Women’s Health in the South Slavic Orthodox Tradition

By Adelina-Angusheva-Tihanov and Margaret Dimitrova

Visit to the witch from the Main Church of Rila Monastery, 1844. Photograph by Adelina Angusheva-Tihanov
Visit to the witch from the Main Church of Rila Monastery, 1844.
Photograph by Stavri Tserovski

This intriguing fresco was painted on the walls of the Rila Monastery, Bulgaria, in 1844. If you look closely at the bottom left-hand corner of this fresco, you might spot a demon urinating in a woman’s potion as she hands it to a sick man. Here, viewers of this fresco are encouraged to connect the activities of female healers with demons and evil spirits. This negative depiction of female healers was a common sight on the walls of nineteenth-century Bulgarian religious institutions, and continued a centuries-long struggle between the Church and local healers. The Church demonised female healers, but regularly concerned itself with the health issues of one group that was more likely to rely upon the powers of these practitioners –women. Indeed, religious texts of various periods deal with health and sickness. Religious healing has been discussed on The Recipes Project before.  Medieval South Slavic religious manuscripts commonly contain a range of texts relating to health: curative prayers; medical recipes; healing practices; short medical treatises; prognostications for an illness; and prophylactic instructions (such as dietary texts). In this post, we would like to share some common recipes, incantations and prayers addressing women’s health issues.

Detail from Fresco Photograph by Adelina Angusheva-Tihanov
Detail from Fresco
Photograph by Adelina Angusheva-Tihanov

The Hodoş Miscellany (Hodoshki Sbornik), so called because of its association with the Hodoş monastery now in Romania, is one of the richest sources for fifteenth century South Slavic remedies. This collection contains a range of recipes, including several concerning women. One such recipe is for conception. For this, it recommends administering morning baths from a dried rabbit’s womb or placenta (lozhe) filled with water during the woman’s menstruation. Interestingly, this recipe bears close resemblance to another remedy for conception presented by Dioscorides. According to Dioscorides, rabbit’s rennet mixed with butter should be used for purging baths during menstruation to cause pregnancy. In the remedy from Hodoş the replacement of the ‘rennet’ (stored in the stomach) with a ‘womb’, perhaps stems from a belief in the sympathetic magical influence of the rabbit’s fecundity. Interestingly, versions of this remedy continued to circulate in South Slavic folk tradition well into the twentieth century. For instance, in the 1980s, Margaret Dimitrova interviewed an old woman from the village of Brestnitsa in the Lovech region who continued to use pessaries made with rabbit fat as a fertility remedy.

Map of the Balkans, c. 1340 from Wiki Commons

Aside from providing fertility aids, the Hodoş miscellany also offers readers medicines to ease the pains of childbirth. We would like to bring three of these to your attention. The first remedy advises users to place a wreath of Euforbia officinarum on the head of the woman in labour. The other two offer brief magical rituals accompanied by powerful Biblical formulae. One instructs the user to write the short biblical quote “Open you, Gate of heaven” on a piece of paper and place it on the woman’s back. The second advises the reader to have a well-watered sponge in his or her left hand, and with their right hand inscribe on the top of the door: ‘Tear it down to its foundations!’ [Psalms 136:7]. The use of the door here as a locus in performing the conjuration might be a symbolic gesture associated with transition. The biblical quotation here took on multiple functions. ‘Tear it down to its foundations!’ is also used in prayers against swelling and water retention in men and horses. The meaning of the Biblical text was quite literally understood. The implication was of liberation, rather than destruction. In all cases it was applied because of the similarity in the expected results, regardless of the nature of the pains. Evidence suggests the use of this kind of remedies was widespread in the Balkans.

A Medieval Bulgarian Bible from Wiki Commons
A Medieval Bulgarian Bible
from Wiki Commons

The sources presented here from South Slavic literate culture inevitably show the role of medieval monasteries and parish churches in the transmission of healing practices. Indeed, the role of the – male-dominated – Church might help explain the spread of some of these recipes across South Eastern Europe: religious institutions formed a network of literate centres, exchanging texts and ideas. Those institutions preserved and employed ancient medical knowledge, healing practices and biblical texts to support women in the moment of pain and need. Unlike them, however, the female practitioners (as the one in the fresco), who helped medieval women throughout the lifecycle—be they midwives, local witches, or wise and older members of the family—have left behind no sources of their own.

Adelina Angusheva-Tihanov is a Research Fellow at the University of Manchester, working on magic, medicine, and religion in Medieval South Slavic Manuscripts. To find out more about women’s health in the Medieval South Slavic context, see Angusheva-Tihanov, A. “Ancient Medical Knowledge of the Woman’s Body in the Medieval Slavic Context: The Case of the Prague Manuscript IXF10.” Wiener Slavistisches Jahrbuch Vol. 51,(2005) : 139-152.

Margaret Dimitrova is a Professor at Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”, working on Medieval and Early Modern South Slavonic manuscripts. Margaret has published on medieval Slavonic translations of biblical texts and prayers.

Locating traditional plant knowledge in household recipes: Part 3

By Anne Stobart

I have been following up my interest as a medical herbalist/historical researcher in native plants in medicinal recipes. This is my third post about plants with longstanding traditional uses and their inclusion as ingredients in early modern medicinal recipes. I have been looking at how frequently some native plants appeared in my database of seventeenth-century English medicinal recipes, both in print and household collections. This investigation formed part of my work for a book on seventeenth-century household medicine. It seems that the relationship between household recipes and traditionally used native plants is complex. My first post looked at several plants popular in recipes that drew on both folklore and classical traditions, plantain and betony. In my second post I considered other folklore plants, such as mint, coltsfoot and harts tongue, and differences between printed and household recipe collections. In this third post I explore some traditionally used native plants which rarely appeared as recipe ingredients.

 So which native plants were not so readily found in seventeenth-century medicinal recipes?

Figure 1: Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)
 Altogether I sampled the frequency of forty plants in 6500 recipes. These forty plants have folklore records indicating longstanding use in more than one part of the UK [1], and so I have described them as ‘folkloric’ or traditionally used. Of course, there are many plants in folklore so I aimed to select those that could be readily found in meadows, hedges or woodland edges throughout the UK. I discovered that there were at least five of my plant selection that were very much under-represented in both household manuscript and printed recipes. The plants with six or fewer mentions in the recipe database were buttercup (Ranunculus species (spp)), foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria: Figure 1), pennywort (Umbilicus rupestris: Figure 2) and willow (Salix spp).
Figure 2: Pennywort (Umbilicus rupestris)
Figure 2: Pennywort (Umbilicus rupestris)


External uses

The few recipes that contained these plants were mainly for external preparations. Some of the plants, especially buttercup and lesser celandine (also known as pilewort) are extremely acrid, with pungent taste or smell and ‘biting’ to the skin. They have had longstanding use as counter-irritants, applied externally to the skin, and thought to help with treating disease in deeper or nearby parts. [2] Foxglove also has a tradition of external use for ‘scrofulous swellings’ and sores by being applied as juice or bruised leaves, though, somewhat unusually,  a recipe in The Choice Manual (London, 1653) for ‘an itch, or any foule scabs’ recommends the sufferer to take the herb both externally and internally.

An excellent Receipt for an Itch, or any foule Scabs. Take Fox gloves, and boyle a handful of them in posset drink, and drink of it a draught at night, and in the morning, then boyle a good quantity of the Fox gloves in fair running water, and annoint the places that are sore with that water. [3]

Some recipes for external use identified particular locations on the body for application.  For example, the printed recipe in The Poor-Mans Physician and Chyrurgion provided ‘An Unguent for the Piles’, and instructed ‘Boyl in fresh butter Pilewort and Elder leaves or buds till it be a Salve, make it yellow with Saffron and use it’.[4] And willow was used for the hair in an  ‘An ointment to make hair grow’ which instructed ‘Take willow leaves, seeth them in oyle, and annoint the bare place, and hair will grow’. This recipe was included in Gervase Markham’s English Housewife (1631) and was later repeated in Natura Exenterata (1655) in the mid-seventeenth century.[5]

Medical practitioner’s views

Not only were some traditionally used native plants infrequently found in seventeenth-century recipes, but they were also described by one medical practitioner as insignificant in the early eighteenth century. The physician, John Quincy, in Pharmacopoeia Officinalis (1730 edition), wrote that the lesser celandine is ‘hardly ever used in Medicine’. He was dismissive of foxglove, saying that ‘the present Practice takes no notice of it’.  Of the several kinds of willow he considered that ‘none of them have any credit in the present Pharmacy’ (Figure 3) although he acknowledged that willow was given a place in the ‘new Catalogue’ of the College’.[6]

Figure 3. John Quincy, Pharmacopoea Officinalis (1730), p. 22.
Figure 3. John Quincy, Pharmacopoea Officinalis (1730), p. 22.

But, not everyone shared Quincy’s views that these native plants lacked medicinal value, and in my next and final post on traditional plant knowledge  I will consider some variations in perceptions of native plants in the seventeenth century.



[1] The 40 plants were selected from David E. Allen and Gabrielle Hatfield, Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain & Ireland (Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2004). The full listing appears in my forthcoming book Anne Stobart, Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016).

[2] M. Grieve, A Modern Herbal. 1931 ed. (London: Penguin, 1980), p. 149, 181, 323; JI Wand-Tetley, ‘Historical Methods of Counter-Irritation’. Rheumatology 3, no. 3 (1956): 90-98.

[3] Elizabeth Grey, A Choice Manuall of Rare and Select Secrets in Physick and Chirurgery (London: R. Norton, 1653), p. 10.

[4] Lancelot Coelson, The Poor-Mans Physician and Chyrurgion (London: Printed by A.M. for S. Miller, 1656), p. 131.

[5] Natura Exenterata, or Nature Unbowelled by the Most Exquisite Anatomizers of Her (London: Printed for H. Twiford, G. Bedell and N. Ekins, 1655), p. 31 and Gervase Markham, The English House-Wife (London: Printed by Nicholas Okes for John Harison, 1631), p. 21.

[6] John Quincy, Pharmacopoeia Officinalis & Extemporanea, 8th ed. (London: J. Osborn and T. Longman, 1730), pp. 130, 131, 225.

In Search of Alchemy

by Agnieszka Rec

The exploits of John Dee in Prague cast long shadows over the history of Central European alchemy. Colorful tales of the English alchemist dominate both popular and scholarly legend, yielding countless stories and studies. Recent works on Polish and Hungarian noblemen alchemists have only begun to pull back the curtains to reveal activities outside the imperial capital. As I will show, a pair of sixteenth-century notebooks can illuminate this darkness.

The notebooks, now held at the Leiden University Library, collect recipes from throughout Central and Eastern Europe and are the work of the Silesian humanist Franciszek Mymer (c.1500-c.1570) and his sons, Franz, Adam, and Georg. The Mymer family found fellow practitioners as close by as the next village or as far away as Riga. They almost never sought recipes from Prague. The Mymer collections complicate the geography of alchemy in Central Europe, shifting the landscape from a single famous center to multiple, more everyday centers.

Map of recipe origins by Agnieszka Rec via Googlemaps
Map of recipe origins
by Agnieszka Rec
via Googlemaps

If we map the points of origin given for these recipes, the picture that emerges is one that pushes the boundaries of our understanding of the sixteenth-century alchemical market. While alchemical recipes make frequent appearances on this blog, it’s almost always in a western European context (see the discussions of English, Dutch, and German alchemists). In this post I will look at alchemical activity on the other end of the continent where the Mymer family pursued their art.

Over the course of their lives, Franciszek Mymer and his sons moved and travelled all over Central and Eastern Europe. Born in Lower Silesia, Franciszek went south to Cracow around 1519. He studied at the university there for a time and found work as a printer, translator, and poet. During his two decades in Cracow, Franciszek developed an interest in alchemy during this time. In 1540 or 1542, Franciszek left the Polish royal city and moved north, passing several years in Thorn (now Toruń), the town that had produced Copernicus a generation earlier. His first son, Franz, was born around this time. Franciszek made a final move to Dohna, near Dresden, where he served as a Lutheran pastor until his death around 1570. Franz followed his father’s religious calling and attended the Lutheran university in Wittenberg. He settled in Saxony for a time before moving to Moravia, near Olomouc. Of the two younger Mymer boys, Adam remained in Saxony, while Georg eventually returned Silesia and worked as a goldsmith in Breslau (now Wrocław).

The Leiden manuscripts – Vossiani Chymici Q29 and F19 – were a family effort, put together at various stages on their journeys across Central Europe. The Mymers were unusually careful in recording the supposed authors of each recipe – perhaps as a means of establishing authority, as was done with medical recipes at the time. The family collected widely: their recipes are attributed to priests, monks, cathedral provosts, doctors, goldsmiths, a nailmaker, a chef, and an unexpected number of Teutonic Knights. Some of these attributions are more fiction than fact. Many others, though, are accurate and testify to the Mymers’ wide-reaching network of alchemical friends and acquaintances.

Beginning of Georg’s account of his recipe hunt in Breslau, 21 August 1570. Leiden University Library, Vossiani Chymici F19, f.81v. by Agnieszka Rec
Beginning of Georg’s account of his recipe hunt in Breslau, 21 August 1570. Leiden University Library, Vossiani Chymici F19, f.81v.
Photograph by Agnieszka Rec

Franciszek’s long stay in Cracow yielded a number of recipes by Maciej of Miechów (a.k.a. Miechowita, 1457-1523), the famous doctor and professor of medicine at the University of Cracow. Alongside the more usual recipes for producing silver or extracting gold from mercury, Maciej explains how to make gold from two varieties of catnip(!). Franciszek’s sons strayed further afield. Adam and Franz both got a number of recipes from Martin Eyser, a draper in Glatz (now Kłodzko in southwestern Poland). Franz visited a Breslau surgeon and follower of Paracelsus named Johannes Scholz in Riga in 1579.

Georg is particularly wordy in describing the lengths he went to in pursuit of recipes. Most often, his stories start in the market square of Breslau. On 21 August 1570, for example, a friend from Madgeburg told him of a famous recipe in the hands of an unnamed Polish voivode (perhaps Olbracht Łaski, Palatine of Sieradz). According to Georg, acquiring this recipe took the help of no less than three goldsmiths, one imperial official, and one piper. And just in case you might doubt him, Georg had one of the participants confirm the story by writing his name in the manuscript at the head of the story.

Maciej of Miechów, how to turn catnip into gold. Leiden University Library, Vossiani Chymici Q29, f.327r. by Agnieszka Rec
Maciej of Miechów, how to turn catnip into gold. Leiden University Library, Vossiani Chymici Q29, f.327r.
Photograph by Agnieszka Rec

The Mymers looked far and wide for their recipes. They collected across a wide swath of Central and Eastern Europe, from Nuremburg to Vilnius and Riga, and a number of cities and towns in between. The Mymers chose to look east for their recipes and found alchemists there ready to supply them. This rich tapestry of alchemical practice is just waiting to be uncovered.

I am grateful to Anna-Maria Balbach, Center for Language Study, Yale University, for her assistance with the early modern German. The archival trip behind this project was made possible by a SHAC New Scholars Award and a Scaliger Fellowship from the Leiden University Library.

Agnieszka Rec is completing a doctorate in Medieval History at Yale University. Her thesis, titled “Transmutation in a Golden Age: Reading Alchemy in Late Medieval and Early Modern Cracow,” uses the biography of an alchemical miscellany to reconstruct the community of practitioners in Cracow and their ties to wider European traditions of alchemy. An article based on this research appeared recently in Preternature.



Controlled substances in Roman law and pharmacy?

By Molly Jones-Lewis

Let me begin with a passage from the Digest of Roman Law within the section on the Lex Cornelia on murderers and poisoners (D.

It is laid down by another decree of the senate that dealers in cosmetics[1] are liable to the penalty of this law (the Lex Cornelia on murderers and poisoners) if they recklessly hand over to anyone hemlock (cicuta), salamander, aconite, pine-worms (pituocampae), or buprestis,[2] mandragora, or, except for the purpose of purification, cantharis beetles.

This particular decree of the senate was preserved by the jurist Marcian (active c. 200 and 222 CE), but the actual decree could date from any time between 81BCE, when it was passed, and Marcian’s own day. The main test of the law was not whether or not a murder had been committed, as it is with most modern legal systems, but the intent to murder. Penalties ranged from relegation (temporary exile) to death by wild animals.

Negligence should not have exposed someone to its penalties, but there is evidence in both the legal and literary record of medical professionals who unwittingly aided in a murder being prosecuted under the Lex Cornelia. Galen, for instance, mentions one unfortunate doctor who was executed when a wicked stepmother (of course) claimed a drug was for her own use, only to have her slaves slip it into her stepson’s food.

Other examples preserved in the Digest involve gynecologists, aphrodisiacs, and abortifacients; gender bias very likely accounts for the departure from the intent-test. Add to that the demographics of medical professionals in the Roman Empire–many of them were slaves and freedmen–and the pattern becomes even more clear. Elite moral panic likely drove the legislative policy in this decree of the senate, with chilling effects. Under it, suppliers are held liable for selling commonly used pharmaceutical ingredients.

So would these highly toxic items that an ancient pharmacist would carry? Absolutely! Dioskourides, author of a first century CE pharmacy manual (and standard reference for Roman pharmacists), listed several uses for them.[3]

“Spanish Fly” continues to enjoy an unfortunate reputation as a “natural” aphrodisiac, even in this age of safer alternatives. Image credit: Nuvalife.
“Spanish Fly” continues to enjoy an unfortunate reputation as a “natural” aphrodisiac, even in this age of safer alternatives. Image credit: Nuvalife.

We begin at the end with Blister Beetles (Cantharis, buprestis, pituocampae): Here, I am grouping three similar insects, just as Dioskourides did (2.61). These insects are more popularly known as “Spanish Fly.” The oil produced by these beetles causes the skin to blister, and this made it a useful item for removing growths.

But Dioskourides does not mention its most famous application, and most dangerous–blister beetle poisoning irritates the urogenital tract, causing an erection. It was, in essence, ancient Viagra. It seems to have been responsible for quite a few accidental and embarrassing deaths, and likely accounts for the general anxiety surrounding the use of aphrodisiacs in Roman law and armchair scientists like Pliny the Elder.[4] It also shows up in some cringe-worthy gynecological recipes, and must have caused many a woman severe discomfort.

Cosmetics sellers would stock it for people with warts, women would keep it handy, and Roman legislators were concerned. It is hardly surprising that this class of insect dominates the senate’s decree.

The shape of the flower resembles the hood of a monk, hence the English common name. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The shape of the flower resembles the hood of a monk, hence the English common name. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Aconite, also known as monkshood, wolfsbane, and the “queen of poisons,” is best known today as Professor Snape’s go-to icebreaker question for Potions class. It is deadly–strong enough to cause numbness when it comes in contact with the skin–and that is precisely what put it on the senate’s list. Dioskourides 4.77 declares it useful for killing wolves, and nothing else, but urban sales were almost certainly aimed at eliminating human nuisances like abusive slaveowners and inconvenient husbands, at least in the minds of lawmakers.

The English name reflects the long history of identifying the somewhat anthropomorphic form of this root. Dioskourides differentiates between a “Male” and “Female” form – this one is the female variety. Image credit: http://fa13ethnobotany.providence.wikispaces.net/Mandrake.
The English name reflects the long history of identifying the somewhat anthropomorphic form of this root. Dioskourides differentiates between a “Male” and “Female” form – this one is the female variety. Image credit: http://fa13ethnobotany.providence.wikispaces.net/Mandrake.

Another alumna of Harry Potter, the mandrake is best known for its use in magic. However, it also has a strong effect as a sedative and anesthetic; it was used as such into the early 1900s. But too much could cause death, as Dioskourides warns in his lengthy list of applications (4.75). It’s hallucinogenic properties, too, combined with its sedative effects, would have made it a prime candidate for abuse and accidental death. No wonder it makes the senate’s list!

Even today, Hemlock remains infamous for its role in the death of Socrates. So why on earth would a pharmacy sell it? Dioscorides 4.78 recommends it for topical applications only, first as a cure for shingles and erysipelas, both common and painful skin conditions. He goes on to prescribe it to stop lactation, to keep youthful breasts small, and, alarmingly, to cause a boy’s testicles to shrivel. The most shocking suggestion, though, is that it be applied to the testicles to prevent nocturnal emissions – surely a recipe for disaster if the man in question failed to wash his hands carefully.

Small jars excavated in the prison in the Athenian Agora, possibly used for the executioner’s Hemlock. Author’s image, 2006.
Small jars excavated in the prison in the Athenian Agora, possibly used for the executioner’s Hemlock. Author’s image, 2006.

So we have in this list a number of items common in recipes and associated with women and medical professionals, both of whom might respond to their systemic oppression with the covert violence of poisoning. If you were to open a pharmacy in the bustling streets of the Roman empire–especially if you were a woman, freedman, or both– it would be best to think twice about why your patient is so keen to buy his cantharis in bulk.

[1] The ingredients in cosmetics and pharmacy were often similar, and likewise cosmetics were made to also have medical benefits.

[2] J. B. Rives rightly suggests (n. 22) that the word “bubrostis” is a misspelling of “buprestis.”

[3] See Lily Beck’s excellent translation and commentary for the most likely identification of the species involved. Taxonomy and nomenclature in antiquity is imprecise by modern standards; it can be difficult to link ancient names to known species.

[4] For example, Natural History 25.25: “I do not include abortifacients in my account, and not even love potions, remembering that Lucullus the most famous general perished from such a potion.”

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine