Birthday Of The Sun December 25th

Helios, Colossus of Rhodes, artist's impression, 1880
Helios Colossus of Rhodes, artist’s impression, 1880

The First Day of Christmas, my true love sent to me a Partridge in a Pear Tree

Dies Natalis Solis Invicti

In the Northern Tradition, the day begins at Dusk, so Christmas Day begins on Christmas Eve. So many countries celebrate the eve as much or more than the day.

December 24th is also a day for Mothers, as tomorrow, the 25th, will be born Jesus, Mithras, Attis, Saturn, Apollo, and the Day of the Birth of the Invincible Sun. And we think of Mary, Isis, Theia, the Three Mother Goddesses and mothers everywhere.

The Sun Gods have quite a complicated interrelationship. Zeus, and Apollo are both also considered to be Sun Gods. Apollo is particularly interrelated to Helios, the Greek God who drives the Chariot that carries the Sun across the skies every day. Sol, perhaps the original religion of Constantine the Great, has been suggested as a response of the Romans to a trend towards monotheism in the later Roman period. Early worship of Jesus is full of solar metaphors, Churches are orientated East West. Mithras and Attis both wear the same Phrygian Hat.

Did the Celts have a sun-god? Belenos was a contender, but linguists are proposing his name does not come from words meaning bright but from strong. Lugh’s name is suggested to mean ‘shining’ but his attributes are more of a warrior than a sun god. Taranis is probably the best candidate, but he is more of a sky or thunder god than specifically a sun god. However, his symbol is a wheel and the wheel is symbolic of the turning of the year, which is caused by the movement of the Sun relative to the Earth.

December 25th was the date of the Roman Solstice but the slipage of dates, caused by the inability of humans to keep to a proper Solar calendar, meant that the actual solstice varies from the ‘official’ solstice.

First Published 24th December 2022, Republished 25th December 2023

Drink & Be Merry at a Georgian Christmas December 23rd

Wassail Bowl being brought in by a Servant into a dining hall on Christmas Day
From ‘Old Christmas’ by Washington Irving

The drinks of choice were: port. Then brandy, claret, punch, rum, porter. So says my source Henry Jeffreys in his book ‘Empire of Booze’ and in this Guardian article:

Claret, probably, originally outsold port. But the wars against France and the difficulty of importing French wine, saw a transfer to wines from our ‘oldest ally’ Portugal. But the travel distance was longer, so the wine was fortified to help preserve it better. Hence, the British addiction to port. Sherry was also popular for similar reasons, being a fortified white wine. Shakespeare calls it ‘sack’ and sometimes ‘Canary’. (Toby Belch ‘says thou lack’st a cup of canary ‘ in ‘Twelfth Night’, which is a Christmas play.)

Louis Philippe Boitard  'Imports from France' Looking east towards the Tower of London. Barrels at the front right are marked Claret, Burgundy and Champagne
Louis Philippe Boitard‘s satirical engraving ‘Imports from France’ Looking east towards the Tower of London. Barrels at the front right are marked Claret, Burgundy and Champagne.

Consumption was prodigious. Samuel Johnson said, ‘All the decent people in Lichfield (where Johnson came from) got drunk every night and were not the worst thought of’. The Prime Minister. William Pitt the Younger said, ‘I have drunk three bottles of port without being the worst for it. University College has witnessed this.’ He is referring to his college at Oxford University, and so he might be considered to be another of our Prime Ministers who have disgraced themselves at Oxbridge only to rise to rule the unfortunate British. However, in those days, Port was sold in pint measures (45cl) and was 16%, while now it is 20% and sold in 75cl bottles.

Even so, three bottles is still a lot and a drunken population would have not only increased the death rate but also increased violence and abuse. Gout was one result of too much drinking and a rich diet.

However, this is Christmas so let’s end on a high note, so here are a couple of recipes!

To make ye best punch

“Put 1½ a pound of sugar in a quart of water, stir it well yn put in a pint of Brandy, a quarter of a pint of Lime Juice, & a nutmeg grated, yn put in yr tosts or Biskets well toasted.”

Katherine Windham’s Boke of Housekeeping, 1707

And Gin? While by the 1770s the fear of the effects of cheap gin had ceased to be hot news, and after no less that eight Gin Acts of Parliament to control misuse, its cheapness was not such a threat to an ordered society. Booths and Gordon’s Gins were established in London during this period.

There seems to be a shortage of Gin punch recipes for the 18th Century, but by the end of that century this recipe survives from London’s Garrick Club

half a pint of gin, lemon peel, lemon juice, sugar, maraschino, a pint and a quarter of water and two bottles of iced soda water.

You would not need many of these to become quite relaxed quite quickly!

First Published in 2022 and revised December 2023

No More Christmas December 23rd, 1652

1653 Illustration of Old Christmas being rejected by the Puritan from London and welcome from the rustic from Dorset
1653 Illustration of Old Christmas being rejected by the Puritan from London and welcome from the rustic from Dorset

23rd December 1652 Resolved by Parliament. : ‘That no Observation shall be had of the five-and-twentieth day of December, commonly called Christmas-Day.’

This was one of several bans on Christmas that Parliament introduced. (Parliament not Cromwell). It banned Christmas Services and ordered that shops be kept open, but it was, at least, inside people’s homes, largely unenforceable.

The logic for banning it was that Christmas is not mentioned in the Bible and was thus a Catholic superstition.

Stage Coach Travel Misery December 22nd

As the Sun enters the House of Capricorn remember the poor Coachman travelling all day everyday in all weathers. Washington Irving in his ‘Old Christmas’ (Originally ‘The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon’ pub. 1819) describes him with a broad red face, a broad body widened by drinking beer; swathed with any numbers of layers of coats trying to keep the cold out. He has many worries on his mind as he has a coach full not only of people who need looking after but also a lot of parcels and commissions that need to be carried out in the many stops along the way. He is delivering parcels, turkeys, geese, presents, children, you name it he is responsible for its safe delivery.

Feel sorry for the people crowded inside the carriage but even sorrier for those sitting on the roof. They have umbrellas in a vain attempt to keep dry, but the umbrella will be poking you in your ear, and the run off from the canopy of the umbrella might trickle down your necks. Inside you are next to a large man who is not very salubrius looking nor too worried about pressing his thighs against you.

John Keats blamed his consumption on a stage-coach journey from London to Hampstead on a cold day in February.

Capricorn: ‘The man born under Capricorn shall be iracundious and a fornicator; a liar, and always labouring.

….The woman shall be honest and fearful, and have children of three men, she will do many pilgrimages in her youth and after have great wit.’ From Kalendar of Shepheards 1604 quoted in ‘The Perpetual Almanac of Folklore by Charles Kightly’.

Sam Syntax Cries of London 1820s from the Gentle-author. Hot Plum Pudding Seller.

Winter Solstice, December 21st

Mass Clock Steventon

In fact, the Solstice this year is:

Friday 22 December at 3.27am GMT

(Royal Museums Greenwich)

The Sun is at its lowest at midday; the sun rises and sets at its most southerly. If the southward diminishing of the Sun continues, life will be extinguished, as the world will have no light and no heat. So, societies all round the world, made a point of honouring their sun Gods and Goddesses on this day.

And so our Deities, renew their promise and the Sun begins its rebirth, it begins to rise further north each day, the Sun at noon is higher, it sets further north. So the days are longer, brighter, eventually warmer.

Symbolically, the solstice is an ending as well as a beginning; a turning point and a promise by the Deity that the world will continue. It will turn, the wheel will turn. Warmth and growth will return. Buds already growing in the earth will break out and bring new growth.

Culturally, it’s a time to have a party before the weather gets really cold, it is a time to evaluate your life; look back at the lessons from the last year and begin, like the Sun, a new and hopefully better cycle.

Note. So if the Sun is at its shortest and weakest, why isn’t it the coldest time of the year? That is because the earth and particularly the oceans retain the heat of the Sun, and so the coldest time is at the end of January.

For a discussion, on the Solstice and the Parthenon Marble look at my post:

First published on Dec 21st 2021, revised and republished on Dec 22nd 2023

Midwinter Links: Edo in Winter & Society & Santa Claus’ Elitist Origins

Here are some fascinating links with a seasonal theme, and at the end of the post the December posts I have reviewed, revised and reposted. And to remind you, I have a Winter Solstice Virtual Tour on Friday, and a Jane Austen Virtual Tour taking place on Saturday.. Follow the links on the to find out more or book.

The wintery landscapes of Utagawa Hiroshige | with Alfred Haft |

This is a short video of an event held for British Museum members. It’s on YouTube, so it should be available for non-members. It shows, with some animation, beautiful snowy landscapes by the great Hiroshige. It is 12 minutes long.

Santa Claus’ Elitist Origins

I came across Ben Tumin’s conversation with Professor Stephen Nissenbaum on Santa Claus’ Elitist Origins in Tumin’s Skipped History Substack posts. Nissebnaum wrote a highly rated book called the ‘Battle for Christmas’, which pointed out that, before the 19th Century, Christmas was largely outdoors, and a riotous time of debauchery, gluttony, and drunkenness. The ruling classes managed in the 19th Century to change this for a quieter, indoor, family-based experience. Well worth a listen.

Almanac of the Past December Posts:

Here are the posts I have reviewed and republished since the last email for subscribers:

Christmas with Jane Austen December 20th

Bullet Pudding

Christmas at Godmersham Park

1811 to 1812 Fanny Austen Knight writing to a friend, Miss Dorothy Chapman

Fanny was the daughter of Jane Austen’s rich brother Edward.

I don’t know whether I told you that Ms Morris’s are at home
for the Christmas holidays. They are very nice girls and have contributed a good deal to our entertainment. None of us caught the whooping cough and have been very well the whole time. We have, in general, had cards, snapdragons, bullet pudding etc on any particular evening and Whist, Commerce and others and tickets with the favourite games.
I think when cards fail the boys played every evening at draughts, chess, and backgammon.

Commerce is a three card poker type game played with counters. Tickets was Lydia Bennett’s favourite game, which is a gambling game based on luck, and in Pride and Prejudice called ‘Lottery Tickets.’

Bullet Pudding is explained by Fanny in another letter

‘You must have a large pewter dish filled with flour which you must pile up into a sort of pudding with a peak at the top, you must then lay a Bullet at the top & everybody cuts a slice of it & the person who is cutting it when the Bullet falls must poke about with their noise & chins until they find it & then take it out with their mouths which makes them strange figures all covered with flour, but the worst is that you must not laugh for fear of the flour getting up your nose & mouth & choking you. You must not use your hands in taking the bullet out.’

Snapdragons is a lively game, you put some brandy in a tray or flat dish, add a few raisins, light the brandy and the game is to pick up and eat the raisins without getting burnt!

Other games mentioned by Fanny

Hunt the Slipper, Oranges and Lemons, Wind the Jack; Lighting a Candle in Haste; Spare Old Noll.

Coming Very Soon Jane Austen Real and Virtual Walks:


Jane Austen’s London Walk

Georgian female engraving

Jane Austen’s London Walk

a Special Christmas version on 23 December 2023 & normal one on 21st January

Sat 2.30 pm Green Park underground station, London (By the Fountain, just outside the Green Park exit of the Tube Station)

To Book:

Christmas With Jane Austen Virtual London Tour

Saturday 23 December 2023 7.30pm

We look at how Jane Austen spent Christmas and at Georgian Christmas traditions and amusements.

To book

The London Winter Solstice Virtual Tour

Druids at All Hallows, by the Tower
Druids at All Hallows, by the Tower

Fri 22 Dec 2023 19:30

We explore London’s History through its celebrations, festivals, calendars, and almanacs of the Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice festivals have been a time of review, renewal, and anticipation of the future from time immemorial. The Ancient Britons saw the Solstice as a symbol of a promise of renewal as the world entered bleak mid-winter. The Roman season was presided over by Janus, a two headed God who looked both backwards and forwards, and Dickens based his second great Christmas Book on the renewal that the New Year encouraged.

We look at London’s past to see where and how the Solstice might have been celebrated. We also explore the different Calendars – the Pagan year, the Christian year, the Roman year, the Jewish year, the Financial year, the Academic year, and we reveal how these began. We look at folk traditions, Medieval Christmas Festivals, Boy Bishops, Distaff Sunday and Plough Monday, and other London winter traditions and folklore.

At the end, we use ancient methods to divine what is in store for us in 2023.

To Book:

First Published 20th December 2022, revised and republished December 2023

Greater Cycles & the Ages of Man December 19th

Capella Palatina Palermo 12th Century Mosaics God is shown creating the firmament. ‘And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters’

We are coming up to the key days in the year. And so will be looking at calendars and counting days. But what about ages and aeons?

‘Practical Magic in the Northern Tradition’ reports that there are seven ages of the world:

The life of a yew tree is 729 years, and there are seven ages from the creation of the world until its doom.

Three wattles are the life of a hound – 9 years
Three hounds are the life of a steed – 27 years
Three steeds are the life of a man – 81 years
Three men are the life of an eagle – 243 years
Three Eagles are the life of a yew. – 729 years

The life of a yew is one age, and there are seven ages from the creation until doom, giving a life for our world of 5, 103 years.

Archbishop Usher of Armagh (1581 – 1656) calculated that the world was created in 4004 BC by counting the begettings in the bible. If we accept his date, and apply the seven yew tree ages rule, then the world should have ended in AD 1099 (give or take a year). However, it doesn’t make sense to me to have a factor of 3 for the smaller divisions, and then to switch to a factor of seven . So, if there were nine (3 *3) ages of the world, then it would survive for 6561 years, which is in approx. 535 years time. This calculation has the advantage of not yet being proved wrong! (Please note cult owners, I have copywrite on this date). It’s notable that when a Cult declares the imminent end of the world, and they trudge up to the top of a high eminence to observe it (normally Hampstead Pond in London). They seem quite happy to trudge back down again, and are soon up and running again with the same enthusiasm for the next ‘end of the world’ date.)

By the way, the Capella Palatina, illustrated above, is a marvel of gold mosaics and absolutely stunning. It makes a trip to Palermo a must. It’s also strange to find a Norman state so far south.

The Jewish tradition was for six or seven ages of 1000 years. The seventh didn’t really count because it was the age of the messiah when there was a 1000-year sort of super sabbath. Or it was an age that ran parallel with the other six? So the world was to be 6000 years long.

With the coming of Christianity, dating the Creation, and therefore the Day of Judgement, became more important. (the Romans dated from the foundation of Rome, and the Greeks from the First Olympiad, but they had a whole mythology and creation myths about a Golden Age, preceding their base Iron age and the preceding Bronze Age.)

An early Christian attempt is the Anno Munda‘s arrangement of the Year. This is pretty complicated and is based on a Talmudic tradition. A late Roman version uses ‘the Diocletian Years’, which is when the persecution of Christians began. It held that the world was created 5500 years before the Birth of Christ. So we are 5500BC plus 2023 years ago, so 7523 Before the Present was the date of the creation. And it was supposed to have ended in 500AD, 6000 years after the Creation.

St Augustine of Hippo took the tradition of six ages and brought it into the Christian canon. These are the six ages:

  • The First Age “is from the beginning of the human race, that is, from Adam, who was the first man that was made, down to Noah, who constructed the ark at the time of the flood“, i.e. the Antediluvian period.
  • The Second Age “extends from that period on to Abraham, who was called the father indeed of all nations”.
  • The Third Age “extends from Abraham on to David the king”.
  • The Fourth Age is “from David on to that captivity whereby the people of God passed over into Babylonia”.
  • The Fifth Age is “from that transmigration down to the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ
  • The Sixth Age: “With His [Jesus Christ’s] coming, the sixth age has entered on its process.”


As each age is 1000 years, then you can see why so many people were worried about it in as 1000 AD approached.

Of course, six is not such a magical number as seven, and so Shakespeare ran with the idea in the Seven Ages of Man spoken by Jacques in ‘As you like it’. If there are seven ages of human life, and we have a span of six score and ten, then each age is ten years.ten,ten,

The Seven Ages of Man

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then, the whining school-boy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then, a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then, the justice,
In fair round belly, with a good capon lined,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws, and modern instances,
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
(Jacques, Act 2, Scene 7)

Now, the Kalendar of Shepherds has a similar idea, but it calculates it differently. The Kalendar, based on a 15th Century French original, says there are 12 ages of man, corresponding with the 12 months of the year. Each age is 6 years long, and so our likely lifespan is 72.

Kalendar of Shepherds

Each month is allocated to one of the ages, and each month has an insight into human life for that span. So for the first 6 years, if you read above you will see we have no ‘wit, strength or cunning, and we may do nothing that profiteth’.

A little harsh, and as a fond grandfather, it, I refute it, except maybe the first 6 years should not be down to profit.

How Old is a Yew Tree/Eagle

A comment by a reader has prompting me to write the following lines on the discussion of the ages given above:

‘Practical magic’ says the poem is ‘Ancient’ so it’s folklore and not science, so the ages are opinion not scientific fact.

As I understand it Yew trees live a long time but not quite as long as many people think. I base this on the Yew Tree at Steventon, Hampshire where Jane Austen was born, which has/had a plague on it saying it was 1200 years old. I used to visit it regularly and. On one visit, was told that an expert opinion suggested it was more like 700 years old (if memory serves). I do not have the details, but my source would have been one of the people associated with the Church.

The Woodland Trust (says Yew Trees get old at 900 years and cites a few which are ‘said to be’ over 2000 years old. But are they? The scientific sites I have looked at suggest that Yew Trees should be described as ‘ancient’ from 400 not 900 years, and there are problems with dendrochronology dating of yew trees, and so most methods depend upon an estimation from the width of the tree trunk. But that, itself, depends upon how much you believe in the claims for the ancient trees. So, I think it’s best to take the extreme cases with a very large pitch of salt. So 729 years is probably not so far off the mark for a Yew tree.

As to Eagles, this website on eagles says they can live to 30ish in the wild and 68 years in captivity, so the claim for 243 years is way off the mark!

First Published on December 18th 2022, revised and republished in December 2023

Collect your Holly & Ivy December 18th

Picture of Christmas greenery on a gift box
by Tjana Drndarski-via unsplash

So, the old Sun is dying, and if the Sun keeps going down we are all going to die. To keep our anxiety to a minimum with all of nature seeming to be dying or hibernating, evergreens are a symbol of a promise/proof that life will continue through the dark days. So, with its bright-green leaves and its luminous berries, Holly is the ideal evergreen for the Solstice. And as the prickles symbolise Christ’s Crown of Thorns, and the berries the red blood of Jesus, the symbolism works, too, for Christians.

‘Ivy’ says Culpeper in his Herbal of 1653, says its winter-ripening berries are useful to drink before you ‘set to drink hard’ because it will ‘preserve from drunkenness’. And, moreover, the leaves (bruised and boiled) and dropped into the same wine you had a ‘surfeit’ of the night before provides the ‘speediest cure’. (The Perpetual Almanac of Charles Kightly)

Henry Mayhew (editor of Punch) in his ‘London Labour and London Poor’ (1851–62) talks of Christmasing for Laurel, Ivy, Holly, and Mistletoe. He calculated that 250,000 branches of Holly were purchased from street coster mongers every Christmas. He says that every housekeeper will expend something from 2d to 1s 6d, while the poor buy a pennyworth or halfpennyworth each. He says that every room will have the cheery decoration of holly. St Pauls Cathedral would take 50 to a 100 shillings worth.

He also calculates that 100,000 plum puddings are eaten. Mistletoe he believes is less often used than it used to be, and he hopes that ‘No Popery’ campaigners will not attack Christmassing again.

Hot plum pudding seller from Sam Syntax Cries of London 1820s
from the Gentle Author Spitalfields Life web site
Hot plum pudding seller from Sam Syntax Cries of London, 1820s
from the Gentle Author Spitalfields Life website

Happy Eponalia

Roman Horse from Bunwell, Norfolk. Illustration by Sue Walker.

Last year (2021), I posted about Eponalia for the 18th Dec and this is what I said:

I’ve been too busy working on my Jane Austen and Christmas Virtual Tour (Sunday 19th December 7.30) to post over the last few days. And I have, therefore, shamelessly stolen this post off my Facebook friend Sue Walker, who is a talented archaeological illustrator, artist and a very good photographer.

She wrote: ‘the 18th December is the festival of the Celtic goddess Epona, the protector of horses, she was adopted by the Romans and became a favourite with the cavalry. This finely sculpted bronze horse with a head dress and symbol on its chest is 37mm high – found in Bunwell #Norfolk #Archaeology’

Culpeper on Ivy (1814 edition):

It is so well known to every child almost, to grow in woods upon the trees, and upon the stone walls of churches, houses, &c. and sometimes to grow alone of itself, though but seldom.

Time. It flowers not until July, and the berries are not ripe until Christmas, when they have felt Winter frosts.

Government and virtues. It is under the dominion of Saturn. A pugil of the flowers, which may be about a dram, (saith Dioscorides) drank twice a day in red wine, helps the lask, and bloody flux. It is an enemy to the nerves and sinews, being much taken inwardly, out very helpful to them, being outwardly applied. Pliny saith, the yellow berries are good against the jaundice; and taken before one be set to drink hard, preserves from drunkenness, and helps those that spit blood; and that the white berries being taken inwardly, or applied outwardly, kills the worms in the belly. The berries are a singular remedy to prevent the plague, as also to free them from it that have got it, by drinking the berries thereof made into a powder, for two or three days together. They being taken in wine, do certainly help to break the stone, provoke urine, and women’s courses. The fresh leaves of Ivy, boiled in vinegar, and applied warm to the sides of those that are troubled with the spleen, ache, or stitch in the sides, do give much ease. The same applied with some Rosewater, and oil of Roses, to the temples and forehead, eases the head-ache, though it be of long continuance. The fresh leaves boiled in wine, and old filthy ulcers hard to be cured washed therewith, do wonderfully help to cleanse them. It also quickly heals green wounds, and is effectual to heal all burnings and scaldings, and all kinds of exulcerations coming thereby, or by salt phlegm or humours in other parts of the body. The juice of the berries or leaves snuffed up into the nose, purges the head and brain of thin rheum that makes defluxions into the eyes and nose, and curing the ulcers and stench therein; the same dropped into the ears helps the old and running sores of them; those that are troubled with the spleen shall find much ease by continual drinking out of a cup made of Ivy, so as the drink may stand some small time therein before it be drank. Cato saith, That wine put into such a cup, will soak through it, by reason of the antipathy that is between them.

There seems to be a very great antipathy between wine and Ivy; for if one hath got a surfeit by drinking of wine, his speediest cure is to drink a draught of the same wine wherein a handful of Ivy leaves, being first bruised, have been boiled.

First published on December 17th 2022, Revised and republished December 2023

St Hildegard of Bingen. Visions of Migraine, December 17th

Hildegard von Bingen receives a divine inspiration and passes it on to her scribe. From the Rupertsberg Codex of Liber Scivias.
Hildegard von Bingen receives a divine inspiration and passes it on to her scribe. From the Rupertsberg Codex of Liber Scivias.

What a relief! Here is a Saint who was not flayed alive, burnt on a griddle, scratched with wool combs, crucified upside down, beheaded, eyes gouged out etc. etc. (consider identifying the Saints in this list a Christmas Quiz). She died of illness and was famous not just for her vision but her erudition and her scientific writings.

She was elected as magistra (Mother Superior) of her Convent in 1136, and went on to found two other nunneries. But, was made famous by her writings on her visions. There has been speculation that her visions were caused by migraine. Read Mary Sharratt’s piece for more details, from which I took the following quotation.

When I was forty-two years and seven months old, Heaven was opened and a fiery light of exceeding brilliance came and permeated my whole brain, and inflamed my whole heart and my whole breast, not like a burning but like a warming flame, as the sun warms anything its rays touch.

Hildegard von Bingen, Scivias, translated by Mother Columba Hart, O.S.B., and Jane Bishop

Amongst the many books she wrote were two famous and early books on medicine and science. Her medical writing was highly practical although, of course, based on the humoural theories which had held sway since Hippocrates. However, she did think that the four humours had a hierarchy with Blood and Phlegm the more superior humours representing the celestial elements of fire and air, while black bile and yellow bile represented the earthly humours of earth and water.

Just as physicists today look to find a unifying theory of everything, Hildegard also tried to find unities within the body of classical knowledge. According to Wikipedia, she:

‘often focuses on interrelated patterns of four: “the four elements (fire, air, water, and earth), the four seasons, the four humours, the four zones of the earth, and the four major winds.” ‘

Linked also to the celestial bodies and to religion, she gave her world view in Causae et Curae c. 42:

It happens that certain men suffer diverse illnesses. This comes from the phlegm which is superabundant within them. For if man had remained in paradise, he would not have had the flegmata within his body, from which many evils proceed, but his flesh would have been whole and without dark humour [livor]. However, because he consented to evil and relinquished good, he was made into a likeness of the earth, which produces good and useful herbs, as well as bad and useless ones, and which has in itself both good and evil moistures. From tasting evil, the blood of the sons of Adam was turned into the poison of semen, out of which the sons of man are begotten. And therefore their flesh is ulcerated and permeable [to disease]. These sores and openings create a certain storm and smoky moisture in men, from which the flegmata arise and coagulate, which then introduce diverse infirmities to the human body. All this arose from the first evil, which man began at the start, because if Adam had remained in paradise, he would have had the sweetest health, and the best dwelling-place, just as the strongest balsam emits the best odour; but on the contrary, man now has within himself poison and phlegm and diverse illnesses.


And here I was hoping to find light and joy in a medieval Saint’s story! So we all seem to be doomed by Adam’s Fall, and the poor quality of his semen. (Having recently watched ‘The English’ Hugo Blick’s Wild West box set, I can quite understand the syphilitic underpinnings of Hildegard’s theory).

On the subject of headaches, Hildegard was a keen user of feverfew, which has been, since the 18th Century, a suggested cure for Migraine. I didn’t find it worked for me. Hildegarde wrote on feverfew:

“If you suffer from a sick intestine, boil the Motherswort with water and butter or oil and add some spelt flour. Prepare a drink, for it helps the intestines.”

Hildegard of Bingen, Physica, Cap. 116 quoted in Hildegard’s Feverfew Use (

And so it became popular amongst women for gynaecological issues and abdominal pain. Feverfew has flowers like a daisy, ‘growing in every hedgerow’ according to Mrs Grieve English Herbal. She says it is good for nervous and hysterical complaints; low-spirits; as a syrup good for coughs; as a tincture against swellings caused by bites of insects and vermin.

St Hildegard seems to have two special days – one is Dec 17th and the other is the day she died, September 17th 1179 which is her ‘Liturgical Feast’.

First Published on December 18th, 2022, Revised and republished December 2023