A Wound Herb

The topical use of agrimony usually applied in wine or vinegar, also continues to be greatly esteemed, evidenced by its inclusion in a preparation for a new kind of wound. Fernie (1897) tells us that ‘this herb formed an ingredient of the genuine arquebusade water, as prepared against wounds inflicted by an arquebus, or hand-gun, and it was mentioned by Philip de Comines in his account of the battle of Morat, 1476. When the Yeomen of the Guard were first formed in England (1485), half were armed with bows and arrows, whilst the other half carried arquebuses. In France the ‘eau de arquebusade’ is still applied for sprains and bruises, being ‘carefully made from many aromatic herbs’. The value placed on the herb naturally led it to be listed in the London Dispensatory of the Royal College of Physicians (1618) and later in the Edinburgh Dispensatory.

Other topical uses come from the Arabic writer Mesue: to draw thorns, splinters and nails, for abscesses in the ear canal and to restrict the seeping of blood into the skin (ecchymoses), to reduce the swelling and pain of fractures and to strengthen subluxated joints. A fistula might be cured by placing the powder of three roots of agrimony into it.

In the early 18th century, Quincy reports that country people use the bruised herb or its juice for bruising and fresh wounds, while physicians employ it in the treatment of dropsy (presumably portal hypertension) and cachexic states. He quotes Etmuller on its ability to take away swelling and inflammation of the scrotum. Miller emphasizes its use in strangury and for ‘bloody water’ and refers to Riviere’s extolling of the powdered leaf for incontinence of urine. Quincy notes that the herb is available in few shops but that barber-surgeons make frequent use of it in fomentations, to dissolve hard tumours or to disperse and absorb oedematous swellings and superfluous moisture.

In the latter part of the century, however, when medical practitioners are making increasing use of mineral compounds and imported and exotic plants, agrimony is dropped by mainstream medicine. Cullen reports in 1773 that of the eight vegetable astringents in the London Dispensatory, chief among these being agrimony, it and four others had now been omitted ‘not from any noxious quality, but only from their not being used in present practice’. Rose Rosa species, cinquefoil Potentilla species and tormentil Potentilla erecta are retained because of their fragrance or on account of their greater astringent power (tormentil is classified by Culpeper as heating in the first degree but drying in the third, and it contains up to four times as much tannin as does agrimony).