The Magic Of The Meddygion by Anon

Head north from Swansea across the Black Mountain towards Llandovery and you will be approaching what was once a highly respected traditional school of medicine. Today few people would equate the village of Myddfai with healing, yet in the 12th and 13th centuries the Meddygion Myddfai were renowned. Only fragments of their knowledge remain, but what is left provides a fascinating insight into traditional British herbalism.

For a cold…


Take a pound of garlick, and pound well, adding thereto a quart of good bottled wine; let it macerate well covered, drain under a press and drink lukewarm. If the cold affects a joint, warm the remains of the garlick and apply to the part as warm as it can be borne. It is proven…

So wrote the physicians of Myddfai sometime in the 13th century. Sound advice, even if it would make you fairly unpopular for a few days. A pound of garlic, after all, takes some eating. But it sounds certain to wipe out any cold germs for miles around and would no doubt do wonders for the immune system. The Myddfai physicians flourished from the 12th century onwards recording their nostrums in a series of Welsh manuscripts some of which still survive.  Much of the information is clearly derived from earlier sources, such as Galen, Hippocrates, Pliny, and Dioscorides, all the more remarkable when one considers that Myddfai, especially in the 12th century, was rather remote from the more familiar seats of learning.

These same traditions also surface in later works. Pliny, Dioscorides, the Myddfai texts and Culpeper, for example, all quote the story that swallows feed greater celandine to their young to improve their eyesight and recommend that the herb be used to clear ‘webs’ from the eyes.
The Myddfai physicians thus combined a mediaeval Galenical approach to medicine (complete with detailed descriptions of the humours) with folk traditions and the texts are filled with recipes which come close to rivalling Shakespeare’s witches in their ingredients.

13th Century Medicine
Myddfai Remedies

– To maintain health, drink first thing everyday a spoonful of the juice of mallows.– To dispel drunkenness in a man, let him drink saffron in spring water.

– To make a woman pregnant, let her eat lettuce frequently and warm grease and pepper.

– For the bite of a mad dog, eat the root of radish.

– For all kinds of pain, take a fair amount of the flowers of broom, and the lily, and the primrose, and a handful of leaves of the sea holly, and the root of bloody-veined dock. Pound them well and make an ointment of them with butter and anoint the pain with it.

– For pain in the head, take the juice of ground ivy and vinegar and the white of an egg and mix them together and anoint the forehead with that.

– To induce sleep, take poppy and sea holly and pound them well and boil them in wine, and anoint the nostrils, eyes and ears frequently and a man will sleep.

– It is good to eat garlic in the month of May for strangury.

Duckweed (Lemna minor) to cure obstinate constipation ‘Obstinate constipation’, for example, is treated with ‘duckweed, boiled briskly in a pot, then cast it into a pan and fried with a quantity of blood and butter, eating it hot’, no suggestions are offered as to where you obtain the blood.

For ‘retention of urine’ the Myddfai doctors would have you ‘take the brains of a hare and mix the same with wine… smell it for an hour and then drink it’. While for ‘nervous disorders’ they suggest an ointment made by roasting earthworms inside an onion’.

It is easy to find such bizarre mediaeval concoctions in the texts, but the basic herb lore they contain is even more fascinating and familiar. Sage is recommended both for sore throats and as a toothpaste; burdock for skin conditions; parsley to ‘pro-mote the flow of urine’ and a rather delicious sounding mixture of fennel, dill, parsley and wild carrot seeds with juniper berries steeped in spirits of wine for flatulent dyspepsia.

Roses For

Toothache

Red roses for toothache
Other herbal remedies are less familiar today, but may be worth investigat­ing. Hemp agrimony, for example, is suggested for coughs, red roses for toothache, a mixture of avens, pimpernel, betony, vervain and ground ivy for gout and a garlic clove in the ear for tinnitus.

In an age when basic health care and hygiene were very different from today, the Myddfai physicians also had a lot of good advice to offer.

Their ‘rules for eating and drinking’ for example urge: ‘When you eat, do not eat away all your appetite but let some desire for food remain. Drink no water with your food as it will cool your stomach preventing its digesting the food and quenching the warmth thereof… When you have done eating take a walk in some well sheltered level piece of ground. When you feel inclined to sleep, do not sleep too much… Sleeping before food will make a man thin, but sleeping after food will make a man fat. Also do not eat till the stomach has become empty, and this you may know from the sense of hunger.’

There is also plenty of advice about the nature of various foods. ‘Beans,’ we are told, ‘if fresh, will be cold and wet and foster phlegm. If dry, they will be cool and dry and will foster swelling and they will be hard to digest; and whosoever eats them frequently will have a heavy head and be peevish forthwith.’ Peas, it adds, are ‘cold in the second degree and dry in the third and foster bad blood’ while onions are ‘hot and dry in the first degree’ have little moisture and will ’cause swelling and pain in the head’.

But perhaps the most intriguing instruction is to: ‘Take the gall of a cat and a hen’s fat mixing them together. Put this in your eyes and you will see things which are invisible to others.’

The Lady of the

Lake

According to the legends the Myddfai physicians were descended from a widow’s son from Lland-deusant who married a water nymph from the nearby lake of Llyn-y-Fan-Fach. The youth sees the nymph while out walking and falls instantly in love with her. After a suitably ritual courtship she finally agrees to marry the mortal on condition that they should live together only until she received from him three blows without a cause ‘ Tri ergyd diachos’.

At this point the bride’s father appears from the lake and as in all good fairy stories provides an enormous dowry, in this case sufficient cattle, sheep and horses to stock a sizeable farm. The couple settle down to married life near the village of Myddfai and in due course become the proud parents of three sons.

One day the pair were due to visit some neighbours to attend a christening and while getting ready to go the husband playfully slaps his wife’s shoulder with a glove, so falls the first blow. A second blow happens accidentally while the pair are at a wedding and the husband vows to be more careful, a third blow would be the last. By now the three sons have grown up and are proving to be suitably handsome, clever and successful, everything they should be in a good fairy story, when the husband and wife attend a funeral. During the ceremony the nymph is in high spirits, laughing and joking. The shocked husband touches her arm to quieten her, and thus falls the third blow.

The Lady of the Lake

‘The last blow has been struck, our marriage contract is at an end,’ she declares. ‘Farewell.’ So the lady of the lake gathers up her retinue of dowry animals and heads back to Llyn-y-Fan-Fach to vanish forever beneath the waves. The sons, however, do not give up so easily and constantly search the lakeside hoping for some sign of their mother. Eventually she appears to the eldest of them, who was called Rhiwallon, and telling him that his mission is to be a benefactor to mankind by relieving them from pain and misery through healing their diseases, she gives him a bag full of medical prescriptions and instructions for the preservation of health. So started the medical tradition of Myddfai.

These were translated into English in the 19th century and copies of them are to be found in the University of Wales Library at Aberystwyth and Cambridge University Library. All Myddfai remedies and traditions referred to in this article are derived from these sources.