The Authority Of Apuleius

Is burdock’s place in the formula for this ointment based on empirical knowledge of the plant’s action or on a misreading of Dioscorides? For once, the authority of Apuleius appears equal with that of the triumvirate of Dioscorides, Pliny and Galen when we turn to the Renaissance writers on burdock. Fuchs, Dalechamps and Bauhin cite him fully. Fuchs indeed avoids citing Pliny at all, gives Dioscorides in full, and Galen on the quality and actions of personatia or bardana. The plant is found everywhere, he tells us – thus providing, we may think, ample opportunity for empirical experiment of reputed uses such as burns – especially at the edges of meadows and fields. Fuchs then cites Apuleius, whose entry is more substantial in terms of uses, but his text has several alterations and accretions too: the juice in honey is now diuretic and used for bladder pain, for burns the rubbed leaf is applied with egg white, and, also among the indications of bearwort, the powdered seed in wine taken for 40 days ‘miraculously’ heals hip pains (see discussion under ground ivy). The treatment of snake bites is made by scarification of the wound, then the bruised leaves are applied while 2 denarii (8 g) in weight of the roots are taken in wine, according to Fuch’s citing of Columella, who also recommends an ointment of the leaves topically, or the root, for scrofula (see the discussion under figwort site).

Meanwhile, Mattioli is more intent on establishing correct species and confirms that the ‘personata’ of Pliny (bk 25, ch 9), named arkion in Greek, is the Lappa major available in the Italian pharmacies of his day. Pliny also mentions a second large-leaved plant which he calls ‘persolata’, from the leaves of which, says Mattioli, ‘our country people make hats with which they protect themselves from the rays of the sun, while they reap the corn or thresh it in the heat of the dog days’. The same use is conveyed in the Greek and Latin names for burdock, namely prosopis and personata, meaning face, whose ‘leaves are the largest of all herbs and exceeding those of the gourd by far’ in the opinion of Mattioli, with clear reference back to Dioscorides. Fuchs also explains the name ‘personatia’ with regard to the theatre and to the use by actors of the large leaves to disguise their faces when the drama requires it.

In Turner, burdock is the great bur, or arkion, personata, or the lappa major of apothecaries, but not persolata. It is found commonly about towns and villages, along ditches and highways, dunghills and other vile places. He only quotes Dioscorides on its uses, omitting any mention of abscesses. The translator of Dodoens gives the plant the name Clote Burre. Dodoens describes the greater and lesser burdocks, stating that the latter is dealt with by Dioscorides in a separate place, and called ‘xanthion’ in Greek and ditch burre or louse burre in English. Beck identifies the xanthion of Dioscorides (IV 136) as Xanthium strumarium L., the broad-leaved burweed. Ignoring this mistaken identity, we find that Dodoens records the majority of uses of greater burdock from Dioscorides and Apuleius as transmitted by Fuchs above. However, it is to the lesser burdock that he credits a healing action on scrofula, specifying the seeds crushed and applied not only to these strumas but to disperse any oedema due to cold humours, for he reckons the lesser burdock hotter in quality than the greater. Furthermore, the juice of lesser burdock, he says, drunk with wine also treats poisonous bites and urinary gravel and stones. The same mistaken link between lesser burdock and the xanthium of Dioscorides is made even in the early 18th century, by Miller and by Quincy, who say, however, that the plant is not used, although it appears in the new catalogue of the Royal College of Physicians.

If Dodoens adds another level of confusion over identity of species in the case of lesser burdock, then Dale-champs becomes another contributor by pointing out that burdock is the arkion of Dioscorides and the personata of Pliny, which all authors recognize, but it is the ‘arction’ of Galen also, because the prickly heads resemble the heads of shaggy, hairy bears (‘arctos’ in Greek). Dalechamps’ actions for burdock match those of Fuchs, including the citing of Columella, but with the addition of a confection of the root for stones and dysentery. However, the seed is more effective for stones, he notes, and both preparations stir up lust. It may be that what Dodoens attributed to lesser burdock in the Low Countries regarding the treatment of kidney or urinary stones, Dalechamps attributes to the seed or confection of the root of greater burdock in Southern France.

Burdock as a diuretic, one of its modern actions, can thus be dated back to Fuchs, and even before him because the Salernitan herbal proposes that a drink made from the stems of the plant makes a person urinate frequently. This appears in the Salernitan text alongside only two of the uses recorded byApuleius and does not seem to be derived from the Arabic writers since we find no entry for burdock in Ibn Sina nor Serapio, nor any reference to these authors in relation to burdock in the later herbals. Macer does not describe burdock. An antilithic action, evidenced by some modern research, is recorded for the juice of lesser burdock by Dodoens, but this too has a medieval precedent. Hilde-gard considers that burdock contains some injurious heat and is harmful except to those suffering from the stone. In this case the leaves, for the root is useless she says, should be cooked in the finest wine and the liquid once strained should be taken warm before or after a meal. We may conclude, therefore, that the diuretic and antilithic actions of burdock come from empirical medical practice in the medieval period than from a blind copying of ancient texts.

When we turn to Gerard, we find additional uses not mentioned by the preceding authors. Admittedly, he initially sticks close to the latest of the citations above, namely Dalechamps, copying the indications of Dioscorides and Columella, which go back to Fuchs, and taking the confusion of arkion with arction one step further by repeating the indication for bearwort from Dioscorides, which have increased to include strangury. He affirms, however, that it is the stems of the Clot Burre, peeled and boiled in meat broth or eaten raw with salt and pepper, which ‘increaseth seed and stirreth up lust’, as well as providing good nourishment, especially if the kernel of a pineapple is added! The root pounded and added to ale is good for a windy or cold stomach, while the large leaves can carry a mixture of equal parts of the treacle of Andromachus (the famous plague remedy of the ancients called Theriac and in Gerard’s time Venice treacle) and egg whites beaten in a mortar then wrapped around a gouty joint to assuage the exquisite pain of the attack. The root pounded and strained with malmsey treats incontinence, leucorrhoea in women and strengthens the back if egg yolks, powdered acorns and nutmeg are mixed with it and the draught is taken morning and night.

Bauhin too brings something new in his entry for personata or Lappa major. Having cited Apuleius, Dioscorides, Pliny and Galen, and stated a diuretic action which helps kidney stones, he cites Holerius on an emulsion made from the root or 2 drachms (8 g) of the dried flowers of burdock painted onto the chest in cases of pleuritis, and Virtemberg on the use of the leaves applied to the head to ease its pains. This treatment also has an effect on the womb, for it will draw the womb towards the head, or if the leaves are applied to the feet, the womb will be drawn down. This is a special remedy for prolapse of the womb or its suffocation (causing changes in breathing and other emotional and physical responses accredited to the displacement upwards of the womb, which Hippocratic physicians thought could ‘wander’ around the body, interfering with normal functioning of the parts) and is the use of burdock leaf for the womb that Culpeper acknowledges from Mizaldus in the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis (1669): ‘if a wise man have but the using of it’. In The English Physitian, Culpeper suggests that the leaves can be applied to the belly also, to keep the womb in place and so prevent miscarriage, while in his Directory for Midwives (1651), in a site on ‘the falling out [prolapse] of the womb’ he gives instructions for ‘my own magnetick cure’:

Take a common Bur-leaf (you may keep them dry all the year, if you please) and apply to her head, and that will draw the womb upward. In the fits of the mother (i.e. suffocation above) put it under the soles of her feet and it will draw it downwards. Bur-seed beaten into powder will do the like, they command the womb which way you please, and by orderly usage of it will cure any disease of it. ‘Tis a plant of venus and is best gathered when she is angular and strong in her hour, and the moon applying to her. [If] it will not readily go up, by reason of carelessness in not using the remedy time enough, you may bathe it as you were told’.

One of our students has related to us a similar treatment which she witnessed in the North of Scotland. During lambing, a ewe suffered prolapse of the womb. The farmer added burdock leaves to her feed and the womb was restored to its proper place. If this is evidence of an empirical use of burdock, then it is in keeping with the medieval rather than Galenic origins or the main modern uses of the plant, namely as a diuretic and anti-lithic. Its alterative action in the internal treatment of arthritic and skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and other chronic conditions is also recorded only after the demise of Galenism.