Translating Recipes 3: Fairy Tale Drugs

By Carla Nappi

Hello again! When last we met, I was telling you about a recent and ongoing experiment in translating Manchu-language medical recipes into different storytelling forms as a way to get at the narrative power of drug texts and their formulae. If you don’t recall that, take a moment to check out the previous two posts in this series and you’ll get the most out of what follows: Part 1: Narrating Qing Bodies and Part 2: A Drama of Butter and Pearls

All done? Good to have you back! Now, let’s reminisce a bit. Whether it was worrying over Little Red Riding Hood or wondering at the fate of Cinderella, many of us spent our childhoods reading and living a dream-life in fairytales. Many of these stories have common elements. Often, they incorporate some kind of magic or enchantment. They usually include conventional, stock characters that don’t change much over the course of any given story. And importantly, the stories move across time and space: different versions of a story might be found in very different contexts; often a fairytale story is transmitted orally rather than depending on a specific textual materialization of the narrative. In his introduction to Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm: A New English Version, Philip Pullman thus characterizes fairy tales as being in “a perpetual state of becoming and alteration.”

Image:   A Manchu woman in a rocky garden, taken by John Thomson in 1869. Image 19678i from the Iconographic Collection, Wellcome Library, London.

Image: A Manchu woman in a rocky garden, taken by John Thomson in 1869. Image 19678i from the Iconographic Collection, Wellcome Library, London. 

If you think about it, an early modern medical recipe shares many of the same narrative features as a fairy tale. (At least, this is true of the early modern Manchu medical recipes that we’ve been exploring together.) These recipes often incorporate ingredients with (at least reputedly) incredible powers: gold, pearls, precious animal horns. They also feature a limited number of stock directions (mix this, smear that) and basic ingredients (wine, fat, water). There often exist many versions of the same formula, with the core identity of a particular recipe not dependent on its materialization in a particular text. And like Pullman’s fairy tales, if we consider how these recipes are used, they are also in a constant state of alteration and variation. Put another way, both Manchu medical recipes and fairy tales exist in a continuing state of translation. Like a fairytale, the recipe becomes a kind of basic storyline that is recorded into textual form but doesn’t depend on any single, specific textual inscription and can be adopted and adapted into different local contexts.

So what would happen, I wondered in the course of considering this parallel one afternoon, if we read a medical recipe as a fairy tale? Are there stories hidden in the lines of these Manchu texts, and how might looking for them change (at least in some small way) how we think about the kind of work a medical recipe does? Translating a recipe as a fairy tale does a few useful things for us. It emphasizes the translatability, literary form, and movement of these texts, and of the bodies within them. It puts a different spin on early modern medical recipes: sometimes, the formula (or, storyline) was more important than the identities of the individual ingredients it combined. And it highlights the fact that, for many readers, there was a kind of magic at work in an early modern medical recipe: powerful, unfamiliar ingredients were invoked in powerful, unfamiliar language. (Plus, it’s a whole lot of fun.)

In the next post, I’ll share the result of this experiment with you.

On Berlin Plums: Recipes from Johannes Magirus’ Medical Diary

By Sabine Schlegelmilch

For some years now, I’ve been doing research on Johannes Magirus (1615-1697). He was a German physician, and by now has made me shake my head quite often because of a certain quirkyness his writings reveal. On the other hand: when not quarelling with his surroundings or boasting his genius (or then especially?), he makes me learn quite a lot about medicine in the seventeenth century in Germany and abroad. As a student, Magirus travelled through the Netherlands, England and France. He was stunned by the practical approach of bedside teaching he witnessed there, as it was different from any medical education he had known back in Germany.  After his return, he began to practise in Berlin in 1640, and afterwards moved to Zerbst (in Anhalt-Saxony).  He soon left the town again, steaming with anger because of a personal enemy he named the ‘Sauffteuffel’ (booze devil). Finally, he became professor of medicine in Marburg (in Hesse) and tried to implement his experience gained abroad into his own teaching.  In the announcement for his classes, he advertised to take his students to the sick whom, for demonstration purposes, he would treat for free – an early polyclinical  concept largely unknown in Germany for his time.

Titel of Magirus' Medical Diary (University of Marburg Library, Ms. 96)

Titel of Magirus’ Medical Diary [Credit: University Library Marburg]

Magirus managed to reach the respectable age of 82, although he displayed a certain proneness for self-experiment. So he couldn’t help to explore the construction of a fortress while it was besieged (!), and nearly was hit by a cannonball. In medicine, he was equally eager to gain personal experience. His special interest lay in drugs, and in particular in ‘chymical’ ones. We know this from his well-preserved medical diary and a notebook with commonplaces from his time in Berlin and Zerbst. For me, it was fascinating to see how systematical his approach was in drug-testing as a young practitioner. With each recipe he prescribed, he precisely noted its impact on the patient. With a woman in pain, he wrote in his diary: ‘after the first half of my pills, there was no bowel movement, after the second half she had a motion eight times’ or ‘before my pill, she always was in pain at two o’ clock, but afterwards at three o’ clock’. Often there are notes like ‘this is the powder I also have prescribed to the tailor in the roßstrasse’ that show how Magirus drew connections between different cases. He recorded successes as well as failures, and even tried to reduce side effects by singling out the one substance his patient showed an intolerance for, and then substituting it.

Fortunately, with drug-testing on his own body he was more cautious than in his cannonball-adventure. He surely was interested in the effect of new remedies and collected information on them. It is striking, however, that he made excerpts e.g. on mercury but, according to his diary, never used it with his patients, and never did test it on himself. Reading the excerpt in his commonplace book, one doesn’t wonder; it says that

if you use an ointment with mercury, it will cause convulsions, and the patients will get blisters in their throat, their uvula will fall off, they will develop ulcers, all teeth will beginn to loosen and  get black, and a huge amount of stinking spittle will run out of their mouth.

With less dangerous drugs, though, he experimented on himself and noted his personal experience. So we read that some aloe rosata ‘had dried up my stomach and I felt even worse than before’. When one of his colleagues prescribed a plum puree to one of his patients, Magirus took some of it to try it himself. He didn’t like the effect very much, as he ‘felt  a pain and rumble in my left hypochondrium’, and therefore came to the conclusion: ‘so it’s true: sugar and everything sweet are noxious for a spleen condition’. As unpleasant as this plum-related experience was for him, as rewarding was another: one of his patients, an advocat also named Johannes Magirus, obviously had told our Magirus how to prepare a formidable plum-juice with raisins, senis-leaves and fennel-seed that did wonders as a purge. Magirus must have tested this juice, as we can see that in the following time he began to prescribe it to his patients.

MS. 96, p. 22: Magirus crossed out the ingredients of his recipe that he pharmacy couldn't provide and that he had to add from his own stock (addantur in aedibus meis).

Magirus crossed out the ingredients that the pharmacy couldn’t provide and that he had to add from his own stock. [Credit: University Library Marburg]

I imagine Berlin at this time, i.e. just around the end of the Thirty-years-war, as a rather shabby place. Contemporary sources tell us that the elector was absent for most of the time and swine were roaming the mudden streets of the town outside the court-buildings. Magirus’ notes reveal that even the court-pharmacist was not able to provide some of the more sophisticated ingredients for his recipes. So it takes no wonder that something as simple as plums grew essential to his Berlin practice.

Ironclad Apple Duff: Exploring Recipes from the American Civil War

Image

By Jessica Eichlin and Amanda E. Herbert

USS Monitor crewmembers cooking on deck, in the James River, Virginia, 9 July 1862. Photographed by James F. Gibson, courtesy of Wikipedia.

USS Monitor crewmembers cooking on deck, in the James River, Virginia, 9 July 1862. Photographed by James F. Gibson, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Food rations during wartime do not have the reputation for being delicious, fresh, or even edible, and this was especially true during the American Civil War.  Fought from 1861-1865, the war disrupted supply lines across the United States, making food difficult to acquire for soldiers and citizens alike.  When Union (northern) and Confederate (southern) troops were receiving rations, these usually included hardtack, salt pork, flour, and cornmeal; when soldiers were lucky, this rather grim diet was supplemented by small amounts of condiments such as molasses, salt and pepper, and sugar; beverages such as milk, coffee, or tea; and vegetables such as rice or hominy, dried beans or peas, and “fresh” (although frequently desiccated) vegetables.  And whenever they were able, soldiers and sailors foraged for food, or traded with locals – both free and enslaved – in order to survive.

Finding and issuing nutritious, reliable rations was made even more difficult by the new military equipment that was developed during the Civil War.  Although European countries had begun developing ironclad ships in the late 1850s, American shipbuilders were not prompted to create this innovative type of ship until the American Civil War.  The South was the first to construct their ironclad (the CSS Virginia), followed quickly by the North.  The Union’s USS Monitor, designed by John Ericsson, was ironclad as well as semi-submersible: it was the first ship with its living quarters and engines entirely below the waterline.  The ship was nicknamed “Ericsson’s Folly” and “cheesebox on a raft” as no one thought it could float, let alone sail into battle.  Because the sailors lived almost entirely underwater, provisioning them and keeping them healthy proved to be a difficult undertaking.

Primary source documents written by the sailors on board these ships help to reveal important details about the history of Civil War food.  George Geer, a First-Class Fireman from Troy, New York who was stationed aboard the Monitor, corresponded with his wife Martha throughout the war, describing skirmishes, interactions with other sailors and officers, and especially the food on board ship.  Prior to enlisting, Geer had been unemployed and in debt: as he and his wife had two children, it is perhaps unsurprising that many of his letters focused on food.  But if Geer thought that joining the Union navy would keep him well-fed, his hopes were soon dashed.  His letters are full of funny, sarcastic comments about sailor’s rations.  In regards to the rock-like hardtack crackers, which were a staple of their diet, Geer said that the sailors could “eat as many crackers as [they] may wish which for me is usuly one.”  When the men were given pork, Geer was dismayed that “it is of the Lardy kind and no body pretends to eat it…the balance [is] given to the Fishes.”  Discussing bean soup, which the sailors consumed three times every week, Geer noted wryly that he was “tempted to strip off my shirt and make a dive and see if there realy is Beens in the Bottom.”

George S. Geer, First-Class Fireman, USS Monitor.  Image courtesy of the Mariner's Museum, Newport News, Virginia.

George S. Geer, First-Class Fireman, USS Monitor. Image courtesy of the Mariner’s Museum, Newport News, Virginia.

Geer’s colorful discussion of the food on board the USS Monitor did not stop with mere description.  In his letters, he sometimes provided his wife with recipes for the foods that made up the sailors’ rations.  In order to make navy-style tea, he told his wife to take “abut three times as much of black Tea or Grass as you would take to make a cup of Tea for you and me and about a tea cup full of that muscovada shugar that has such a bad taste.”  The most detailed recipe inscribed by Geer was for a dessert called Apple Duff.  Duff was a steamed or boiled pudding which was consumed frequently in the nineteenth century.  It was simple to make and contained cheap ingredients, usually just flour, water, and a handful of fruit.  Geer told his wife that he would “give you the recpt and you can try it.”  He told her to “take ½ lb Flour to each person and wet it until it is a thick paste then put in one ounce [o]f Dride Apples to each person.”  The apples, he noted, included “cores and dirt” and his wife should add them to the dough “without cutting them up or Washing them.”  This mixture was to be put “in a Bag over night and boil then in the morning until it is about half done through then cut it up with a knife so as to make it as heavy as poseable.”  The resulting lump of half-cooked dough was hard to digest, but it was filling – for although most puddings “will be apt to work out of your stomac in the course of time,” Geer joked, “this Duff is wanted to stay.”

*****
Interested in the sources used in this post?  You can find them here:

  1. “What Did Civil War Soldiers Eat?” Civil War Preservation Trust, accessed 13 April 2014. http://www.civilwar.org/education/pdfs/civil-war-curriculum-food.pdf
  2. “Duff,” in The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 259.
  3. “Letter No 2,” George S. Geer Family Papers, 1862-1995, MS010, The Mariners’ Museum Library, Christopher Newport University, Newport News, Virginia.
  4. A.A. Hoehling, Thunder at Hampton Roads (New York: Prentice Hall, 1976).

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Jessica Eichlin is a senior History Major at Christopher Newport University.  She found these documents while working as an intern at the Mariner’s Museum and Mariner’s Museum Library, both in Newport News, Virginia.  Jessica is on Twitter @jesseich

When Physicians Give Up: Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici’s Infant Convulsion Powder

By Ashley Buchanan

Anna Maria Luisa de' Medici

Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici by Antonio Franchi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On July 19, 1736, Baroness Massimilianna Moltke wrote Anna Maria Luisa, the Electress Palatine and last Medici princess, to thank her for sending a “miraculous powder” to treat infant convulsions, or “male caduco.” In the letter sent from Vienna to Florence, the Baroness stated that the powder had had extraordinary effects on three children from the most important families of Vienna. She went on to explain that these children had been so violently taken by convulsions that the physicians had “given up on them.” Not only had the powder from “la Serenissima Elettrice” cured the children, the baroness also stated that a number of months had passed and the children remained in perfect health. The baroness concluded her letter by thanking Anna Maria Luisa and assuring the Medici princess that the three most prominent families of Vienna would be eternally grateful and would always remember “Vostra Altezza Elettorale e Serenissima” for her generous gift.

Of the over two hundred culinary, alchemical, and medicinal recipes that Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici (1667-1743), collected during her life and which are preserved in the Archivio di Stato of Florence, this one recipe for infant convulsions stands out.[1] The recipe called for the precipitated powder of three ounces of human skull from a person who had died violently but had not been buried, two ounces of oriental pearls, and two ounces of red and white coral. These precipitated powders were then combined with one ounce of amber, one ounce of peony root, and one ounce of peony seeds. The recipe then instructed that all the ingredients be pulverized together and passed through a fine sieve.

Once the powder was prepared, the recipe then prescribed giving five grains of it to the afflicted child. Requested by elite men and women in numerous epistolary exchanges, this powder was continually lauded for its extraordinary effects in curing infants of life-threatening convulsions.

The letter of Baroness Moltke is just one of many letters concerning a medicinal remedy that the electress exchanged with Italian and European noblemen and women. Anna Maria Luisa’s recipe for infant convulsion powder and the epistolary exchange that promoted it were part of a system of courtly gift giving which supported the personal and familial strategies of the European nobility. While women could not participate directly in the new court science of experimentation, recipes represented an acceptable means to access, exchange, experiment with, and distribute medical knowledge.  As the letters exchanged between the Medici princess and European nobility show, the infant convulsion powder became a meaningful and lucrative form of social currency in court politics.

The worth of this powder lay in the nature of the victims it reputedly cured. The ability to treat and cure such an ailment that affected the children of elite families garnered great social and political capital. It is no coincidence that the three children Anna Maria Luisa “cured” in Vienna belonged to three of the most important families of that country. By 1737 Anna Maria Luisa’s social and political position was tenuous—she was the last of the Medici line. Born in 1667 in Florence, Anna Maria Luisa was the only daughter and second child of Cosimo III, Grand Duke of Tuscany.  In 1691, she was married to Johann Wilhelm II (1658-1716), Elector Palatine.  She lived in Düsseldorf, her husband’s capital, until his death in 1716. A year later Anna Maria Luisa returned to her native Florence. During Anna Maria Luisa’s twenty-six year absence neither of her brothers, Ferdinando or Gian Gastone (1671–1737), had produced a Medici heir. By 1737 the Medici state would become a Hapsburg satellite, ruled by the Lorraine dynasty.

As a widow and last member of the Medici line, Anna Maria Luisa would have played little significance in the social and political negotiations and familial dynastic strategies of early modern Europe. However, as a source of medical knowledge—via a recipe—and the keeper of a powder that was widely distributed and known to cure infant convulsions, she possessed an important commodity for elite families. Paradoxically, Anna Maria Luisa was able to do for others what she could not do for her own family line: ensure its continuation. By distributing her prized remedy, Anna Maria Luisa created political alliances and interpersonal relationships with important elite families across Europe. Relationships she could call upon as she carried out the difficult tasks of managing the difficult transfer of power to the Lorraine dynasty and ensuring her personal legacy.

 


[1] A special thanks to the Medici Archive Project whose generous Samuel Freeman Charitable Trust fellowship made this research possible.