The uses of Rue in 15th and 16th century Europe

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The uses of Rue in 15th and 16th century Europe
Common rue is native to Southern Europe and the Mediterranean. The name Ruta is from the Greek reuo (to set free), because this herb is so efficacious in fighting various diseases. It was considered (in many parts of Europe) not only a medicinal herb, but as a powerful defense against witches and was used in many spells.1Rue was introduced to England and Northern Europe by the Romans and has been considered an important product of the herb garden since then.2

Many herbal books of the later middle ages mention rue and its many uses, in fact, rue is one of the most frequently mentioned herbs in historical writings. Hildegard von Bingen’s book, although written initially in the 12th century, was reprinted (thus evidently read and used) under the name of “Physica” in 1533 in Strassburg. Gerard’s Herbal was first published in 1597 and relied on previously written books such as Dodean’s Herbal (1583), Neuw Kreuterbuch (1588) and authors as far back as Pliny (23-79 AD). Thomas Tusser wrote his book in 1557, while Banckes published his book in 1525 and Dawson’s Leechbook (or Collection of Medical Recipes) was written earlier in the fifteenth century.

Rue was documented for use in a large amount of areas - medieval dyeing, cooking, religious practices, house keeping, literature of the period and even magic spells. But did it really accomplish what the medieval recipes claimed it did?

Medicinal –

The primary use for rue was in its medicinal properties. Documented remedies using rue cover many areas, including that of eyesight, pains, wounds, venomous bites, stomach disorders and headaches

In an all purpose recipe from a 15th century Leechbook, rue was billed as “an electuary for many evils; for the cough, for the breast, for rattling in the throat, for boils, for sores (pains) in the sides, for debility (problems with the spleen) and for the stomach”. It instructed the patient to “take horse-hoof (colt’s-foot) and groundsel, hyssop, centuary, ache, fennel, rue, solsicle, pennyroyal and nept (catmint), of each equally much; and grind them together, and put pepper thereto, and honey; and eat thereof at morn and even.” 3 Most recipes though, were more case specific.

The eyes

Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo both claimed that rue improved their vision. Both artists are rumored to have said that eating rue enhanced their vision. They believed that rue sharpened their eyesight and allowed them to see colors in their true light--a valuable asset, if you're a painter.4 In Italy, rue has been used even before the Renaissance in order to improve eyesight, and is still eaten in salads for that purpose in our time.5

Rue is found in many recipes concerning the eyes from the 14th and 15th centuries primarily to aid in stopping the aging process of the eyes, although it was used to treat eyestrain and eyestrain headaches. 6 Tacuinum Sanitatis claims that eating rue sharpens a person’s eyesight.7

A remedy from Gerard’s Herbal states “The herb a little boiled or scalded, and kept in pickle as

Sampier and eaten, quickens the sight. The same applied with hony and the juice of Fennell, is a remedie against dim eies.” 8

Hildegard of Bingen wrote that “A person whose eyes water should take rue, and twice as much sage, and twice as much chervil as sage. He should pound these herbs, a moderate amount, in a mortar, so they give out a little bit of juice. Then he should dip these crushed herbs in egg white. At night, when he goes to bed, he should place this mixture over his forehead, all the way to both temples. This will draw out the bad humors, as if someone is sucking juice from an apple.”9 Another remedy of hers for problems with eyes that fog over was to “take the sap of rue, and twice as much pure liquid honey, and mix them with good clear wine. He should put a crumb of whole wheat bread in it, and tie it over his eyes, at night, with a cloth.”10 The same book says that “One whose flesh is swelling up around the eyes, or whose eyes are clouded, should take some bile of the turbot and mix it with an equal amount of juice from rue, and less of chamomile, storing it in a copper jar. Rubbing it often above his eyes at night will cure his eyes, and he will see clearly, the cloudiness chased away.”11

In the 15th century Leechbook, Dawson wrote about “A precious water to clear a man’s eyes, and to destroy the pin in a man’s eye. Take the red rose and capillus veneris that is called maidenhair, fennel, rue, vervain, euffrasia (eyebright), endive, betony, of each equally much; take (so much) that thou hast under six handfuls in all, and let them rest in white (wine) a day and a night. And the second day distill them in a still: the first watyer will appear as water the color of gold, the second water silver, the third balm. This water is precious to gentle ladies instead of balm.” 12

Dawson also gave a recipe for “Water for eyes swollen. Take agrimony and leaves of vervain, of fennel, of rue, of roses, and put in a still, and sprinkle above good white wine, and distill it. This water is good for swelling in a man’s eyes that cometh of cold, and also for bleary eyes and for the pin in the eyes, and it cleareth much a man’s sight.”13

Hildegard also wrote that “As long as a person has eyesight, this is able to help his eyes; after he has lost his sight, it will not benefit him. One whose eyes are misty should take equal measures of rue and hyssop sap and add three times as much of wine. He should pour this into a bronze vessel, so that it may retain its power. At night, when he goes to bed, let him smear it around the outside of the eyes and eyelids. If a bit touches the eyes, it will not harm them. Let him do this often, and the mistiness of the eyes will vanish.”14

Dawson too had a remedy involving rue. “A precious water for eyes, that if a man has lost his sight ten years, if it were possible he shall recover it again within forty days. Take smallage, rue, fennel, agrimony, betony, scabious, avens, houndstongue, eufrasia (eyebright), pimpernel and sage, and distill these together with a little urine of a boy-child, and five grains of frankincense. And drop that water each night in the sore eyes.” 15

In European herbal medicine, the plant is often used for treating eye problems as several varieties of rue found in the Mediterranean region, do have the ability to soothe sore eyes.16 If a modern day patient contracts conjunctivitis pink eye, many doctors will supplement traditional treatment with a rue-fennel compound found in many health stores and herbal pharmacies. The herbal eyewash "soothes inflamed tissues, eases the itching and helps keep the eye moist."17
Rue was used to help harden bones and teeth, and to expel worms (of the teeth) beginning in the late 14th century.18 Today, herbal practitioners use fresh rue leaves to ease tooth pain.19

Dawson suggested a cure for “a nose that stinketh; take the juice of black mint and the juice of rue, of each equally much, and put it into the nostrils.” 20

Both Dawson’s Leechbook and Gerard’s Herbal claimed, “The juice of rue dropped in the nostrils will staunch bleeding”.21

Powdered herb was dried and inhaled in the middle ages. Due to rues styptic properties, it stopped nosebleeds then and still does today, however, it is not recommended for such today due to the health risks that it poses.22
Ear pain

The Leechbook advises taking “powder of cloves and the powder of the seed of lilies, and temper them well with the juice of rue and wet a tent (small bit of cloth) and put it in the ear. But I warn thee keep thee from these things, that is garlic, eat but little or none, and keep thee from the heat of the sun, and leif to sup late, and keep thee from crying, for these be grievous things for the sickness.”23 Dawson also suggested “For a man that may not hear. Take rue and stamp it and wring out the juice or strain it, and put it in a piece (of wool) and make it lukewarm, and put it in the ear, and (let) him lie on the other side.”24 Gerard’s Herbal notes: "the juice of Rue made hot in the rinde of a pomegranat and dropped into the eares, takes away the pain thereof."25 Gerard suggested another remedy for pain of the ears. “The juice of Rue made hot in the rinde of a pomegranate and dropped into the eares, takes away the pain of thereof.” 26 Today, The Journal of California Anthropology advises putting a sprig of rue in the ear for earache.27 Many herbal practitioners today use fresh rue juice dropped in the ear for earache.28 On a more intrusive note, Hildegard of Bingen gave a remedy in case “any kind of vermin has entered a person’s ears, he should take wormwood, half as much rue, and half as much hyssop as rue, and cook them in water. He should then tip his head and let the warm vapor rise up from the warm herbs through a reed pipe and enter the healthy ear. The vapor will reach the other ear where the vermin are, and they will flee. Earlier this ear will have been smeared with honey with a bit of lard in it. Upon sensing the wormwood, the vermin would turn away from it and toward the sweetness. 29

Poisons/venomnous bites
Poisoning was a popular way of killing one’s enemy in the middle ages because of the many methods and poisons themselves. Using poisons was relatively easy, it was usually difficult to detect and even harder to trace its source. 30

Rue was on the list of plants mandatory (along with 73 other plants) to be planted in the imperial herb gardens of Charlemagne in the 8th century. Monk Walahrid of Strabo planted rue at the gardens at Reichenau in the 9th century as an antidote to poisoning.31 The tradition of using rue as an antidote and anti-venom continued into the 14th and 15th centuries.

According to “The Pleasure of Herbs” by Phyllis Shaudys, King Mithridates (132-63 BC) was said to have taken small doses of rue and other poisonous herbs to make himself immune to assassination attempts."32 The word mithridates was once synonymous with antidote to the point where mithridatism meant the practice of taking repeated low doses of a poison with the intent of building immunity to it. King Mithridates’ recipe (one walnut, two dried figs, twenty leaves of rue, and a grain of salt) all ground together and eaten on an empty stomach) continued through the classical ages and into the Middle Ages and Renaissance when it became highly sought after. As a sideline, King Mithridates recipe was the basis for the phrase “a grain of salt”.33

Gerard borrowed a remedy for insect repellent and poison antidotes from the writer Dioscorides (40-90 AD) and his text titled “De Materia Medica” which was one of the few herbals continually in use from the classical era through the 17th century. “Dioscorides writeth, That a twelve penny weight of rue seed drunke in wine is a counterpoison against deadly medicines or the poison of Wolfes-bane, mushrooms or Toadstools, the biting of Serpants, the stinging of Scorpions, Bees, Hornets, and Wasps; and is reported, That if a man bee anointed with the juice of Rue, these will not hurt him; and that the serpent is driven away at the smell thereof when it is burned: insomuch that when the Weesell is to fight with the serpent, shee armeth her self by eating Rue, against the might of the Serpant.”34

Gerard had more insight into insect repellents: “If a man be anointed with the juice of rue, the poison of wolf's bane, mushrooms, or todestooles, the biting of serpents, stinging of scorpions, spiders, bees, hornets and wasps will not hurt him.' 35 If bitten by a serpent however, Dawson had a remedy that contained rue to combat the snake venom. For the biting of an adder (snake), “pound green rue and fennel and seethe together with butter, and give him to drink. For the biting and stinging of any venomous worm” (used to mean any creeping thing: reptile, insect or otherwise) “take a handful of dragance and half a handful of centaury and half so much of rue, and two cloves of garlic; and stamp them small and wring out the juice, and anoint the place that is venomed, and it shall destroy the venom, and if thou drinkest the water of all these distilled and mixed with a little treacle, it will destroy the venom within.”

The Leechbook gave the remedy for “ache of womb (stomach) of man or of woman that hath eaten venom (poison). “Take green rue and wash it, and temper it with wine, and give him to drink, and he shall be whole.”36 Gerard’s Herbal quoted Pliny who gave the same remedy.37

Hildegard of Bingen gave two remedies for combating the ingestion of poison. “If someone has swallowed poison, cook clary sage with a little honey and rue. After this has been cooked, add a bit of thorn apple and strain it through a cloth. This should be drank three times, after some food.”38 “If someone drinks a poison, he should take equal weights of sysemera (costmary), rue, and betony and, having pounded them in a mortar, express the liquid. Then he should take twice as much juice of garden spurge and add it to the above-mentioned liquid. When these are well mixed, he should strain it through a cloth and drink it on an empty stomach. When he drinks, he should be seated in a warm place, so he does not get chilled. It would be very dangerous for him to be cold right then. After drinking this, he should drink hydromel, and the poison will foam out, through nausea, or it will travel to the lower regions, and so be released.”39

Today, medical professionals warn that in excessive doses rue is a poison.40 Health professionals strongly emphasize that rue can be toxic if taken in doses over that prescribed. 41 No

Rue is considered toxic enough that as late as 2005, United States law forbids rue to be in the hands of certain persons. “It shall be unlawful for any person, firm, or corporation whose permanent allegiance is due to the United States to sell or deliver to any other person any of the following described substances, or any poisonous compound, combination, or preparation thereof, to wit:(and then goes on to list 60 compounds including rue) if the applicant be less than eighteen years of age, except upon the written order of a person known or believed to be an adult.42
Digestion/stomach disorders

Aristotle was quoted, hundreds of years before the Middle Ages, saying rue “eased nervous indigestion when eating in the company of foreigners.” 43

Rue was used to treat nervous digestion and colic.44 One of the Leechbook recipes for appeasing a nervous stomach was stamping rue with stale ale or water, wringing it out and drinking the juice.45 Today, Rue is most often used for its calmative properties and is used in cases of nervous indigestion.46

Hildegard von Bingen wrote, “if someone occasionally has pain in his kidneys and loins, this very often comes from infirmity of the stomach. The person should take equal amounts of rue and wormwood, and add a greater amount of bear fat, and pound these together. He should vigorously rub himself with it, around his kidneys and loins, while near a fire.”47 She also advised a remedy “for swelling of the womb (stomach). Pound rue with wine or ale, and drink it oft. Or else drink waybread and rue seethed in wine.”

A modern day remedy for a stomachache is making an infusion using rue oil. The oil mixture is usually taken on a sugar cube or in hot water like a tea. 48 This infusion is a useful medicine for coughs, croupy affections, and colic, being a mild stomachic. However, in case reports, various individuals who consumed 100 ml. (about 3 liquid ounces) or more of rue oil or 120,000 mg (120 grams or about 4 ounces) or more of fresh rue leaves and stems experienced intense stomach pain and severe vomiting. 49

Tacuinum Sanitatis advises eating rue as cure for flatulence 50 and the infusion discussed previously is also proven successful to reduce the problem.51

Bingen went on to write: “if someone eats a food which brings pain, he should eat rue afterward, and his pain will be lessened.” Today we have found that because of rue’s tendency to make people vomit, rue should not be administered immediately after eating.52

The Leechbook also had remedies for intestinal problems. For dysentery, “take rue and way-bread, and stamp them together; and take the juice and wheat-flour, and make a cake thereof, and bake it; and eat it hot, and thou shalt be whole.”53

Rue is modernly used, due to its antispasmodic properties, in the digestive system where it eases griping and bowel tension.54

The Leechbook recommends “For adder or snake in a man’s body” (our modern day intestinal worm) “stamp rue with a man’s own urine or a woman’s, or that of a beast which hath that evil, and give him to drink.”55 Several varieties of rue found today in the Mediterranean region, do have the ability to expel worms.56 In modern Chinese medicine, rue (with its antiparasitic properties) is used to eliminate intestinal worms.57

An explanation as to why rue works to aid in stomach problems is that it is a form of bitters. Bitters have long been found successful at stopping stomach pain, cramps and nausea. 58

Menstration, pregnancy and abortions

Rue was first used to stimulate menstruation as far back as the ancient cultures of Greece, Rome and Egypt. Its main use was the regulation of menstrual periods, where it was used to bring on irregular or suppressed menses.59 Hildegard of Bingen advised women in pain from menstrual cramps to mix bearberries, yarrow, rue, cloves, pepper, dittany and birthwort, pound them, then cook them with honey and wine. The concoction was to be drank every day.60 Today rue is used to promote menstruation and, due to its antispasmodic qualities, to ease menstrual cramps.61

It is easy for modern man to believe that the medieval woman had no means of controlling the likelihood of pregnancy. Nothing could be further from the truth. The leaves of rue were eaten daily in salads as a contraceptive to prevent pregnancy.62 The leading medieval contraceptives (the most popular were pennyroyal, artemisia and rue) were actually abortifacients. The herbs didn’t stop the pregnancy from happening. They aborted the pregnancy after the fact. They were the medieval version of "morning-after" pills.

Today, rue is used in Costa Rica for a wide variety of conditions from aborting a fetus to speeding the delivery of one at full term. Rue is one of the mainstays of midwives in many developing countries. Given to the delivering mother during a particularly long and difficult birth, it will bring on contractions and aid in the faster delivery of an infant. However, the risks generally outweigh any benefits it might have for contraception or abortion. Many deaths have been reported due to uterine hemorrhaging caused by repeated doses of rue.63

Rue is used today to aid in deliveries in humans in Latin America, to induce abortion in horses in many countries, and to prevent pregnancy in rats in the lab. Modern tests validate what medieval doctors knew about working with oral contraceptives.64

Rue was not used for only women’s health alone. A decoction with bay leaves and rue was used to bathe swellings of the testicles. In Tacuinum Sanitatis, it was written that rue “augments the sperm but dampens the desire for coitus.65

If a man is sometimes stirred up in delight, so that his sperm arrives at the point of emission but has in some way been retained within his body and he has begun to fall ill from it, he should take rue and a bit less wormwood and press out their moisture. To this he should add sugar and honey and as much wine as there is of these juices. He should heat it up five times, with a piece of hot steel in a new pot or a small dish. After having eaten a bit of food he should drink this warm.”66

Although this is interesting, I was not able to find any information as to if rue is still used to combat this particular problem.
Headaches and high blood pressure
The Leechbook gives the following headache remedy: “Take a handful of rue and another of ground ivy, the third of leaves of laurel, and seeth them together in water or in wine, and that plaster lay on his head: and this is for an ache that endureth long.”67

To make a powder for migraine, “take primrose, solsicle, avens, sage, betony, rue, of each a drachm of rosemary flowers, three drachms, cardomum seed cress, surmonteyn, of each two drachms; and one ounce of kernels of peony; of tartar, half an ounce; of ginger, galingale, canell, nutmeg, cloves of the tree, of aloes and cassia lignia, of each of them three ounces; of sugar, one ounce. And make powder of all these and eat (it).” 68

An ointment for headache was to “mingle the juice of rue with oil of roses and vinegar, and anoint therewith thy temples. Another recipe was to “take rue with the thick sediment of eufrasia (eyebright) and anoint thy temples.”69

Rue was also used to treat, nervous headaches, heart palpitations, high blood pressure, “If fresh leaf is chewed, it will relieve tension headaches, ease palpitations and other anxiety problems." 70

Modern herbalists have been known to prescribe chewing on a leaf or two of rue to relieve a nervous headache.71

Cough and cold

For the “parlous (perilous or persistant) cough,” the Leechbook recommended taking “sage, rue and cumin and papper and seethe them together with honey and eat thereof every day at morn a spoonful, at even, another.”72 Another cough remedy from the Leechbook also covered retching, excessive bile, sores in the side and debility. It said to “take elecampane” (aka: horshelne, horseheal or scabwort) “groundsel, hyssop and centuary, smallage, rue, hillwort, wild-thyme, of each equally much, and put thereto pepper and honey, and eat thereof at morn and at eve.”73

For a running nose, take the juice of mint and the juice of rue, tempered together; and put it in his nostrils oft, and it will much amend, and cast out the filth of the brain whence it cometh.” 74 Another cure for a runny nose was to “take the seed of rue and make a powder thereof, and put it in the nose and it shall staunch.” 75

Rue is often applied to the chest in the form of compresses to relieve bronchitis in modern herbal medicine.76 The plant is also helpful in easing spasmodic coughs.77

A decoction made with “dried dill leaves and flowers eases all inward pains and torments, both

drunk and outwardly applied warm”. Banckes' Herbal contains, as part of a remedy for a stitch in the side, to "take smallage seed, rue seed, pepper and salt, and grind them well together and temper them with wine and drink it, for it is good for the cold and wicked humors in the stomach, the liver and the lungs.”78

For “the aching of knees and swelling, take wormwood, agrimony, vervain, lovage, herb-benet, pettymorell; and if thou wilt take rue, of each equally much, and stamp them small; then fry them with two parts of fresh butter, and one part of white wine; and make a plaster as hot as the sick may suffer, and lay it to his knee.” Another remedy for swelling of the knees: “take rue and lovage and stamp them together, and temper with honey, and lay it upon the sore” area. 79

“Whoso hath swelling in his knees. Take rue and lovage, and stamp them together; and put thereto honey, and lay to the sore”. 80 Another remedy for swelling of the knees was to “take rue, and pound it with salt and honey; and therefore make a plaster, and lay thereon.” 81

Rue is now used to relieve arthritis pain and to treat soft tissue injuries such as bruises and sprains.82

For a “kink in the breast” the Leechbook recommended taking “cumin and pepper and nitrum (salt petre), in even weight, and as much of rue as of all these three, soak well in sharp vinegar and oft dried upon a hot plate of iron; and all these stamped together and made up with honey, this will heal the ach of the breast, of the sides and of the maw (stomach) and of the reins (kidneys) if it be oft eaten.”83 Another Leechbook recipe for “evil at the breast, take rue and ambrose (wood-sage) of each equally much, and stamp them and temper them with white wine, and give the sick to drink fasting, oft.”84

Rue is used as one of the ingredients in a liniment for sore muscles. The rutin content of rue acts as a painkiller when applied to the skin or ingested and is an active chemical in many pain killers available today. Cold compresses are made today using rue and St. John’s Wort as key ingredients – not just for humans but for animals as well. Rue is a natural anti-inflamitory which would lead to pain relief.85

Rue accelerates the flow of blood, which aids not only in better circulation but improved joint maneuverability and arthritic pain. It has been used in Europe and Asia as a successful arthritic aid.

Rue is an excellent herb for the repair of sore and damaged muscles and joints. 86

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