07 December 2017
How to harvest a mandrake
As a general rule, we don't normally give gardening advice on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog. It's just possible, however, that you may have been contemplating the best way to harvest a mandrake. And so here we provide you with some handy tips on cultivating this most notorious of plants, based on manuscripts in the British Library's collections.
A cure for insanity
In the Middle Ages, it was believed that mandrakes (mandragora) could cure headaches, earache, gout and insanity. At the same time, it was supposed that this plant was particularly hazardous to harvest, because its roots resembled the human form; when pulled from the ground, its shrieks could cause madness.
The root of a mandrake, carved to resemble a tiny human, loaned from the Science Museum to the British Library's exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic
Identify your mandrake
You would think this was simple, but it was long believed that there were two different sexes of mandrake (which we have always been tempted to call the 'mandrake' and 'womandrake'). This beautiful 14th-century manuscript was on show in the British Library's Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition. It contains an Arabic version of De materia medica, originally written in Ancient Greek by Pedanius Dioscorides, who worked as a physician in the Roman army. Dioscorides was one of the first authors to distinguish (mistakenly) between the male and female mandrake, as depicted here. In fact, there is more than one species of mandrake native to the Mediterranean, rather than two sexes of the same plant.
This mandrake, on the other hand, is quite clearly (ahem) the male of the species ...
Below are two mandrakes, one male, one female, drawn in the lower margin of the Queen Mary Psalter — hanging upside down, their blood is clearly rushing to their heads.
It's also advisable not to confuse your mandrake with a gonk, with an elephant (yes, they are elephants), or with a dragon.
Bring a dog
Medieval plant-collectors devised an elaborate method to harvest mandrakes. The best way to obtain one safely was to unearth its roots with an ivory stake, attaching the plant to a dog with a cord. A horn should then be sounded, drowning out the shrieking while at the same time startling the dog, causing it to drag out the mandrake. This medieval mandrake looks resigned to its fate.
While this mandrake is blushing with shame at the prospect of being pulled out of the ground ...
This Anglo-Saxon hound has yet to be tied to the mandrake (is that a ball that has distracted it attention?).
Stuff your ears with earth
Another trick was to stuff your ears with clods of earth before attempting to pull the mandrake from the ground. The gentleman in the red cap below has done exactly this, and is blowing resoundingly upon his horn: perfect technique!
You can read more about magical mandrakes in our online exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, in partnership with Google Arts and Culture.
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The manuscripts featured in this post
Or 3366: Baghdad, 14th century
Sloane MS 4016: Herbal, Lombardy, 15th century
Royal MS 2 B VII: The Queen Mary Psalter, England, 14th century
Sloane MS 278: Bestiary, France, 13th century
Harley MS 1585: Herbal, Southern Netherlands, 12th century
Sloane MS 1975: Medical and herbal miscellany, England or Northern France, 12th century
Cotton MS Vitellius C III: Herbal, England, 11th century
Harley MS 3736: Giovanni Cadamosto, Herbal, Southern Germany(?), 15th century