All posts by jenshermanroberts

I hold a Ph.D. in Early Modern (Renaissance) literature and spent a fair amount of time studying the history of science and medicine. I’m now writing a novel loosely based on the life of Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, a 17th-century writer, natural philosopher, and poet.

I am also the mother of two daughters, partner of a family practice doctor, writing teacher, board member of a nonprofit library, and caretaker of one very freaky greyhound dog.

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PC3o2KgQstA

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.

 

Pigeon Blood Visine?: An Early Modern Eye Wash

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

Close your eyes and imagine a chicken. Now a duck. Now a turkey.

Now a pigeon.

If this little experiment has worked the way I envisioned, when you thought of a pigeon you didn’t just think of a different bird but of a different environment. You likely pictured chickens and ducks and turkeys on a farm or in a natural setting (if not on your table).

We think of pigeons, however, as urban birds, mobbing together wherever large numbers of people congregate. Some even see them as “flying rats,” nuisances that spread pestilence wherever they go (see this article for an example of the lengths cities will go to in order to control pigeon populations).

It was not always thus, however. In the early modern period and before, pigeons were highly valued birds. They were good for carrying messages and for eating, but the pigeon was also highly symbolic, representing grace, lightness, and spiritual flight. The pigeon does, after all, belong to the same family (Columbidae) as the dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, pigeons were so prized that the right to keep them was reserved for monasteries and estates .

Pigeons were also often used in medieval and early modern medical recipes. The recipes usually involved pigeon dung, but I have also found a sub-strata of recipes utilizing pigeon blood to treat something called the “stroke of the eye.” Given the description in these recipes, I conjecture that the “stroke” referenced is subconjuctival hemorrhage or, put simply, a broken blood vessel in the eye.

This sort of ocular bleeding can occur from trauma or just simply from sneezing or coughing too hard. It is seldom painful.

While a broken blood vessel may sound like a relatively simple problem, the physical presentation of the condition is startling. (In fact, I would recommend NOT doing a Google Image search of this condition before going to bed. Yes, that’s from personal experience.)

James Heilman, MD. Wikimedia Commons
James Heilman, MD. Wikimedia Commons

However disturbing the sight of this condition, however, the remedy was sure to be worse.

In this anonymous medical manuscript of 1663 (Wellcome Collection MS.6812/26), for example, we are instructed to slit the vein on the wing of a pigeon and allow the blood to spurt into the patient’s eye.

For a stroke or pricke if it causeth payne:

Take a pidgeon and let hi[m] blood in one of the winges in the vein & let the blood spinne out of the veine into the eye & it will helpe you yf you use it 5 or 6 tymes.

A recipe for the same affliction from the recipe book of Lady Anne Fanshawe (Wellcome MS7113/25) is almost identical:

For a stroke or Bruise in the Eye:

Take a Pigeon, & let her blood in the great Veine of the Wing, & let the Blood Springe out of the Veine into the Patients Eye. You must dresse it 6 or 7 times.

And again, from Lady Ayscough’s recipe book of 1692 (MS.1026/30):

For A stroke in the Eyes if there Grow pain thereby or if you be pricked in ye Eyes by any thing.
Take of pigion & let her blood in one of the veins of ye wing and let ye blood spin out of ye vein into ye eyes and it will by gods grace cure it this must be done 5 or 6 nights, at gooing to bed.

In humoral medicine, birds were associated with blood, a sanguine temperament (hot, wet) and the element of air. Because of this, we might surmise that a broken blood vessel—and the ensuing red eye—would signal an excess of blood to an early modern physician. The treatment, then, would be oppositional: the patient would need something cold, dry and earthy… like tree roots, leaves, or plants.

Since the eye itself was considered to be a phlegmatic organ (cold and wet), the blood of the pigeon would balance the humors. Buttressing this idea is the recipes’ insistence that the blood be let from the wing of the bird: the seat of airy flight would be the perfect counterbalance to the watery mucus of the eye.

The idea that a pigeon would be salutary to somebody suffering an excess of phlegm or black bile, because of its choleric and sanguine properties, is reinforced in this direction from Sir Thomas Elyot’s Castel of Helth (1541):

Pygeons

Be easily digested, and ar very holsom to them, which are fleumatike, or pure melancoly.*

But whatever the theoretical underpinnings of the use of pigeon’s blood to treat subconjunctival hemorrhage, the lived experience of having bird blood spurting into your eye must have been horrible. And, according to the recipes, it also would have been frequent: the directions, though short, are consistent in directing the patient to undergo the treatment between 5-7 times. By that time, the white of the eye would have returned to its healthy appearance.

Of course, the eye would have returned to normal in about that time without the treatment, too.

Which leads me to the conclusion that (c’mon, you know you were expecting this) . . . this treatment is for the birds.

 

 

*I was pointed to this reference by a note by Michael Robinson in the online version of The Diary of Samuel Pepys.

Little Shop of Horrors, Early Modern Style

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

I like pretty words. Old, pretty words.

The problem with old, pretty words is that they can be awfully deceptive.

While (electronically) flipping through the recipe book of a Mrs. Corlyon from 1606 (Wellcome MS. 213), I came across sundry cures for dull-sounding medical issues:  coughs, agues, and pimples. I’m enough of a historian to know that just because something sounds dull doesn’t mean it is, but nevertheless I kept flipping, looking for a recipe to spark my imagination.

And then I saw it, the perfect attention-grabber: “The making of a Rosa Solis.”

Rosa solis: How lovely! Perhaps, given the possible Latin translation of “rose of the sun,” it could even be alchemical! My heart beat fast…

sundew
Drosera tokaiensis. Photo by Denis Barthel (Wikimedia Commons)

I did a little searching. One look at the picture, and I was struck by this plant’s luminous beauty.

Not only is the plant itself lovely, the recipe from Mrs. Corlyon’s book for rosa solis corial water sounds divine:

Take halfe a peck of the herbe called Rosa Solis beynge gathered before the Sonn do aryse in the latter end of June or the beginning of Julye. Pick them and lay them upon a Bord to drye all a day. Then take a quarter of a Pounde of Reisons of the Sonn the Stones beynge taken out: Six Date as 12 Figges. Shridd all these together somewhat smale, and putt them into a great mouthed Glasse. Then take of Lycoresse and Annisseedes of each an ownze of Cynamone half an ownze a spoonefull of Cloves three Nutmegges of Coryander seeds and of caraway seedes eche half an ownze. Bruise all these, and putt them into the glasse, add thereunto your Hearbes and two pounds of the best Sugar finely beaten and a pottell of good Aquavite. Then stir them well together, and when you have this doen, stoppe the glasse, very close, then sett it in the Sonn for the space of 7 or 8 weekes often turning the glasse about in the Sonn but Lett it stand where the raine may not come unto it and shake it oftentimes together and when it hath so long so stade, straine it and putt the water upp into a doble glasse and keep it for your use. And if you please when you have strained it you may put thereto a leafe of Golde, and a grain or two of Muske.

Raisins, dates, and figs. Licorice, anise, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, coriander, and caraway. Sugar and booze. What’s not to love?

Not only is the rosa solis plant beautiful and its cordial yummy, its effects are impressive. Recorded in the Sir Thomas Osborne recipe collection at the Wellcome Collection Library is the following recommendation:

For There is not the Weakest Man nor body in the world that wantest Nature or Strength or that is falne into a Consumption but it will Restore him againe & cause him to bee Stronge and lustie and to have a good Stomacke & Shortly, hee that useth this three time together shall find great remedie & Comforte.

Ahh, I thought, an intriguing and beautiful medicinal!

Here’s the thing, though: old, pretty words can cover deadly truths.

sundew2
The leaf of a Drosera capensis “bending” in response to the trapping of an insect.
Photo by: Noah Elhardt (Wikimedia Commons)

Rosa solis is also known as sundew, or drosera, and it is actually quite treacherous and deadly . . . especially if you’re a bug. The sundew plant is carnivorous. It grows in boggy, wet, marsh-like conditions—places in which soluble nitrogen is in short supply. To make up for the deficit, the sundew attracts insects with what looks like a fresh bounty of dewdrops, but is in reality a series of mucus glands that trap the insect on the leaf.

The insect dies either from exhaustion (from trying to escape) or from asphyxiation from the mucus. The sundew then excretes enzymes that dissolve the body of the insect.

Pretty much it happens like this:

Disturbing Video No. 1
Disturbing Video No. 2

(Yes, that’s tonight’s nightmare sorted for you.)

These videos are both time-lapse; it can take a sundew hours, even up to a day, to completely digest an insect.

This raises the question of whether early modern herbalists knew about the sundew’s carnivorous ways. Was the actual process too slow to notice with the naked eye?

Early modern recipes for rosa solis cordial make clear that the plant is to be harvested during June and early July. (Jennifer Munroe has discussed the fascinating implications of the detailed intructions for the harvesting of rosa solis.) But did the women and men harvesting the plant know of its unique pattern of feeding?

In the recipes I’ve encountered for rosa solis, I’ve seen no mention of insects or of how the plant feeds. I wonder, then: would the knowledge of rosa solis’s carnivorous ways have changed how herbalists, wise women, and amateur and professional physicians used it? Would the doctrine of signatures have changed pharmaceutical usage?

Knowing that fate of the hapless bug trapped by the mucus of the sundew, would the recipe writer in Sir Thomas Osborne’s collection still have recommended the cordial for aid in growing “Strong and lustie”?

*******

Postscript: Please understand that I could not write this blog without hearing the soundtrack to “Little Shop of Horrors” in my head. Then, for fun, I Googled “Renaissance Little Shop of Horrors.” This is what I found courtesy of Mental Floss:

littleshopofhorrors
Painted by Alison Sommers for Gallery 1988’s “Crazy 4 Cult 5.” Image used with permission of the artist.

Thereby proving that one can find ANYTHING on the internet.

Of Hedgehogs, Whale Vomit, and Fire-Breathing Peacocks

rotfling hedgehogs
Hedgehogs from a 13th-century bestiary. British Library, Royal 12 F XIII, fol. 45r. Found on the “Discarded Image” Tumblr

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

I told my children we were making hedgehog pudding for Halloween.

They were horrified.

So was I when I read the title of an entry in the recipe book of Lady Ann Fanshawe (1625-1680), “To make a Hedg-hogg.” (I’ll admit to some hypocrisy in this. Why it would be more viscerally disgusting to eat a hedgehog than, say, a pig has to do with mere custom and perceived adorableness. That and the question of what to do with the sharp, prickly bits.)

The kids were relieved, as was I, to learn that the hedgehog in question was made up of only a few ingredients, and hedgehog wasn’t among them:

To make a Hedg-hogg

Take 3 pints of sweet creame, and boile in it some Nutmegg and Mace and when it boiles put in being very well beaten five Eggs white and all, and so stir it and let it boile and when it is turned to curds and whey poore it into a strainer and so hang in up to drayne for 6 or 8 houres when the whay is runne all out take halfe a pound of Almonds blanched and very finely beaten with Rosewater and temper them with the curd and sweeten it well with Sugar, and put some Rosewater and Ambergreice into it and soe make it up in the fashion of a Hedghogg and put in two Currants for the eyes and stick all Almonds all over the back of it, and put it into a dish and into the dish put white wine & Sugar or raw Creame and serve it to the table. (303)

This hedgehog, then, is not just food: it’s food art. It’s also an excellent example of the early modern period’s preoccupation with making food look like something it’s not, turning the gustatory experience into a visual pun or trick–nourishment for the eyes as well as the palate. Ken Albala, writing about the banquet in Europe between 1520 and 1660, discusses this predilection for spectacle: “a meal [was] a form of theater . . . replete with an audience, stage sets, props, and interludes.” He goes on to note that “if abundance and variety itself could no longer impress, then culinary virtuosity, wit, and allusion take their place” (12).

As the wife of Sir Richard Fanshawe (1608-66), ambassador to Madrid, Lady Anne Fanshawe’s table would have been such a place of political theater, a stage for displaying power, wealth, position, and intention.

An examination of the rest of Fanshawe’s recipe book, however, finds that the entries tend more to the useful, practical, and every day. In this, it is an example of the growing popularity of cookbooks for women in this period. Sara Mueller notes that “prior to the late sixteenth century, elaborate banquets . . . were prepared by professional male chefs for royal, aristocratic, and ecclesiastical households. However, beginning in the late sixteenth century and continuing throughout the seventeenth century, cookery books featuring banqueting receipts began to be published on a large scale” (107).

Lady Ann Fanshawe’s recipe collection was not published; rather, like other early modern receipt books, it was a highly personal and eclectic assortment of instructions for things as diverse as making laudanum, concocting a powder to aid in miscarriage, and stewing a lamb’s head.

But like those banqueting recipes in the published cookbooks, the inclusion of this recipe points to a common theme in early modern aesthetics: the interplay of art and nature. In this case, that intimate connection is implicit in the cooking process: like other fields of artistry, raw materials are transformed by skill, by techne. Mueller provides an extraordinary example of this preoccupation with culinary transformation that highlights the maker’s artistry:

After giving a detailed receipt for cooking a peacock that will look even more striking dead than it did alive—a feat achieved by carefully killing the bird, removing the flesh from the still-feathered skin, roasting the flesh, and then sewing the cooked flesh back into the raw skin—the English translation of Giovanne de Rosselli’s receipt book, Epulario, or The Italian Banquet, published in England in 1598, gives instructions on how to make the dish even more spectacular: ‘If you will have the Peacoke cast fire at the mouth, take an ounce of Camphora wrapped about with Cotton, and put it on the Peacockes bill with a little Aquanity, or very strong wine, and when you will send it to the table, set fire to the Cotton, and he will cast ore a good while after. And to make a greater shew, when the Peacoke is rested, you may gild it with leafe gold, and put the skin upon the same gold, which may be spiced very sweet.'(106)

Lady Fanshawe’s homey little hedgehog pudding was not intended to compete with the grandeur of the transformed (and reformed) peacock described here, but as disparate as they are, the two dishes share an emphasis on transfiguration and display.

As for our little hedgehog pudding, the kids and I agreed that we would leave out the ambergris. None of us wanted to hunt down a source for expensive whale vomit, which in any case is for the best. I’ve since learned that it’s illegal to possess ambergris in the United States. I bought some rosewater at a local Lebanese restaurant/store, and I cooked up the curds and whey while the kids were at school. Our final creation was a bit squat, a bit formless, but identifiable as a hedgehog. It tasted sweet, the rosewater a faint scent that I imagine would have been overdone by the distinctive, earthy ambergris. Overall, it was a conditional success… It worked, but I wouldn’t do it again.

hedgie
Here’s the homely, humble little hedgehog we made. He’s a bit formless, but he made up for it with very yummy prickles.

I do not think we’ll be attempting the gold-leafed, fire-breathing peacock for Thanksgiving. Turkey will do, thank you very much.