Renee Yancy: Ancient Medicine in Ireland

I’m so pleased to host author Renee Yancy today as she discusses her research into ancient medicine in Ireland. And, as a special treat, if there are 10 or more comments, she is giving away a free copy of her book!

Welcome, Renee!

In my 5th century historical novel, A Secret Hope, my heroine Ciara is studying to become a druid physician. Having a medical background myself, it was a delight to research ancient medicine in Ireland. Here are some of the tidbits I found.

In the 21st century we know Lambs Ear as the soft, silvery-green leaves in a flower garden that children love to “pet.” But once upon a time, Lambs Ear was known as Woundwort, because the leaves were believed to have healing properties. During the Civil War, Lambs Ear leaves were used as bandages. And what did people do before Band-Aids were invented? A single wooly Lambs Ear leaf is perfect to roll around a hurt finger. A long blade of grass or a pine needle could be used as a fastener.

Another staple of ancient medicine was the water-loving willow tree. Willow bark

contains salicin, and salicin is used to create acetylsalicylic acid, better known today as aspirin. The ancient Celts would simmer willow bark, let it steep, and drink the resulting tea. In the cold, damp areas of Britain, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, the magical willow bark tea would have been a precious commodity for people who suffered the pains of rheumatism and arthritis.

Another fascinating plant is comfrey. Comfrey has had lots of names over the course of history: Blackwort, Knitbone, and Boneset, to name a few. The last two names give a hint as to one of the major uses of comfrey in ancient medicine.

The leaves would be ground to make a vivid green poultice for bruises and sprains. For broken bones, the fresh roots would be grated and applied over the fracture. This root poultice would turn rock hard and be left over the limb until the bones would “knit”. Comfrey contains several vitamins and minerals, allantoin (which aids cell growth) and 18 amino acids. This amazing plant is known as far back as the 1st century, and is mentioned in the writings of Dioscorides, considered to be the Father of modern pharmacology.
Honey has been used for at least 2,000 years as a dressing for wounds and burns. The ancients didn’t know that honey has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties but they knew that it worked. The use of honey reduced healing time and decreased scar formation. Plus it smells good!

When antibiotics came on the scene in the 1940’s, the use of honey declined. Now seventy years later when overuse of antibiotics has resulted in scary drug-resistant microorganisms, the use of honey is once again current. In my research I read the report of a 15 year old boy who contracted meningococcal septicemia. He developed peripheral necrosis (tissue death) of his hands and feet. He had to endure bilateral amputations of both legs mid-tibia (shin bone) and lost most of his fingers. His hands healed well but he had many unsuccessful skin grafts to his legs. The pain was so intense that his dressing changes had to be done under anesthesia.

Finally honey dressings were tried. Within a few days the skin on his legs began to improve. In ten weeks his wounds had healed and he went on to successful rehabilitation. Something to think about the next time you stir a teaspoon of honey into your tea!
Renee Yancy has been living vicariously through historical fiction since she was a young girl. Her all time favorite book is Shogun by James Clavel. One of her writing goals is to be as historically and archaeologically as accurate as possible. Every object she describes in her novels, including jewelry, dishes, furniture and glassware, are actually in museums all over the worlds. In her other life she is an RN with many years of nursing experience and presently works in an Endoscopy Unit. Learn more about Renee by visiting her website and blog at and

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