Notes from the Rare Book Room “Wrap up the Sword and Call me in the Morning”

But she has taen the broken lance,
And washed it from the clotted gore,
And salved the splinter o’er and o’er.

—Sir Walter Scott: Lay of the Last Minstrel—1805

The notion that wounds can be healed from a distance dates back hundreds, perhaps thousands of years and is retained in some folk remedies today. However, the idea reached its zenith in the form of weapon salve or , Unguentum armariu, the origin of which goes back at least as far as the Swiss physician-iconoclast Paracelsus (1493-1541). The idea was simple: rather than dressing the wound, the physician applies salve to the weapon that caused it while the wound is simply washed and left unattended. Among the many variants of the recipe is the following:

Take skull-mosse, two ounces, mummy, halfe an ounce, mans fat, two ounces, mans blood, halfe an ounce, linseed oyle, two drames, oyle of roses, and bole armoniack, of each one ounce. Mixe them together and make an oybtment: into the which hee puts a stick, depp’d in the blood of the woundd person, and dryed, and bindeth up the wound with a rowler dept every day in the hot urine of the of the wounded person. The annoointing of the weapon hee addes moreover; honey, one ounce, bulls fat, one drame.”

While the treatment appears farcical to the modern mind, there was considerable support among many serious philosophers of the 16th and 17 centuries. Even Francis Bacon (1561—1626), while skeptical, stopped well short of dismissing the idea out of hand.

Robert Fludd

The firmest adherent was Robert Fludd (1574-1637), English physician and mystic who explained that the salve worked as a result of the “mystical anatomy of the blood.”

Some of Fludd’s contemporaries pronounced the salve to be nonsensical while others condemned it as the devil’s work. Later writers, most notably, Oliver Wendell Holmes, have suggested that anointing the weapon rather than the wound simply allowed the tissue the chance to heal naturally.

The weapon salve fell out of favor by the 18th century it but remains as one of the more curious episodes in the history of medicine.