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For the first meeting of the 2018/2019 season, the Till Valley Archaeological Society welcomed Dr Brian Moffat to Crookham with a capacity audience, who gave a talk on Medieval Medicine And Its Use In The Present Day.

Wednesday, 19th September 2018, 9:00 am

Dr Moffat has spent 30 years researching the remains of the medieval hospital at Soutra Aisle, on what has been for centuries a main route into Scotland. The English Army of 35,000 stayed here before Bannockburn.

The hospital was run by Augustinian monks, who owned much land in Scotland and even the waterfront at Berwick, and charters tell us that it was “for the care of the poor, travellers, pilgrims, the aged and the sick and infirm”. There was a vast network of such hospitals in Scotland, but only Soutra remains.

In the 15th century many hospitals were confiscated by the Scottish Crown. Soutra remained a family burial vault for the Pringles. Most of the buildings were cleared away and the surrounding fields converted to farmland.

This demolition aided the investigation into medical waste and herbs in the old drainage system, which was blocked. There was evidence of a great quantity of blood, which was analysed and found to contain anthrax (still a notifiable disease to this day). As this is such a dangerous disease, it was reported to Porton Down and the Pentagon.

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According to the annals of the Augustinians, it was usual to have routine blood-lettings, and it has been proven that anaemia is a defence against plague. Rosters of these blood-lettings show that the hierarchy at the hospital was usually first in line.

Quick lime was used, probably as a disinfectant, a substance more recently recommended by Florence Nightingale.

Also among the samples taken was evidence of bowel cancer, and it has been found that people with a high vegetable diet can give a ‘false-positive’ result because of this.

The use of spices has also been found to combat disease (Cornell University), several of which are a defence against anthrax and E.coli. Spices were found in great quantities in the inventories of all medieval hospitals and Soutra even paid its rent in spices. Wads of what appeared to be sawdust were, in fact, 30 species of spice, which had got damp and been disposed of.

The Soutra Screening Programme For Medieval Blood was reported to Scotblood conferences (organised by the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service) and in British Archaeological reports.

Library catalogues of medieval hospitals included, apart from the expected religious books, large medical sections, written in classical Greek and Roman, and a few in Arabic, not at that time allowed. There were also manuals relating to the management of childbirth, obstetrics and drugs to induce childbirth, although these were not actually permitted. Supervision was at St Andrew’s in Fife, and warning of any imminent visit would give time for any pregnant women to ‘disappear’.

Also found was evidence of ergot, a fungus affecting cereals and grasses, a toxic drug which can induce birth in both humans and livestock, and a natural source of LSD. St Anthony’s Fire is a symptom of this drug, affecting the hands and feet, which eventually go black and drop off.

Evidence of narcotics was found, including henbane, hemlock and opium poppy. Dr Moffat has supplied the Poison Garden at Alnwick Castle with examples of these and others.

Amputations were also carried out at Soutra, as a severed heel bone with a tarry substance, which would have sealed the stump, was found.

So can archeobiology be useful? Bitter Vetch, for instance, found widely in England and Scotland, was reported to ward off hunger. Dr Moffat, as a trial, didn’t need to eat for seven days, and the writer of a thesis on the subject didn’t need to eat for 16 days, reporting feeling quite elated. It is also recorded that all of Charles II’s mistresses used this in their diets and only a small piece, the size of an acorn, was required.

Question time was limited as Dr Moffat needed to catch his train home from Berwick, but this lecture can certainly be recommended.

Our next lecture, on Sunday, October 7, at 2.30pm, is our James IV Memorial Lecture, given this year by Dr Alex Hildred, curator of the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth. Her lecture is entitled Henry VIII’s Mary Rose – From Seabed to Showcase.

Tickets are £6, available from or 01668 216091. The venue this year is Coldstream Community Centre. More information is on our website at