holinshed revisited

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An 8th century cure for snake-bites

By David Collins

Several news organisations recently ran a story telling of scientists from the University of Nottingham who recreated a medieval ‘eye salve’ by using a recipe found in the Medicinale Angilicum or Bald’s Leech book as it is sometimes known. This manuscript is a 9th century Anglo-Saxon medical text which describes a whole series of medicinal remedies for various ailments. What was remarkable and indeed newsworthy was that when this ‘eye salve’ was tested it proved to be remarkably effective against MRSA, a superbug resistant to methicillin resistant antibiotics.

This led me to think about which other medieval remedies might warrant further investigation. One I think that has been overlooked or perhaps forgotten is Bede’s cure for snake-bites. The Venerable Bede is not widely known for his interest in medicine. Bede was a monk, a theologian and historian born in Northumbria in the early 670s who lived to the year 735. He spent most of his life in the monastery of Jarrow where he became a prolific writer. Much of his writing is on theology and religious history but he also tackled subjects as diverse as language and the computation of time and chronology (this was of particular importance to early medieval Christians who were keen to conclusively fix a date for Easter).

It is in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum 731 (The Eccesiastical History of the English People) that we rather surprisingly find a cure for snake-bites. Here Bede tells us that,

‘in the case of people suffering from snake-bite, the leaves of manuscripts from Ireland were scraped, and the scrapings put in water and given to the sufferer to drink.’

Once this remedy has been taken,

‘These scrapings absorbed the whole violence of the spreading poison and assuaged the swelling’

So it seems that it is the scrapings of Irish manuscripts that are the key to this treatment. Bede’s remedy does follow a certain logic. For he also tells us that in Ireland there are no reptiles to be found and serpents can’t survive there (St. Patricks association with snakes wasn’t to appear till the 11th century). He then intriguingly adds that,

 ‘although serpents have often been sent from Britain, as soon as the ship approaches land they are affected by the scent of the air and quickly perish’

One wonders why snakes would be a common cargo on boats crossing the Irish Sea? As well as the fact that the scent of Irish air can kill snakes he also states that,

‘In fact almost everything that the island produces is efficacious against poison’

Considering that the only manuscripts finding their way across the sea from Ireland would in all likelihood have been of a religious nature this might have made them seem doubly potent against snake or serpent venom.  This I feel all clearly warrant further investigation in light of the University of Nottingham findings. I propose to first find a snake (this might prove difficult being based in Ireland), then a willing volunteer and finally a medieval Irish manuscript (Maynooth University has a limited selection but TCD will surely loan one for such sound scientific research).

Further Reading:

Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Judith McClure and Roger Collins (eds) (Oxford, 1988)


Werewolves in the woods – a 12th century account of strange happenings on the borders of Meath

By David Collins

Giraldus Cambrensis or Gerald of Wales, a prominent Cambro-Norman churchman and celebrated historian composed many works, two of which were concerned with Ireland. Gerald visited Ireland in 1183 and again in 1184 where he compiled the material he would use in both his Topographia Hibernica and Expugnatio  Hibernica (‘Topography of Ireland’  1187 and ‘Conquest of Ireland’ 1189).Better known to students of history, the Expugnatio is his account of the coming of the English (Gerald’s description) to Ireland. Not only is this work openly favourably to the Anglo-Norman belligerents but it also promotes the role played by Gerald’s relatives, a closely connected group of knights some of whom would found the politically powerful Geraldine dynasties of Kildare and Desmond. Gerald’s slightly earlier work, the Topographia, is concerned not only with the geography and of Ireland but also its ancient history, wildlife and various accounts of miracles. This work, as with the Expugnatio, is decidedly critical of the habits and behaviours of the Irish partly as a means of justifying the aforementioned conquest.

Gerald’s account first describes the various animals that can be found in Ireland and indeed those that are absent (all poisonous animals, not just snakes!). In this section he tells us that ‘Bede says that there are only two kinds of harmful beasts in Ireland, namely, wolves and foxes’ (the Venerable Bede 673 – 735). Gerald follows this by stating  [single space here instead of double] ‘I would add the mouse as a third, and say that it is very harmful indeed’. In the second part of his Topographica which describes various miracles, Gerald returns to the subject of wolves. He explains that three years before John de Courcy, Lord of Ulster arrived in Ireland (1182) that a priest had been travelling from Ulster to Meath with a young companion. One night while camped in a wood a wolf approached their campfire and to the consternation of the priest spoke the following words:

‘Do not be afraid! Do not fear! Do not worry! There is nothing to fear!’

The understandably astounded priests first response was (surprise surprise) to pray to the holy trinity not to be harmed. The wolf then went on to explain that he was a native of Ossory and that as a result of an ancient curse by a St. Natalis every seven years a man and a women were exiled, not only from Ossory but also from their human form by transforming into wolves. The wolf continued that his companion was nearby gravely ill and in need of a priest to give her the last rites. The priest followed the wolf to a hollow tree where there lay a second wolf, crying and groaning with a human voice. The priest proceeded to give the last rites right up to the last communion. The she-wolf begged him to continue but the priest said he did not have the viaticum with him. At this point the first wolf reappeared carrying a small bag which contained the priest’s consecrated hosts. It seems that at this point as the priest was reluctant to continue, the wolf to ‘remove all doubt’ pulled all the skin off the she-wolf with his paw and revealed the shape of a woman within. The priest ‘more through terror than reason’ continued with the sacrament and wolf skin reformed over the woman’s body. The wolf then shared their campfire that night and the next day showed the priest the surest way through the woods before thanking him and promising to reward him when he regained his human form.


Gerald concludes his tale by telling us that two years after these events he himself was passing through Meath where the bishop was calling a synod to discuss the matter. The synod concluded that a report of the affair along with the priest’s confession should be sent to Rome for investigation (Gerald claims that this was at his suggestion). The report was duly dispatched along with all the seals of those Bishops and Abbots present at the synod.

It is worth pointing out that while Gerald is occasionally guilty of exaggeration he was never one to invent facts. He was always careful to stress that the more fantastical tales he recounts were not witnessed directly by him. Even the strangest episodes that might well at first glance seem to have been created to serve a specific agenda often, on closer examination, have their origins in early medieval Irish literature. While this strange tale of werewolves in Meath was evidently well known in ecclesiastical circles in 1184, we are fortunate that Gerald took the time to record it for posterity.

Further reading

Gerald of Wales, The history and Topography of Ireland, translated by John J. O’Meara, (London, 1982).

Giraldus Cambrensis, Expugnatio Hibernica, translated and edited by A. B. Scott and F. X. Martin, published by the Royal Irish Academy (Dublin, 1978).

Holinshed continued

By David Collins

Even before Holinshed’s death in 1580 the Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland had become embroiled in controversy. The authors of the Chronicles may well have been genuine in their attempt to write an objective history but the political realities of Elizabeth I’s reign would have a significant impact. Religious, factional, international and sometimes personal concerns would all take their toll. The section on Ireland written by Richard Stanihurst was deemed too hostile towards Gerald Fitz Gerald, the 9th earl of Kildare (1487-1534) and John Alen, Archbishop of Dublin (1476 – 1534). In December 1577 at the behest of the privy council, John Aylmer, bishop of London placed a stay on sales of the Chronicles.  Kildare’s grandson, the eleventh earl, brought Stanihurst before the council where he agreed to make appropriate revisions. In 1587 a substantially revised and expanded edition of the Chronicles was published with Abraham Fleming taking over Holinshed’s role as general editor. The second edition was expanded to three volumes and included new contributions from Thomas Churchyard, John Hooker, Francis Thynne and John Stow. The second edition brought its history of England right up to 1586 and even included parliament’s calls for the execution of Mary, queen of Scots. As with the 1577 first edition, a stay was placed on sales of the Chronicles in February 1587 by JohnWhitgift, Archbishop of Canterbury. This time however external reviewers, John Hammond, Henry Killigrew and Thomas Randolph were appointed to make it acceptable to the privy council.  The result was that the second edition was heavily censored with controversial passages removed or ‘castrated’ in a series of revisions. The sections that were removed were mainly those that posed an obstacle to Anglo-Scottish relations, particularly those relating to English involvement in those intrigues and interventions which led to Queen Mary’s abdication and eventual imprisonment. Offence of Dutch sensibilities was also avoided as England was at this time seeking to reach a political settlement in the United Provinces through the Earl of Leicester. Efforts were also made to portray the English legal system in a favourable light while the accounts of the pre-reformation archbishops of Canterbury were removed. The speed and thoroughness with which the reviewers acted suggests that success of the first edition was expected to be replicated by the new edition. It is for their impact on English literature rather than their value as a work of history that Holinshed’s Chronicles are perhaps better recognised. The Chronicles were the major source for many of Shakespeare’s plays, not only his English history plays but also for portions of Cymbeline and King Lear and the plot of Macbeth.

Further reading: Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland(1577); Annabel Patterson, Reading Holinshed’s chronicles (Chicago, 1994). Cyndia Susan Clegg, ‘Holinshed, Raphael (c. 1525 – 1580?)’, Oxford dictionary of national biography (Oxford, 2004),Paulina Kewes, Ian W. Archer, and Felicity Heal (eds), The Oxford handbook of Holinshed’s Chronicles (Oxford, 2012).

Who was Holinshed?

By David Collins
Raphael Holinshed was an English historian known for his involvement in the creation of the Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland of 1577. Of Holinshed himself rather little is known and he remains a rather enigmatic figure to this day. He was born around 1525 most likely in Chesire where his father lived and he died probably in 1580. His education has always been something of a puzzle with some suggestion that he was educated at Cambridge, attending Trinity. It has even been suggested that he graduated with an M. A. in 1544 but this seems to be a matter of confusion with his cousin Ottiwell Holinshed, who is said to have later gone on to become a fellow of the college.
Whatever his educational background Holinshed found employment as a translator with Reyner Wolfe, a London printer. Wolfe was a man with a singular vision who planned to produce a monumental ‘universal cosmgraphie of the whole world’. This vast project was to consist of a geographic and historic account ‘of every known nation’ from the time of the Flood right up to the reign of Elizabeth I. It was also to have been illustrated with a series of maps. It was for this undertaking that Wolfe employed Holinshed as editor and chief compiler. It was always something of a team effort with William Harrison, John Hooker and Richard Stanyhurst all making substantial contributions.
With hindsight it is easy to see the difficulties that such a vast undertaking would present. This was not helped by the death of Wolfe in 1573 and his ‘Polychronicon’, perhaps understandably, was never completed. The entire venture was not however abandoned entirely and a consortium of Wolfe’s son in law John Hun and prominent London printers, John Harrison, Lucas Harison and George Bishop would continue the project albeit in a truncated form. This consortium along with Henry Bynneman would eventually publish those sections that had been finished in 1577 as the Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Although the completed project failed to match Wolfe’s original vision it still comprised a formidable 2,835 folio pages in two printed volumes. Despite his own efforts and those of the other authors Holinshed felt the Chronicles, or Holinshed’s Chronicles as they became known, fell short of the standard which had originally been envisaged. Harrison too was concerned that the speed of completion of his own contribution might lead to inaccuracies. Despite these misgivings the Chronicles were a commercial success. How much Holinshed personally benefited from the venture is a matter of conjecture. The following year in 1578 Holinshed was employed as a steward in Warwickshire by Thomas Burdet to whom he would leave his papers and books on his death two years later.
The story of the Chronicles after Holinshed’s death is one of censorship, multiple revisions, (rather worryingly) castrations and its impact on Shakespeare and other literary figures. This all requires further explanation and my next post will look at the evolution of Holinshed’s Chronicles.

Further reading:
Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577); Annabel Patterson, Reading Holinshed’s chronicles (Chicago, 1994). Cyndia Susan Clegg, ‘Holinshed, Raphael (c. 1525 – 1580?)’, Oxford dictionary of national biography (Oxford, 2004).

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