If you spend a lot of time immersed in Celtic fakelore you might have heard that some wandering Irish monk learned of distillation from Western Asia and brought it back to Ireland. It’s far more likely that it was a result of trade routes that were established between Ireland and the Iberian Peninsula. There were Irish trade families living there in the early 14th century.[i]
Uisce Beatha meaning “water of life” is usually explained as the Irish word assigned to the Latin aqua vite. It is pronounced roughly “ish-ke-ba’ha” which is anglicized to Usquebaugh in a lot of handwritten manuscripts. The Scottish Gaelic is uisge beatha. It is not conjecture to say that the that the two words were used interchangeably.
Uisce beatha is whiskey which is a strong liquor distilled from a fermented barley mash while aqua vite is distilled from wine, so brandy. If you look through documents transcribed in the 1400’s they still use the term when speaking of liquors made with grapes. It literally means “water of the grape vine.”
Aqua is sometimes a word indicate something has been distilled. Scribes also used the Latin term aqua rosasium to refer to rosewater which was called uisce na roisi in Irish. But sometimes it just means water as the term as uisce na heorna refers to the Latin term aqua ordei which is simply barley water.
The first known Irish documentation of aqua vitea is in the Annála Chluain Mhic Nóis which states that in 1405 a noted Irish chieftain drank too much aqua vitea on Christmas and died.[ii] It is not stated that this drink was distilled from barley. The first documentation that confirms the use of barley malt to brew whiskey is in the Exchequer Rolls of 1494, King James IV of Scotland awarded one Friar John Cor a large amount of malt to brew.[iii]
There are not many known Gaelic documents referring to early methods of distillation. You might have heard that is because the early Irish didn’t write things down which is not at all true. Most Irish knowledge was lost due to English oppression of the catholic institutions during the Penal Times. Monks and nuns who were banished to the continent smuggled what they could out of the country but for the most part documents found in monasteries, abbeys and priories were destroyed before these properties were handed over to Protestant noble families. The acidic bog to which the Gaelic population was driven destroyed so much that there are only a few extent pieces of clothing found to document what Gaelic people wore. If not for laws prohibiting the Irish from wearing certain clothes and drawings by foreigners, we might not have as much knowledge as we do have of how Irish people lived prior to English persecution.
By the 14th century distillation had come into its own. In 1512, the German physician Hieronymus Brunschwig’s Liber de arte distillandi published the first text detailing distillation methods and the medicinal uses of various distillations including aqua vite. He mentions aqua vite composita in which nutmeg, cloves, grains of paradise, and ginger have been infused in wine which is then distilled to be taken or used topically for all manners for ills. So, what we are kind of talking about here is the history of the hot toddy.
Distillation was applied as a method to making many medicines that used to be made by decocting and seen as a method of further refining those substances or “puryfyeng of the grosse from the subtyll.”[iv] This publication led to distillation being the primary form of the preservation of medicinal substances, in both professional and home use, for almost at least a century before tinctures became popular. We will discuss that in another post.
Now let’s turn our attention to the second panacea mentioned, butter. Dairy products have been such a ubiquitous part of the Gaelic diet that it has influenced Gaelic genetics. A geographical study published in the journal Nature, illustrated the British Isles as one of the few places in the worlds where over 90% of the adult population exhibit lactase persistence.[v] That is their bodies continue to produce the enzyme necessary to digest lactose into adulthood.
References to the use of ointments for healing can be found in the earliest myths of every culture. In Irish stories we first hear of it in the Tain bo Cuailgne:
“The teams of liaigh came to salve them and heal them, and they put soothing plant and herb and curing charms to their countless cuts and stabs and gashes of Cú Chulainn. For every soothing plant and herb and curing charm that was put to the countless cuts and stabs and gashes of Cú Chulainn, he sent the same to Fer Diad on the south side of the ford, so that the men of Ireland could not say, if Fer Diad fell by his hand, that it was because he got better care.”[vi]
That practices persisted for a very long time, a folk remedy for the plague involves invoking a charm three times and then “take butter, breathe on it quite close, and give to chafe himself therewith.”[vii] Chafing is a practice which causes more blood to circulate to the area. This was a home nursing practice through the 20th century. Nurses still do this for bedridden patients today. Stiffness and pain could be delayed or relieved by rubbing the skin vigorously until it is reddened.[viii] So here we see butter being used as a lubricant for this process.
Many sources on traditional Gaelic healing document the use of butter in making ointments. In the Schools Collection, you can find references several references to a burst ointment made with nine herbs that are fried in butter. Mary Beith couple preparation like this as well two ointments the first of which is made of “St. John’s wort, germander speedwell and golden rod cut small and mixed in butter and grease” and a second made of golden rod (Solidago virgaurea being the European species) was mixed with all-heal and fresh butter” both of which were used to mend broken bones.[ix]
One of my favorite things about studying historical medicine is that I am usually able to take a widely used practice and find some reason that something might have “become a thing.” After all even leeches have their place in modern medicine.[x] In this case it seems likely they noticed that lipids (particularly saturated fats) enhance transdermal absorption of medicinal herbs.[xi]
Modernly there are chemical agents which work better than oils, but they are generally petroleum products which I prefer not to use. One can’t help but wonder what sort of trial-and-error process led the ancient folk healers to begin making their preparations with fats and oils? Questions like these will likely never have an answer come to light, but hopefully this gives you an idea of why the original proverb became popular?
[i] Dickson, David, Jan Parmentier, and Jane H. Ohlmeyer. Irish and Scottish Mercantile Networks in Europe and Overseas in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Academia Press, 2007.
[ii] Mag Eochagáin, Conall. Annála Chluain Mhic Nóis; Being Annals of Ireland, from the Earliest Period to A. D. 1408. Translated into English A. D. 1627. 1896 Reprint. Dublin, Ireland: Printed at the University Press for the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 1627. http://archive.org/details/annalsofclonmacn00mage.
[iii] ‘National Records of Scotland’. Document. National Records of Scotland, 31 May 2013. /research/image-gallery/treasures/exchequer-records.
[iv] Brunschwig, Hieronymus. Liber de Arte Distillandi; English. Translated by Andrewe, Laurens. London,England, 1527. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo?c=eebo;idno=A03318.0001.001;view=toc;iel=4.
[v] Curry, A.The Milk Generation. Nature, 20-22. 2013.
[vi] Carson, Ciaran, trans. The Tain. London, England: Penguin UK, 2008.
[vii] Wilde, L. F. (1887). Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland Volume II. Boston: Tinker and Co. Retrieved from Sacred Texts: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/ali/ali152.htm
[viii] Wilson, James Cornelius. Fever-Nursing: Designed for the Use of Professional & Other Nurses … Lippincott, 1888. 75.
[ix] Beith, M. (2004). Healing Threads: Traditional Healing of the Highlands and the Islands. Edinburgh: Berlinn Limited.
[xi] Mehta, Ratna. ‘Topical and Transdermal Drug Delivery: What a Pharmacist Needs to Know’. Inet Continuing Education, InetCE. Com, 2004, 1–10.