The MER database

The MER database is an ongoing project that seeks to make late Middle English remedies—medical recipes produced and circulated in fourteenth-, fifteenth-, and sixteenth-century England—publicly available. It currently includes 134 remedies from manuscripts in the archives of the British and Huntington Libraries; more are added regularly. The database can be accessed here.

How to use the database

Remedies are listed according to
> shelfmark (“BL Additional MS 34210”)
> folio (“5v”)
> location (“ears”)
> ailment or intention (“deafness” or “clarify”)
> ingredients (“hazel,” “honey,” “leeks,” “singrene”)
> and finally, the transcribed text of the remedy itself.

Each field can be filtered by clicking the arrow next to the column title and searching for the desired term. Filtering location by “eyes,” for example, produces 72 remedies; further restricting the search to ailment > “bleared” narrows the results to seven. You may also wish to search by ingredient, or intention. The interface is flexible and accommodates combinations of fields (you can filter, for instance, first by location > “teeth,” then by ailment > “ache,” and then by ingredients > “henbane”), but may only search one term per field—so you cannot, for example, filter the ingredients field by “henbane” and “leekseed.”

A note on terminology. Middle English is a slippery language, particularly when it comes to plant names. In an effort to maximize the database’s functionality, the data in the ingredients field has been standardized, to such degree as is possible. Though a particular herb may have six or seven names, any of which might show up in diverse remedies, I have chosen one name (usually the one which appears most frequently) to use. For example, searching “euphrasia” produces five results, but the plant’s common name, “eyebright,” produces none. Similar constraints have been placed on the ailment and intention fields; searching for “bolning” yields zero results, but its synonym “swollen” yields 11.

If your search term is not producing results, check the controlled vocabulary for preferred terms and their possible synonyms. You may also wish to consult the Middle English Dictionary.

Database scope

This database is primarily intended as a teaching tool. It does not seek to record whole recipe collections, but rather to provide a generally-representative sample of the kinds of remedies available to medical practitioners and patients in late medieval England. In doing so, it forces a flexible and infinitely adaptable genre into a uniform framework. The database, in other words, erases the “shape” of the collection, as well as material stains, rips, tears, rubrication, and most marginal notations. A partial list of digitized Middle English recipe collections is available here; exploring those manuscripts will provide a clearer image of what many medieval remedies looked like in their original, material context.

The MER database emerged from my doctoral dissertation work. Subject to my capricious whims, it skews towards the texts with which I work most closely. This is most recognizable in the predominance of eye remedies; about half of the recipes currently included in the database are intended to treat ocular conditions. (It is worth noting that remedies for eye complaints frequently dominate individual collections, as well.) As it continues to grow in size, a wider range of remedies will be made available. Every recipe collection is different, and while remedies may look similar within the interface of this database, their respective manuscripts often tell a very different story.

Acknowledgments

This project is supported by funding from the Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship, the Huntington Library, the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship, the Medieval Academy of America and the Richard III Society, and UC Riverside’s Center for Ideas & Society. Please contact chelsea.silva@email.ucr.edu with questions or comments.