Author: Brenda Jennings

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Tuesday, February 20th, 2007 at 6:47 pm
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Cures and Solutions for the 21st Century

Nothing is guaranteed to generate more interest, amongst those keen to shed a few pounds, than claims of a new ‘wonder’ slimming pill. ‘New’, however, may not actually be the most appropriate term for a herbal diet pill, possibly to be developed from a common wild plant used as far back as the 12th century by Augustinian monks. These monks lived at Soutra Aisle, South of Edinburgh. Archaeologists have discovered, via ancient texts, that the monks used the bitter vetch plant to stop hunger pangs, chewing the tubers on the plant’s roots to quash their appetites, often for several weeks.

Soutra Aisle, formally known as ‘The House of the Holy Trinity’, was once a grand hospital, monastery and church, located on high ground near the A68, (B6368 to Gilston) about 12 miles south of Dalkeith. The small, stone remain is a mere fragment of the original hospital and has only survived because it became the burial place of the Pringle family of Soutra in 1686.

The hospital was set up around 1165 and was one of the largest and most important medical centres of medieval Scotland. For 300 years, the black-cowled monks ran the hospital, assisting travellers and pilgrims, the battle-ravaged, the poor, the aged, the sick and the infirm. Their only medicines were derived from the plants they grew at windswept Soutra Aisle.

The extent of the hospital, more considerable in size than any modern Edinburgh hospital, was only realised in 1976, when the drought caused the grass on top of buried walls to dry a lighter shade, revealing a massive complex of buildings hidden underneath.

Archaeological finds
Director of the Soutra Aise dig, archaeo-botanist, Dr Brian Moffat, has been working at the site since 1986 and said recently of the vetch plant, “The bitter vetch plant, ‘Lathyrus Linifolius’, features in any plant book. We’re looking at a plant that has been forgotten, although evidence shows it has been in use for seven or eight centuries all over Europe.”

It is believed that the plant was traditionally used by peasant farmers to counteract the effect of crop failure. They ate two or three of the liquorice-tasting, pea-sized, energy-inducing tubers and lost the inclination to eat, sometimes for months. The plant was also used in the court of Charles II, around 1685, by those who had been living a little too well and were needing to diet. Archaeologists have further discovered evidence that the monks may have cut up the tubers and made them into a potion.

No wonder the company, ‘Highland Natural Products’, now intends to find out whether the plant lives up to its name of the ‘miraculous Scottish herb’. The company, who are refusing to comment at present as they say plans are ‘commercially sensitive’, is based at Muir of Ord and provides ingredients for the pharmaceutical, cosmetic and food industries from plants indigenous to the Highlands and Islands.

The bitter vetch, a distant relative to the sweet pea, is a short, erect, delicate plant with crimson flowers which then fade to blue or green. What a revelation if, indeed, a successful slimming pill could be evolved from this simple little plant, which thrives in woods, thickets and hedgerows throughout Britain!

Influence today
Dr Moffat believes that the monks’ knowledge of herbs was so great that it could certainly be used to influence medicine today. “You would not bother with strange plants in a monastery unless they were going to be used, and these medieval brothers knew more about plants than anyone alive today.”

Evidence rediscovered by Brian Moffat and his team shows that the monks used a huge variety of plants to treat a huge variety of conditions. Watercress, with its high vitamin C content, was used to cure scurvy, prevent baldness, cure hangovers and ‘fasten’ loose teeth. Hemlock was used as an anaesthetic for surgical operations, treating teething in babies, relieving epilepsy, cramp, bronchitis, whooping cough and asthma. Blaeberries were utilised in the treatment of food poisoning, high blood pressure, diarrhoea, nausea and indigestion. St John’s Wort was used on its own to lift depression, or mixed with valerian to induce sleep, and mistletoe and tormentil would get rid of unwanted, intestinal worms. The monks used juniper berry seeds to induce childbirth, treat kidney and bladder conditions, rheumatism and arthritis.

Archaeologists also claim that the monks carried out limb amputations and illegal abortions, anaesthetising patients with a mixture of black henbane, opium and sweet hemlock. A blood dump has also been discovered containing some 5000 pints of blood, the results of some 1600 bloodletting operations.

Decline
The House of the Holy Trinity in Soutra fell into decline in the 1460s when the master of the hospital caused a scandal by his ‘bad behaviour’, and the crown confiscated most of the estates which financed the hospital as a punishment. So ended the supreme, three-hundred-year reign of this phenomenal institution, reducing an establishment of international importance to little more than a local hospital.

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