Category Archives: Animals

Dung? Alchemy is full of it

In working through the Mymer manuscripts, I have been struck on more than one occasion by their repeated references to dung. While calculating his expenses, for instance, Georg Mymer lists horse manure and coal alongside the various flasks he needs for his tinctures. [1]

Like coal, dried horse manure was used for heating. Maintaining constant heat at fixed temperature was exceedingly difficult in Georg’s day as people lacked the help of modern furnaces. With practice, alchemists like Georg became adept at controlling temperature by manipulating the flow of air into their fires and furnaces and by changing the material being burned.  As Georg notes in his inventory, dung had the added benefit of being cheaper than coal.

Fresh manure was also a useful, if fragrant, heat source. The alchemist would bury his flask in manure. As the manure decomposed, it gave off a mild, but steady heat, which triggered a reaction with the flask, known as digestion. When the manure began to cool, the alchemist could simply replace it with a fresh supply. This setup came to be known as a venter equinus (the horse’s bowels).

While Georg’s interests in manure – at least as far as I have so far found – were limited to its use as a heat source, alchemy and dung had much a richer relationship. In closing this post, let me point out   two additional uses of manure: (1) as an ingredient and (2) as criticism.

Dung was mixed with crushed clay to make lute (lutum sapientiae), the putty used to seal alchemical vessels. It was also used as an ingredient in medicines. In an earlier post on this blog, Jonathan Cey discussed how Paracelsus developed fecal medicines in the early modern period. Although he had a new take on the medicinal uses of poo, Paracelsus was preceded by a medieval tradition of fecal alchemy. Centuries earlier, the philosopher Morienus described the starting material of the Philosophers’ Stone as “of cheap price and found everywhere” and “trodden underfoot.”[2]  Medieval alchemists took that description literally and used the manure found all over their streets. As early as the fourteenth century, John of Rupescissa  criticized this interpretation, but the practice persisted all the same.

At the same time, alchemists were warned about searching for gold in poo. Pseudo-Arnald of Villanova quipped in a rhyming couplet:

Qui quaerit in merdis secreta philosophorum
expensis perdit proprias, tempusque laborum

He who seeks the philosophers’ secret in shit
will waste his money, time, and labor on it.

Another couplet gets right to the point:

Qui merdam seminat, merdam et metet

He who sows shit, also reaps shit.[3]

In order to reinforce this message, in the manuscript original, this line is written across the backside of an alchemist sitting on a toilet (garderobe). Some alchemists, as we have seen, really did use dung in their recipes, but for others these poems served as a vivid warning not to use subpar ingredients.

Perhaps the best application of manure to the alchemists’ art was suggested by one of its 16th-century German critics. In 1586, Johannes Clajus published Altkumistica; or The art of making gold out of dung: Against the fraudulent alchemists and unskilled Theophrastians (Altkumistica, das ist: Die Kunst aus Mist durch seine Wirckung Gold zu machen: Wider die betrieglichen Alchimisten, und ungeschickte vermeinte Theophrasisten). The title is a pun on alchemistica: “alt” meaning “old” and “kumist” meaning “cow manure”. In that work, Clajus argues that an alchemist would be best off if he used cow manure to fertilize a field, grow wheat, feed the cows that produced the manure in the first place, and sell both for a healthy profit in gold coins.

Sadly for Georg, who finished writing his notebook in 1571, the Altkumistica appeared too late for him to benefit from Clajus’ advice.

[1] Leiden University Library, Vossiani Chymici F19, fols. 80r-81v.

[2] Morienus, De compositione alchemiae. Cited in Lawrence M. Principe, The Secrets of Alchemy. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), 119.

[3] Lazarus Zetzner, ed., Theatrum Chemicum, vol. 3. (Strasbourg, 1659), 137; Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 25110, f.21v. The image is reproduced in Lawrence M. Principe, “Laboratorium,” in Alchemie: Lexikon einer hermetischen Wissenschaft, eds. Claus Priesner and Karen Figala (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1998), 210.

Both couplets were cited in Joachim Telle, Alchemie und Poesie: Deutsche Alchemikerdichtungen des 15. bis 17. Jahrhunderts. Untersuchungen und Texte (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013), 323. English translations mine.

Additional Works Consulted

Nummedal, Tara. Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Priesner, Claus, and Karen Figala, eds. Alchemie: Lexikon einer hermetischen Wissenschaft. Munich: C.H. Beck, 1998. See especially the articles on “Arbeitsmethoden,” pp. 51-57 and “Laborgeräte,” pp. 211-15, by Lawrence M. Principe.

Writing Early Modern Medicine for Medical Readers

Poison trials on dogs conducted by Landgrave Wilhelm IV of Hesse-Kassel in 1580. Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 177
Poison trials on dogs conducted by Landgrave Wilhelm IV of Hesse-Kassel in 1580. Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 177

By Alisha Rankin

Years ago, in a recipe collection belonging to Countess Elisabeth of the Palatinate (1552-90), I found a fascinating entry: a copy of an official document that described trials of a poison antidote on dogs, which I described in a post on this blog. My interest in that document has expanded into an entire book project on poison trials. Because these trials feel vaguely like an antecedent to modern clinical trials (with many twists and turns along the way), I’ve found that this project has provided an exciting opportunity to introduce early modern medicine to a medical audience. Last month Justin Rivest and I had the privilege of publishing a short piece, “Medicine, Monopoly, and the Pre-Modern State: Early Clinical Trials,” in the New England Journal of Medicine. Just a few days later, I published a blog post titled “Poison Trials on Condemned Criminals under Pope Clement VII: A Medical and Moral Testimonial” for the Sperimento blog, run by the Medici Archive Project. The juxtaposition of these two pieces, of similar length and on similar topics but in two very different venues, led me to reflect on writing history for non-experts, and on how different it is to write for doctors than for historians. Because the Recipes Project blog intends to reach a wide audience, I thought it might be interesting to jot down some thoughts on the experience here.

Testimonium de verissima ac admirabili virtute olei compositi contra pestem & omnia venena (Rome, 1524), BNF.
Testimonium de verissima ac admirabili virtute olei compositi contra pestem & omnia venena (Rome, 1524), BNF.

Writing the Sperimento piece felt very familiar. The blog is intended to introduce a specific document in early modern Italian science and/or medicine, so I picked a Latin pamphlet published in 1524 on the authority of Pope Clement VII. The pamphlet described three poison trials conducted on condemned criminals and was intended to show the wondrous workings of an antidote oil created by a surgeon named Gregorio Caravita. I reflected on the religious and moral undertones of the document, and I included several footnotes with the original Latin. It was a pretty typical blog piece – fun to work on and quite helpful to write, as it forced me to sit down and meticulously make my way through the pamphlet. (I had hoped to find a recipe for the oil at the end of the pamphlet, but sadly the recipe remained Caravita’s secret – although Jo Wheeler included a later Medici version in his book.)

The NEJM piece, on the other hand, was far harder. We had to plan the article out very carefully. The word limit was officially 1,200 (although they happily ended up being a little flexible!), and it needed a lot of framing on each end. Justin is an expert in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, and I was highlighting work from sixteenth-century Germany. That left each of us just a couple of short paragraphs to present our case from our own research and to tie everything together. This is apparently the first time the NEJM has published a piece on early modern medicine, so we tried our best to make it fit into categories that medical readers would find familiar. That meant keeping modern medicine as the standard against which we compared our historical case. It also – helpfully – forced Justin and me to come up with a coherent narrative over a long period of time.

The hardest part – for me at least – was the footnotes. The journal allowed only five references, which was very hard for two historians with two completely different sets of research that drew on archives as well as printed sources. Justin and I worked and worked to get it down to the requisite number and felt pretty good about the result. Then the peer reviews came back – and the editor clarified that five references meant individual references, not footnotes. Because some of our footnotes contained multiple sources, we had to cut out an additional six references. Uff. We simply had to give up on documenting everything, and I learned how uncomfortable that made me. Would historians think that the article was shoddily researched? Maybe, but I kept reminding myself that historians were not the main audience, an important distinction when I had to choose between my archive and an important English-language journal article. Were I writing for historians, I almost certainly would have picked the archive, to show all the great (hard!) research I’d done. In this case, I went with the article, on the theory that an interested reader could follow up with it more easily.

The fun part of writing for the NEJM was thinking about how to make early modern medicine seem something other than “wrong.” We went for the basic takeaway point that trials (even in a very, very early form) have been used to assess drugs for a really long time. I also did a short podcast with the journal, to expand on certain points. I didn’t have the questions in advance, and I couldn’t help but cringe a bit when the interviewer straightforwardly referred to our historical actors as “scientists” and “researchers,” but in some ways that was validating, as it suggested he was treating our subject with respect.

A truly interesting coda was what happened afterwards. Both the NEJM article and the Sperimento post made the rounds on social media. Interestingly, the latter appears to have been of more interest to early modernists, at least judging by the re-tweets I saw on my Twitter feed (perhaps those footnotes mattered after all!). The NEJM piece, in contrast, really did reach physicians. While we did not receive any major press attention, Tweets came literally from all over the world. Looking at this metrics map of where the article was read was really fascinating:

NEJM page views

I hadn’t quite thought about how far-reaching a top medical journal is – that short essay may well be the most widely read thing I ever write. Most gratifyingly, I received a lovely e-mail from a former student – now a doctor – who was delighted to see his old professor pop up in an unexpected place. But overall, the consensus from Twitter appeared to be “Wow! I had no idea that people were testing drugs that early!” In some ways, that is exactly why we do public history – to make people look at the past a little bit differently and, hopefully, to put modern trends in context. Being forced out of your comfort zone (footnotes!) also makes you think carefully about what message you really want to share. And of course readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that recipes can lead you to all sorts of unexpected places!

Ambire: An Amerindian Antidote Against All Types of Poison. New Kingdom of Granada (today Colombia) ca. 1628.

Pablo F. Gómez

Ambire, an Amerindian remedy for bites and poisons

During the last decades of the sixteenth and the first ones of the seventeenth century, the Spanish surgeon Pedro López de León worked at the San Sebastian hospital in the city of Cartagena de Indias in the New Kingdom of Granada.  At the time, Cartagena was the most important port of the Spanish empire in the Caribbean and the official entry of all the slave trade coming into South America. Not surprisingly,  San Sebastian was the busiest hospital in the region. Drawing from his work at the hospital and around the region surrounding Cartagena and the wider Caribbean, López de León wrote a medical/surgical treatise called Practica y teorica de las apostemas en general y particular that detailed his experiences treating patients from all over the Atlantic while using state of the art surgical and medical techniques, and incorporating treatments he first saw in the New World.

The portada of the first edition of Pedro López de León’s Practica y teorica de las apostemas published in Sevilla in 1628. Credit: Google Books.

Salient among the treatments López de León details in his work was his use of an antidote he learned from Amerindian practitioners in the Caribbean coast of the New Kingdom of Granada. This treatment was, in his words, the only effective remedy against the bites of native snakes that, López de León thought, “were worst than the vipers of Spain.” The famous theriac from Toledo, a variation of the common medieval European panacea for poison, was completely ineffective against New-World snakes’ poison. When one of these snakes bit a person, López de León, said, health practitioners should instead use ambire—a remedy he had learned from Amerindian health specialists. Ambire was “a mix of many counter-herbs, tobacco juice and honey.” Amerindians cooked these ingredients until the resulting liquid was “as thick as the egypciaco ointment, and with the same color and consistency.” Ambire was “so strong and with such virtue,” López de León maintained, that if a person who had been bitten by a snake “drinks the weight of a real [3.5 gm.]” of ambire “dissolved in wine or water” within fifteen minutes of the snake’s bite, or that of any other poisonous animal, the remedy would stop “and kill” the poison and “repair the heart.” López de León recommended that—besides administering ambire orally to patients bitten by poisonous animals—health practitioners should “cut and suck the bite wound” and put “ambire macerated with four garlic cloves in a mortar” on the wound which should be then covered. This procedure, including the drinking of the ambire potion, should be repeated after three, seven, and thirteen hours. If the recipe was prepared correctly and the procedure followed strictly, “most patients would be cured,” López de León maintained.

Remedies for “Fresh Wounds” in Pedro López de León’s Practica y teorica de las apostemas general y particular (1628), 160.


More impressively, ambire served as a prophylactic against any “poison” that “one will be given” during a day. Death, one should remember, lurked around every corner in the early modern world, and poisons of all sorts (and not only of animal origin) were a particularly common menace. In order to be protected López de León said, a person should “put three drops of ambire” in her palm and “lick them every morning.” According to the Spanish surgeon, this was a remedy that was highly esteemed by both Amerindians and Spaniards. Everybody in the region thought that ambire was far better than theriac. After all, ambire protected not only against physical but also spiritual poisons. Ambire made people expel the “spells through the mouth or anus” in the form of vomit or diarrhea. López de León himself had seen people that, after having been treated for spells with ambire, “had expelled bones of little toads,” a common description in the New Kingdom of Granada of the widespread bundles of evil associated with witchcraft, “in the quantity of an escudilla [a small bowl].”

López de León’s account of the uses of ambire is an illuminating example of the vibrant, multi-originated, and epistemologically diverse world of early modern Caribbean medicine. It showcases an era of pharmacological exchange, and of challenges to old Western medical traditions (including that of the quintessential Galenic remedy, theriac) on the basis of experiences gained from exchanges with native populations around the globe. It also reminds us of the fluid avenues linking the human body with the physical and spiritual realms in the ideation about nature of early modern people


León, Pedro López de. Pratica y teorica de las apostemas en general y particular: questiones y praticas de cirugia de heridas, llagas y otras cosas nuevas y particulares. Sevilla: Luys Estupiñan, 1628. 198.


Springtime in Recipe Books

By: Katherine Allen

Spring has sprung and I can’t help but ponder the significance of spring for recipe collectors in the late 17th and 18th century. Citations of spring in recipes highlight the importance of changing seasons and new growth, in terms of both health and productivity in the household. As Melissa Schultheis recently explored, temporality was closely connected to understanding the body. Here I consider two aspects of springtime: the prominence of spring and changes in climate for humoral-based regimens, and spring as the season for gathering (or purchasing) medical ingredients.

In recipe collections, we often find information on what time of year and for how long a person should take a remedy, and the two seasons most often cited are spring and fall. In 18th-century recipe books, remedies for the king’s evil, scurvy, rickets, dropsy, and gout were often recommended with this temporal remit. Springtime regimens were used to treat and prevent ailments arising from shifts in temperature and climate, changes in activities, and diet modifications with seasonal food availability (and potentially allergens).

Vegetable Syrup advertisement from the Whitehall Evening Post in Anna Maria Reeve’s collection (MS.2363, f. 64: Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London).
Vegetable Syrup advertisement from the Whitehall Evening Post in Anna Maria Reeve’s collection (MS.2363, f. 64. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London).

Galenic medicine, and with it the concept of balancing the four humors, remained fundamental in medical practice into the 18th century. Spring was a warm and moist time of year, meaning that its favoured constitutions were more sanguine and less melancholic. It was a time of rejuvenation, longer daylight, and individuals were encouraged to avoid napping and to exercise in the morning. Bleeding and purging in spring were also believed to be preventative measures for avoiding ailments like fevers.

Sister Arscott’s ‘Collick Drops’ remedy was said to cure the ‘Morbus Galicus’ (syphilis), among other ailments, when taking in two ounce doses three days a week in spring and fall.[1] Sometimes recipes indicate specific months. The Trumbull family’s collection has a remedy for a rupture approved by an Aunt Barker, which included wearing a plaster and a truss while anointing it with amber oil twice a day, ‘especially [in] ye monthes of February March & April’.[2]

Even commercial medicines specified spring as an ideal time to purchase and take a remedy. For treating scurvy, the well-known patent cure ‘Vegetable Syrup’ advertisement noted that a T. Huckings felt it was necessary to take ‘a quantity every spring and autumn’. Huckings claimed that he intended to begin a course ‘on the first of March next’.[3] This testimony served as a marketing technique for promoting the remedy’s repeated use.

Spring was also an important season for making medicine. Previous posts on gathering ingredients have discussed the significance of gathering herbal ingredients in spring or early summer when they are available, and also while they are young and have stronger medicinal properties.

Pilewort. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Pilewort. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Elizabeth Jenner’s recipe ‘to make Green oyntment’ for conditions like burns used pilewort which, ‘in A forward Spring’ you can ‘get it ye end of April wn ye Green leafe is Something like A Scurvy Grass leaf & bares A yallow flower like A Crasie’.[4] The Tyrrell family’s collection similarly has a wound drink listing 23 herbs to be ‘gathered in May to keep all the year’. The herbs were ‘not good after they are a yeare old, & after two yeares stark nought’.[5] One eye remedy even went as far as specifying that the ‘briony [bryony] must be taken up ye 10th of march’.[6]

Animals too were collected in spring. This is likely because animals were more active in spring, and juveniles (with their stronger medicinal properties) were also available. To make worm powder for treating colic and convulsions 14-15 worms were to be collected, and April and May were ‘the best time for making this’.[7] Another remedy for convulsions was a powder made of moles, ‘to be made only in March & September’.[8] Indicating that ‘a dead Mole is good for nothing, you must cut the throat alive’, suggests that this remedy was best prepared in the months when the moles were most active and also medicinally efficacious.

Mole Powder for Convulsion Fits in an anonymous collection (D-LO/6/17/112, f. 2. Image Credit: Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies).
Mole Powder for Convulsion Fits in an anonymous collection (D-LO/6/17/112, f. 2. Image Credit: Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies).

Spring was an industrious time in 18th century English households. It was a time to be pro-active in preventing illness through regimens of medicine, exercise and diet, particularly as the social and agricultural seasons approached. The environment’s influence on the body was a feature of 18th century healthcare, and remedies both made and purchased were tied to the centrality of self-management in changing seasons. Forward planning was also clearly necessary to source plant and animal-based ingredients and to create medicines. Recipe books hence usefully document spring as a productive time for household and health management.

[1] MS.981, f. 138. Wellcome Library, London.
[2] Add.72619, f. 114. British Library.
[3] MS.2363, f. 64. Wellcome Library, London.
[4] MS.3029, f. 50. Wellcome Library, London.
[5] MS.7822, f. 11r.-11v. Wellcome Library, London.
[6] MS.27466, f. 85. British Library.
[7] Add.72619, f. 115v. British Library.
[8] D-LO/6/17/112, f. 2. Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies.