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Grasping the nettle

Infection is the deadly threat that has always been with us. An invisible enemy; a battle in which modern antibiotics have recently given us the upper hand. 

But what would life have been like without the drugs to keep infection at bay, at a time when medical knowledge was in its infancy? This is one of the questions that drives Dr Christina Lee and underpins her research into medieval cures for this most persistent killer. 

Dr Lee is studying the use of nettles in ancient remedies for wound-healing, dog bites, hunting injuries and other infections. She and her team are looking at recipes in Old English, Middle English and Latin texts, which use some key ingredients that seem to have been used over many centuries, suggesting they have stood the test of time and may even have useful insights to offer us today. 

She is working with scientists to test this wound-healing recipe in the lab, looking at its three main ingredients, which include nettles and salt – a mineral composed primarily of sodium chloride. 

"The Middle Ages are sometimes viewed as a time of brutality and darkness, a thousand years of turmoil preceding the advances of the Renaissance. But new research suggests medieval medicine may have been more effective than previously thought – and could even help save lives today."
Dr Christina Lee

Dr Lee said: “A key aspect of the work is finding the right combination of these elements, as there are a number of different things that could be happening. It may be that the medicinal plant is functioning as an independent agent in attacking bacteria, or it may be that they’re working together, and a chemical reaction is happening. In which case that potentially can be isolated and an active ingredient derived from it.” 

Using a specific algorithm, Dr Lee is establishing the strength of the relationships between the ingredients and their effectiveness on the diseases they’re intended to treat. 

The project – Nettles and Networks: New Ways to tackle Wound Infections – recently won a prestigious APEX grant. Jointly awarded by the British Academy, Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society, and funded by the Leverhulme Trust, APEX grants promote collaboration across science, engineering, social sciences and humanities, for curiosity-driven research to benefit wider society. 

“It’s very novel,” Dr Lee said, “and it challenges certain traditional paradigms that people believe about interdisciplinary work between the arts and the sciences.” 

This latest project follows Dr Lee’s widely-publicised research into the 10th-century Bald’s Leechbook, one of the earliest known medical textbooks, and the revelation that a 1,000-year-old recipe could kill the notorious modern-day superbug MRSA. That success opened the way for a potential collaboration with Tianjin University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, which would aim to compare traditional Chinese medicine with medieval Western examples. 

Dr Lee’s work in this area is underscored by a deep interest in health, illness and disability in the Middle Ages, and how medieval medicine is more than just superstition. 

"There’s often an assumption that modern scientific practices only really start to develop after the Middle Ages, as a reaction to them. But in fact, what we’re finding is very clear evidence in medieval texts of emerging scientific methods being applied."
Dr Christina Lee

She said: “There’s often an assumption that modern scientific practices only really start to develop after the Middle Ages, as a reaction to them. But in fact, what we’re finding is very clear evidence in medieval texts of emerging scientific methods being applied. 

“I’m also fascinated by the cultural aspects of illness, and how health was defined in the Middle Ages. What did it mean to be ill? Who was actually categorised as ill? Because in medieval religious thinking everybody is frail because of the Fall. Everybody. Health and illness, disability and ability are therefore all parts of one spectrum which is not binary, but where all conditions are just shades of difference. “And that changes completely the parameters for how you define health.” 

Christina Lee

Dr Christina Lee is an Associate Professor in Viking Studies, School of English. Follow Christina on Twitter to find out more about her research.

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