Category Archives: Medicine

Gumpowder? A strange little recipe for sensitive teeth…

If you go to your bathroom and check the ingredients in your well-known brand of sensitive toothpaste, you may well find that the recipe contains the active ingredient potassium nitrate. Also known as saltpetre or nitre, this naturally occurring mineral is found in foods as a preservative (e.g. corned beef), and used in fertilizer, cigarettes, blood pressure medicines and fireworks. Since medieval times it has formed one of the main ingredients in gunpowder, and it is this connection that has also given potassium nitrate a long association with teeth and gums.

Many of the seventeenth and eighteenth century recipe books in the Wellcome Library’s manuscripts include treatments for gunpowder burns, but some also proposed that gunpowder could be therapeutic. Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh (sister to the famous chemist Robert Boyle), recommended a ‘little gunpowder’ applied in a linen cloth to ease toothache. On one page of Anne Brumwich’s recipe book (Wellcome MS 160, p.83) we can find nine recipes for toothache remedies written in two different hands. One, ‘An aproved medecine for ye toothake’ (approved meant that it worked) required gunpowder, aniseed water and lint, mingled together to ‘make a litell thing’.

Once the sufferer had picked their tooth very clean, the recipe instructed them to push the preparation into the tooth, taking care not to allow any of the mixture down the throat.

A century later, in A Treatise on the Scurvy (1795) David Paterson introduced his fellow naval surgeons to a wonderful, and apparently unknown remedy for scurvy: during a voyage in 1784, he claimed, he had restored the health of eighty sick seamen not with lemon juice, fresh fruit or vegetables, but with the potassium nitrate extracted from the gunpowder in his ship’s stores. Paterson’s remedy was soon forgotten, until in 1828, a desperate surgeon named Charles Cameron, having used up all his supplies of lemon juice, remembered Paterson’s recipe. Cameron was stranded in the calms near the equator and he was faced with a ship’s hospital full of scorbutic convicts, less than half way through the voyage to Australia. He extracted the nitre from the powder, dissolved some of it in vinegar, and mixed some more with vinegar and lime juice. He also added a little sugar (to taste?!) The effects were ‘miraculous’.

For the Navy, if Cameron was right, this was a money-saving opportunity; nitre was cheap and did not decompose over time. In the following decades surgeons continued to experiment with different remedies for scurvy until, in 1840, the Admiralty decided to perform a large-scale experiment to determine once and for all the best scurvy remedy. Over the next four years the surgeons of sixty ships transporting fifteen thousand convict men from Britain and Ireland to Australia received crystallised citric acid, potassium nitrate, and lemon juice. Their instructions clearly forbade the surgeons from trying to cause scurvy during the voyage but if the disease did appear, the patients were to be divided into three groups, each group receiving one of the remedies. Of course, the surgeons often had their own ideas, and often altered, combined and varyed the doses according to their own personal favoured recipe. So, while Surgeon Deas mixed some nitre with lime juice and some with citric acid, and felt that both mixtures were useful, Alexander Bryson gave each group the remedies mixed in a glass of wine, water and sugar. After many of the convicts developed severe scurvy, Bryson finally decided that potassium nitrate was ‘objectionable’. The surgeons had come to very different conclusions about the value of potassium nitrate but the results of the experiment were clear; potassium nitrate was abandoned as useless, lemon juice was in for good.

In the mid 1970s, dental researchers – in laboratories this time, rather than on ships – began to report a strange occurrence: mixing potassium nitrate with toothpaste seemed to reduce dental sensitivity in sufferers.  More work confirmed the compound’s beneficial effects, but the scientists still admitted that they were unclear why it should work; being soluble, it seemed that it should simply dissolve in water and wash out of the teeth at first rinse.

Jump forward again to the present, and potassium nitrate is often used as the active ingredient in products for sensitive teeth. So we have come a long way in medical understanding since women like Anne Brumwich stuffed aching teeth with gunpowder soaked lint, or Victorian naval surgeons dosed their convicts with nitre in the certainty that it helped with scurvy, and yet nitre has proved persistent: these earlier ideas about potassium nitrate’s ability to reduce not only the pain of toothache, but the symptoms of scurvy – a disease so commonly experienced in the mouth and gums – are worth wondering about.

 

Katherine Foxhall is a Wellcome Postdoctoral Researcher in History at King’s College London. Currently working on a history of migraine, Katherine has worked in the past on the history of migrant health, maritime quarantine, and illnesses including scurvy, cholera and typhus. Her book, Health, Medicine and the Sea: Australian Voyages, c. 1815- 1860 has recently been published with Manchester University Press.

Magic or Medicine? Healing Charms in Fifteenth-Century English Recipe Collections

By Laura Mitchell

Charms can be found in all manner of medieval manuscripts, scrawled in the margins or added (seemingly at random) on blank pages and in the flyleaves. Usually they were simply stuck in some place convenient by someone who thought they would be useful or interesting to have on hand. However, charms also appear in medieval recipe collections, mixed in with recipes for nosebleeds or toothaches or different coloured inks. In these contexts, where does one separate the charm from the recipe?  Should they even be separated?

Let’s back up a minute and think about exactly what I mean by a charm in fifteenth-century England. In medieval Europe, the forms of charms and recipes are generally the same. Both are formulas, whether spoken, written, or chanted. Both have an oral and a written component. And both used words and phrases from the Bible, liturgy, and other religious texts familiar to the average medieval person.[1] For example, the Flum Jordan charm to staunch blood is based on the Biblical story of Jesus’s baptism in the river Jordan. Just as the river stopped flowing when Jesus entered the water, so the blood will stop flowing once the charm is recited. Additionally, prayers could take on apotropaic properties – the recitation of Paternosters and Ave Marias for protection or healing was encouraged in orthodox worship and these two prayers frequently appear in charm texts.

For the ordinary lay person there could be much confusion concerning what was a charm (and therefore bad) and what was a prayer (and therefore good). The cause of this confusion can be explained by looking at the proliferation of sacramentals, which were an important part of popular belief in late medieval Christianity. Sacramentals were objects: things like candles, salt, and water, that had been blessed by the parish priest and distributed to all the households. The candles were lit during thunderstorms to drive away the demons thought to be active during storms, while the water was sprinkled on the hearth to drive away evil or sprinkled in the fields to promote fertility. Water and salt could be given to sick animals.

It’s easy to see how this Church-sanctioned practice could lead to similar practices with objects that had not been blessed, but which were thought to have special God-given properties. It was difficult for the average person to distinguish between the two types of objects, since both could be used and manipulated. Users of charms and folk magic were not concerned with the finer points of theology but with the fact that both sacramental and charms had a power that presumably came from God. There was a very fine line indeed between magic and orthodox religion. Magic in the fifteenth century was firmly established within a Christian framework and fit into people’s belief systems in a natural, rational manner.[2]

Countries and regions might favour one type or one motif over another, though. Wind, for example, was more common in Russia, with charms of ill-purpose said to be “sent on the wind”.[3] Romanian charms, at least in modern times, involve the use of both gestures and formulas. The evil eye, while fairly common in countries like Hungary, is unknown in the medieval English corpus of surviving charms. The one commonality across medieval cultures and countries is the dominance of healing charms, which survive far more than any other charm type.

Unsurprisingly, medical charms are often found in collections of medical recipes. Health and wellbeing was a serious concern in the Middle Ages and, if a cure was questionably orthodox, well, that was alright as long as it worked. In these collections, we find charms for bleeding, toothaches, fevers, blurred vision, insomnia, wounds, childbirth, worms in the ear, and falling sickness (epilepsy)–but not for such things as back pain or swollen feet. Scholars don’t really know why medical charms are restricted to a small number of ailments, but some scholars like Lea Olsan believe it’s because there are no Biblical stories nor religious imagery that can be associated with other ailments.

Charms appear in all diverse medical recipe collections, from the household collection of the Haldenby family in Cambridge (Trinity College MS O.1.57) to the collection of the physician Thomas Fayreford (British Library, Harley MS 2558). This suggests that they were regarded with little or no distinction from the non-magical recipes with which they are grouped. Charms and recipes are presented as equally valid and proper texts to read and/or use, but what distinguished them was merely the source of their curative powers. Medical recipes broadly relied on natural means and associations, whereas charms derived their power from the divine, the supernatural. But even that distinction can be too simplistic! For now, I hope it is clear that the distinction between magic and medicine was more blurred than we often think. Most medieval people considered charms to be no more harmful or unorthodox than any other recipe they might encounter in their daily lives.


[1] Lea Olsan, “Charms in Medieval Memory,” in Charms and Charming in Europe, ed. Jonathan Roper (Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 60.

[2] On the rationality of medieval magic see Richard Kieckhefer, “The Specific Rationality of Medieval Magic” American Historical Review 99:3 (1994): 813-836.

[3] W.F. Ryan, “Eclecticism in the Russian Charm Tradition,” in Charms and Charming in Europe, 117.