Ancient Biotics

Ancient Biotics – Using Historical Manuscripts to Find Modern Cures


Earlier in the year I wrote about Freya Harrison, a microbiologist and Research Fellow in the Faculty of Medicine & Health Sciences at Nottingham University, who was raising money, as part of the Ancient Biotics project, to fund research on a potentially new (old) antibiotic able to kill, the so-called hospital superbug, MRSA (Methycillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). You can read the old article here if you want.

Today the research was published in the American Society for Microbiology journal mBio, an open access journal, so anyone can read it (we need more like this). This is amazing research for many reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, this thousand year old remedy, if it is able to be turned into a safe antibiotic, could become a very effective treatment against MRSA and certain other antibiotic resistant bacteria. Tests showed that Bald’s remedy for a wen, a simple eye infection, is significantly more effective than the current last-line-of-defense antibiotic, Vancomycine, against MRSA1.

Secondly, this research now opens up a brand resource for drug discovery. Medieval and earlier medicine is generally thought of as ineffective, consisting of little more than simple herbalism based upon guesswork, and totally ineffective prayers and magical charms, like this Anglo-Saxon one, which, incidentally, is also to cure a wen:

Wenne, wenne,      wenchichenne,
her ne scealt þu timbrien,      ne nenne tun habben,
ac þu scealt north eonene      to þan nihgan berhge,
þer þu hauest, ermig,      enne broþer.

He þe sceal legge      leaf et heafde.
Under fot wolues,      under ueþer earnes,
under earnes clea,      a þu geweornie.
Clinge þu      alswa col on heorþe,
scring þu      alswa scerne awage,

and weorne      alswa weter on anbre.
Swa litel þu gewurþe      alswa linsetcorn,
and miccli lesse      alswa anes handwurmes hupeban,
and alswa litel þu gewurþe      þet þu nawiht gewurþe.


Which translates as:

Wen, wen, little wen,
Here you shall not build, nor have your abode,
But you shall go north to the hill nearby
Where, benighted one, you have a brother.
He shall lay a leaf at your head.

Under the wolf’s foot, under the eagle’s wing,
Under the eagle’s claw, may you wane forever.
Shrivel like a coal on the hearth,
Shrink like slime on the wall,
Waste away like water in a bucket.

Become as little as a grain of linseed,
and much smaller than a hand-worm’s hip-bone,
and so very small that you become nothing 2.

Maybe the remedy and the charm would be used together, who knows? At best, much of medieval medicine could be regarded today as placebo, but ancient doctors did have underlying theories about what caused illness and based their cures upon those theories. So, while many ancient cures did not work, simply because the underlying theories were actually wrong, the remedies that did work were built and improved upon through consideration of empirical evidence. This isn’t really the scientific method that we know today, but some, possibly many, remedies did work and were communicated, and variations of remedies were developed. It is quite possible that there is a vast untapped resource lying in medieval, and earlier, texts just waiting to be translated and tested. So the Ancient Biotics project could be opening the door to a whole new avenue of drug discovery.

Thirdly, this Ancient Biotics research project is wonderful because it blurs the boundaries of modern scholarship. In school you learn that science and humanities are completely different and separate, and that there is absolutely no overlap between them. Many science students graduate with almost no knowledge of humanities, and many humanities students learn almost no science once they have finished their GCSEs. It is only relatively recently, the last 150 years or so, that this distinction between subjects has been drawn. This research shows how the sciences can be informed by the humanities, and vice versa. It was a Professor of Norse and Anglo-Saxon studies, Christina Lee, from the Nottingham University School of English, who originally decided to investigate Bald’s claim that “this is the best leechdom”3. After contacting Freya Harrison, who has an interest in Anglo-Saxon and Norse history and is a Viking re-enactor, as well as a microbiologist, they were able to properly test this 1000 year old remedy and find that it was, indeed, effective against infection.

Ancient Biotics - Bald's Eye Salve

We tried making some eye salve.

SV Educational Services aims to show how science is integral to the humanities, especially history. We have been involved in Ancient Biotics outreach activities relating to this research, making our own sample of eye salve in consultation with Freya. So far the amount of interest has been astounding, and people are quite surprised to find that this is a collaboration between an English professor and some microbiologists. It has certainly been an eye opener for many 6th formers and GCSE students. Being able to make the recipe, which has ingredients you can buy in the supermarket, and allowing the public to sniff and see the concoction, has really brought it to life for people.

You can read and download the full paper, A 1,000-Year-Old Antimicrobial Remedy with Antistaphylococcal Activity from the mBio website. Even if you’re not a scientist I would still recommend it. For a scientific paper it is very readable and accessible, as well as very exciting. I can’t wait to hear how this research will be developed, and whether the Ancient Biotics project will lead to any new discoveries from translations of old manuscripts.


1. Freya HarrisonaAled E. L. RobertsaRebecca GabrilskabKendra P. RumbaughbChristina LeecStephen P. Digglea (2015). A 1,000-Year-Old Antimicrobial Remedy with Antistaphylococcal Activity. doi: 10.1128/mBio.01129-15 11 August 2015 mBio vol. 6 no. 4 e01129-15

 2. Gavin Chappel (2000) New Northvegr Center, Metrical Charm 12, Against a Wen English Translation.

3. Cockraine (1865). Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England, p35, London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green. 

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