Translation of Issue 57 pages 15-17 Planhigion meddyginiaethol Meddygon Myddfai

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The Physicians of Myddfai’s medicinal plants

The Physicians of Myddfai were Rhiwallon and his sons Cadwgan, Gruffudd and Einion, and according to the Legend of Llyn y Fan Fach, Rhiwallon was the son of a beautiful woman who emerged from the lake and shared her knowledge of medicinal plants with her son. Unfortunately this is a fable and there is no basis to the assumptions that the Physicians of Myddfai are her decendants; but there was a doctor called Rhiwallon and he as well as his sons were physicians to Rhys Gryg.

Rhys Gryg was Rhys ap Gruffudd’s son, and Rhys ap Gruffudd was also known as Lord Rhys of the Deheubarth. It’s known that this family from Dinefwr were supportive of the arts and education, so it is entirely possible that they would have also encouraged learning and medicinal matters during the 12th and 13th centuries.

The Physicians of Myddfai’s work is available to us today mainly through the Red Book of Hergest, that dates back to the late 14th century, and some other Welsh manuscripts. Here we have learned men who had obviously studied medicinal maters and noted medicinal remedies for different ailments. There is also a list of useful medicinal plants.

I must make it absolutely clear that I cannot read Middle Welsh, and therefore I’m totally dependant on the subject from the Red Book of Hergest that was edited and updated by the Rev. John Williams – or ab Ithel to give him his bardic name – who was the rector of Llanymawddwy. In 1856 John Williams prepared the Medical Practice of Rhiwallon and his Sons for the Welsh MSS Society, and from this work it is possible to follow this text, although there are several names for plants used that are different to the ones used today.

One of the plants mentioned in the Physicians of Myddfai’s work is ‘cribau san ffrêd’ or ‘gribau San Ffraid’ (Stachys officinalis; betony).Here’s an example:

66 – For aqueous humour
Take some betony flowers, and eat them, and this will brighten the eyes, and dry them up brightly.

Another example is:
266 – for a man who talks in his sleep
Take a pint of betony juice, and a pint of “fercris”, mix together and drink, and this through the grace of God will do you good.

The phrase A hynny a wna les trwy Dduw (“and that will through the grace of God do you good”) and a few others – ag iach y byddi drwy Dduw (“and healthy thou shalt be through the grace of God”) can be found repeatedly in the work. Admittedly this is one of the best renunciations I have heard. Obviously if the receipe did not work, it was God’s fault, and not the physicians’!

Other Welsh names for betony, are danhogen, dwyfog and the feddyges lwyd (meddyg = physician) and that last name gives us a clue. It’s one of the plants that has been used for centuries, as a medicinal plant.

Several parts of the plant were used. The roots were used as a strong and emetic laxative. The leaves were completely different – according to some records, it is possible to produce an alcoholic drink from the leaves. There’s evidence that betony leaves were used to treat wounds, skin burns and to make a tonic. Usually an infusion was prepared from the leaves , and then drunk as a tea, and people believed it purified the blood.

It was used for indigestion, headaches, and migraines. Also it was used for colds and coughs and chances are it was used to clear nostrils. Another use was as a sedative, and there is evidence that it was used to remove blackheads or boils. By all accounts, the plant was of great importance to the Anglo Saxons and their use of it was connected to witchcraft. But some thought very highly of it and its medicinal qualities, thus the saying gwerth dy gôt a phryn gribau San Ffraid. (sell the coat off your back and buy betony).

Another plant that is referred to in the work is sage Salvia officinalis or the ‘saviour’ as the Physicians would refer to it. Here’s an example:

100 Toffee for a sore mouth
Take a spoon of saviour juice, and a spoon of elder juice, two spoons of dewberry juice, core of a hot apple, three spoons of honey, and boil slowly on a fire by constantly mixing until it forms into a thick toffee, place in an earthen pot and close it tightly and keep until required, and when you suffer from a sore mouth , take a small amount, the size of a dove’s egg and hold in your mouth until it melts, and it is good.

As you see, there are references to a number of different plants in this recipe and this is true for the most of the recipes that are found in the Physicians’ work. The amount that should be taken in the mouth is also interesting – that is, “size of a doves egg”.

Sage has been much used over the years and we are still using it to cook with and it is quite common in gardens, although there is a belief that you should never plant sage yourself in your garden, as bad luck will surely follow if you do, and you should get a stranger to plant it for you. There is also a belief that sage should not be planted in a bed on its own, as it needs another species of plant for companionship.

Sage belongs to the mint family and it is used for mouth and throat infections. It can be gargled if you have a sore throat. Also it’s a tonic for the body and improves blood circulation.

Woodsage Teucrium scorodonia is a wild growing relative of the sage. Once again, the Physicians of Myddfai have another name for it, that is “woodland germander”. Here’s one recipe that’s offered to treat Erysipelas or Tân Iddew (Jew’s Fire), which is an infection that causes the skin to redden – like fire on skin.

94 Plaster to treat Erysipelas, and to draw bad meat:
Take some woodsage juice and honey and mix with salt and aesel, and mix well and add a little rye flour and boil and make a plaster, and place on the wound, it is also used as a plaster that can be used for relief of the drink disorder, gout, until it is cured.

Woodsage is also used for stomach complaints. In Ireland particularly, it is used for relieving colic, stomach cramps and indigestion. There’s evidence that it was used as a tonic in Merionethshire. The plant makes you sweat, amd therefore has been used to reduce temperature, and has been used to treat colds and coughs, including tuberculosis.

One plant that is not referred too very often is yarrow Achillea millefolium, which is strange as there are a number of references to yarrow in more recently written Welsh books. One that is offered is:

125 – For illness on the stones (kidney stones):
Take some camomile and saxifrage, grind and place in hot water, and give this drink to the patient for six days, and no other drinks, and through the grace of God they will get better.

There are at least a hundred different recipes that were written by the Physicians of Myddfai in the work, and some more practical than others. I wonder whether you’d find one of the following recipes useful?!

461 To stop you getting drunk:
Take a handful of betony, that’s also known as bishopwort, and grind well and mix with spring water, strain, and drink before eating and drinking anything else, and you will not get drunk that day.

508 For hair growth:
Shave the head clean with a razor, take some honey and some onion juice, as much as possible and massage and rub well into the head every morning, and every evening wash the head with distilled honey; this has been proven.

Bethan Wyn Jones was brought up in Talwrn, Anglesey, and continues to live there. She graduated in Zoology from University of Wales College, Aberystwyth. She is a regular contributor on ‘Galwadau Cynnar’, a Saturday morning programme on Radio Cymru, and has a weekly column about various aspects of the natural world in the Herald Cymraeg, a Welsh supplement in the Daily Post. She has published several books including Bwrw Blwyddyn, Chwyn Joe Pye a Phincas Robin, Natur y Flwyddyn and the series Doctor Dail and Cynefin, jointly with Iolo Williams.