A curious book called “The Devil in Britain and America” by John Ashton (1896) reproduced an image of some writing that…

“is supposed to be the only specimen of Satanic calligraphy in existence and is taken from the ‘Introductio in Chaldaicam Linguam,’ by Albonesi (1532). The author says that by the conjuration of Ludovico Spoletano the Devil was called up, and adjured to write a legible and clear answer to a question asked him. Some invisible power took the pen, which seemed suspended in the air, and rapidly wrote what is facsimiled. The writing was given to Albonesi (who, however, confesses that no one can decipher it), and his chief printer reproduced it very accurately.” (Preface, pp.v-vi)

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Anglo Saxon remedy kills hospital superbug MRSA

30 March 2015 by Clare Wilson, New Scientist Magazine  (photo source)

Take cropleek and garlic, of both equal quantities, pound them well together… take wine and bullocks gall, mix with the leek… let it stand nine days in the brass vessel…

So goes a thousand-year-old Anglo Saxon recipe to vanquish a stye, an infected eyelash follicle.

The medieval medics might have been on to something. A modern-day recreation of this remedy seems to alleviate infections caused by the bacteria that are usually responsible for styes. The work might ultimately help create drugs for hard-to-treat skin infections.

The project was born when a microbiologist at the University of Nottingham, UK, got talking to an Anglo Saxon scholar. They decided to test a recipe from an Old English medical compendium called Bald’s Leechbook, housed in the British Library.

Some of the ingredients, such as copper from the brass vessel, kill bacteria grown in a dish – but it was unknown if they would work on a real infection or how they would combine.

Sourcing authentic ingredients was a major challenge, says Freya Harrison, the microbiologist. They had to hope for the best with the leeks and garlic because modern crop varieties are likely to be quite different to ancient ones – even those branded as heritage. For the wine they used an organic vintage from a historic English vineyard.

As “brass vessels” would be hard to sterilise – and expensive – they used glass bottles with squares of brass sheet immersed in the mixture. Bullocks gall was easy, though, as cow’s bile salts are sold as a supplement for people who have had their gall bladders removed.

After nine days of stewing, the potion had killed all the soil bacteria introduced by the leek and garlic. “It was self-sterilising,” says Harrison. “That was the first inkling that this crazy idea just might have some use.”

A side effect was that it made the lab smell of garlic. “It was not unpleasant,” says Harrison. “It’s all edible stuff. Everyone thought we were making lunch.”

The potion was tested on scraps of skin taken from mice infected with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. This is an antibiotic-resistant version of the bacteria that causes styes, more commonly known as the hospital superbug MRSA. The potion killed 90 per cent of the bacteria. Vancomycin, the antibiotic generally used for MRSA, killed about the same proportion when it was added to the skin scraps.

Unexpectedly, the ingredients had little effect unless they were all brought together. “The big challenge is trying to find out why that combination works,” says Steve Diggle, another of the researchers. Do the components work in synergy or do they trigger the formation of new potent compounds?

Using exactly the right method also seems to be crucial, says Harrison, as another group tried to recreate the remedy in 2005 and found that their potion failed to kill bacteria grown in a dish. “With the nine-day waiting period, the preparation turned into a kind of loathsome, odorous slime,” says Michael Drout of Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts.

If the 9th Century recipe does lead to new drugs, they might be useful against MRSA skin infections such as those that cause foot ulcers in people with diabetes. “These are usually antibiotic-resistant,” says Diggle. However, he doesn’t recommend people try this at home.

It wouldn’t be the first modern drug to be derived from ancient manuscripts – the widely used antimalarial drug artemisinin was discovered by scouring historical Chinese medical texts.

Harrison is due to present the research at the Society for General Microbiology conference in Birmingham, UK, this week.

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Frontispiece to an Illuminated Manuscript of the Amitabha Sutra
Goyeo Dynasty
14th century

This sutra was written, in silver lettering, by a monk called Ch’onggo for the spiritual benefit of his mother. The manuscript has one illustration, spread over two leaves, and painted in gold. It shows the historical Buddha,Shakyamuni, flanked by bodhisattvas and monks preaching to deities and other Buddhas, while two bodhisattvas welcome souls to paradise as they emerge from a lotus pond.

From the British Museum.

A medieval manuscript that was peed on by a cat 

Scribe was forced to leave the rest of the page empty, drew a picture of a cat and cursed the creature with the following words:

“Hic non defectus est, sed cattus minxit desuper nocte quadam. Confundatur pessimus cattus qui minxit super librum istum in nocte Daventrie, et consimiliter omnes alii propter illum. Et cavendum valde ne permittantur libri aperti per noctem ubi cattie venire possunt.”

[Here is nothing missing, but a cat urinated on this during a certain night. Cursed be the pesty cat that urinated over this book during the night in Deventer and because of it many others [other cats] too. And beware well not to leave open books at night where cats can come.]

Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r

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