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Medvl-Pills-art - 4/26/11


"The Form and Function of Pills and Troches in the Middle Ages" by HE Mistress Onora O'Toole, OP. A&S documentation for Queen's Prize Tourney in 2007.


NOTE: See also the files: p-medicine-msg, p-medicine-lnks, aphrodisiacs-msg, cough-powder-art, Cure-for-Ague-art, Man-d-Mujeres-art, p-herbals-msg, herbs-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org














The medieval mind has a fascinating way of treating illnesses.  There are many misconceptions as to how one took medieval remedies for ailments and disease.  Many forms were very common, such as herbs boiled in soups, spices and herbs boiled in wine or water and then drank.  All of these take time to make and are not very portable unless you have a physician traveling with you.


As people began to travel farther from home for war, business or even pleasure, there began to be an increased need for making these remedies and medicinal concoctions portable.   Though those in European countries were not the first to come up with troches and pill forms of medication, one does not see much reference to such things until much later in the Middle Ages.  


Romans, Grecians, Egyptians, Asians and those of the Middle Eastern cultures were very familiar with such concepts as using a binding agent to help transport medicinal remedies while preserving the costly spices within.  These binding agents were thought to help keep the spices and herbs fresh, as well as more potent, though they may be consumed at a later date, while herbs and spices left to the open air or sun could loose their effectiveness rather quickly.


But as many things were changing and being adapted by those returning from the Crusades, this form of keeping things bound together and fresher took a deeper hold on medicinals in the Middle Ages.  Many housewives, cooks and anyone having to deal with medicinal remedies could have perhaps used similar methods, as noted by Hildegard of Bingen in her book Physica (1098 – 1179), which explains a method of taking spices and adding wheat flour and water to make a binding gluten paste to hold these together, making it easy to carry on a person or in their gear if they traveled.


Though I did not use any recipes for 'pills' or 'troches' from Culpeper's, I did find his explanation interesting as regards each of these terms.  (Appendix A)  I put his explanations in my documentation to put the reader in the right mindset. I felt it would be interesting for one to be able to read Culpeper's thoughts on each form of medicinal tablet.




Physica by Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179)


Take some nutmeg and an equal weight of cinnamon and a bit of cloves, and pulverize them. Then make small cakes with this and fine whole wheat flour and water.  Eat them often.  It will calm all bitterness of the heart and mind, open your heart and impaired senses, and make your mind cheerful.


I found this recipe easy to make, portable, and the gluten from the whole wheat kept the sweetness of the herbs. Since the recipe does not have specific measurements of each, it is simply up to the individual making this as to how strong or diluted they wish the spices to be.  Less flour and water make for stronger 'cookies' and more flour and water makes more troches as well as being conservative with ones spices that may be quite expensive for a household, but it makes the 'remedy' weaker.


I started by using a palm-full each of nutmeg and cinnamon, added a pinch of cloves to start then added about half as much flour as spices. I added water until the paste was workable, but not too wet as to be runny, but also enough that the paste didn't crumble upon removing from the bowl.  The paste was then rolled out into a long tube and cut into small pieces.  To hurry the drying process, these were laid out on a banking stone and put in the oven with a very low fire to simply help the water evaporate more quickly.


The English Housewife – Gervase Markham (1568?-1637)


For the yellow jaundice.


For the yellow jaundice, take two pennyworth of the best English saffron, dry it and grind it to an exceeding fine powder, then mix it with the pap of a roasted apple, and give it the diseased party to swallow down in the manner of a pill; and do thus divers mornings together, and without doubt it is the most present cure that can be for the same, as hath been often times proved.


This recipe was quite simple.   I took a gala apple and roasted it in my oven.  To speed the roasting process, I cored the apple first and placed it on a baking stone.  Once the apple was soft, I cut away the peeling and took the rest of the seeds from it.  I mashed it up with a fork to break up the pap (pulp) of the apple.  I took five stems of saffron and with little difficulty, ground them very fine and added it to the apple pap which I mashed with a fork for five minutes, mixing evenly.  I then put a small amount of this mixture into little blobs onto parchment paper.   Though this is a simple 'pill' recipe, it is hard to see where this form would make it easy to swallow whole.  The apple takes a bit of the medicinal flavor from the saffron, making it easier on the tongue.


For fatness about the heart.


Take the juice of fennel mixed with honey, and seethe them together till it be hard, and then eat it evening and morning, and it will consume away the fatness.


I had fun with this recipe. Fennel is out of season here and the local market has a lack thereof.  To make amends for this lack, I took fennel seed and placed it in a tea ball before placing it in a boiling cup of hot water.  I let this sit for half an hour to get a strong concoction of fennel water before adding it to the honey in the pot.  I used a double boiler when cooking honey so not to allow the honey to burn or crystallize as I was working with it.  


When the honey was thick enough, I poured it onto parchment paper, folded it closed, then put it in the snow outside of my door.  Upon it being made solid by this, I brought it inside to test its taste.  I did find that I could smell the fennel, but the taste of the honey was overpowering the fennel flavor.  I also discovered that as the honey came to room temperature, though it was still harder than what came from the jar of the local bee keeper, it still became sticky and quite a bit more flexible.  


I took ground fennel seed, sifted for the finest powder into a bowl.  After taking each piece and rolling it into ball form, I laid it out on parchment paper.  They soon spread out to make flat round lozenges.  I left them to dry more and put them back into the bowl of ground fennel the next morning to make sure that all sticky coatings of the honey were covered, and then left them again to dry further.    I would like to take this recipe and try it again in the fall when I have had a chance to harvest my own fennel.


For an old cough.


But if the cough be more old and inveterate, and more inwardly fixed to the lungs… [cut]

Then take of sugar candy coarsely beaten an ounce, of liquorice finely pared and trimmed and cut into very little small slices as much, of aniseeds and coriander seeds half an ounce; mix all these together, and keep them in a paper in your pocket, and ever in the day tie when the cough offendeth you, take as much of this dredge, as you can hold between your thumb and fingers, and eat it, and it will give ease to your grief.  And in the night when the cough or rheum offendeth you, take as much of the juice of liquorice as two good barley corns, and let it melt in your mouth, and it will give you ease.


This is the one recipe that I deviated from.  I took liquorice root, stripped the outer bark, and boiled it in a small amount of water before letting it sit.  I was able to easily cut the root into small pieces and boiled them in honey and the water from the liquorice.  The honey replaced the water that boiled out of the root.


I then let it sit to dry some before making small balls of honey and a piece of root, coating each ball in a mixture of powdered anise and coriander seed ground by my own hand in a mortar and pestle, then sifted for the finer powder.  Once this was done, I let each troche sit on parchment paper to dry, re-rolling them again in the same mixture the next morning to verify that they were unable to stick easily together.


There are two recipes for 'pills' and 'lozenges' in (Appendix B) that have been added to show several kinds that would be considered either ineffective or inedible by today's standards.  One is considered period (1), and one that has been recorded in a book that is post-1600 (2).  This recipe could find merit in being considered late period by the nature of how family traditions and recipes may be verbally receipted to the author or cookbooks, seneschal records and household journals have been found and thus recipes have been translated or copied into another text for publication.



Below is the list of materials that were used in these recipes.  Some of these I ground my own powders from whole seed, sifted through a screen to extract the finer particles.  Several of the ground spices used, were found in the store due to being unable to find the seed or unable to grind the spice by hand myself.  


In (Appendix C), the material quoted behind each highlighted ingredient is material quoted from Culpeper in his Complete Herbal.   Listed with many of these are which Humors each ingredient effects and to which degree they are hot or cold, dry or moist.  Though I am still unlearned in the discussion of Humors, I felt it necessary to add this information for those who understand such things as well as the mindset as to how these spices were thought to cure ailments and disease.  


Liquorice Root:  The Liquorice root was found at a local whole foods market.  What was used consisted of four sticks, stripped of the outer bark and soaked overnight in water to soften them for easy cutting.


Sugar/Honey:   I used Honey in these instances since it was easier for me to work with, already having been made into a liquid form. I used Honey as a binding agent as Gum Arabic, honey or sugar would have been used in the middle ages to bind and hold ingredients together for easy transportation, ease of taking by mouth, or keeping the spices fresh until needed.


Apples: I used a simple Gala apple for this.  Since I have little time as to research the differences in period apples, I used what was at hand.


Anise: I used Anise seed bought from the Old World Market in bulk and ground it by hand.  This ground seed was then sifted with a screen to ensure the finest particles were used for the recipes above.


Fennel: I used whole fennel seed from the Old World Market though I did grind my own fennel with mortar and pestle, to use as a coating for one of the recipes. It is amazing though to see that fennel was used for relieving fatness about the heart in the English Housewife but to see that Culpeper comments on using fennel to 'make people more lean that are too fat'.


Coriander:  I ground the coriander seed we purchased from a market, before sifting it through a mesh to pull out the larger pieces.  


Saffron: I purchased saffron from a whole foods market, utilizing only 4-5 stems of it to grind finely by hand.


Nutmeg:  The nutmeg used was pre-ground and purchased from a food market.  I was unable to find whole nutmeg to grind myself.


Cinnamon: The Cinnamon that was used was previously purchased at a food market and in our stores of spices.  I do have whole stick cinnamon but knew that to grind it by hand would be very time consuming and put another blister on my hand.


Cloves: I used ground cloves purchased from the Old World Market though I do have a large quantity of whole cloves in my stores that have been purchased for holiday celebrations.  I decided to use the pre-ground cloves to save my hands and time in having to grind the whole spice.




Botanical.com, a Modern Herbal by Mrs. M. Grieve


www.gallowglass.org/jadwiga  Making Herbal Preparations  and Savory Seeds in the Middle Ages by Jadwiga Zajaczkowa


The English Housewife – Gervase Markham (1568?-1637)


Physica by Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179)


Culpeper's The Complete Herbal (1616 – 1654)







Culpeper's The Complete Herbal (1616 – 1654)


Chapter XIII - Of Troches:


  1. The      Latins called the Placentula, or little cakes, and the Greeks Prochikois,      Kukliscoi, and Artiscoi; they are usually little round flate cakes, or you      may make them square if you will.
  2. Their      first invention was, that powders being so kept might resist the      intermission of air, and so endure pure the longer.
  3. Besides,      they are easier carried in the pockets of such as travel; as many a man      (for example) is forced to travel whose stomach is too cold, or at least      not so hot as it should be, which is most proper, for the stomach is never      cold till a man be dead; in such a case, it is better to carry troches of      wormwood, or galangal in a paper in his pocket, than to lay a gillipot      along with him.
  4. They      are thus made, At night when you go to bed, take two drams of fine Gum      Tragacanth, put it into a Gally-pot, and put half a quarter of a pint of      any distilled Water fitting the purpose you would make your Troches for,      to it, cover it, and the next morning you shall find it in such a Jelly as      Physitians call Mussilage, with this you may (with a little pains taking)      make any Pouder into Past, and that Past into little Cakes called Troches.
  5. Having      made them, dry them well in the shadow and keep them in a Pot for your      use.


Chapter XIV - Of Pills:


  1. They are      called Pilule, because they resemble little balls; the Greeks call them      Catapotia.
  2. It is      the opinion of modern physicians, that this way of making medicines, was      invented only to deceive the palate, that so by swallowing them down      whole, the bitterness of the medicine might not be perceived, or at least      it might not be unsufferable:  and indeed most of their pills, though not      all, are very bitter.
  3. I am of      a clean contrary opinion to this.  I rather think they were done up in      this hard form, that so they might be the longer in digesting; and my      opinion is grounded upon reason too, not upon fancy, or hearsay.  The      first invention of pills was to purge the head, now, as I told you before,      such infirmities as lie near the passages were best removed by decoctions,      because they pass to the grieved part soonest; so here, if the infirmity      lies in the head, or any other remote part, the best way is to use pills,      because they are longer in digestion, and therefore the better able to      call the offending humour to them.
  4. If I      should tell you here a long tale of medicine working by sympathy and      antipathy, you would not understand a word of it.  They that are set to      make physicians may find it in the treatse.  All modern physicians know      not what belongs to a sympathetical cure, no more than a cuckow what      belongs to flats and sharps in music, but follow the vulgar road, and call      it a hidden quality, because 'tis hidden from the eyes of dunces, and indeed      none but astrologers can give a reason for it; and physic without reason      is like a pudding without fat.
  5. The way      to make pills is very easy, for with the help of a pestle and mortar, and      a little diligence, you may make any powder into pills, either with syrup,      or the jelly I told you before."


As you read #4 under the explanation of pills, I found it rather funny that he deviates from his explanation of pills to speak his thoughts on the subject of modern physicians.





1.  The Elixirs of Nostradamus


In 1544 Nostradamus stopped for some time in Marseilles in order to help bring a fresh outbreak of the plague under control.  In 1546 the Black Death gained a hold in the province's main city, Aix-en-Provence. He was summoned and devoted himself courageously and in a determined manner to the healing of the sick and above all to take preventive measures among the healthy.


His remedies included 'rose pills', which were to be made as follows:


One ounce of sawdust from the greenest available cypress tree, six ounces of Florentine iris, three ounces of cloves, three drachms of sweet flag (root), six drachms of resinous aloe wood.    These ingredients are pulverized and then 300 to 400 red roses, which have been picked before the grey light of dawn and similarly pulverized, are mixed in with them.  Throughout care is taken to prevent undue exposure to the air.  The mixture is then shaped into pills, which the patient constantly keeps in the mouth.  


Nostradamus was of the opinion that the plague was spread by contaminated air, and that clean air protected the patients.  Perhaps his success lay simply in the fact that fleas, which are known to transmit the plague from rats to humans, could not stand the mixture's strong smell and thus at least the healthy were stopped from catching the disease.


2.  The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. – 1669  


Pleasant Cordial Tablets, Which Are Very Comforting, and Strengthen Nature Much


Take four ounces of blanched almonds; of pine kernels, and of Pistachios, ana, four Ounces.  Eringo-roots, Candid-Limon peels, ana, three Ounces, Candid Orange peels two Ounces, Candid Citron peels four Ounces, of powder of white Amber, as much as will lie upon a shilling; and as much of the powder of pearl, 20 grains of Amber-greece, three grains of Musk, a book of leaf gold, Cloves and Mace, of each as much as will lie upon a three pence; cut all these as small as possible you can.  Then take a pound of Sugar, and half a pint of water, boil it to a candy height, then put in the Amber-greece and Musk, with three or four spoonfuls of Orange flower water. Then put in all the other things and stir them well together, and cast them upon plates, and set them to dry; when both sides are dry, take Orange-flower water and Sugar, and Ice them.


This recipe must have cost a small fortune to make and perhaps would have only been consumed by those that could afford such things as gold leaf, Musk, white Amber, Amber-greece, powdered Pearl.





Liquorice Root:  Hot in the 1st degree.  It is hot and moist in temperature, helps the roughness of the windpipe, hoarseness, diseases in the kidneys and bladder, and ulcers in the bladder, it concocts raw humours in the stomach, helps difficulty of breathing, is profitable for all salt humours, the root dried and beaten into powder, and the powder put into the eye, is a spcial remedy for a pin and web.  Juice of Liquorice, strengthens the lungs, helps coughs and colds. Juice of Liquorice are Temperate.  Helps roughness of the Trachea Arteria, which is in plain English called the windpipe, the roughness of which causes coughs and hourseness, difficulty of breathing, etc.  It allays the heat of the stomach and liver, eases pains, sourness and roughness of the reins and bladder, it quencheth thirst, and strengthens the stomach exceedingly.  It may easily be carried about in ones pocket, and eat a little now and then.


Sugar/Honey: is held to be hot in the 1st degree, strengthens the lungs, takes away the roughness of the throat, succours the reins and bladder.  


Apples: Cold in the 2nd degree. As appropriated to the body of Man, so they heat the head as the stomach.


Annis: Seed is hot and dry in the 3rd degree. Heats the stomach, liver and spleen. Expels wind. Provoke the menses. Resist poison.


Fennel: Seed is hot in the 3rd degree, Dry in the 1st degree Heats the head and liver. Expels wind. Provoke the menses. Resist poison.  The seeds, boiled in water, stays the hiccough, and takes away the loathings which oftentimes happen to the stomachs of sick and feverish persons, and allays the heat thereof.  The seed help to open obstructions of the liver, spleen, and gall, and thereby help the painful and windy swellings of the splee, and the yellow jaundice; as also the gout and cramps.  The seed is of good use in medicines to help shortness of breath and wheezing by stopping of the lungs. Leaves, seeds, and roots thereof are much used in drink or broth, to make people more lean that are too fat.  


Coriander:  Seed is hot in the 1st degree, and dry in the 3rd degree. Assuage swellings.


Saffron:  It helps consumptions of the lungs, and difficulty of breathing.  It is excellent in epidemical diseases, as pestilence, small-pox, and measles.  It is a notable expulsive medicine, and a notable remedy for the yellow jaundice.  The Arabs, who introduced the cultivation of the Saffron Crocus into Spain as an article of commerce, bequeathed to us its modern title of Zaffer, or 'Saffron,' but the Greeks and Romans called it Krokos and Karkom respectively. To the nations of Eastern Asia, its yellow dye was the perfection of beauty, and its odour a perfect ambrosia. 'Saffron yellow shoes formed part of the dress of the Persian Kings,' says Professor Hehn. Greek myths and poetry exhibit an extravagant admiration of the colour and perfume. Homer sings 'the Saffron morn'; gods and goddesses, heroes and nymphs and vestals, are clothed in robes of Saffron hue.


Nutmeg:  Is used for flatulence and to correct the nausea arising from other drugs, also to allay nausea and vomiting.   Nutmeg is an agreeable addition to drinks for convalescents.


Cinnamon: It stops vomiting, relieves flatulence.  He has made no other mention of Cinnamon within his book.


Cloves: He has made no mention of cloves in his book to where it can be found or recorded.


Copyright 2007 by Heather Blazicevich, <onora.otoole at gmail.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org