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The Virtues of Balm in Late Medieval Literature

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This article argues that balm, or balsam, was, by the late medieval period, believed to be a panacea, capable of healing wounds and illnesses, and also preventing putrefaction. Natural history and pharmacological texts on balm from the ancient and late antique periods emphasized specific qualities of balm, especially its heat; these were condensed and repeated in medieval encyclopedias. The rarity and cost of balsam, from antiquity through the medieval period, and the high rate of counterfeiting also demonstrate its high demand and significance in medicine and religious ritual. Travel writing and itineraria from the early and central medieval periods added a new layer to ideas about the capabilities of balsam: that it originated from a Christian miracle and was a particularly Christian plant.

Affiliations: 1: Bryn Mawr College


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