Thursday, 24 November 2016

Treating Joint Disease in the Roman World

Something strange happened while I was working on writing up research on how Latin sources treated joint complaints:  I realised that I had everything in my house to formulate not just one treatment, but three variations of it. 
Pliny the Elder (24.72.116) wrote:
Bruised holly leaves with added salt are beneficial for afflictions of the joints... 
Possibly two or three centuries later (we can't date the work for sure but it is often dated to the fourth century) an anonymous author whose work is referred to as the Medicina Plinii prescribed (3.1.3) a similar treatment:
Holly ground with added salt and oil is beneficial for the same thing [joint disease].
This use of holly as a treatment was popular with ancient Latin medical authors, because a third medical author who probably dates to the fifth century, Marcellus Empiricus, provides another prescription (34.64):
Holly, rubbed down and applied with frankincense, salt, and oil relieves joints.
The sources made no references to amounts, so I made it up as I went along.  Now I must say, the holly used is most likely the incorrect type as it as grown in Australia and randomly found in my brother's yard (thanks Justin) and brought home by my mother (thanks Mum).  When I first wrote up this research I was curious about the ongoing changes over time and thought the addition of oil would aid its application.  Therefore, this not-at-all-scientific experiment was to compare between the three prescriptions to see what difference the development brought about.

Pliny's mix of holly and salt was very dry and doesn't adhere to the skin very well at all.  I also think it stinks, even though my family didn't think it was that bad.

Holly and Salt. Ground and applied
The Medicina Plinii preparation adhered to the skin better with a small amount of olive oil added.  When I first considered the difference between Pliny and the Medicina Plinii, I thought that oil would make the preparation adhere better, and my presumption was correct.  It still stinks though.

Comparison of the Holly and Salt to the Holly, Salt and Oil.  Application of Holly, Salt, and Oil.
 Marcellus' addition of frankincense renders some notable changes.  The middle picture shows the oiliness of the preparation before I even added the oil.  I added the same amount of oil to both the Medicina Plinii and Marcellus' preparation.  Yes, frankincense is a dried resin, but when pounded in a mortar and pestle, it releases a considerable amount of oil.  The other major difference was the smell.  The smell of this preparation is far, far nicer than that of the holly without the frankincense.  It also adheres to the skin a little better too.  Marcellus often claims to have used what he wrote about, so I wonder if he had a client who complained about the smell.  That said, frankincense was often included in medical preparations, so he might have thought it would provide other advantages instead or as well.

Left: Holly, Salt, and Frankincense before pounding. Middle: Holly, Salt, and Frankincense pounded; Right:  application after oil was added to the preparation.
As I have typed this blog, all of Pliny's preparation has fallen off my thumb, most of the Medicina Plinii preparation has fallen off, but Marcellus' is still adhering very well.

Left:  Salt and Holly; Middle:  Salt, Holly, and Oil; Right: Salt, Holly, Frankincense, and Oil.
While I had thought about how the addition of oil would improve the manner it adhered to the skin proved to be correct, but I hadn't imagined what difference the frankincense would make.  As for the effectiveness of this as a treatment... I am extremely sceptical of all home remedies. 
The joints on my left hand (which are the worst joints I applied this to) did start aching as I typed this blog, but this does not mean that this is an ineffectual treatment, and one person messing around in her kitchen not even measuring ingredients properly make no pretence at being a scientific study.  My arthritis is described as spondyloarthritis and is a genetic form within the rheumatic diseases, and my sources state that this is for joint disease without any further definitions.  For all I know, this could help people with osteoarthritis, and as I stated at the beginning, this is likely the wrong form of holly.
In any case, it has been fun to look at how over a period of perhaps five centuries, the treatment of joint diseases evolved and developed in my own kitchen.