Mrs. Corlyon’s Pimple Cream: A Toxic Topical

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

Reading an early recipe book can be an emotional roller coaster. There’s disgust (“’Snail water’? With real snails? Eww”), delight (“’A pudding of pippins’? That’s like something out of The Hobbit!”), and dismay (“NO! Do not drink the cordial of horse dung! Don’t do it!”).

Most of these emotions arise from the awareness of historical difference, the sensation of reaching across time through these documents and sensing the foreignness of the past.

More often, however, are the prosaic moments, when you think, “Oh, well of course they had to worry about THAT, too.” Headaches. Cooking up extra fruit from the harvest. Toothaches.

And pimples. Ah yes, they also had to deal with pimples.

Salve for pimples on the face. Ms, 14th century, Vienna. Wellcome Library, London.

Salve for pimples on the face. Ms, 14th century, Vienna. Wellcome Library, London.

In Mrs. Corlyon’s A Booke of Diverse Medicines, we find a “A medicine to cure a face that is Redd, and full of Pimples.” It seems unique to me in that similar recipes address redness of the face (perhaps rosacea) or claim to cure pimples or boils, but they are not often treated together. The reason might be the different humoral imbalances thought to cause each: a red face would arise from an excess of blood, while the pus from a pimple or boil would develop from too much phlegm.

Mrs. Corlyon’s recipe, however, attempts to treat both at the same time. For curing the redness in the face, she advises, “Take two penny worthe of quicksilver [mercury], putt it in a little glasse add thereto so much fasting Spitle as will serve to kill it, then shake them well together, and the quicksilver when it is killed will looke like duste.”

The concept of “killing” the quicksilver and turning it to dust confused (and intrigued) me. I wonder if perhaps the potassium present in saliva reacts with the mercury to form a precipitate? It might look similar to the reaction in this video “How to Make the Pharoah’s Serpent” around 4:55.

Obviously, the chemicals used in that experiment are purer, but perhaps something similar might have happened in this recipe? (At any rate, and completely off topic, do keep watching the video to see what happens when mercury thiocyanate is ignited—it is one of the coolest and most disturbing things I have ever seen!)

The quicksilver dust is then to be ground with bay oil and made into an ointment used morning and evening for two weeks. The quicksilver, with its cold and dry properties, would balance out the heat and moistness of the excess blood in the skin.

"Cures for red face and pimples." A book of diverse medicines, Mrs. Corlyon. MS.213 Wellcome Library, London.

“Cures for red face and pimples.” A book of diverse medicines, Mrs. Corlyon.  MS 213. Wellcome Library, London.

The recipe then tells us that for a week before using the ointment, the person being treated should have been drinking a special brew: 10 gallons of beer to which is added half a pound of madder (a plant often used in dying cloth red, but also valued as a medicinal with hot and dry properties). This was to be drunk in the morning and evening and “at divers times.” The addition of the madder would balance the phlegmatic humor in the body that was causing the pus to form pimples.

Mrs. Corlyon also advises the person being treated “keep close in [their] chamber” as their skin will actually look worse during the treatment, “untill such tyme as the humor be killed that is betwixt the fleshe and the skinn.”

At first glance, this recipe seems ridiculous. Who would smear mercury on their face and stay drunk and locked in their chamber for two weeks in order to get better skin? But then, don’t we still do this with chemical peels and other kinds of non-surgical cosmetic treatments? At least in Mrs. Corlyon’s recipe, the patient has sufficient beer to drink to lessen the pain.


How to Translate a Recipe

By Sietske Fransen

Have you ever tried to use a recipe in another language, for example from a foreign language cookbook or the internet? If so, then you probably have struggled with identifying some of the ingredients. Personally, I seem to have an eternal problem with cumin, in other languages, that is. As it is ‘komijn’ in Dutch, and ‘cumin’ in English, it always traps me that the German ‘Kümmel’ is not the thing I am looking for. Even more confusingly, Kümmel seeds looks very similar to cumin seeds, and you find ‘Kümmel’ in German supermarkets as easy as cumin/komijn in English and Dutch ones. But ‘Kümmel’ is in English ‘caraway’ and in Dutch ‘karwij’, whereas the German word for ‘cumin’ is ‘Kreuzkümmel’. And although I knew it was one of those false friends, I did accidentally buy ‘Kümmel’ instead of ‘Kreuzkümmel’ a few weeks ago…






This is just an example to show that there can be problems with finding the right translation for an ingredient when read in a foreign language. On top of the problem of identification, one might also encounter problems with finding the actual ingredients in a foreign supermarket once you have found the right translation of the word (in my case, it is actually quite hard to find cumin seeds in German supermarkets whereas Kümmel seeds are everywhere). Next to ingredients, there are also many different ways in which quantities are notated in different countries (see for example also Kayla Perkin’s post earlier this month). Fortunately, we can nowadays find lots of conversion tables online.

The problems with translating were not very different in early modern Europe. Recipes for cooking and the making of drugs were circulating widely among physicians, alchemists, families, cooks, and so on. However, the author and reader were not always speaking the same language(s), and translations were therefore needed. How did these people deal with the difficulty of translating recipes?

Many recipes were written in Latin, which circumvented the problem of translation up to a certain level as it was a language widely understood by the community of scholars of the time. However, there was also a long tradition of recipes written in vernacular languages, for example Alessio Piemontese’s Secreti (Venice 1555). Recipes were therefore often translated, from Latin into the vernacular and vice versa, and between vernaculars, as we will see in the examples below. One of the difficulties was the translation of ingredients. In my recent research on translations of seventeenth-century medical recipes, I have observed that one of the solutions applied by translators to prevent ambiguity, was to use Latin for the ingredients, even if the rest of the text was in another language.

As an example I shall show a recipe handed down in the medical works of Jan Baptista van Helmont (1579-1644), a Flemish physician, who wrote in both Dutch and Latin. Due to Van Helmont’s self-translation between Latin and his mother tongue, and the fact that his texts were translated into German, English, and French within forty years of his death, his works provide current scholars with very valuable material for studying the process and function of early modern translation.

Portrait of Jan Baptista Van Helmont; frontispiece in J. B. van Helmont, Aufgang der Artzney-Kunst, translated by Christian Knorr von Rosenroth, Sulzbach 1683

Portrait of Jan Baptista Van Helmont; frontispiece in J. B. van Helmont, Aufgang der Artzney-Kunst, translated by Christian Knorr von Rosenroth, Sulzbach 1683

Van Helmont published on the plague in both Dutch and Latin. An Latin as ‘Tumulus pestis’, which was published as a part of his Opuscula medica inaudita (Cologne 1644), and in Dutch as the second part his Dutch book Dageraed (published posthumously in Amsterdam 1659). Van Helmont described not only his own methods to prevent falling ill from the plague, but he also includes several old recipes which might help as a treatment once someone is infected. Although Van Helmont was very skeptical about the effectiveness of any treatment of the plague, he nevertheless prescribed several sweat potions as potential treatment.

In his Dutch text Dageraed Van Helmont included several full recipes for sweat potions. These potions were supposed to be very effective for driving out fevers. Even though the entire book was written in German, Van Helmont lists the ingredients in Latin with some additional information in Dutch, as can be seen in the picture below.

J. B. van Helmont, Dageraed, Rotterdam 1659, p. 384

J. B. van Helmont, Dageraed, Rotterdam 1659, p. 384

The Dutch additions are explanations of the Latin terms, but it is clear that without understanding, or knowing, the Latin names of plants one could not find the ingredients. In contrast to the language used for the ingredients, the performative part of the recipe is entirely in Dutch. This contrast marks an interesting division between the linguistically restrictive section of the list of ingredients, and the part where we can find the description of the process or preparation, which often shows a broad variety of vernacular vocabulary. In my opinion this reflects the use of recipes in a practical environment. An environment in which I would expect vernacular languages to be dominant over Latin when practitioners were speaking about the process that is occurring (boiling, distilling, heating, etc.) and the tools they needed (the vessels, pots, instruments, etc.). Therefore, this recipe and the other recipes in Van Helmont’s treatise on the plague, which follow the same pattern int the use of Latin and Dutch, have prompted me to question the status of Latin in these recipes. It seems that the way Latin is used for the naming of ingredients has not much to do with a foreign language anymore, rather it is an incorporation of widely understood terminology into a vernacular language.

In my next blog post in December we shall discover how the two German translators of these recipes dealt with the translation of Dutch and Latin into German.

The Acceptance of Charms in the Fifteenth Century

By Laura Mitchell

L0060591 Recipe for staunching blood with cockerel in MS 5262

Wellcome Library, London. Recipe for staunching blood with cockerel in MS 5262, early fifteenth century. Includes the Longinus miles charm.

For a while now I’ve been very interested in medieval people’s relationships with magic texts. What drew them to copy down their particular texts? Did they delight in the absurdities of directions to become invisible or to remove women’s clothing or did they truly believe it would work? Was it something ordinary or something to be ashamed of and obscured (as in the fifteenth-century book I discussed previously)? For this post I want to consider one point that I have often wondered about; namely, when were charms used? Were they the first line of defense or a last resort or somewhere in between? Naturally, for the majority of people and cases we will never know. However, I have come across an interesting pair of recipes that shed some light on the place of charms within medical practice.

The recipes in question are a charm to staunch blood and a non-magical recipe to do the same that is to be used only if the charm has failed.

I first ran across this pair of recipes in HM 1336 (folio 30r), a fifteenth-century medical book at the Huntington Library. In this copy the charm is missing and all that has been copied is the non-magical recipe with its injunction to be used only if a charm has failed. I don’t believe this omission is due to a reluctance to include charms since there are charms and natural magic texts elsewhere in the manuscript. More likely there was a corruption in the line of transmission somewhere.

I have since found this charm-recipe combination in two other Huntington manuscripts, also from the fifteenth century: HM 58 (folios 75v-67r) and HM 64 (folio 23r). In these cases the charm and recipe have survived together:

Here is for staunching blood

The soldier Longinus pierced the side of our + Lord Jesus Christ + with a lance and the blood poured out continuously and by means of the water of our redemption I adjure you, blood, through Christ + through his side + through his blood + stay + stay + Christ + and John went into the river Jordan and he struck the water and it stopped. Thus make the blood of this body in the name of Christ + and Saint John the Baptist Amen. Our Father Ave Maria.

To staunch blood when the vein is cut and will not be readily staunched with the aforesaid words.

Take a piece of salt beef, lean and none of the fat, as it may stop the wound and lay it into the embers in the fire and let it roast until it be thoroughly hot and all hot put it onto the wound and bind it fast and it will staunch at once and never stream on [I] guarantee.1

This pairing of a charm and non-magical recipe highlights just how casually the categories of magic and medicine could overlap. For some people, anyway, charms were not only just as valid as non-magical recipes, but they could also be more potentially more effective than non-magical medical recipes.

1.Here is for to staunch blode
Longinus miles latus + dominum nostrum Jhesu christi + lancea perforauit et continuo exiuit sanguis et aqua in redempcionem nostram + Adiuro te sanguis per ipsum + christum per latus eius + per sanguines eius + Sta + sta + christus et Johannes astenderunt in flumen Jordanis, aqua obstiuit et steta Sic faciat sanguis istius corporis .N. In christi nomine et + Sancti Johannis baptiste + Amen pater noster Aue maria.
For to staunch blode when the veyne is corven and wille nott gladli be staunched with the wordis afore rehersed
Take a peice of salt Beff lene and none of the fatt as itt maie stapp the wond and leie itt ynto the emeres in the fyre and lete itt rosti till it be throgh hote and all hote putt it to the wonde and bynd itt fast and itt staunche anon and neuer streme on wrantize
Text is taken from HM 58. Transcription and translation are my own. The differences between the various texts are quite minor.

Although It Be St Anthony’s Face

In my post last month, I discussed an online course in which students contributed their transcriptions of Lady Frances Catchmay’s recipe book to the Textual Communities site.  Two of these students from Fall 2013 continued their work in the spring, and this is the second post showcasing of some of their research.  – Rebecca Laroche

By Katrina Rutz

While transcribing recipes from Lady Francis Catchmay‘s manuscript, I became captivated with the phrase, although it be St. anthonys face. Introduced among her recipes on fevers, from “An other medicen to destroy aheate in the face,” I discovered the phrase St. anthonys  face alludes to a disease distinguished by a raging fever—St. Anthony’s Fire (OED), named erysipelas today—with symptoms often having started in the face (Horsfall, 533).

Catchmay 184aWellcome Library MS 184a, fol. 26v.

St. Anthony the Abbot (c. 251 – 356) was considered the father of Christian monasticism. He was known for fasting over long intervals in isolation, rebuking the devil’s temptations for twenty years. However, St Anthony’s name was not given to St. Anthony’s Fire due to any encounter he had, but was appropriated by Antonian monks, who were credited with many cures, popularizing St. Anthony’s name and life story. This Order of Hospitallers gave the disease its name—St. Anthony’s Fire (De Costa, 1768).[1]

The fever itself continually resulted in mortality; however, the patient could survive often at the cost of mentality or extremity. After enduring nerve tingling in the hands and feet, the patients would experience a loss in their sense of touch before the setting in of gangrene, leading to potential amputation (Horsfall, 533). The patient experiencing St Anthony’s Fire (known also as Holy Fire) would encounter intense burning pain and gangrene of feet, hands, and whole limbs.  In severe cases, affected appendages were dry and black, mummified limbs dropped off without loss of blood, and afflicted patients could attract both the gangrenous and convulsive forms of ergotism. Ergotism had chronic (gangrene) and acute (convulsions) manifestations. The first was St Anthony’s Fire (De Costa, 1768).

Nevertheless, the intercession of St. Anthony was believed to have the healing power to cure St. Anthony’s Fire through prayer, meditation, and the monks’ dedication. With gratitude, the extremities of amputee survivors were repeatedly offered up to the shrines of St Anthony as evidence of the saint’s healing power (De Costa, 1768).

After learning about the history of St. anthonys face, I returned to the actual recipe. I compared my transcription with seven more recipes on St. Anthony’s Fire. I found six recipes entirely divergent in ingredients, but similar in demulcent qualities, which implies no shared ingredients or methods, but an overall focus on cooling ingredients. Compared to six entirely divergent recipes, finding one nearly identical recipe from Elizabeth Jacob’s collection (1654-1685) (below), seemingly a succedent for the recipe in Catchmay’s manuscript compiled in 1625, was a significance not lost on me.

MS3009_0026_Jacob, Elizabeth (& others)Wellcome Library MS 3009, fol. 26v.

In comparison, Catchmay’s recipe is shorter and vaguer in the application of the solution for her patient in relation to Jacob’s recipe. In Jacob’s, the patient is instructed to wash their sore place before bed then continue the treatment for five to six times. To me, the development of Jacob’s recipe brings up the question of how this recipe was passed on and what it means for women to be sharing recipes. Jacob’s recipe (or its source) develops the aspects of Catchmay’s recipe (or its analog) that needed clarification, improving upon the aspects that already worked.

[1] Lara Artemis has blogged on this related topic at Recipes Project in her submission of “The Reformation and a Recipe Book.”

Works Cited

De Costa, Caroline. “St. Anthony’s Fire And Living Ligatures: A Short History Of Ergometrine.” Lancet. Vol. 359, Issue 9319 (May 2002): pp. 1768-70.

“erysipelas.” Oxford English Dictionary. October 2, 2014. Web.

Horsfall, James G.. “The Fight with the Fungi or the Rusts and Rots that Rob Us, the Blasts and the Blights that Beset Us.” American Journal of Botany. Vol. 43, No. 7 (July 1956): pp. 532-36.

“St. Anthony’s Fire.” Oxford English Dictionary. October 3, 2014. Web.