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.


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