Searching for Syphilis in Recipe Books

By Olivia Weisser

I have been on the search for syphilis – or venereal disease as it was known in England in the 1600s and 1700s. In that era, there was one broad disease category, “venereal disease,” for what we know now to be different STDs. Personal writing about venereal disease can be challenging to find because the disease was stigmatizing and disfiguring. Few individuals admitted to having venereal disorders in letters to healers and even fewer wrote about their experiences in personal writing. And yet the disease was rampant by the early decades of the 1700s. I set out for the archives with the hope that recipe books might provide rare glimpses into the private side of the disease. Of course, recipe books are by no means private forms of writing. In many instances, they were cherished objects bequeathed to friends or passed down through families. Yet the stigma of the disease created a market for treatment at home. Recipes, I hoped, could offer insights into that domestic practice.

I found a large number of recipes aimed at particular ailments, such as the falling sickness, but only a rare few targeted venereal disorders. One of these entries is from a 1680 book owned by Johanna St John. She recorded a remedy for treating heat and inflammation in venereal sores.

Johanna St. John, Recipe Book, Wellcome Library, London, MS.4338/127
Johanna St. John, Recipe Book, Wellcome Library, London, MS.4338/127

Recipes like this one are few and far between—but why? Perhaps venereal treatments were mostly cure-alls that are difficult to trace to one particular set of ailments. Peter Temple‘s “Balsome for wounds” treated 42 different disorders, for instance. Or perhaps authors chose not to label venereal cures as such in order to protect their reputations. Temple was openly interested in remedies for venereal disease, but he did not always categorize them as anti-venereals in his recipe book. He titled one entry “A drinke to heale any wound old greefe or sore,” which does not indicate a venereal cure. But at the bottom of the entry he added: “I believe this more proper for a wound given by one of venus fayr nimph.”

The ingredients in Temple’s wound drink are also telling. Several were believed to work as anti-venereals, including sarsaparilla and guaiacum. Instead of searching for a particular set of ailments, I started combing recipe books for ingredients associated with venereal cures. The most popular of these was mercury. Mercurial remedies took the form of pills, drinks, ointments, and even smoke that patients inhaled, and they were comprised of mercury in all of its forms: calomel, sublimate, liquid quicksilver, and cinnabar (mercury mixed with sulfur). Ingesting mercury causes excessive salivation, a reaction that today we associate with mercury poisoning. But within the humoral framework of health–in which abundant, imbalanced, or clogged fluids were thought to cause illness–prolific salivation was evidence of a potentially curative bodily transformation.

Caption: Albarello drug jar for Sublimate of Mercury, Italy, 1501-180, Wellcome Library, London
Albarello drug jar for Sublimate of Mercury, Italy, 1501-180, Wellcome Library, London

I found several recipes for mercurial ointments and waters. They were said to be good for treating itch, inflammation, ulcers, fistulas, or “old soares” – all common symptoms of venereal disorders. There were, it seems, recipes for venereal disease after all. They were just a bit tricky to find.

One recipe for mercury water was said to cure “all manner of Ulcers, Cancers, Fistulaes, the wolfe, and such other like infirmities & diseases.” Others targeted the physical effects of mercurials themselves. Here’s a recipe for curing bad breath caused by consuming mercury — one of the drug’s many conspicuous side effects.

A Book of Phisick, Wellcome Library, London, MS.1320/13
A Book of Phisick, Wellcome Library, London, MS.1320/13

This recipe calls for holding a piece of gold in the mouth, not the most accessible ingredient.

A recipe from Mary Birkhead’s book treated the bodily effects of consuming mercury:

Take the roots of marsh mallows gathered in the beginning of nouember and dried and kept till you haue ocation to use them take of the powder of the said roots halfe a spoonful and giue it to the patient in warme milke a good draught this euery 2 or 3 howers for 3 or 4 times but first giue the partey a vomit of a quarter of a pinte of salet oyle with bloud warme water.

My search for venereal disease in recipe books suggests that some authors were ashamed enough to veil or downplay the anti-venereal dimensions of their remedies. More broadly, my search points to an important lesson of historical research: the inability to find what we are looking for in the archive can be, itself, something worth knowing.

Tales from the Archives: A New Year’s Recipe from Old Prussia

In September 2016, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 470 posts in our archives and over 117 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.)

But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month, I want to share a seasonally-appropriate post by Molly Taylor-Poleskey.  In this piece from January 2014, Taylor-Poleskey discusses the ways that religious beliefs overlaid the cultural meanings – as well as the baking practices – of honey cakes in early modern Prussia.

I hope that you enjoy it! And if you have any favorites you want us to revisit, please send in your nominations

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By Molly Taylor-Polesky

In the winter of 1397, the effects of plague were finally beginning to lift in Königsberg, Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia). The citizens, grateful that the Lord’s wrath had been appeased through their suffering and prayer, made honey cakes. They formed the cakes into deer, rabbits and people and laid them on warm oven tiles to harden. In the afternoon of New Year’s Day they carried the cakes to their neighbors with the wish that God would bless them with long life and health.

The Lebküchner, Handschrift Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg Amb. 279.2°, Folio 11 verso (Landauer I).
The Lebküchner, Handschrift Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg Amb. 279.2°, Folio 11 verso (Landauer I).

This story is recounted by Lucas David in his Prussian Chronicle (Preußische Chronik) of 1575 (p. 25–7).  David, a Protestant convert, was employed by the Duke of Prussia to revise Prussian history without the Catholic slant. He used this story about local customs to jump into a diatribe against the 1564 ordinance by the Catholic French king Charles IX that the year begin on January 1, not on Christmas. (January 1 was later also confirmed as the first day of the year by Pope Gregory’s calendar of 1582.)

The traditional New Year’s cake survived dynastic changes at the court in Prussia and was still being made there in the seventeenth century, when the Hohenzollern were Dukes of Prussia. Palace kitchen accounts from the years 1631, 1646, 1651-2, and 1655 record as much as 24 quarts of honey being used specifically for “the New Year’s dough.”[1] The court was not in residence at the palace in Königsberg over New Years in all of these years, which suggests that the cakes were not for the court itself but rather were gifts either for remaining palace servants or citizens of the town.

Even when the old Julian calendar was abandoned in the Protestant lands of the Holy Roman Empire, the honey cake remained a New Year’s tradition in Prussia-it simply migrated to the new calendar date. The 18th-century lexicographer Johann Georg Krünitz described a “Leib=kuchen (a variant name of the aforementioned honey cake) that “in some regions, for example, Prussia, was a round bread of fine wheat flour that was baked for New Year’s and either sold or given as a gift.” Krünitz continued by relating a superstition associated with the bread in which the name of the intended recipient would be written on a slip of paper and placed atop the loaf before baking. If the loaf cracked, it was an omen that the named person would die in the coming year, which eerily harks back to the role of the cake during the uncertain time of the plague.

In Königsberg in the medieval and early modern period, the honey cake took on religious and communal meanings, which changed in conjunction with other historical shifts. Ultimately, it was not the date, or the religious conflict, or cake’s role in the thanksgiving ritual that mattered. The traditions varied, but the honey cake remained.

Today, the Nuremberg recipe for Lebkuchen is the most famous of this type of spice cake and it is undoubtedly associated with the Christmas holiday in Germany. The East Prussian honey cake is all but forgotten, but recipes can still found online–and perhaps among descendants of displaced Prussians.


[1] Geheimes Staatsarchiv, Preußische Kulturbesitz, XX. H.A. Ostpreuss. Folianten. Current-day measurements estimated for “24 Stof” of honey based on Wolfgang Heidecke. “Alte Maße Altpreußens.” Altpreußische Geschlechterkunde 13 (1939): 22–23, 53–54, and 92.

Illustrated Recipes in Crophill’s Cookery

By Sarah Peters Kernan

While I was researching medieval and early modern cookeries for my dissertation, I came across several manuscripts that were notable in one regard or another but they did not make it into my final document. In the hope of inspiring further research, I am focusing on one of these books here. London, British Library, MS Harley 1735 is a fifteenth-century manuscript owned by a rural physician, John Crophill. This manuscript contains a cookery (fols. 16v–28v), remarkable not necessarily for its recipes, but its context and marginalia.

Harley 1735 is one of at least twelve cookeries located in manuscripts owned by medical professionals in fifteenth-century England. I have argued that these cookeries were primarily used as aspirational texts.[1] Professionals could learn about the foods they should aspire to eat as members of a rising social group. While occasional recipes may have been useful in their household kitchens or medical practices, the codicological context of these cookeries suggests that readers used the texts to familiarize themselves with what had been served to their social superiors as a way to fit in and excel in a new social environment. Recipes were a vehicle for shaping a group’s new identity.

The marginalia of Harley 1735 begs for a closer look, as it contains not textual notes, but illustrations. I cannot begin to describe my excitement when I first opened this manuscript! Expecting to see a plain text in black ink with occasional rubrication, I was delighted to see abundant marginal sketches of animals, fruits, nuts, vegetables, and cooking implements. While some other contemporary English and French manuscripts contain a sketch or two of distillation stills or fish (and one instance of a diagram for food preparation), this cookery contains tens of drawings on multiple folios. Furthermore, the sketches align with the recipes. Since all of the drawings are marginal and not integrated into the text, it is safe to assume that they were added after the cookery was copied.

Harley 1735, fol. 18r contains sketches of a dog, swan, rabbits, and grains of wheat. http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=harley_ms_1735_f018r. (c)British Library Board Harley MS 1735
Harley 1735, fol. 18r contains sketches of a dog, swan, rabbits, and grains of wheat. http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=harley_ms_1735_f018r. (c)British Library Board Harley MS 1735

While there are marginal sketches in other texts in the same manuscript, it is difficult to say with certainty that Crophill himself added the sketches. None of the images depict cooking actions or processes, but all of the drawings refer to ingredients in the recipes or an implement required to carry out the recipe. There is one exception: a sketch of a dog appears on a leaf with recipes for “Chaudon sauȝ of swannes,” “Amydoun,” and “Conyes in graue.”[2] The dog appears to be an illustrative accompaniment to sketches of a swan or rabbits in the same margin, visually chasing these necessary ingredients.

Harley 1735, fol. 25r contains sketches of several cooking implements and ingredients.. http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=harley_ms_1735_f025r. (c)British Library Board Harley MS 1735
Harley 1735, fol. 25r contains sketches of several cooking implements and ingredients. http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=harley_ms_1735_f025r. (c)British Library Board Harley MS 1735

Perusing the cookery, one finds implements like pots, mortars and pestles, bellows, and a knife. Other less identifiable implements also reside in the margins. There are fruits and vegetables like figs, dates, plums, grapes, and even leeks! Almonds appear several times, as well as other grains, which might be wheat, sugar, salt, or possibly spices (some of the grains are particularly difficult to distinguish from one another and the recipes contain many possible suggestions). Ginger root also makes an appearance. The supply of animals is particularly healthy; fish, rabbits, chickens, quail, swan, stag, cow, and the rogue dog prowl about.[3]

A manicule on Harley 1735, fol. 21r. http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=harley_ms_1735_f021r. (c)British Library Board Harley MS 1735
A manicule on Harley 1735, fol. 21r. http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=harley_ms_1735_f021r. (c)British Library Board Harley MS 1735
A stag on Harley 1735, fol. 19v. http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=harley_ms_1735_f019v. (c)British Library Board Harley MS 1735
A stag on Harley 1735, fol. 19v. http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=harley_ms_1735_f019v. (c)British Library Board Harley MS 1735

These sketches in the margins of Harley 1735 problematize my conclusion that the cookery was primarily an aspirational text. At first glance, the number of sketches, especially manicules, might seem to indicate that the book was regularly referenced in a kitchen.[4] However, the cookery lacks the food stains and markings regularly exhibited by manuscripts used in kitchens. The artist also clearly enjoyed sketching and may have chosen to artistically render the text based on a preference for drawing certain items, rather than a correlation with preparation of foodstuffs. And perhaps most importantly, some of the recipes accompanied by sketches were almost certainly not prepared by Crophill or his household; luxury recipes like “Chaudon sauȝ of swannes” accompanied by a sketch of a swan, or “Roo in sewe” with a drawing of a stag, were simply out of reach for non-noble preparation.[5] So while this cookery is a problematic cookery, I still believe it was primarily used as an aspirational text, rather than an instructional one.

Ultimately, I am still left wondering why the illustrations were added, since it is so unusual. No contemporary cookery in England or France matches the degree of illustration. European cookbooks did not include copious illustration until the late sixteenth century with Bartolomeo Scappi’s Opera (1570) and Charles Estienne’s L’agriculture et Maison rustique (1564), and the first heavily illustrated English cookery, Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook (1660), was not published until 1660. Perhaps the sketches in Harley 1735 were a finding aid for Crophill or another reader. Perhaps the drawings were created for a more enjoyable reading experience; modern cookbook readers are certainly familiar with this concept! Another possibility is that the sketches were created out of the sheer enjoyment of drawing and the cookery margins were an available space. Crophill’s rural surroundings in Wix, Essex, could have inspired the copious and sometimes remarkably naturalistic drawings. Or perhaps the illustrations were created as a teaching aid or storytime delight for a child in the household, with the familiar animals more akin to a Beatrix Potter tale.

In any case, these remarkable drawings deserve much more attention, and could shed light on a host of topics, from available animal breeds and vegetal varietals, household objects, or illustrative practices in late medieval manuscripts.

 

NOTES

[1] Sarah Peters Kernan, “‘For al them that delight in Cookery’: The Production and Use of Cookery Books in England, 1300–1600” (PhD diss., The Ohio State University, 2016), 64–102.

[2] fol. 18r

[3] Lois Ayoub, “John Crophill’s Books: An Edition of British Library Ms Harley 1735” (PhD diss., University of Toronto, 1994), 24–5. Ayoub catalogues the sketches in the manuscript.

[4] fols. 21r, 22r–v, 23v, 26v–27v

[5] fol. 18r and 19v

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How to cure a ‘headache’ in a Mesopotamian way?

Strahil V. Panayotov
(The BabMed, ERC-Project, Free University of Berlin)

In 7th century BC Nineveh, in an area located within today’s much-troubled Iraqi city of Mosul, an astonishing episode of human history occurred. Thousands of texts from all corners of the Assyrian empire were brought into the royal capital of Nineveh in order to create the first universal library in human history. The majority of the excavated tablets are now being kept in the British Museum, London.  (On these tablets, see this article and this post).

Among the texts transported to the Ashurbanipal library, there were works of literature such as the tale of Gilgamesh, written descriptions of rituals and prayers, litanies, explanatory works, and large collections of omens, or royal letters. Numerous collections of healing texts, magical and medical prescriptions, rituals and incantations also found their way into the archives of Nineveh (SAA 7, chapter 7). Among the thousands of manuscripts dealing with healing, one collection stood out. It was written down in cuneiform by highly educated scribes who carefully edited a handbook with medical prescriptions, incantations and rituals on behalf of king Assurbanipal. This handbook was arranged into distinctive series, addressing body parts in a sequential order from head to toe. Each series had its own name and chapter called simply ‘tablets’ in Akkadian. The majority of tablets in this handbook carried the same colophon (i.e. inscription at the end of a tablet with facts about its production):

Palace of Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of the land Assyria, to whom (the gods) Nabû and Tašmētu granted understanding, (who) acquired insight (and) a high level of scribal proficiency, that skill which among the kings, my predecessor(s) no one has acquired. I (i.e. Ashurbanipal) wrote, checked, and collated tablets with medical prescriptions from head to the (toe-) nail, non-canonical material, elaborate teaching(s) (and) the advanced healing art(s) of (the gods) Ninurta and Gula, as much as exists, (and) I placed (them) within my palace for my reading/reciting. (BAK, no. 329)

The colophon illustrates that this collection aimed to include all the existing healing knowledge and to thus create an encyclopaedic handbook that would serve as a reference source for the royal palace. We might imagine that such a precious collection could have been accessed and consulted only by royal or high-profile physicians.

The first series from the handbook was called ‘If a man’s cranium contains heat (fever).’ We will look at the first prescription and incantation of the third tablet (CDLI no. P365746):

Fig. 1, K 2566 +, photo courtesy of the author with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum.
Fig. 1, K 2566 +, photo courtesy of the author with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum.

The third tablet begins accordingly:

If a ‘headache’ due to ghost affliction (lit. ‘Hand of a ghost’) continuously persists in a man’s body and cannot be loosened, (nor) does it cease despite bandage(s) and incantation.

The beginning of this diagnostic part gave the name of the third tablet, since in Mesopotamia the first line of a certain text was used to designate the whole text.

‘Headache’ in its broadest sense is an interpretive translation of the Sumerian term SAG.KI.DAB.BA ‘seized forehead/temple/brow’. The suffering was caused by a ghost, which originated in a diseased person (Geller 2010: 154-55 and passim). The title of this tablet suggests that if a normal treatment with bandage(s) and an incantation were not helping in such a case, one needed special therapies, preserved on the tablet. It contains extraordinary prescriptions and incantations which were specifically designed to counteract a ‘headache’ from a tough ghosts’ afflictions. In the first prescription, directly following the diagnostic part, the healer had to sacrifice a bird, and mix some of its body parts in a resin of a plant. This mixture was then magically enriched with an incantation:

You slaughter a captured goose. You take its blood, its throat, its gullet, its fat, the rind of its gizzard. You char (them) over charcoal. You mix (them) within cedar ‘blood’, and then three times recite the incantation ‘Evil Finger of Mankind’. You repeatedly anoint his head, his hands and everything that affects him and he shall get better. The ‘headache’ will be eradicated. (modified after Scurlock 2006: no. 113)

The animal substances were charred, and subsequently mixed within cedar ‘blood’. The designation cedar ‘blood’ is a metaphor of the sometimes reddish appearance of cedar resin, which flows out of the tree like blood from a body.

Everything was thoroughly mixed and an ointment was created, over which the healer had to recite this incantation:

The pointing of the evil finger of mankind, the evil rumor of the people, the bitter curse of god and goddess, the transgression of the limits of the gods – in order to continually go around safely in the presence of the(se things), to loosen their curse . . . he is the god . . . the regions, [Enki, son] of the Abzu and his son Asalluhi, [gods … : Ea] and his son Marduk, [gods … ] I … have changed …‘hand’ of ghost . . .” (Scurlock 2006: 39, no. 114a; see also p. 113, fn. 389).

Thus, the magical power of the incantation was transferred into the ointment, creating a potent cure. The healer anointed first the head, then the hands and all affected body parts until the ‘headache’ was gone.

Beside the goose’s blood and the fat, body parts and organs connected to food intake and digestion were selected. This suggests a certain symbolic significance: the suffering had to disappear, like the goose digested its food. But, the cure was not only magical. The use of cedar resin implies natural oils with a pleasant smell. It might well be that the fatty ointment had a pleasant smell, which made the patient feel better especially by massaging it into the skin. Thus, magic, massage, and aromatherapy were all part of this prescription.

Similar texts, and possibly fragments belonging to the same tablet (fig. 1), are lying still in the soil of Iraq. We can only hope that the ancient Assyrian capital Nineveh, which now lies within occupied Mosul, will not be vandalized again, and blown into the air like Nimrud.

Literature:

BAK = Hunger, H. 1968. Babylonische und assyrische Kolophone. Alter Orient und Altes Testament 2. Neukirchen-Vluyn.

SAA 7 = Fales, M. and Postgate, J. N. 1992. Imperial Administrative Records, Part I. State Archives of Assyria VII. Helsinki.

Scurlock, J. 2006. Magico-Medical Means of Treating Ghost-Induced Illnesses in Ancient Mesopotamia. Ancient Magic and Divination III. Leiden–Boston.

Geller, M. J. 2010. Ancient Babylonian Medicine. Theory and Practice. Chichester (GB)–Malden, Mass.

Further Readings:

Finkel, I. L. 2014. The Ark Before Noah. London, pp. 44-45; 60-65.

Le Journal des Médecines Cunéiformes (Link http://people.ds.cam.ac.uk/mjw65/jmc/de.html)

Scurlock, J. 2014. Sourcebook for Ancient Mesopotamian Medicine. Writings from the Ancient World 36. Atlanta, Georgia.

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine