-reliever, and when drunk it turns the skin pale.

Dung – All dung thoroughly abates swelling, and softens chronic indurations. Likewise it soothes the onset of pain from gout. Whitened dog’s dung, when crushed with honey and applied topically, gently cleanses swellings and sores. Donkey dung, when crushed and mixed with vinegar, or when reduced to a liquid form, relieves toothaches.

Lily – Everyone knows the lily whose properties can soften indurations of the ligaments, and its leaves when cooked are applied topically to burns. When drunk it stimulates menstruation, as does its seed. It ejects the foetus and is good for snake bites.




Honey – Honey is the juice of heavenly dew which is harvested by bees. There are two types of honey: one in which the containers used by the bees to harvest the honey are oblong; the other is that found under the ground and is called ‘Attic’, which is stored by bees that are striped, more sprightly and energetic, and this type is considered better for clearing up vision. Both types have a warming property. Honey alone is something of a compound mixture in itself, because it is collected from many different flowers and the juice of different plants. For this reason it can be useful as a fast-acting agent for all ailments, hence it is mixed with all types of antidotes. It is mixed with salt and used to consume the filth within wounds, and is smeared externally on dry throats. It reduces humours by thinning them. Honey on its own stops squeamishness, stimulates the appetite, and prevents nausea. It alleviates problems in the lungs and all internal organs by thoroughly soothing and thereby relaxing them.

Green mint – Mint is a plant that everyone knows, and is very good for the stomach. It also staunches excessive blood and eases headaches. It subdues hiccups and excessive vomiting, and is said to prevent conception.

Egg – The egg is the offspring of a chicken, as everyone knows. It has a double application. If it is eaten when half-cooked, it fortifies the stomach and does not allow the body to become enfeebled because of the egg’s nature as a life-giving organism. It moderates everything, because it has a gentle element. When raw egg is drunk it heals those who are hoarse. Its albumen when warmed and applied topically to inflamed eyes restores their health. Egg yolk, when applied externally by smearing on any part of the body is found to be paregoric and styptic. Eggs cooked in vinegar until they harden are helpful against dysentery. Their strength is greater when drunk rather than eaten. Raw egg when drunk prevents thirst.

Radish – Radish is a well-known plant, which is also called ‘root.’ Its root is in fact similar to the turnip, but much longer. When eaten after a period of fasting, like an antidote, it is an excellent aid for restoring health and protecting the body, though it also causes flatulence, odiferous belching, urination, and loosens the bowels. When stewed and consumed with food it alleviates consumption, and helps to clear the chest of excess phlegm. Its peel taken with vinegar and honey and applied in a poultice it heals putrefaction and clears bruises, and is good against viper bites. It helps with baldness of the head, and when drunk or eaten with food it counteracts the harmful effects caused by consuming bad mushrooms whether eaten or drunk. Its seed when given with vinegar reduces the spleen. The root itself is cooked in vinegar and honey and used as a gargle to cure sore throats. The leaves when pulped and applied topically relieve aching joints.

Skink – The skink is a little creature which is found in India. It has four legs and is similar to a lizard, but is larger, longer, and jumps about very quickly. A drachma of its inner flesh when drunk with a twelfth of a pint of wine is an aphrodisiac, but consuming more than this is dangerous.

Wine – All wine is naturally warming. It supplies the body with both strength and movement, because it heats, repairs, and restores any part of the body which is constrained or in pain. When applying wine with oil to the body as an ointment it should be well rubbed in until the body totally absorbs it. The same should be done for those suffering pain in the shoulders. Fresh wine is less warming than old wine, and it is good for digestion. White wine is a diuretic and is good for the entire body. Dark and sweet wines nourish the blood, though harm the eyes, cause dizziness in the head, that is scotosis (veritgo), and heaviness in the body, as well as churning the stomach and inducing heavy sleepiness. Wine is excellent for maintaining a healthy body when it is drunk with moderate amounts of water, for then it both nourishes and can protect one’s health against illness. White wine is the best, and constitutes an important medicine for the body.

* Please note that these medical remedies are only intended for historical analysis – do not attempt these cures, especially the dung or skink!

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