Mandrake
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Source: British Library Images Online Copyright Copyright 2004 British Library / Used by permission Manuscript description British Library, Harley MS 1585, Folio 57r


 

Mandrake

Latin name: Mandragora

Other names: Mandegloire, Mandragloire

A plant with human-shaped roots, that shrieks when it is pulled from the earth

 

 
General Attributes

The mandrake is a plant; its roots grow in human form, male and female, and shriek when torn from the ground. It is of great use in medicine, but anyone who hears the plant's cry dies or goes mad. It was therefore a custom to tie a hungry dog to the plant by a cord and place a piece of meat beyond its reach. To get at the meat the dog tugged at the cord and dragged up the plant, while its master remained safely out of hearing. The mandrake grows in the East, near Paradise. In order to conceive, the female elephant must eat some mandrake root.

The mandrake is also described in medieval herbals, such as British Library Harley MS 4986 (twelfth century) (The Elephant in Medieval Legend and Art (London, 1919) Druce translation, adapted): 'If you want to gather the mandrake because of its great health-giving qualities, you shall gather it in this wise. It shines at night like a lamp, and when you see it mark it round quickly with iron lest it escape you. For so strong is this power in it, that if it sees an unclean man coming to it, it runs away. So for this reason mark it round with iron and dig about it, taking care that you do not touch it with the iron; but remove the earth from it with the utmost care with an ivory stake, and when you have seen the foot of the plant and its hands, then you shall at once bind the plant with a new rope, and you shall tie the same round the neck of a hungry dog, and in front of it place food at a little distance, so that in its eagerness to get the food it may pull out the plant. Again you may get it out in another way. Make an apparatus like a mangonel instead and fix in it a tall rod, to the top of which you shall tie a new rope to which also the plant is tied; and you shall make it work as a kind of mousetrap from a distance, when the rod springing back pulls out the plant by its own force. And when you have got it unbroken in your hands, presently store the juice of the leaves in a glass jar, and so will you keep it as a remedy for human beings.' ... There are six cures described. The first is for a head-ache which prevents sleep. For this a salve is made with the juice and applied to the forehead as a plaster, 'when the pain in the head is soon relieved, and sleep will come again quickly.' The second is for pain in the ears. The juice must be mixed with oil of nard and the mixture poured into the ears, 'when the patient will be cured with wonderful quickness.' The third is for a severe attack of gout. You must take of the right hand and the right foot of the mandrake a scruple each and grind it to powder, and administer in wine for seven days, when the patient will be quickly cured; and it causes not only the swelling but also the contraction of the muscles to recover themselves, and so 'both these troubles are cured in a wonderful way as has been proved by the author's experiments.' The fourth cure is for epileptics, that is for persons who have fallen in fits or who suffer from spasms. One scruple of the body of the plant is ground up and given to the patient in hot water, 'as full as the vessel can hold, and immediately he will be cured.' The fifth is for cramp and contraction of the muscles. 'Make a powder, very fine, of the body of this plant and mix it with sweet oil, and smear it upon those persons who have the troubles mentioned.' The sixth cure is interesting. 'If a cold in the head, of a particularly virulent kind, has appeared in the house, the mandrake plant-however little they have of it inside the house-drives away all the infection.'

The source of the plant has been described thus: "The human shape of the mandrake root has probably helped to foster, if it did not originate, the weird notion that the plant springs from the drippings of a man hanged on a gallows. Hence in Germany the plant bears the popular name of the Little Gallows Man. It is, or used to be, believed in that country that when a hereditary thief, born of a family of thieves, or one whose mother stole while he was in her womb, is hanged on a gallows, and his seed or urine falls on the ground, the mandrake or Little Gallows Man sprouts on the spot. Others, however, say that the human progenitor of the plant must be, not a thief, but an innocent and chaste youth who has been forced by torture falsely to declare himself a thief and has consequently ended his days on a gallows. Be that as it may, the one thing about which all are agreed is that the Little Gallows Man grows under the gallows tree from the bodily droppings of a hanged man." (Jacob and the Mandrakes (Oxford, 1917) Frazer, p. 9)


Sources (chronological order)

Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 25, 94): Pliny says that there are two varieties, the white mandragora which is generally thought to be the male plant, and the black, which is considered to be the female. It has a leaf narrower than that of the lettuce, a hairy stem, and a double or triple root, black without and white within, soft and fleshy, and nearly a cubit in length. Both kinds bear a fruit about the size of a hazel-nut. . . . The leaves of the female plant are broader than those of the male. (from The Elephant in Medieval Legend and Art (London, 1919) Druce, 1919)

Dioscorides [1st century ce] (De materia medica, 4-76): Mandagoras has a root that seems to be a maker of love medicines. There is one sort that is female, black, called thridacias, with narrower, longer leaves than lettuce, with a poisonous, heavy scent, scattered on the ground. Among them are apples similar to serviceberries - pale, with a sweet scent - in which is seed like a pear. The two or three roots are a good size, wrapped within one another, black according to outward appearance, white within, and with a thick bark; but it has no stalk. The male is white, and some have called it norion. The leaves are bigger, white, broad, smooth like beet but the apples are twice as big - almost saffron in colour, sweetsmelling, with a certain strength - which the shepherds eat to fall asleep. The root is similar to that above, yet bigger and paler, and it is also without a stalk. The bark of the root is pounded and juiced while it is fresh, and placed under a press. After it is stirred the beaters should bottle it in a ceramic jar. The apples are also juiced in a similar way, but the juice from them becomes weakened. The bark from the root is peeled off, pierced with a thread, and hanged up in storage. Some boil the roots in wine until a third remains, strain it, and put it in jars. They use a winecupful of it for those who cannot sleep, or are seriously injured, and whom they wish to anaesthetise to cut or cauterize. Twenty grains of the juice (taken as a drink with honey and water) expel phlegm and black bile upward like hellebore, but when too much is taken as a drink it kills. It is mixed with eye medicines, medications to ease pain, and softening suppositories. As much as five grains (applied alone) expels the menstrual flow and is an abortifacient, and put up into the perineum as a suppository it causes sleep. The root is said to soften ivory, boiled together with it for six hours, and to make it ready to be formed into whatever shape a man wants. Applied with polenta, the new leaves are good both for inflammations of the eyes and ulcers. (Tess Anne Osbaldeston translation)

Philippe de Thaun [12th century] (Bestiaire) (Adapted from The Elephant in Medieval Legend and Art (London, 1919) Druce -- The account follows immediately after the elephant and is contained in twenty-three lines, with three headings in Latin. Two manuscripts, British Library Cotton Nero A. v and Merton College MS. 249, have been used.): Heading: De mandragora et ejus natura et quid valet et quomodo cognoscitur. / He says of the mandrake -- that it has two roots; / Which have the forms -- that man and woman are. / The female root -- for a woman is medicine; / The female has leaves -- like the lettuce, / The male has leaves -- like the beet. / By craft it is gathered -- hear in what manner. / Heading: Homo qui eam vult colligere. / 'The man who will gather it -- must dig about it / Softly and gently -- so that he does not touch it. / Let him take a chained dog -- let it be tied to it, / Which is right ravenous -- and three days fasted. / Let bread be shown it -- from far let it be called; / The dog will pull it -- the root will break, / And will utter a shriek -- the dog will fall dead / Through the shriek which it heard -- such force has this plant / That no one can hear it -- but at once he must die. / And if the man hear it -- on the spot will he die; / Therefore he must stop -- his ears and take care / That he hear not the cry -- lest he die just the same / As the dog will do -- if it hear its cry. / Heading: Radix mandragore contra omnes infirmitates valet. / Whosoever has this root -- it is potent as medicine, / For every sickness -- it can bring healing, / Except only for death -- then it has no force.

Guillaume le Clerc [c. 1200 CE] (Bestiaire divin) (Adapted from The Elephant in Medieval Legend and Art (London, 1919) Druce -- In the main the text of British Library Cotton Vespasian A. vii has been followed.): The mandrake is a precious plant, / None other of its kind there is; / And I tell you that of its root / One may make many a medicine. / If you regard the root with care, / You will find there a form / Like the form of a man. / Its rind is most useful; / When it is boiled in water / It is right good for many a malady. / When this plant is thirty years old, / It is plucked by those who practice medicine; / They say when it is plucked / That it moans and shrieks and cries, / And if any one hear its cry / Dead he will be and come to grief. / But they who pluck it do so / So wisely that they take no hurt. / When from the earth it is taken up, / For many a thing is the body good; / If a man suffer in his head, / Or in his body, which should give him pain; / Or in his foot or in his hand; / By this plant shall he be cured. / There where the man should feel the pain / Shall he put on that very spot / Of the plant when well bruised; / And when the man has drunk of it / Full softly shall he fall asleep / And feel the pain no more / Of this plant which is so potent / There are always two kinds; / The one is male, the other female. / The leaves of both are beautiful, / The female is thickly leaved / Like the wild lettuce.

Bodleian Library MS. Bodley 764 [c. 1225-50 CE] (The Elephant in Medieval Legend and Art (London, 1919) Druce translation): 'The mandrake is so called because it has sweet-smelling fruit of the size of the Martian apple, and because of this the Latins call it "earth-apple." The poets (in some manuscripts erroneously "prophets") call this plant "man-shaped," because it has a root resembling the human form. The rind when mixed with wine is given as a drink to persons whose bodies are to be operated on for a cure, so that under its soporific influence they may not feel the pain (variant: is given as a drink in different cases of sickness. And its stem when thirty years old is carefully gathered for the healing of many complaints). There are two varieties of this plant, the female with leaves resembling those of the lettuce, and producing fruit like plums, and the male with leaves like the beet.' Then follows the Sermo, which is based on the allusions to the mandrake in Canticles (vii, 13) and Genesis (xxx, 14): 'In the song of songs the bride says of the mandrake: The mandrakes have given forth a smell in our gates. The mandrake for its manifold uses in medicine is comparable with the virtues of holy men. The gates of the church are the holy doctors. In gates of this kind the mandrakes give a smell when spiritually minded men, one and all, scatter far and wide the fame of their virtues. And one may read in Genesis how Reuben the son of Leah went out into the field and found mandrakes and gave them to his mother Leah; which signifies the good reputation which every diligent person acquires amongst men of this world. This may be applied to our mother church; as the apostle says of one about to be ordained bishop: he ought to be well testified of by those without; who, although they have had little learning, yet generally shed the lustre of praise and the odour of good opinion on the efforts of those from whom they obtain counsel.'

Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 17): [Mandragora] sodden in wine cause sleep, and abate all manner of soreness, and so that time a man feeleth unneth though he be cut, but yet Mandragora must be warily used: for it slayeth if men take much thereof.... They that dig Mandragora be busy to beware of contrary winds while they dig, and make three circles about with a sword, and abide with the digging unto the sun going down, and trow so to have the herb with the chief virtues. (Mediaeval Lore from Bartholomew Anglicus (London, 1893/1905) Steele edition of 1905)


Illustration

The mandrake is usually depicted as a huminoid plant, sometimes as a tiny human with roots or leaves. The scene of the dog being used to uproot the mandrake is shown in British Library, Harley MS 1585 (f. 57r); in British Library, Royal MS 2 B. vii (f. 119v) a male and a female mandrake hang by leafy feet from a rope attached to a dog.


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