Category Archives: Experimentation

The Early Modern Matter of Fecal Medicines

Whilst perusing some seventeenth century recipes for medicines I stumbled across a few curious ingredients. Granted, many of the ingredients found in Johanna St. John’s recipe book – aside from now common herbs and spices like cinnamon or saffron – might look odd to the modern eye. Some of the ingredients that struck me were spermaceti (sperm whale fat); the sole of an old but clean shoe, burnt to ashes; a crab’s eyes, and the black tips of its claws.

As I read I couldn’t help but assume that the addition of spices, or the use of wine, sugar, and brandy might have best served to make some of the recipes more palatable. But then something caught my eye that all the cinnamon, saffron, and distillation could not possibly conceal. To put it lightly, it was, well, poo. Precisely, for smallpox, “a sheep’s dung, cleane picked”. Clearly you would want to make sure you were getting pure, uncontaminated crap. The recipe goes on to instruct the user to mix a handful of the stuff into a pint of white wine, “mash it well” and after leaving it to stand a full night, to serve a spoonful or two at a time. But wait, there’s more! A note tucked into the margin recommends this smelly recipe for gout and jaundice. Fecal wine, if you will: good for what ails you.

Manure. Credit: Petr Kratochvil

In the mid-seventeenth century Nicholas Culpeper’s Pharmacopoeia Londinensis (1652) heavily criticized the Royal College of Physician’s required inventory for Culpeper and his fellow apothecaries. In his work, which translated the tome on medicine to English from Latin for the first time during the English Interregnum, Culpeper wrote this of a section featuring “living creatures” and “their excrements”: “alack! alack! the king is dead, and the College of Physicians want power to impose the turds upon men” (Culpeper, 52). Culpeper was right, it seemed many were holding onto ideas about fecal medicine. However, while most insisted that ordure altered by the art that was physick was medicinal, some practitioners had more radical ideas about the uses of feces and medicine.

Culpeper’s Pharmarcopoeia, Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Paracelsus was an enthusiastic alchemist, whose writings from the mid sixteenth century blasted Galenic based humoral models that were then commonly taught at European universities. Historian Philip Ball explains that Paracelsus’ particular alchemy “was concerned not with gold making, but with medicines” (Ball, 164). The Swiss magus claimed that regular doctors forced “worthless, bookish remedies” on the sick  “by following ancient methods” strictly for gain (Ball, 165). Paracelsus claimed to have found an alternative to the medicines of the ancients by experimentation, which left him with the conclusion that alchemical processes could render the virtues of nature by separation: “a parting of the detritus and waste of mundane reality from the vital healing forces of nature” (Ball, 165).

Line engraving of Paracelsus, Wellcome Library no.7594i. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

And he just loved manure, as you may have guessed by now. Paracelsus was convinced by his alchemical experimentation that “‘decay is the beginning of all birth’ – and of all health, for ‘that which prevents putrefaction also will prevent health'” (Ball, 205). This is how Sir Robert Boyle, eminent scientist of the Royal Society would come to recommend human excrement, dried into powder, and blown into the eyes as a treatment for cataracts (Sugg, 152).*

During the period of the English Civil War, the writings of Paracelsus polarized the medical community, and Ball argues that as civil war approached, Paracelsians formed line with Parliamentarians while Galenic minded scholars went with the Royals (Ball, 358). Historian Richard Sugg explains,  “Paracelsianism flourished during the Civil War and Interregnum, congenial to many of those who – like Culpeper – practised iconoclasm at various levels” (Sugg, 39). Despite congeniality in iconoclasm, Culpeper wasn’t having the dung. Unfortunately for him, however, the divergent views of medicine both found their respective reasons to prescribe crappy remedies, with Paracelsians and Galenics promoting poop for years to come (Sugg, 163-168).

*Boyle’s manuscript reads: “Take Paracelsus’s Zebethum Occidentale (viz. Human Dung)”. Boyle explains that his recipes are classed by letter: “whereof A, is the Mark of a Remedy of the highest classes of these”. The recipe for cataracts was marked with an ‘A’.

Works Cited:

Ball, Philip. The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

Boyle, Robert. Medicinal Experiments 5th edition. 1712. Gale DocNumber: CW10708275

Culpeper, Nicholas. Pharmarcopoeia Londinensis, or The London Dispensatory. 1652.

Sugg, Richard. Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians. London: Routledge, 2011.

An Experiment in Teaching Recipe Transcription

This term, my third-year class on “Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe” was involved in my research: testing the Textual Communities crowd-sourcing transcription platform.*  The class has been busy collaboratively transcribing the seventeenth-century recipe book of Johanna St John and it’s been an adventure for us all.

Johanna St John’s Book, Wellcome Library, WMS 4338. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The students had little to no experience in digital creation or transcription at the start of term, but in the last three months, they have learned the logic of XML and gained an appreciation for the exactness required in transcription. These are habits of thought, as well as useful skills.

The Textual Communities site was by no means complete when we began our transcriptions. As we became familiar with Johanna St John’s book and worked on our transcriptions, it became easier for us to identify what we needed the system to do. Every week, we would discover at least one new problem with it. But Peter Robinson and Xiaohan Zhang have been constantly developing the platform in response to our needs, from figuring out how to implement semi-diplomatic conventions  in XML or to represent marginal notations to ensuring that the preview and submit buttons work. By witnessing this process of creation, the students have also learned much about the way in which digital resources are constructed and the choices that researchers make in both transcription and data design.

We have had to be flexible and patient: research is a messy business of failures and false starts. Advanced researchers are only too familiar with this, but it’s something that undergraduates often don’t see–or think about it only in terms of their own work. When teaching, we ordinarily (and for good reasons) present students with a set syllabus and assignment description, from which we don’t deviate. But this term, we have had to revise a number of deadlines and assignment guidelines as we encountered research problems along the way. Truly research-led teaching!

This is by way of an introduction for the next few posts, which will focus on Johanna St John’s book and have been written by some of the students.


* Two of my collaborative research groups, Recipes: Food, Magic, Science, and Medicine and Early Modern Recipes Online Collective, will be launching projects on this platform in 2013. Stay tuned!

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!

Word of Mouth: Sharing and Using Recipes in Seventeenth-Century France

Dr Vallant’s Portefeuilles (Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris) are a hodgepodge of information, with recipes for gateaux, remedies in French and Latin, medical case notes, letters, religious reflections, and poems kept side-by-side. Vallant was the household physician of famed salonnière Mme de Sablé (d. 1678) and, later, Mlle de Guise.  He was also regularly consulted by Madame’s friends and family and acted as her secretary. Vallant kept track of all treatments that he tried and the remedies that proved, or might prove, useful in his practice. The notebooks, in some ways, have much in common with our modern personal recipe collections: lots of random bits, from clippings to notes. But it is the informality of the collection that makes it such a useful source of information about the process of collecting and using recipes in early modern France.

The language that Vallant used to describe the transmission of recipes is intriguing: several of his recipes suggest the ways in which knowledge was passed to him by monks and nuns, apothecaries, physicians, and laywomen. Recipes were a form of social currency and were closely tied to patronage. This isn’t always explicit in English, but emerges more clearly in the formality of French. The Duchess of Orléans, for example, seems to have been the originating point for a couple recipes. Mme de la Haye (wife of the Duchess’ apothecary) ‘gave’ a cure for the sciatica, while Mme la Ursée (the Orléans’ governess) ‘shared’ a small pox remedy. The language here suggests that these recipes were gifts of the Duchess.

The reliance on oral knowledge is also striking. Vallant regularly noted that recipes had been passed verbally to him. Various people ‘told’ him their remedies, which he then entered into his notebooks. Mme la Norrice, for example, ‘said’ that after trying many remedies for toothaches she found ease only by putting cold water in her ear. Physician Mr Belay was a particularly frequent source of oral information. He ‘told’ Vallant a remedy for the ‘colours’ [vaginal flows] in 1676 and ‘discussed’ several for blood loss in 1681.

Recipes also took winding routes before ending up in Vallant’s possession. Belay ‘told’ Vallant a remedy for the stone that had been passed to him by Mr de Fromont, secretary to the Duke of Orléans, who had it in turn passed it to him. Belay had used the recipe with great success in treating a mutual patient, Mme de Guise. Vallant also included in his collection occasional recipes from print sources, listing some from Mme Fouquet’s famous book and keeping a cut-out excerpt for Mme Ledran’s balm and unguent.

Madame de Sable (Source: Wikipedia Commons) 

The Marquise de Sablé was condemned by historian André Crussaire as a hypochondriac (Un Médecin au XVIIe Siècle le Docteur Vallant: Une Malade Imaginaire, Mme de Sablé, Paris, 1910), partly because she kept a household physician and partly because so much of the notebooks and correspondence focus on health. But a close inspection reveals that much of the collection was Vallant’s attempt to keep track of his growing medical practice by writing down his successful cures. Under the heading ‘Escrouelles’ (King’s Evil, or scrofula), for example, he provided his case notes and recipe used to cure a thirty-six year old woman.

Elsewhere in the Portefeuilles, it is difficult to distinguish between what is purely Vallant’s or Mme de Sablé’s. In one section, there are several remedies for eye problems; it is perhaps no coincidence that Mme de Sablé suffered from eye trouble.  Three letters were addressed to Madame directly. All eye remedies were sent by friends: Abbé Charrier, Mme Daumon, the Marquis de la Motte, Countess d’Orche, Mr Chartier, Mme de St Ange and Mlle de Vertie. But was this primarily for her use, or for her physician?

Maybe both.

The books were kept as a practical source of working knowledge for both doctor and patron. The care taken in identifying a recipe’s sources and route of transmission was crucial in establishing two matters: reliability and reciprocity. Many recipes may have been passed on verbally rather than in writing, but this was no casual matter. As physician, Vallant needed to know if a recipe could be trusted before he tried it. As patron, Sablé needed to know the precise source of a remedy for social reasons: a recipe gained might be a favour owed… Something to keep in mind the next time you casually take a recipe from a friend and proceed to cram it into your recipe box without a second thought.