Thursday, 16 January 2014

Putting a Stopper in Death: Potion Ingredients and Early Modern Medicine

If I ever taught you, you know that I teach humoural theory using the Hogwarts Houses from Harry Potter.  Not only is my PowerPoint rather fancy, using Harry Potter makes humoural theory a bit more memorable and understandable.

Yellow Bile
Warm & dry
Bad tempered & arrogant
Warm & moist
Courageous & youthful
Black Bile
Cold & dry
Studious & despondent
Cold & moist

See? Simple enough.

Aside from humoural characteristics, JK Rowling (henceforth JKR) borrowed a few more things from real life: the Philosopher’s Stone & Nicolas Flamel, Malfoys and aristocracy, the school house system and uniforms etc.

Nicolas Flamel, so much more than just a guy from Harry Potter.  Photo credit to @francoslavie.  We may take pictures of the same things, but her photos are never blurry ;)
Indeed, many items that sound like they belong solely in Snape’s cauldron also have a long history in early modern and medieval medicine.

Here are 5 of them (with a short bonus at the end):


Remember Harry’s very first potions lesson?  Aside from Alan Rickman verbally ensnaring your senses, that is.  Rickman’s character, Severus Snape, lambasted Harry for his lack of potions acumen.  How could Harry not know that aconite was also known as wolfsbane and monkshood?

Aconite actually is known as wolfsbane and monkshood.  This pretty flower is poisonous though and Nicolas Culpeper warned that it’s very dangerous if it comes into contact with one’s eyes.  Aconite wasn’t used very often during the early modern period.  However, Culpeper did state that “a decoction of the root is a good lotion to wash the parts bitten by venomous creatures.”  Aside from the obvious, perhaps its venom negation properties helped inspire JKR to make it part of the wolfsbane potion!

Aconite from Turner's herbal.

Pretty much the opposite of the poisonous aconite, JKR presented dittany as a very powerful wound cure.  Hermione used Essence of Dittany to heal Ron’s splinched arm and Harry’s snake bite.  In Deathly Hallows, just a few drops of dittany made Ron’s wound look a week old!

As in JKR’s world, dittany was used by the early moderns as a wound herb. Dittany with milk or even the whole herb was used to heal wounds of all sorts.  The curative properties were, in legend, discovered when Cretan goats would cure themselves of arrow wounds by eating the herb.

Dittany of Crete was thought to be much like pennyroyal (an abortifacient).  John Pechey’s 1649 herbal stated that pregnant women would make a decoction of dittany with wine or ale for an easy childbirth experience.  The herb was thought to be so powerful that Pechey warned that it “ought not to be kept in the Chamber or near where Big-belly’d Women are.”

Dragon’s Blood

Albus Dumbledore wasn’t always a dotty old headmaster.  He was once a renowned alchemist who discovered the twelve uses of dragon’s blood.  While none of the novels mention these uses, JKR informed the world – via interview – that one of the uses was oven cleaner.  Perhaps the transition from to dotty old headmaster was easy if you start with a dotty young alchemist.

Harry Potter and Game of Thrones aside, dragons do not exist.[1]  Yet, dragon and dragon’s blood appear time and time again in various medieval and early modern medicinal recipes.  Alas, the early moderns did not get their dragon’s blood from a special dragon reserve in Romania.  Rather, they could get dragon and it’s blood right from their gardens.

Dragon’s blood, you see, was “a Gum, or Rosin, of a deep red Colour.”  William Turner’s 1551 herbal mentioned that dragon and dragon’s blood were used and written of by both Pliny and Galen.  Turner, a friend of the naturalist Conrad Gessner, recognized that there were many varieties of dragon and that the ones described by the ancients likely differed from those in England.

"Of Dragon" from Turner's herbal.
Turner, Culpeper, and Pechey all agreed that dragon’s blood “scoureth awaye myghtely both other thynges that need scowryng, and also the frekelles with vinegre.”  I wonder if it would work on Ron Weasley?

Aside from this, Pechey noted that dragon’s blood could be used to treat those spitting blood, those with loose teeth, for the pox, as a purge, and even during childbirth.  A truly multi-purpose substance, dragon’s blood was also used to dye fabrics, paper, and glass, and even in jewelry making. 

Not quite 12 uses, but close!


Hermione Granger once said that “the cry of the Mandrake is fatal to anyone who hears it.”  Alright, so Hermione wasn't entirely accurate for once - when repotting mandrakes in herbology, Professor Sprout merely had students wear earmuffs to protect their ears from the baby mandrake’s cries.  JKR had adult mandrakes able to kill while the babies would just knock you out.  Perhaps most important, JKR’s mandrakes were a key element in the potion used to cure those who were petrified by the basilisk that lived in the Chamber of Secrets.

Real mandrake roots don’t actually look like babies.  Culpeper wrote that “the root formerly was supposed to have the human form, but it really resembles a carrot or parsnip.”

Mandrake from Turner's herbal.  Parsnips and carrots aside, those really do look like legs!
Real mandrakes don’t actually scream at you when uprooted either.  The legend of the mandrake’s cry, however, does predate JKR.  Shakespeare’s Earl of Suffolk exclaims in Henry VI, Pt II: “plague upon them! wherefore should I curse them? Would curses kill, as doth the mandrake's groan, I would invent as bitter-searching terms, As curst, as harsh and horrible to hear.”

Real mandrakes do possess hallucinatory properties that made it a valuable herb to use during surgical operations.  Samuel Pepys was given mandrake and opiates before he was (in)famously cut for the stone by Thomas Hollier.  These drugs would have made the operation only somewhat more tolerable; they certainly didn’t knock out Pepys – in addition to drugs, he was held down, in place, by several strong men.

A 1702 treatise by Steven Blankaart emphasized mandrakes as a “narcotick medicine” and added that “tis outwardly used for redness and pains of the Eyes, for an Erisipelas, hard tumours, and the Kings Evil.”   


Remember when Hermione turned herself into a half-human-half-cat monstrosity by accidentally adding cat hair to her polyjuice potion?[2]  A most complicated potion for a 2nd year student to brew – in a bathroom no less – polyjuice potion required “common ingredients” like lacewing flies and knotgrass.

Common knotgrass apparently lives up to its name – both Pechey and Culpeper described its tall stalks as full of “knots and joints” from which leaves or other stalks sprout.  Knotgrass wouldn’t help you take the form of say…Crabbe, Goyle, or Bellatrix Lestrange, the but early moderns used it for a variety of ailments. 

Knotgrass lithograph from Sowerby's excellent 19th century "English Botany."  Alas, Turner did not provide a visual of the plant.
Knotgrass was, like dittany and aconite, used to treat wounds and venomous bites.  In particular, it was thought to stay any fluxes at all, be they the “running of the reins” (aka VD), menstruation, and both external and internal bleeding.  Culpeper noted that “the juice is effectual to stay bleeding at the mouth, if drank in red wine, and the bleeding of the nose if applied to the forehead or temples.” 

Pechey added a short tale to help convince other of the herb’s efficacy: “A certain Nobleman that vomited Blood, and had used other Medicines in vain, was much reliev’d by the Juice of this, in a little Styptick Wine.”

Human Bone, Flesh, & Blood

“Bone of the father, unknowingly given, you will renew your son! Flesh of the servant, willingly sacrificed, you will revive your master. Blood of the enemy, forcibly taken, you will resurrect your foe.” Sound familiar?  You-Know-Who used bone, blood, and flesh as potion ingredients to restore himself to fully corporal status.

Human bones were used in many early modern medical recipes.  Here’s one tasty sounding 16th century receipt for a powder for the “falling sickness” (likely epilepsy):

“The Skull of a man that hath been dead but one yeare, and bury it in the Ashes behind the fire, and let it burne until it be marvelous white, and so well burned that you may breake it with your finger; then take off all the uppermost part of the Head to the top of the Crown, and beat it as small as is possible, then grate a Nutmeg, and put to it, then take Dogs blood, and dry it, and make Powder thereof, and mingle as much with the other Poweder, as the Powder weighes, and give it the sick to drink, both when he is well, and when he is sicke, first, and last, and it will help him by Gods grace.”

Human flesh could be distilled and used to cure wounds:

“From the flesh of man distilled, there will come forth a stinking water, and an oyle, which is most excellent, to anoint woundes withal, when they are badly healed, and that there remaine any hurt about those parts, that they are ont [sic] so sensible and pliant, (as they were wont to be before) this resolveth them.  And it mollifieth and softneth all hardnesse of any tumor.”

Human blood, too, possessed impressive curative properties.

John Hester, a 16th century practitioner of the spagyrical arts wrote: “I have made a quintaessence of mans bloud, rectified and circulated, with the which I have done most wonderfull cures, for if you give thereof ʒi [1 drachm], it will restore those, that lye at the point of death.  It is most profitable, against those infirmities that are in the bloud: for it correcteth the malignity of the bloud, and preserveth it, as well as the spirite of wine.  If you put a little of it into an hogges head of wine it will purifie it, and preserve it a long time more than and other thing whatsoever.”

Please don’t try this at home.  Have you come across any other Harry Potter things with real life equivalencies?  Let me know in the comments or on twitter!  I’m @medhistorian.

[1] Except for the Hobbit’s Smaug, of course.  He is totally real.
[2] Dear JKR, With a cat like Crookshanks, how on earth did Hermione keep Crookshank hair out of that cauldron?  Is it magic?  I hope not.  If it’s not magic, please share.  I’m currently having some difficulty keeping my cat (and his hair) out of my morning coffee.  

Works cited:
Culpeper, Nicolas.  Culpeper’s Complete Herbal. London: Foulsham, 1880.
Hester, John. The Pearle of Practise. London, 1594.
Pechey, John. The Compleat Herbal of Physical Plants. London, 1694.
Turner, William. A New Herball Pt I. London, 1551.
And, of course, JK Rowling’s 7 books of the Harry Potter series.


  1. Re: [2]

    Indeed, magic.

    "She pointed her wand at Hedwig's cage. 'Scourgify.' A few feathers and droppings vanished."
    —Nymphadora Tonks's use on Hedwig's cage[src]
    The Scouring Charm (Scourgify) is a household charm, possibly a cleaning spell, used to clean an object, similar to Tergeo. It can also be used to clean out smaller infestations of bundimun.

    In the 1987–1988 school year, Jacob's sibling used the Scouring Charm to clean bundimun in Hagrid's Hut.[1]

    Hermione taught Neville a Scouring Charm to clean frog guts out from under his fingernails, in their fourth year. [2]

    The Scouring Charm was used by Nymphadora Tonks when attempting to clean Hedwig's cage during their liberation of Harry Potter from 4 Privet Drive in 1995. It can also be used on humans. It was also used by Ginny in 1995 on the Hogwarts Express to clear Stinksap that had squirted from Neville’s Mimbulus mimbletonia. James Potter used it on Severus Snape in the grounds, causing soap to fill his mouth. Many wizarding families use this spell, both for cleaning and punishing people who swear.

    This spell is also listed in the Book of Spells (chapter 3) by Miranda Goshawk.

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