Category Archives: Early Modern

The Wonders of Unicorn Horns: Preventions and Cures for Poisoning

Johanna St John’s Book, Credit: Wellcome Library, London

In Johanna St. John’s recipe book, the mysterious “Banister’s Powder by Dr Bates” lay nestled between the equally intriguing “Mrs Archers way of makeing My Lady Kents Powder” and the beginning of the letter “R” section of St. John’s efficiently organized recipe book. There is no indication what type of recipe this “Banister’s Powder” was, besides a powder, or what it’s intended use was. Following several pages of recipes for “pox” and “pills” this “Powder” is the tail end of St. John’s letter “P” section, however, even knowing this context offers little information. An analysis of the “Banister’s Powder” ingredients suggests a link between St. John’s early modern medicinal recipes and the presence of magical beliefs associated with medicine in the early modern period.

The first three ingredients required to make the “Banister’s Powder” are: powdered Unicorn horn, east bezoars, and the “bones” of a stag’s heart. Each of these ingredients had longstanding associations with the belief they were capable of preventing or countering the effects of poisoning. To a modern eye, these appear strange items to reside alongside many complicated recipes which rely on an expansive knowledge of medicinal, rather than magical, properties. These ingredients indicate that magical beliefs remained acceptable practices among home practitioners in the early modern period. This is possibly because the science to disprove them was not advanced and medical practitioners were only beginning to be skeptical and move away from such unreliable remedies.

The prevention and cure of poisoning was a genuine concern before and throughout the early modern period. It was quite common to be bitten or stung, to consume poisonous berries, roots, or herbs, or to believe a spell had been cast by a witch (Jackson, 96). It was also common for physicians to diagnose poison as the cause when they could not determine the source of an ailment (Auble, 17). This led to the necessity for remedies to detect, prevent and cure poisoning.

Rhinoceros Horn Vessel, Credit: Wellcome Library, London


Pharmacy sign, Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Unicorn horns were actually believed to come from the mythical creature and possess its symbolic purity and strength, though they were most often a narwhal tooth or powdered rhinoceros horn. The horns were commonly powdered and used in poison antidotes or as vessels to drink from before or after ingesting poison (Jackson, 97). Unicorn horns were also believed to have properties which allowed them to detect poison (Knight, 245). In addition to being thought to detect, prevent or cure the effects of poison, the horns were also thought to strengthen your heart, relieve headaches, resist the plague and pestilence, expel measles and small pox, and cure “falling sickness” in children (Brockbank, 3) all of which were reoccurring ailments in the early modern period.


Bezoar stones were solid masses from the intestines of goats, sheep or deer that were primarily believed to detect poisons but also, in some cases thought to provide a cure if small amounts of the stone were consumed. “Oriental” or “East” Bezoars, as St. John called for, were the most valuable type which came from a Persian wild goat (Jackson, 97). It was occasionally consumed, but more commonly mounted on a chain and dipped in to drinks to nullify the effects of poison if there was any (Jackson, 97). Queen Elizabeth I reportedly kept one “sett in golde hanging at a little Bracelett … The most parte of this stone being spent” indicating the Queen mounted and consumed her stone (Auble, 18).

Mounted Bezoar Stone, Credit: Wolfgang Sauber

The belief in the magical powers of the “bones” from a stag’s heart originates from a folk tale. The tale is that stags ate poisonous snakes by sniffing them out of holes and then after which they rushed to drink water. The “bones” in their heart were believed to be what protected the stags from being poisoned. The “bones” were actually caused by the degeneration of arteries into flat, oblong bone like objects. Powdering and consuming this “bone” was seen as a preventative measure to protect against the effects of poisoning (Jackson, 97).

Unicorn horn, bezoars and “bones” from a stag’s heart, were the key ingredients to the “Banisters Powder” in St. John’s recipe book. Because of the longstanding beliefs about these ingredients and their associations with poisoning detection, prevention and cures, this recipe was perhaps intended to cure or prevent poisoning. One can imagine the remedy would have been thought to be fool-proof against poison because it combined the powers of each of these ingredients. Although there was a movement away from magical remedies and cure-alls among physicians in the Early Modern period, belief in the curing power of magical objects was still present in the lives of home practitioners such as Johanna St. John. What we would consider scientifically impossible, they were only beginning to discover.

A strong belief in unexplainable phenomenon was common practice and popular beliefs are difficult to dispel, especially when they hold significant symbolic value. Just the other day the North Korean state media associated the discovery of a Unicorn Lair with their new young leader. It is hoped this association would strengthen the nation’s confidence in their young leader because of the symbolic meaning of the Unicorn and its ties to the state’s history. This example illustrates that a belief in the symbolic power of an object, like a Unicorn or its horn, bezoars, or “bones” from a stag’s heart can transcend both time and logic, persisting even when its truth is questionable.

Works Cited:

Auble, Cassandra. “The Cultural Significance of Precious Stones in Early Modern England.” Dissertations, Thesis, & Student Research, Department of History, University of Nebraska Paper 39 (2011).

Brockbank, William. “Sovereign Remedies: A Critical Depreciation of the 17th-Century London Pharmacopoeia.” Medical History 8.01 (1964): 1-14.

Jackson, William A. “Antidotes” Trends in Pharmacological Sciences 23.2 (2002): 96-98.

Knight, Katherine. “A Precious Medicine: Tradition and Magic in Some Seventeenth-Century Household Remedies” Folklore 113.2 (2002): 237-247.

Not quite the real thing

By Sally Osborn

One interesting aspect of manuscript recipe books is the frequency of recipes for ersatz or substitution products. This was perhaps understandable in an age when access to ingredients might be haphazard or require travelling a considerable distance. However, it also possibly reflects the desire to do what today we would call ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, particularly in offering suitable dishes at table.

One example is a number of ways of preparing a replacement for the German dry-cured and smoked Westphalia ham, which often appears on bills of fare of the period. The title of the recipe is frequently along the lines of ‘To make an artificial Westfalia ham’, as in the one below, although one manuscript is refreshingly honest in naming it ‘To Counterfeit Westfalia Bacon’ (Wellcome Collection, MS 7851). The process was far from quick, as you will see, although the desired smoky flavour would presumably have resulted:

Recipe for artificial Westphalia ham
Image © Wellcome Collection

Rub a leg of Pork with four ounces of salt peter & pint of bay salt & as much white let it lay 3 weekes in salt, adding more salt every week, then dry it with a cloth & rub it over with lam black, hang it up in a chimney for 8 weeks at least, where they burn wood, when you boyle put hay in your pot with it.

Other food replacements were made, including artificial sturgeon (which was a ‘royal fish’ and thus the property of the crown), made from pickled turbot, and artificial venison, as in this example from the Heppington receipts:

Recipe for artificial venison
Image © Wellcome Collection

Artificiall Venison for a Pasty

Bone a Sirloin of beef, and a Loyn of Mutton beat itt with a Rowling Pin, and season itt with Pepper, Salt itt then Lay itt 24 Howers in Sheeps Blood or Clarrett, then dry itt with a Cloath and season itt a Little more and itt is fit to fill your Pasty

What to me is more intriguing, though, are the recipes for artificial asses’ milk. The health benefits of such milk were widely touted, as in this appeal in an undated letter from Eliza Pierce of around 1751:

I wish I could give you a good [account] of my Aunt but she has been excessive ill ever since you left us and has at last been prevailed on to send for Dr Glass who had her blooded to day and advises her to drink Asses Milk and we not knowing who to apply to better then your self have taken the Liberty to send to you for one. It will be a great satisfaction to us all if you can supply us as by that means my Aunt will be able to begin imediately to drink it. My Uncle desires his compliments and he begs you to send one with a foal not above a Month or six weeks old if you have one of that Age if not as young as you can. 

Other sources recommend asses’ milk be drunk for a cough and other disorders. We now know that it contains less fat and more lactose than cows’ milk and is the closest to human breast milk, and of course its cosmetic properties have been lauded since Egyptian times. However, if you found yourself without a convenient donkey to milk, would you really want to replace it with something like this?

A most excellent receipt for Mock Asses Milk sent me by Lady Betty Cicel, when I was ill at Nesden

Take two ounces of pearle barley, wash & scald it, put that water away – then take two quarts of fresh water, boil the barley in it with half an ounce of hartshorn shavings, half an ounce of eringo root, 8 or 10 shell snails rub’d clean & bruis’d, boil those to gether till half is consum’d, then drain it, & have a pint of Milk just boil’d, & when both are cold, mix them together, keep it for now & when you take it sweeten it with brown sugar. (British Library, Hamilton and Greville Papers, Add MS 40715)

A Mrs Hawkins suggested a slightly more palatable alternative, recorded in Penelope Humphreys’ recipe book:

Recipe for artificial asses' milk
Image © Wellcome Collection

take 2 ounces of pearl barly one ounce of Eringer Root one ounce of shavings of hartshorn, one ounce of Conserve of Red roses then put to these things 3 quarts of Water let it boyl tea it is halfe wasted then strain it, and drink a quarter of a pint of this liquor with the sam quantity of new Milk every morning fasting and at 4 a clock in the after noon. (Wellcome Collection, MS 7851)

Perhaps more than anything else, this speaks volumes about the power of suggestion in early modern medical care!


Coffee: A Remedy Against the Plague

By Lisa Smith

1721, London: The plague raging in Marseilles threatened London’s busy ports. The British government took action, asking a core group of physicians to devise a plan in case the plague reached London. Smallpox was already rampant and the King had ordered a series of inoculation experiments on prisoners. Troubled times.

Enter the impecunious botanist Richard Bradley. (I discussed his interesting life in a recent blog post.) When he wasn’t in debt to booksellers, he made a living from popular medical and scientific writings, such as The virtue and use of coffee, with regard to the plague, and other infectious distempers (London, 1721). He wrote: “At this time, when every Nation in Europe is under the melancholy Apprehension of an approaching Plague or Pestilence, I think it the Business of every Man to contribute, to the utmost of his Capacity, such Observations, as may tend to the Service of the Publick.”

And in the face of the plague and smallpox he offered… coffee. Remedies prescribed by other physicians, he insisted, “are little different from each other.” Coffee, however, “is of excellent Use in the time of Pestilence, and contributes greatly to prevent the spreading of Infection.” Who knew?

Apparently the Turks. Bradley explained: “in some Parts of Turkey, where the Plague is almost constant, it is seldom mortal in those Families, who are rich enough to enjoy the free Use of Coffee.” In his treatise, he discussed coffee’s efficacy and provided (most tantalizingly for the coffee-mad Brits) “an Account of the best Method of roasting the Berries, and preserving them after roasting.”

Coffee tree (Coffea arabica). Line engraving by H. Burgh, c.1726
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

I present to you Bradley’s instructions for preparing coffee. First, he recommended spreading out the ripe berries to dry and harden beneath the sun. The husks were then to be removed so that the berries could be toasted in an “airy place to clean them.” Finally, the berries were ready for the roaster, and this was an important step: the roasting process, Bradley claimed, would determine “the Goodness of the Liquor.” Never fear, though, Bradley had “taken some pains to experience the best Method of roasting it.” His conclusion was that the berries would be heated most equally by placing them in an iron vessel and turned on a spit over a clear or charcoal fire. His personal preference was “roasted in a middle way, not overburnt.” To modern readers, this seems like a lot of work, but Bradley reassured his readers that this process could easily be done at home, as apparently many “Persons of Distinction in Holland” did.

Making the beverage also required special equipment and techniques. To prepare the decoction, earthen or stone vessels were best, as metal spoiled the flavour. Boiling the coffee evaporated “too much of the fine Spirits”. Pouring boiling water over the powder of ground berries and infusing it for four or five minutes in front of the fire would be better and “much exceeds the common way of preparing it.” He provided an alternative, too: grinding the berries into powder, adding the powder and water into a stone or silver coffee pot and leaving the pot in front of the fire for a couple minutes. The liquid was always “thick and troubled” after brewing, but could be made “clear enough for drinking” by adding a spoonful or two of cold water to force the grounds to sink.

Coffee was worth the effort, being the ultimate cure-all. Bradley described its many virtues, which included treating head pains, vertigo, lethargy, coughs, moist and cold constitutions, consumptions, swooning fits, digestive problems, sleepiness, running humours, sores, scrofula, drunkenness, rheumatism, gout, intermitting fevers and infection. It could also purify the blood, provoke urination, stimulate the menses and deworm children. Indeed, it was particularly beneficial for menstruating women. According to Bradley, Arabian women drank coffee during their “periodical Visits, and find a good Effect”, such as contraction of the bowels and toned up genitals. Coffee was not for everyone though. Those suffering from melancholy vapours, hot brains, or paralysis should avoid it.

The reason that coffee would be so efficacious in treating infectious disease was that it lifted the spirits—and those “whose Spirits are the most overcome by Fear, are the most subject to receive Infections”. The correct use of coffee supported the drinker’s “vital Flame”, protecting the drinker from fear and despair. To gain coffee’s maximum benefits, Bradley recommended the following dosage: at least twice a day, first in the morning and at four in the afternoon.

Coffee breaks: good for your health!

Writing Recipes Down

Alisha Rankin, Tufts University

Every time I give an in-class exam, as I did this week, my students complain bitterly about how much their hands ache from all of the writing. In this digital age, they tell me, writing simply is not something they do very often. They’re out of practice. With a keyboard, they could have written twice as much.  It got me thinking about the recipes I work on and the labor involved on behalf of the women who wrote them – although in the case of my ladies, of course, the distinction was between memory and writing rather than writing and typing.

A striking recipe manuscript belonging to the counts of Hohenlohe in southwest Germany illustrates the importance of the act of writing down. Copied into the blank pages at the back of another recipe collection, it begins with the heading, “The old countess of Mansfeld gave these medicines to her son, Count Hans Georg, written in her own hand.” [i]

Scribal Copy of Dorothea of Mansfeld’s Recipe Book, late 16th c.

“The old countess of Mansfeld” referred to Dorothea of Mansfeld (1493-1578), a German noblewoman widely known for her remedies and her charitable healing. Her recipes were prized by aristocrats and commoners alike, and they were even recommended by several physicians. The Hohenlohe recipe book illustrates how much she was respected: so much so that the very fact she had written the book herself was deemed a crucial item of information.  The scribe soon ran out of pages at the back of the volume and had to continue the text in the blank pages between each chapter of the original collection. Every jump in the text reiterated Dorothea of Mansfeld’s act of writing down. The inside back binding explains, “NOTA: In the front of this book, after the twenty-forth folio, continue more medical arts that the old countess of Mansfeld also wrote down for her son, Count Hans Georg, by herself.” [ii]

Note on the back page of recipe book sending the reader to the blank pages in the middle of the volume: each jump in text emphasizes Dorothea’s “own hand.”

If one flips to the designated folio, the recipes indeed continue under the heading “These are more medical arts that the old countess of Mansfeld gave to her son, Count Hans Georg, written by herself.” The reader is led in the same manner through three more breaks in the text, some of them mid-recipe, until it concludes in the (previously blank) pages after folio 65 with the words: “End of the medical arts that the old countess of Mansfeld gave to her son, Count Hans Georg, written by herself.”

Why did the copyist deem it so important that the countess had written the recipes in her own hand (mit Aigner handt) or that she had written them herself (selbsten geschrieben)? I think there are several possible answers. Most obviously, this emphasis underscores the important connection between text and practitioner: the fact that Dorothea had transferred her arts directly into paper and ink tied the document to her considerable reputation. A recipe collection carefully written in the hand of a well-known practitioner was a valuable object indeed.

To return to my students’ complaints about having to write out their exams by hand, their grumbles might highlight a second answer to the question. Writing was difficult. Copying out recipes required much care and a lot of time. To do a meticulous job was a laborious process.  Dorothea of Mansfeld herself indicated that writing down recipes was no simple matter. When an acquaintance, Anna of Saxony, asked Dorothea to copy out some of her memorized recipes in 1561, Dorothea cautioned that it was no easy process. She first needed “empty books in which to write” and thus “humbly” asked Anna to send “three books bound in parchment, one made of large paper, the others of small paper.” Moreover, she warned Anna, “Your Noble Grace must have patience, for such things take time.” [iii] Recipes written in Dorothea’s hand represented the painstaking efforts of a highly respected and highly ranked woman, and as such, they had great value.

A final reason for emphasizing that Dorothea had written the original recipes herself may be a simple matter of penmanship. As anyone who has worked on German court documents can attest, most sixteenth-century aristocrats – and particularly women – did not have stellar handwriting. Anna of Saxony frequently expressed embarrassment about her own writing, which she considered to be clumsy and unsightly.  In contrast, and highly unusually, Dorothea of Mansfeld wrote in a beautiful, neat, even, humanist hand.

A recipe in Dorothea von Mansfeld’s handwriting

Dorothea’s texts were thus valuable both for their outward appearance and for the promise of medical efficacy in their content. As I head off to decipher my students’ exams this weekend, I suspect I will appreciate this respect for good penmanship!

A version of this post appears in my forthcoming book, Panaceia’s Daughters: Noblewomen as Healers in Early Modern Germany, which will be published by the University of Chicago Press in 2013.

[i] Hohenlohe Zentralarchiv Neuenstein, Best. GA, U5.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Dorothea of Mansfeld to Anna of Saxony, June 1, 1561, SHStA Dresden, Geheimes Archiv, Loc. 8528/1, fol. 329r.