Dragon’s Blood and Willow Bark (Amberley Publishing April 2015) was the title of my original medieval medicine book. I chose the title to illustrate and contrast the use of both mystical and natural treatments in the middle ages and to consider the efficacy of these remedies.

Willow bark had been used since ancient times to relieve inflammation and reduce fevers. We now know that this plant-based remedy contains salicylic acid, an active constituent of aspirin, so modern science understands how and why this would have benefitted the patient.

As well as medicines derived from plants, medieval doctors also included animal-based remedies in their pharmacopeia. Some of these would horrify us today, such as a treatment for gout that required boiling newborn puppies! But others are far less grim, such as snail slime, used in medieval times to treat minor burns and scalds and currently making a comeback. Marketed as ‘snail gel’, this natural remedy aids the healing of cuts, insect bites and even acne spots. If you think how vulnerable the underside of a snail must be as it travels over spiky plant material and gritty soil, an antiseptic lubricant that promotes the healing of minor nicks and abrasions is an evolutionary asset. Modern medical research is now also looking at the possibilities of substances like snake venom and leech saliva as possible sources of new treatments.

But what of the dragon’s blood mentioned in my book title? An ingredient mentioned in many medieval remedies, as the name suggests, was this some mysterious magical potion obtained from mythical creatures? Of course not. Dragon’s blood is neither mystical nor even animal-related.

A Dracaena draco tree in Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Courtesy: Esculapio

It is a red resin originally from the tree Dracaena draco, a native of the Canary Islands and Morocco. When the bark of the tree is damaged, it oozes a blood-red sap which hardens to form a resinous protective layer over the site of injury. Historically, it was sold by medieval merchants as either lumps of dark red resin or a bright red powder, its price hugely inflated by the incredible story told of its origins. According to these tales, trees were not involved at all; the resin was said to be the solidified blood of dragons.

According to a thirteenth-century Bestiary[1] – the medieval equivalent of a zoology guide with Christian overtones – dragons and elephants were mortal enemies and any chance encounter between these creatures resulted in combat to the death. Apparently, the dragons weren’t as invincible as most legends suggested and the elephants were always victorious. This may explain why they are so much more common than dragons today.

Dragon’s blood was used as a dye and a paint pigment as well as having medicinal properties. The first century Greek botanist-physician, Dioscorides, described its uses in his herbal, De Materia Medica, prescribing it as a treatment for respiratory and gastrointestinal problems, particularly for diarrhoea. Trotula of Salerno – who may have been a female lecturer in medicine at the University of Salerno in the twelfth century – recommended it in a long list of ingredients to make a remedy for treating women who suffer menorrhagia (heavy bleeding during their periods):

After eating or during meals, let there be given to them to drink... a powder of coral and gum arabic, pomegranate, myrtleberry seed and purslane... great plantain, knotgrass, dragon’s blood, burnt elephant bones and quince seed[2].

Dragon 1
An elephant meets a dragon: British Library, an English bestiary, dated to between 1236 and c.1250, MS Harley 3244, f. 39v.

By 1402, the myth about the elephants and dragons was no longer widely believed and dragon’s blood was now understood to come from a plant, but it was still used in medicine as a cure-all. It was applied to wounds as a coagulant to stop the bleeding; it was taken by mouth for reducing fevers, curing diarrhoea and dysentery, mouth ulcers, sore throat, intestinal and stomach disorders, as well as for chest problems and it was applied to the skin as an eczema treatment.

But did this exotic substance have any beneficial effects? The answer is yes, it probably did. Today, alternative medicine uses dragon’s blood as an antiseptic wash for wounds and internally for chest pains, menstrual problems and post-partum bleeding after childbirth. More orthodox medical research has found that dragon’s blood has not only antibiotic properties, but one of its components, taspine, has antiviral and wound-healing effects[3]. Animal and laboratory tests have shown some promise for the use of dragon’s blood in modern medicine but, to date, there are no human clinical studies verifying these effects.

Dragon 2
Dragon’s blood (Daemonorops draco). Courtesy: Andy Dingley

These days, dragon’s blood resin is still imported – at one time it was used to varnish Stradivarius violins – but Dracaena draco is just one source. The resin can also be obtained from Dracaena cinnabari which is native to the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean and this may well have been another source available to Islamic medicine and to Europe via the Incense Road. Most supplies now come from various species of Daemonorops, native to Malaysia and Indonesia.

For the most serious diseases, prevention was always better than cure, but some concoctions were reckoned to do both. The following was written by an anonymous chronicler, describing how the lives of the people of Winchester in England were saved when plague came to the city in 1471:

The most sovereign medicine for the pestilence concluded by doctors of physic both beyond the sea and in England, also about the king in late days in the reign of King Edward the IV the tenth year [1471]. Take four spoonful of water and five spoonful of vinegar and treacle the size of a bean and mix all this together and drink it, fasting once a week or twice in a month and if you are not infected it will preserve you and if you are infected it will save your life with regular habits. This is proved and has saved 300 or 400 lives of men, women and children in the city of Winchester in the year of the king above said.

Microsoft Word - An article for Amberley Dragons Blood
Concocting Theriac, The Arcadian Library, Jacob Meydenbach's Hortus Sanitatis 1491 Nicolas of Poland

This recipe sounds so cheap and easy. If “with regular habits” it prevented and cured plague why should anyone die of that dreaded disease? Water, vinegar and treacle sound simple enough. The trouble was this ‘treacle’ wasn’t just any old treacle. It was ‘theriac’. According to legend, theriac was invented by King Mithridates VI, King of Pantus (now in Turkey) in the second century BCE. The king had a great fear of being assassinated by poison[4]. To be certain of having the correct antidote, if anyone ever did succeed in poisoning him, he experimented on his prisoners with every known poison and all possible antidotes. His numerous toxicity experiments eventually led him to declare that he had discovered an antidote for every venomous reptile and poisonous substance. He then mixed all the effective antidotes into a single one, which he called ‘mithridate’, naming this incredible cure-all after himself. Mithridate contained opium, myrrh, saffron, ginger, cinnamon, castor oil and dragon’s blood, along with some forty other ingredients.

When the Romans defeated Mithridates, his medical notes fell into their hands and Roman medici began to use them. The Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, improved upon mithridate and brought the total number of ingredients to sixty-four, including viper’s flesh, a mashed decoction of which, first roasted then well aged, has since proved the most constant ingredient. Crushed amber and pearls added to its cost and exotic appeal. Apparently, the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, took it on regular basis on the advice of his physician, Galen. After all, he was wealthy and could afford all those expensive ingredients.

In the medieval period, the traditional name became corrupted and shortened to ‘theriac’ and this, the most elaborate of all medicaments, now with more than a hundred ingredients, was called Venice or Genoa treacle by the English, depending on which Italian city state the merchants imported it from. But even if you could afford this ‘sovereign medicine’ or ‘magic bullet’ the secret of success lay in those two words ‘regular habits’. What were one man’s perfect regular habits could be another man’s destruction, depending on his humoral complexion, so the outcome was still in doubt, even for the rich.

As for the common folk, there was no chance of them getting hold of that ‘bean-sized’ amount of treacle, even enough for a single dose and, when it came to their ‘regular habits’, of course they were deplorably ‘irregular’ in every way. Especially irregular were the habits of women – ever unpredictable, according to medieval belief, but that’s another story.

9781445655420

Toni Mount's new paperback edition of Dragon's Blood called Medieval Medicine: Its Mysteries and Science is available now.


[1] British Library, English bestiary, MS Harley 3244, dated between 1236 and 1250

[2] Green, M. H., The Trotula – An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine (Philadelphia, USA: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), p.70.

[3] http://www.ejderhakani.com/infodraga.pdf (accessed 27 September 2014)

[4] Pickover, C. A., The Medical Book – from Witch Doctors to Robot Surgeons, 250 Milestones in the History of Medicine (New York: Sterling Publishing, 2012), p.44.

© Toni Mount April 2016