Knowledge Matters blog

Behind the scenes at the British Library

3 posts from September 2023

28 September 2023

Transforming Ancient Remedies into Pioneering Medical Research | User Stories

User Story Freya & Christina resize

Dr Freya Harrison and Dr Christina Lee used Bald’s Leechbook – a 10th-century medical text held by the British Library – to find a potential cure for persistent infections in the modern world. In 2021, Freya was awarded the WH Pierce Prize for this research. 

Freya is a Reader in Microbiology at the University of Warwick. Christina is an Associate Professor of Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham. 


Christina Lee

My research is about health and healing in early medieval England: the period 500 to 1100 CE. I’m interested in the ways that people thought about illness, and how illness was treated, in a period very different from our own. 

Bald’s Leechbook is clearly a book designed for the recording of knowledge. The diseases in it are organised from head to toe. The manuscript is from the early 10th century, from the south-west of England. We don’t know who Bald is. It’s named after him simply because the colophon [a note from the scribe] says that this book belonged to Bald. 


We’re lucky that the Library has this manuscript

This manuscript is unique, and we don’t have any other copies. I’m really pleased that it has survived the ravages of time: an awful lot of medical remedies from this period haven’t survived. We’re pretty lucky that the Library has this beauty on its shelves.

The Library is a fantastic place. It amazes me that these manuscripts are there. It’s accessible for many people, which is a very good thing. It’s also great that the Library digitised its early manuscripts, because obviously, they wouldn’t be able to stand daily wear and tear. 


That link with the past is the biggest thrill

I use quite a lot of the digitised material, but there’s nothing better than going into the Manuscripts Room, knowing that the original is waiting for me there. That link with the past, the idea that I am touching something which is smiling at me from over a thousand years ago, is the biggest thrill of all. 

Freya first contacted me because she wanted to join an Old Norse reading group that I ran. We got talking about what we were working on; at the time, I was writing an essay about infectious diseases. Then Freya invited me to meet her team, and that was the beginning of everything. 

The remedy we tested is labelled ‘to make an eye salve against a wen’. We’ve identified the wenn as a stye in the eye which is caused by a bacteria called staphylococcus. Bald’s Leechbook tells you to use garlic, and something called ‘cropleac’. Nobody knows exactly what cropleac is. We checked every possible dictionary. Everyone agrees it’s an allium species, so we decided to use either onion or leek. 


This project changed attitudes to medieval medicine

The recipe has wine and ox gall in it. You pound the ingredients, mix them, and let them stand for a while. There’s an instruction saying that you need to put them in a brass or bronze vessel. Then the book tells you to use a feather to put the medicine in the eye. 

One thing I loved about this project is the way it challenged contemporary attitudes to medieval medicine. People had thought that it didn’t have anything useful to offer. Our research allowed me to highlight the idea that early medieval thinkers were no less curious or intelligent than us – but they thought in a different way. We need to remember that an awful lot of our medical research is also hit and miss, and it’s not made for everybody, so we need to be more respectful of medieval problem-solving. The strangeness of the Middle Ages has always fascinated me. 


Freya Harrison

I'm a microbiologist. My interest is in bacterial infections that are really hard to treat: the kind you get when there’s a problem with your normal responses to infection. Things like lung infections in people with cystic fibrosis, and wound infections that don't heal.

I have an amateur interest in early medieval history. Several years ago, I read a paper in an academic journal about people who tried to reconstruct medieval remedies. I thought it would be cool to do something like that, and it sat there at the back of my mind for years until I met Christina and we put our heads together.


The last three words of the recipe are ‘the best medicine’

When Christina and I discussed the eye salve, it seemed that the lump in the eye that the writer describes could very easily be a stye. A stye is a bacterial infection, which was what we wanted to explore. The last three words of the recipe are ‘the best medicine’ – so how could we not try to make it?

The most difficult challenge was that the ingredients we have access to now are very different to those in medieval times. Crops have been selectively bred: an early medieval head of garlic and a modern one could have very different chemical compositions. 

For the wine, we found a little vineyard near Glastonbury who were growing their own grapes, just a few miles from where we know Glastonbury Abbey had a vineyard in the early medieval period – so there were similar growth conditions. It's nice sometimes in science when you get to play: try something completely new and do some problem solving. 


The first results were shocking

In infections that are hard to treat, bacteria start to secrete a kind of slime overcoat, and stick together in a big 3D structure called a biofilm. That protective overcoat makes them very hard to kill with antibiotics. We made little analogues of human soft tissue and put bacteria in them, and when they grew, they made biofilms. We added the eye salve, waited a day, then recovered the bacteria and counted how many were left alive. This was a really high bar to test – a lot of antibiotics don't do very well at killing biofilms. 

The first results showed that we were getting several powers of ten reduction in the bacteria, which was shocking. We thought we’d done something wrong: we wondered if we’d accidentally put loads of alcohol in. But we found that it was repeatable. When we combined these ingredients, the amount of bacterial killing was greater than you’d expect. There are genuinely very few times in your career where you find something that's so effective. 


We need new treatments that can kill bacteria

Over the past eight years, we’ve been able to show exactly what range of bacteria the eye salve can kill. We got permission to do a safety trial on human volunteers, which ended up looking pretty good. We’re not saying that it’s a wonder drug, but we want to find out what’s in there and extract the chemicals that have this effect. The most likely use of a synthetic mixture based on Bald’s eye salve would be to add it to a dressing that you would put on something, such as a surgical wound, to try to stop or reduce infection. 

Most antibacterials that are promising in the lab ultimately fail, but you have to keep trying. We're in a situation where people end up with completely untreatable wound infections. A significant number of people with diabetes will have to have their foot or their lower leg amputated because of an infected wound that cannot be cleared and poses a risk of sepsis. People with cystic fibrosis still die early from respiratory failure because you cannot clear biofilm infections in their lungs. We need new treatments that can kill the bacteria that current antibiotics can't.


Bald’s eye salve has led to new research

Bald’s eye salve has led to a whole new set of research for my lab, based on the idea that medical practitioners in the past might have hit on useful cocktails of natural products. Dr Erin Connelly, who did her PhD with Christina, spotted that throughout manuscripts like this, honey and vinegar are often put together in treatment. This got us thinking about whether anyone in modern research had put them together – and nobody had.  

Through testing in the lab, we found that acetic acid (in vinegar) and honey can be combined to achieve a result that’s greater than the sum of their parts. We also found that there were compounds present in some vinegars that enhanced their killing of microbes – it might be possible to find new molecules that could be developed into something useful.


Bald’s Leechbook was sitting on a shelf in the British Library

Bald's Leechbook has a remedy in it which we think is for malaria, which involves using the plant wormwood. Wormwood does contain an anti-malarial, and this was discovered by a Chinese scientist, Professor Tu You You, in the 1970s, because of an ancient Chinese remedy. She won a Nobel Prize. All the time she was doing that work, Bald's Leechbook was sitting on a shelf in the Library, and nobody had discovered that it contained remedies that could still be used. 

We know that Bald’s Leechbook originally included a chapter on gynaecology and obstetrics, because it’s in the index, but it hasn’t survived. I think one of the most dangerous things anyone could do in the medieval period was to get pregnant, partly due to the risk of infection. There must be so many remedies for infection in that section of the book. I can’t help wondering where they are now. 


As told to Lucy Peters

21 September 2023

A fun festive challenge!

As the weather changes and we enter autumn, many of us look ahead to the festive season with some trepidation as to its many hidden costs. To combat this worry we thought we would create a fun challenge for people to make something homemade for someone they love using our collection, as a more sustainable and affordable way to celebrate the festive season.

Our collection of more than 170 million items is available for free for everyone. Our competition challenges you to dive into our collection to create a homemade festive gift.

Whatever your faith, the festive season is a precious opportunity to spend time with loved ones. So rather than splashing out on those you love why not create something to give them? The personal touch makes a gift or card so much more meaningful.


Perhaps you’re a ceramicist reading Hanif Kureshi’s The Buddha of Suburbia for the first time and you create a bowl influenced by Kureshi’s novel for your best friend. 

Or maybe you’re a dab hand at drawing and you re-imagine John Tenniel’s famous illustrations of Lewis Carroll's Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for one of your children to create a mural on their bedroom wall?

Or you might be a fashion student like Mihai Popescu researching your cultural heritage using our collection and create a dress for your mother based on what you learn.

You could begin by searching our Flickr collection 1 million copyright free images from our collection, or browse our Images Online or take inspiration from any of our collection blogs or visit our Reading rooms in London St Pancras and Boston Spa to examine any of our items. If you’re not yet a registered Reader why not become one? And you can always Ask a Librarian  and get help from our Reference Enquiry team. 


We want you to share your British Library-inspired ideas with us. The winner will receive an annual British Library joint membership (worth £120), which entitles both card holders to:

  • Free access to our paid-entry exhibitions
  • Exclusive access for you and a guest to the daytime Members’ Room, overlooking the King’s Library
  • Priority booking for events and half price tickets (Subject to availability. Limitations and restrictions apply. See terms and conditions [])
  • Listings guides sent direct so you’re always up to date with what’s on
  • 20% off in our public restaurants, cafés and shops

How to enter

Submit entries by email to [email protected] using the subject line: British Library competition entry 2023.

Please include this information:

  • Your full name
  • A description of your entry (explain what you have created and which collection item was your source of inspiration either providing an online link to it or Shelfmark from our catalogue.
  • Who it is intended for (e.g., a card or gift for your mother, friend, sibling, teacher). No need to name the individual.
  • Your contact telephone number
  • Attach photos or artwork files or your creation, no larger than 1MB per attachment.

Closing date: Friday 17 November 2023

The competition will be judged by an alumni from our BIPC programme.

A winner will be announced on Friday 8 December on our Knowledge Matters blog.

We may like to feature our winner in a post to this blog and as a story in our a future email.    

If you have any questions please contact [email protected].

We can’t wait to see your entries.

14 September 2023

Designing a Board Game Using the Collection's Images | User Stories

Dave Clarke user story image resize

Dave Clarke is a board game designer and the founder of Sinister Fish Games, a tabletop gaming publisher based in Lincoln. He used the British Library’s digital database (Images Online) to create the board game Great Scott!

I’d never considered being a game designer. It was an accident that worked out. It’s great, because you actually get to make a product that brings joy to people, and that’s hard to beat. Everything I’ve managed to do has been because of Great Scott! And I wouldn’t have been able to make Great Scott! without the British Library. 

When it all started, I was a web designer, but I’d been into gaming since I was a kid. It came to my attention that there was a renaissance happening in the world of board games, accelerated by Kickstarter. Kickstarter is an online platform where people can present an idea – for a game, an art book, an album, anything – and have it funded by the end user. 


You can design board games for free

It’s absolutely perfect for board games, because you can design board games for free (other than time), with bits of paper and a couple of dice. One person can do it. You can force your friends and family to sit and play-test it with you until you think you've got something. I’ve always been very keen on that punk rock DIY thing. When I was younger, I was in punk bands, where you record your own music and arrange your own tours – not because you have a desire to be successful at it; you just do it because you like it. 

I didn't really expect Great Scott! to be a massive success. I think my funding goal was about £5,000, which was what I figured I needed to have the game manufactured and shipped. We ended up making about £9,000 on Kickstarter. I had spent so much time researching everything that I needed to know, and designing the game, that it ended up being a financial loss. But it gave me just enough credibility to be able to do the next thing, which was a collaboration with someone else. I got very lucky with that, and that allowed me to quit my day job. 


The British Library collection was perfect

I needed artwork for the cards in the game, but I can’t draw, and I had no money to pay an artist. I was looking for a database of public domain art that was expansive enough to cover a massively wide variety of subjects. The British Library collection was absolutely perfect; I wouldn’t have been able to make the game without it. The idea of a historical game was actually suggested by what was available. 

Great Scott! is set in this kind of quaint, Victorian England. The players become inventors who are vying for the favour of Queen Victoria, so that they can become the royal inventor. It was inspired by my interest in steampunk, and my early obsession with films based on novels by Jules Verne: Journey to the Centre of the Earth; all that kind of stuff. 

The gameplay is based on combining words and phrases to make something funny. It’s like Consequences, the game where you’re given a prompt, you write a phrase and you fold the piece of paper over and hand it to someone else – then you unfold it and read them out. You’re creating these ridiculous situations. I’d always found that amusing, so I thought maybe I could make a game where you combine random elements. The theme that occurred to me was crazy Victorian inventions. 


The best part of the game is reading out your silly invention

I wanted the game to be as simple as possible: easy to learn, so a family could sit and play. I conscripted a bunch of my friends to help. We went round in circles for probably the best part of a year, coming up with all these different ways of playing the cards, and in the end we went back to the very first idea, more or less – because the best part of the game was getting to the end and reading out your silly invention and telling people about, for example, your deluxe duck-deployed donkey detonator. 

It’s the absolutely ridiculous Pythonesque combinations that amuse me. I think the game was successful because I managed to connect with enough people who have a stupid sense of humour like mine. 

After Great Scott!, I approached a guy who was posting images of his game online as he developed it. The game was called Villagers: it just looked really cute. He was a Norwegian designer called Haakon Hoel Gaarder. I approached him, and we chatted for about a year, and then he said, okay, you can publish my game; I think I’d rather concentrate on design. The year after that, we launched it on Kickstarter, and it was a crazy success. It’s still the 11th most backed UK Kickstarter of all time, within all categories, not just board games. So we were off to the races. I’ve done three games with Haakon now, and we’re about to do a fourth. 


Board games have been around for thousands of years

Board games are social: you’re interacting with real people, and I think we need that. People are discovering that you don’t have to be a stereotypical nerd to enjoy a board game. There are a lot of very light, easy-to-learn games that can really enhance a social gathering. 

As I was going through the British Library database, I started a couple of folders of images that sparked ideas that I knew I wouldn’t use for Great Scott! I might go back to them one day. I had the idea of doing a game about Victorian explorers, because in the database there's all this amazing artwork from explorers’ journals; these fabulous landscapes. 

To me, the British Library is about preserving history: it’s an important archive of knowledge and creativity. Board games have been around for thousands of years. It's a very human thing to want to do. They’ve discovered Roman and Egyptian and Viking board games: people have always sat together and played games and we probably always will. 


As told to Lucy Peters