Wormwood: Broad Consensus


The Arabic writers mention varieties of absinthium from their own experience. Serapio says the best comes from the Indians, Ibn Sina prefers those from Armenia and the mountains of Turkey and speaks too of one from lordan ‘which smells nicely”. They mainly repeat the commendations of the ancient writers. Serapio includes its use for abscesses of the liver and stomach, repeats Galen’s lack of effect on phlegm in the stomach and Dioscorides’ warning about the juice as harmful to the stomach. He cites Mabix on opening obstructions, loosening the belly and curing jaundice because of its heat. It is Ibn Sina who talks about the dual properties of the plant and explains this effect; it stops (at least the one from lordan) diarrhoea thanks to an earth element in it and purges and opens up blockages thanks to the volatile element. Ibn Sina is ambiguous about taking the juice; wormwood, he says, is ‘a fantastic and lovely herb to repair appetite when taken as a broth and/or as a squeezed juice during ten days, each day 3 obols (1800 mg). As wine it strengthens the stomach and renders other benefits, or the herb, especially taken as a squeezed juice during ten days, each day 3 dirhams (8.925 g) helps jaundice and dropsy”. Yet after recording the figs, soda and chaff as medicinal bandages for the spleen, familiar from Dioscorides and Pliny, he follows with the, also familiar, expressed juice as not good for the stomach; his citing of medicinal bandages for the liver, stomach and sides, and pains and hardness in the organs, and in wax with henna oil for the liver and sides, and with roses or rose oil for the stomach echoes Dioscorides, yet later we find again a further reference to the juice as helping with old fevers – both juice and fever counter to indication in Dioscorides.

Hildegard in the 12th century says it warms the stomach, purges the intestines and makes good digestion possible.

Our Renaissance authors mainly cite the ancients. Parkinson is very thorough and adds a ‘receite’ from the Hortus Medicus of Camerarius, for yellow jaundice ‘take saith hee of the flowers of wormewood, rosemary and blacke thorne of each alike quantity; of saffron halfe that quantity; all which being boyled in Renish-wine, let it be given after the body is prepared by purging etc.’. Parkinson, when citing Pliny, also refers to eating a few leaves of wormwood to defend one from ‘surfeiting and drunkennesse’. Dodoens, on this point, says ‘if it bee taken fasting in the morning, it preserveth from drunkennes that day”. Culpeper’s tract on wormwood is very distinctive and full of imagery ‘To give and example here He [Mars] had no sooner parted with the Moon, but he met with Venus, and she was as drunk as a hog; Alas poor Venus, quoth he; What! Thou a fortune and be drunk? I’ll give thee antipathetical cure; Take my herb wormwood, and thou shall never get a surfeit by drinking’. Parkinson adds that the opening of obstructions and purging by urine and strengthening of the liver and stomach accounts for its commendation in tertian and other lingering agues; perhaps here supporting Ibn Sina’s reference to its virtue in old fevers, i.e. intermittent fevers. Parkinson refers too to a property of sweetening bad breath: ‘The vinegar wherein wormewood is boyled, is especiall good for a stinking breath that commeth from the gums or teeth, or from corruption in the stomacke’. Bauhin on this point cites Mesue that the herb is used cooked in vinegar or wine with lemon peel to amend bad breath, gingivitis or ‘rotting makemals’ in the stomach.

Dodoens similarly follows the ancients, and his language is splendid ‘it is good against the windinesse, blastings of the belly, against the paynes and appetite to vomite, and the boyling up or wamblings of the stomacke, if it bee drunken with Annis-seed, or Sesely”. Gerard speaks of’clensing by urine naughtie humours’. He adds a further observation ‘and it often happens that with violent and large vomiting the sick man fainteth or swouneth or when he is revived doth fall into a difficult and almost incureable tymponie [bloating] especially when disease doth often happen; but from these dangers wormwood can deliver him, if when he is refreshed after vomite and his strength anyway recovered, he shall a good while use it in what manner he think good’. He adds too how wormwood withstands all putrefactions, this presumably helping low acid conditions and risk of enteric pathology through lack of sterilization of food. Turner reprises Dioscorides, Galen and Pliny, although he says it is not good taken in an ague. While Dalechamps cites Mesue that it helps putrid fevers, even if continuous, Culpeper is clear and graphic: A poor silly countryman hath got an ague and cannot go about his business; he wishes he had it not and so do I; I will tell him a remedy, whereby he shall prevent it. Take the herb of Mars, wormwood, and if infortunes will do good, what will fortunes do?’

Bauhin covers the ancients and the Arabic writers very thoroughly. He cites Mesue, presumably following Galen, that wormwood purges phlegm very little or not at all, but then contrasts Avenzoar’s judgment that it does indeed purge phlegm. Dalechamps mentions the same contrast, saying Avenzoar calls wormwood a ‘phlegm purger’. Fuchs reads similarly. Culpeper appears to rate the herb highly: ‘the sun never shone upon a better herb for the yellow jaundice than this’, he says, and repeats Camerarius’ recipe, though ‘put it not in saffron till it is almost boiled’.