As part of a final project for a Shakespeare class I am taking, I have recently been working on transcribing medicinal recipes from a Renaissance text. After completing the transcriptions, I select ingredients that sound interesting or I am just curious about and do some research on them. This is information that I’ve found on one such ingredient- Carduus Benedictus.
In the same recipe that Dragon’s Blood was used in, there was also something called Carduus Benedictus, which is Latin for “blessed thistle.”
Carduus Benedictus is found in the third line down from the start of the recipe, before the word “Sage”.
Carduus Benedictus was a little hard to research, in that I didn’t find a whole lot of quality information on it (unless you count a website to buy pills from that totally didn’t just badly Photoshop some logos onto some stock photos of pill bottles). However doing some text mining on the Early English Books Online database showed that Carduus Benedictus was referenced in the Shakespeare play Much Ado About Nothing. This project being for a Shakespeare class, I decided to see how it was used in the play.
To give some context, the scene is which the reference occurs in act III scene iv, when two women are talking. One of the women is secretly in love with a man named Benedick, and the other seems to know it. The women who is secretly in love claims to be sick, and the other tells her to rub some Carduus Benedictus on her heart to cure it. The footnotes of my edition of the play tell us that this was a pun on the name “Benedick”, and that Carduus Benedictus was believed to be a cure-all at the time. It is also worth noting that there’s a good amount of evidence for a dick joke here as well, given that the woman describes herself as “stuffed” (which has a double meaning for pregnant according to the footnotes), and a third woman points out that the woman prescribing the cure has told the secretly-in-love woman to prick herself, but that’s really neither here nor there.1
Potential dick jokes aside, the idea that Carduus Benedictus was a cure-all is supported my the recipe I transcribed. The title of it literally states that it will cure any wound. So we can see by the context Shakespeare used it in, he did use it in a believable way (for the time, anyway), Carduus Benedictus was actually used in medicine at the time. It’s interesting because as a modern reader, I tend to read footnotes like that and not really grasp exactly what is being told to me. Like, I’m told that it was believed to be a cure-all, but I just think of that in more of a mythical context, as if it wasn’t something in the lives of people back then. Doing this kind of research makes me feel like I connected to the text in a deeper way than I otherwise would have because I really understood the reference in a way better than just having it explained. I think it goes to show that we really need to have more historical context when reading Shakespeare, if we are to connect with the text on more than a surface level. Having this kind of background knowledge makes the play seem more “real” than I think many readers feel it to be, and could help demystify the works and make them more engaging.