Category Archives: Bodies

Dyeing to Be Cured

By Ashley Buchanan

Slipped within Anna Maria Luisa’s recipe collection is a small bound pamphlet that instructs the user how to tint or dye white marble various colors. In just sixteen pages, the unknown author details the ingredients, processes, and necessary apparatuses needed to create three different reds, two blues, three yellows, three greens, and even fake the signature black or grey veining of “pavonazzo” marble. While the secret to tinting natural looking marble was certainly valuable artisanal knowledge, it is the last three pages of the booklet that are particularly interesting. Without explanation, the pamphlet suddenly shifts topics and details “a particular secret for a styptic water that quickly stops bleeding wounds and torn guts.” The descriptive title continues by suggesting that you can “try it on a rooster by piercing its head with a sharp needle, and the rooster will heal in fifteen minutes.”

Title page of the pamphlet

The first step of the recipe instructs to dissolve a quarter of an ounce of rock alum in one ounce of “acqua rosa” (rose water), which was then added to a quart of “allume bruciato,” or calcined aluminum sulfate. This mixture was then placed in a “digestione,” which was an alchemical apparatus for distillation that dissolved a body in water or alcohol over mild heat. The recipe calls for the mixture to be heated for an hour and until clear. The second step in the recipe is to dissolve a quarter of an ounce of lead acetate in an ounce of distilled vinegar with one forth of pulverized candied sugar. For the third step, a fourth of pulverized copper sulfate from Cyprus is added to an ounce of “acqua di piantagine.” The fourth step calls for calcined red, or Roman vitriol (sulphuric acid) to be boiled with two ounces of urine from a healthy creature. The fifth and final step is to combine an ounce of strong lime into an eight of sublimated and pulverized mercury, which is “digested” to a clear heat for an hour. Once these five steps are completed, everything is to be mixed together in a flask for sublimation and to “digest” for twelve hours.

When I first came across this recipe I was unsure what to make of it, and its inclusion in a pamphlet dedicated to the act of tinting marble perplexed me. But as it turned out, this funny little pamphlet held the key to better understanding Anna Maria Luisa’s recipe collection as a whole. Recipes collected by women are traditionally viewed as domestic manuals used to safeguard the health of the home and treat commonplace illnesses. In general, and as previously discussed here on the Recipes Project, recipes were “repositories for useful knowledge” and share a desired goal to unlock nature’s secrets.[1] In the case of Anna Maria Luisa, however, useful knowledge extended beyond the preparation of simples and household medicines. Her recipe collection reveals an interest in collecting and amassing experiential alchemical knowledge. The creation of styptic water used the same ingredients, apparatuses, and alchemical processes detailed and drawn in the recipes for marble dyes that preceded it.

Detailed illustration showing how to set up the necessary alchemical apparatuses to create the marble dyes and styptic water.

In addition to highlighting one Princess’s interest in alchemy, this pamphlet also speaks to two important issues when studying early modern recipes from a modern perspective. First, science, medicine, and technology at the late Medici court existed in a world in which our modern categories of knowledge simply did not apply. In eighteenth century Florence, artisanal practices, science (or natural history), and medicine were closely connected thanks to alchemy. For the late Medici court, alchemy was not associated with the mysterious or the occult. Alchemy was an applied science that used experimental activities to investigate and transform nature. These practices produced experimental activities in metallurgy, refining salts, producing dyes and pigments, the manufacturing of man-made gemstones and stones, glass and ceramics, and the creation of chemical medicines. Each of these seemingly disparate pursuits were united by process rather than the specific product produced.

tThis early modern emphasis on process over product brings me to the second issue concerning the studying early modern recipes. While recipes are certainly important historical objects, they are often closely associated with or celebrated for the product they produce. This emphasis on product over process, however, can belie the true value of many recipes. As is in the case of the styptic water. Was Anna Maria Luisa interested in tinting marble or was she interested in better understanding complex alchemical processes that could transform nature and the human body? Thanks to this pamphlet, I now argue the latter.

 

[1] I am borrowing a working definition of early modern recipes from the Recipes Project post, “What is a Recipe?”

A forgotten chapter in natural history: the taxidermy of man

By Marieke Hendriksen

Having written a book on eighteenth-century anatomical collections, I know a thing or two about historical techniques for preserving (parts of) the human body. As I am interested in natural history collections more generally, I also did some research on the preservation of animal bodies, and even took a taxidermy course myself. However, recently I realised that the preservation of human and animal bodies were historically even closer connected than I had imagined. Yet ideas about which parts of the human body could and should be preserved, and how, diverged greatly, particularly when it comes to skin, or taxidermy. Taxidermy, from the Greek τάξις (taxis) and  δέρμα (derma – I am adding those for people who may not read Greek script), literally means ‘the arranging of skin’.

Fragment of an engraving of the anatomical theatre of Leiden University, early 17th century, showing visitors who appear to discuss a human skin. Contemporary engraving by Willem Swanenburgh; drawing by Jan van ‘t Woudt (Johannes Woudanus).

There are a few known cases of attempts to preserve human skins in their entirety before 1800 – for example, there was a human skin in the Leiden anatomical theatre in the seventeenth century – but that wasn’t stuffed, and such attempts appear to have been altogether unsuccessful. If human skin was preserved, it was mostly small pieces, which were used to study things like skin colour and structure, tattoos, or pathologies. By the end of the eighteenth century, the preservation of an entire human skin in a lifelike pose was of little interest to anatomists. Normal internal anatomy would be studied through dissection and the creation of preparations and skeletons, and pathologies of the skin could be preserved by making preparations of small sections of skin. As healthy skin can be studied perfectly easily in live subjects, there was little reason to pursue the taxidermy of man. This is reflected in anatomical handbooks like Thomas Pole’s 1790 Anatomical Instructor (reprinted in 1813), which gave detailed directions for numerous methods to preserve parts of the human and animal body, including entire heads and foetuses, but did not say anything about how to preserve only skin. On the contrary, Pole advised to remove the cuticle from a head that was to be preserved,  as this would give ‘a brightness to the complexion’.[1]

Jeremy Bentham’s ‘preserved’ head is not on display, but stored in an environmentally controlled safe. Copyright: UCL.

However, with the growing popularity of taxidermy – the mounting of animal skins in lifelike poses – and the rise of physical anthropology in the early nineteenth century, there were a number of experiments with human taxidermy, the most famous of which was probably Jeremy Bentham’s unsuccessful attempt to have his body made into an ‘auto-icon’ after this death. Then there was ‘el negro’ or ‘the negro of Banyoles’, whose faith was described by Dutch author Frank Westerman in his 2004 book El Negro en ik (‘El negro and I’). The remains of this young African San man were stuffed by two taxidermists, the French Verreaux brothers, in the 1830s, and remained on display in a local Museum in Banyoles, Spain, until 1997. Eventually his remains were send for burial in Botswana in 2000. Jules Pierre (1807-1837) and Jean Baptiste Édouard (1810-1868) Verreaux created taxidermy specimens of exotic animals for their father’s Parisian shop in natural historical objects, Maison Verreaux, and, as ‘el negro’ shows, used human bones for his models.

The head of the figure in ‘Arab Courier attacked by lions’ sits detached from the rest of the diorama during restoration work. Copyright: Nate Smallwood | Tribune – Review

For a long time, ‘el negro’ was the only known case of nineteenth-century human taxidermy. However, a recent discovery suggests that the Verreaux brothers used human remains more frequently. In 2016, a human skull was discovered in a mannequin that was part of an ensemble made by the Verreaux studio. Formerly known as “Arab Courier Attacked by Lions”, it was restored and returned to display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh under the title “Lion Attacking a Dromedary”. Although apparently no attempt was made to use human skin in the Pittsburgh diorama, these cases show that there was little reticence when it came to using human materials for taxidermy displays in the nineteenth century, particularly when the human in question was considered ‘exotic’. This is supported by the fact that a popular contemporary taxidermy manual, aimed specifically at museums and travelers, opened with a paragraph on the impossibility of applying taxidermy to man successfully. The book, written by the naturalist Sarah Bowdich (née Wallis, later Lee, 1791-1856) saw six editions – the first in 1820, the last in 1843.

After listing the necessary tools and giving a number of recipes for the cleansing and preservation fluids used in taxidermy, Bowdich opened the section on ‘the preparation of mammalia’ with a somewhat disappointed-sounding statement:

1. Of man 

All the efforts of man to restore the skin of his fellow creature to its natural form and beauty, have hitherto been fruitless: the trials which have been made have only produced mis-shapen, hideous objects, and so unlike nature, that they have never found a place in our collections.

Bowdich went on to discuss the life-like wet preparations made by Amsterdam anatomist Frederik Ruysch (1638  – 1731) as ‘without doubt (…) very useful to science’, before switching to a description of a more successful practice – the preservation of skeletons. Given the tragic history of ‘el negro’ and many other violently obtained human remains in museum collections, it is a cold comfort that the naturalists of the nineteenth century failed at the taxidermy of their ‘fellow creature’.

[1] Pole, Thomas. The Anatomical Instructor ; or an Illustration of the Modern and Most Approved Methods of Preparing and Preserving the Different Parts of the Human Body and of Quadrupeds by Injection, Corrosion, Maceration, Distention, Articulation, Modelling, &C. London: Couchman & Fry, 1790: p.84.

Tales from the archives: Green sickness, red plants

In September, 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 post by Helen King on the green sickness. In this post, Helen asks why red plants feature so prominently in treatments for the green sickness. She suggests that the redness of the plants was meant to restore a proper menstrual flow. I have chosen this post not only because of my interest in ancient gynaecology, but also because it features a photo of a copy of William Langham’s ‘Garden of Health’ (1597) held in my own institution, Cardiff University. Time for a little trip to  the Special Collections and Archives I should think.

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

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By Helen King

I’ve been interested for a long time in green sickness, a condition affecting girls at puberty that involved menstrual suppression, often along with some sort of dietary ‘blockage’. The remedies for it, over the 400 or so years that it was recognised as a disease, raise all sorts of problems. For example, in the 19th century it was seen as a form of anaemia, so iron was prescribed. In the 17th century, before that level of knowledge of blood existed, ‘steel filings’ were often part of the remedy, and iron is a constituent of steel. So, how did they know to use steel? Or was this nothing to do with the iron content, but instead about steel being imagined as ‘cutting through’ the blockages?

Langham’s text. From http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/insrv/libraries/scolar/digital/healthyreading.html . Copyright: Cardiff University, used with permission.

William Langham wrote ‘The Garden of Health’ in 1597. It was based on earlier recipe collections, and I came upon it when I was thinking about using recipes to tease out what exactly was supposed to be causing the symptoms – so, if the recipe involved plants that were clearly evacuative, then this could suggest that the cause of the disease was seen as a blockage. Langham arranged plants in simple alphabetical order, rather than arranging the material under the names of diseases; but, as part of his accessibility, he also gave a list of conditions with references to the different plant entries where the reader could find out more.

Langham gives a range of recipes for green sickness. One is packed full of ‘red’ plants –

‘seethe powder of the Keyes [i.e. the ash tree] with Betonie, red Sage, red Mynts, and Magerom [marjoram] in running water from a pottell [= 2 quarts] to a quart, and drink thereof a good draught with sugar warme morning and evening’

Elaine Hobby pointed out to me that this recipe also appears in 1677 in ‘The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight’ by ‘T.P.’ (possibly Hannah Woolley), but with ‘red Fennel’ instead of ‘red Mynts’. There was a second edition of Langham in 1633, and maybe the author used this.
So what’s all this red about? Betony, sage and marjoram often appear together in later collections as a gentle sternutatory. Red sage and betony are used against bilious attacks. Ash keys feature today on ‘wild food’ sites with the warning that they are very bitter and need to be boiled several times before eating, but what was used here was the ripe seed, dried and then reduced to powder. The ash-powder is used elsewhere for the stone (by provoking urination), jaundice and dropsy.

So maybe there’s something here about getting rid of obstructions. But to me, all this redness suggests the colour of blood, and the use of running water also makes me think that this is aimed at restoring or establishing a normal menstrual flow. How do we balance the known effects of the plants chosen, with the symbolic power of red? Comments please!

Helen King is Professor of Classical Studies at the Open University, UK. Her book on green sickness is  The Disease of Virgins.

You can find more of Helen’s thoughts on the green disease in this recent The Conversation article  also available in the Guardian

The Bog Body Shop: a prehistory of personal grooming

By Jacqui Mulville

How did ancient people alter the basic human form?  Without written records we rely on representations of humans in early art and on the remains of fleshed bodies, rather than dry bones, for information.  In NW Europe the earliest examples of soft tissue preservation include a single Bronze Age ‘ice mummy’ (Utzi) who died 5000 years ago, with more extensive information available from over one thousand remains of Iron Age people preserved in peat bogs.

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One of the bog bodies: the Tolland Man, found in Denmark and dating to approximately 375-210 BCE. Source: Wikimedia.

These bog bodies or bog mummies have been recovered from the peatlands of Ireland, Britain, Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, normally during the exploitation of peat for fuel or compost. The majority of individuals lived about 2000 years ago (Early Iron Age) but many have been mistaken for murder victims –  their hair, nails and skin so well preserved that they appear to belong to the recent dead.

Men, women and children have all be found, some of whom appear to have been deliberately killed and placed in the bogs rather than representing accidental deaths.  If sacrificed then their appearance may not represent the norm, but bog bodies can still provide information on Iron Age trends in hair styles, nail care and skin decoration.  Individual in the following text are identified by their location.

Hair

The Suebian knot on the Osterby Man, found in Denmark. Source: Wikimedia.
The Suebian knot on the Osterby Man, found in Denmark. Source: Wikimedia.

All types of hair have been found preserved on bog bodies: head, facial, body and pubic.  Surviving hair is often reddish as a result of changes within the bog, but analysis has revealed a range of hair colours and styles. Male hair was worn both long and short. Long hair was tied up – with examples of the Suebian knot, a form of twisted ‘sweep-over’ man bun (described by the Roman author Tacitus) worn by individuals at Datgen (age 30) and Osterby (age 55-60) or in an updo in Clonycaven (age 22).  The later had a band of short hair surrounding his lice-infested quiff, which was secured by pine resin scented hair ‘gel’, from trees in South West Europe and a hair tie.  There is one example of loose long hair, found in a 16-year-old boy, Windeby I, his shoulder length hair had been half shaved off. Short hair provides evidence of cutting tools, including the use of cross blades in the form of shears (scissors as we know them were invented later), with a range of simple single hair styles present.

Reconstruction of hairstyle of the bogbody Elling Woman, found in Denmark. Photo by Chris Wenzel, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Source: Wikimedia.
Reconstruction of hairstyle of the bogbody Elling Woman, found in Denmark. Photo by Chris Wenzel, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Source: Wikimedia.

Females of all ages generally have long hair, and some is extremely long (over 1.0m in the example at Elling, age 25). Many women have, often highly elaborate, plaits still in place but for a few the hair appears to be loose, cut, or  shaved (e.g. Yde, age 14), and found alongside the body.  There are also a series of severed loose plaits recovered from bogs in Denmark, interpreted as hair removal during a rite of passage (such as marriage), and some appear to be conglomerations of the hair of more than one individual.

Little is known about hair-care; evidence for shampoos is sparse and combs would have been used both to order and clean the hair. Preserved combs of this period are generally wide-toothed and made of bone or wood; it is not until the middle ages close-toothed lice combs were produced.

Shaving

Many male bog bodies are clean shaven, employing stone or metal tools, whilst others have trimmed beards and sideburns.  Few longer beards have been preserved and moustaches are scarce.  Finely wrought and decorated metal razors are relatively common in Scandinavia and Ireland at this time, but in Britain they are relatively rare and it is unclear if men shaved regularly or for special occasions only. Hair removal may have had a ritual significance, for example underneath an upturned pot at a burial tomb in Wiltshire was a razor. This was found with a small pile of eyebrow hair, from many individuals, and has been linked to mourning. There is very little evidence for the management of body or pubic hair, although lice would have been an issue.

Nails

Like hair, nails are also preserved. There are a number of bog bodies with manicured nails typical of those not employed in regular hard labour.

Skin

The skin of the bog mummies is marked by the wear and tear of human life, with callouses clearly visible, but there is no evidence for skin care, marking or covering except in one case. During analysis a male British bog body, Lindow II, was found to be covered in a clay based copper compound which may have given his skin a blue/green hue. Bog mummies provide no evidence for the other historically described body art such as woad painting (as a battle body paint with styptic qualities) or for pricked, cut or branded images of animals and symbols.  The earliest tattoos in Europe are preserved on Utzi, and these probably medicinal tattoos are a series of dots and lines placed on what today are described as acupressure points.

Although numerous bog bodies have been found, there are only about 40 examples left in the world. The preservation and recovery as yet undiscovered bog bodies is also under threat. Peat is now mechanically harvested and bogs are drying out due to human management and climate change. The insight these individuals can provide to life in North West Europe is unprecedented and offers a rare closeup and personal glimpse into our common past.

Further Reading
Miranda Alderhouse-Green. 2001. ‘Dying for the Gods: Human Sacrifice in Iron Age and Roman Europe’, in M. Alderhouse-Green (ed.), Suffocation: Drowing, Strangling and Burial Alive. Stroud: Tempus, pp. 111-135.
Miranda Alderhouse-Green. 2015. Bog Bodies Uncovered. London: Thames and Hudson.
A. Chamberlain and M. Pearson. 2001 ‘Bog Bodies’, in A. Chamberlain and M. Pearson (eds.), Earthly Remains: The History and Science of Preserved Human Bodies. London: British Museum, pp. 44-82.
E.P. Kelly. 2006. ‘Secrets of the Bog Bodies: The Enigma of the Iron Age Explained’, Archaeology Ireland 20(1), pp. 26-30.
Karin Saunders. 2009. Bodies in the Bod and the Archaeological Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Website
National Geographic

Where to see Bog Bodies
Lindow Man – British Museum
Kingship and Sacrifice – National Museum of Ireland
Tollundman – National Museum of Denmark
Woman from Huldremose – National Museum of Denmark

Jacqui is a bioarchaeologist who takes archaeology to new audiences at music and arts festivals. She invented Guerilla Archaeology, a collective of archaeologists, artists, scientists and students who create and deliver events to thousands of people each year. Over the past five years GA have tackled evolution and domestication, the archaeologies of the sun, moon and stars, shamans, death, deer and most recently music – getting people involved in exploring the complexity and commonality of past and present human lives.
Jacqui has published widely on animal/human relationships and insular archaeologies of Britain and beyond.