Category Archives: Minerals

Searching for Syphilis in Recipe Books

By Olivia Weisser

I have been on the search for syphilis – or venereal disease as it was known in England in the 1600s and 1700s. In that era, there was one broad disease category, “venereal disease,” for what we know now to be different STDs. Personal writing about venereal disease can be challenging to find because the disease was stigmatizing and disfiguring. Few individuals admitted to having venereal disorders in letters to healers and even fewer wrote about their experiences in personal writing. And yet the disease was rampant by the early decades of the 1700s. I set out for the archives with the hope that recipe books might provide rare glimpses into the private side of the disease. Of course, recipe books are by no means private forms of writing. In many instances, they were cherished objects bequeathed to friends or passed down through families. Yet the stigma of the disease created a market for treatment at home. Recipes, I hoped, could offer insights into that domestic practice.

I found a large number of recipes aimed at particular ailments, such as the falling sickness, but only a rare few targeted venereal disorders. One of these entries is from a 1680 book owned by Johanna St John. She recorded a remedy for treating heat and inflammation in venereal sores.

Johanna St. John, Recipe Book, Wellcome Library, London, MS.4338/127
Johanna St. John, Recipe Book, Wellcome Library, London, MS.4338/127

Recipes like this one are few and far between—but why? Perhaps venereal treatments were mostly cure-alls that are difficult to trace to one particular set of ailments. Peter Temple‘s “Balsome for wounds” treated 42 different disorders, for instance. Or perhaps authors chose not to label venereal cures as such in order to protect their reputations. Temple was openly interested in remedies for venereal disease, but he did not always categorize them as anti-venereals in his recipe book. He titled one entry “A drinke to heale any wound old greefe or sore,” which does not indicate a venereal cure. But at the bottom of the entry he added: “I believe this more proper for a wound given by one of venus fayr nimph.”

The ingredients in Temple’s wound drink are also telling. Several were believed to work as anti-venereals, including sarsaparilla and guaiacum. Instead of searching for a particular set of ailments, I started combing recipe books for ingredients associated with venereal cures. The most popular of these was mercury. Mercurial remedies took the form of pills, drinks, ointments, and even smoke that patients inhaled, and they were comprised of mercury in all of its forms: calomel, sublimate, liquid quicksilver, and cinnabar (mercury mixed with sulfur). Ingesting mercury causes excessive salivation, a reaction that today we associate with mercury poisoning. But within the humoral framework of health–in which abundant, imbalanced, or clogged fluids were thought to cause illness–prolific salivation was evidence of a potentially curative bodily transformation.

Caption: Albarello drug jar for Sublimate of Mercury, Italy, 1501-180, Wellcome Library, London
Albarello drug jar for Sublimate of Mercury, Italy, 1501-180, Wellcome Library, London

I found several recipes for mercurial ointments and waters. They were said to be good for treating itch, inflammation, ulcers, fistulas, or “old soares” – all common symptoms of venereal disorders. There were, it seems, recipes for venereal disease after all. They were just a bit tricky to find.

One recipe for mercury water was said to cure “all manner of Ulcers, Cancers, Fistulaes, the wolfe, and such other like infirmities & diseases.” Others targeted the physical effects of mercurials themselves. Here’s a recipe for curing bad breath caused by consuming mercury — one of the drug’s many conspicuous side effects.

A Book of Phisick, Wellcome Library, London, MS.1320/13
A Book of Phisick, Wellcome Library, London, MS.1320/13

This recipe calls for holding a piece of gold in the mouth, not the most accessible ingredient.

A recipe from Mary Birkhead’s book treated the bodily effects of consuming mercury:

Take the roots of marsh mallows gathered in the beginning of nouember and dried and kept till you haue ocation to use them take of the powder of the said roots halfe a spoonful and giue it to the patient in warme milke a good draught this euery 2 or 3 howers for 3 or 4 times but first giue the partey a vomit of a quarter of a pinte of salet oyle with bloud warme water.

My search for venereal disease in recipe books suggests that some authors were ashamed enough to veil or downplay the anti-venereal dimensions of their remedies. More broadly, my search points to an important lesson of historical research: the inability to find what we are looking for in the archive can be, itself, something worth knowing.

From bloodstone to fish soup: iron recipes

By Marieke Hendrikksen

In my research on the use of metals in eighteenth-century medical chemistry, iron has a special place. Unlike other metals, which were increasingly regarded as dangerous, iron remained a safe bet in blood-related diseases. However, up until the early nineteenth century, this understanding was not so much based on a chemical understanding of iron, but on the ancient principle of sympathetic medicine, in which a cure is associated – often materially – with the body part or disease it treats. An excellent example of this is bloodstone.

From antiquity onwards, the terms ‘lapis haematites’ and ‘bloodstone’ were used to refer to minerals or precious stones spotted or streaked with red, or red in colour, used as pigments by artisans and medicinally in the treatment of hemorrhage, or as a charm against injury or bleeding. Most descriptions seem to refer either to what is now known as heliotrope, a form of chalcedony, or more commonly to hematite, an iron oxide. Whereas in hermetic alchemical texts ‘blood’ often refers to the transforming arcanum, now commonly believed to be a form of mercury, bloodstone occurs predominantly in pharmacopeia and is clearly linked to blood because of its blood-like pigments. A quick test in my back yard shows how easy it is to yield ‘blood’ from bloodstone:

Grinding some chips of bloodstone gives a rusty red powder...
Grinding some chips of bloodstone gives a rusty red powder…
Result after adding some water.
Result after adding some water.

By the early eighteenth century, bloodstone was routinely listed in city pharmacopeia as a mineral that had to be stocked in the apothecary shop. Its association with and supposed influence on the blood was implied by its use in recipes for styptics, without reference to its iron-like nature. This does appear in more detailed sources in Latin though. The Amsterdam physician Stephen Blankaart for example described it in his 1701 Opera medica, theoretica, practica et chirurgica (Volume 1) as ‘dark red stone, like the name perhaps suggests coagulates the blood. It appears in long streaks, like wood, and can be split into sharp needles. It is found in the veins of iron mines and can be consumed by rust.’ 

Recipe for 'cookies' to cure excessive periods and bleeding hemorrhoids, consisting mainly of red ingredients. From Wouter van Lis's Pharmacopoea.
Recipe for ‘cookies’ to cure excessive periods and bleeding hemorrhoids, consisting mainly of red ingredients. From Wouter van Lis’s Pharmacopoea.

A clear example of how bloodstone was understood and applied by early modern apothecaries can be found in Wouter van Lis’s bilingual 1747 Pharmacopoea Galeno-Chemico-Medica, which gives information in both Latin and Dutch on the same page.[1] Van Lis gained a doctorate in medicine from Utrecht University in 1745 and probably authored this book to capitalize on his previous experience as an apothecary while he set up a practice as physician in another city.

Van Lis lists Bloodstone as a semi-metal, but he also refers to the origins of its name: ‘Bloodstone has a Rock- Earth- and Metal-like nature. Because of its paint that resembles blood, or because it is a styptic, it is called Bloodstone.’ In the chapter ‘Medicinal biscuits and stones,’ two recipes are listed for cookies containing bloodstone: they are said to cure heavy menses and bleeding haemorrhoids, as well as bloody stool. These two recipes are clearly based on sympathetic rather than chemical principals; they contain predominantly red ingredients, like coral and red flowers.

Ironically, anaemia caused by iron deficiency is still the most common nutritional health problem in the world today. I was fascinated to learn that health researchers are battling anaemia in rural Cambodia with reusable ‘lucky iron fish’ that are added to boiling soup or rice. The small amounts of iron released during cooking ensure the sufficient intake of iron. A vital part of the success of the ‘fish’ is its shape: fish is both a staple in the local diet, and a symbol of luck in Cambodian culture. Not exactly sympathetic medicine in the early modern sense, but this shows how important cultural understandings of materiality still can be in ensuring the correct use of medicinal substances and dietary supplements.

Just one final note–although iron, especially in small amounts, is essential and one of the more harmless metals for humans, an overdose can be poisonous. Like always, the dose makes the poison.

[1] Van Lis, Wouter, Gualtheri van Lis Pharmacopoea Galeno-Chemico-Medica… = Meng- Schei- … / Wouter van Lis Meng- Schei- En Geneeskonstige Artseny-Winkel (Amsterdam: Jan Morterre, 1747).

Harvesting Earth: Where Sustainability and Recipes Meet

By Jennifer Munroe


Dirt. Soil. These terms seem synonymous, but as a 2008 exhibit at the Smithsonian attests, they are far from the same thing. In fact, some would say (and I am one of them) that the vocabulary we use to describe the growing medium, the material beneath our feet, expresses our orientation to it. To call that thing “dirt” is to denigrate it, at least implicitly, as illustrated by the way we so often respond when a piece of food falls on the ground–“It’s dirty,” we say, unfit for consumption, and then we discard it. To call that thing “soil” gives it a purpose, assigns it value in the general context of using it–to grow food and other plants–which also values that particular relationship between humans and nonhumans.

And so, in the context of thinking about how vocabulary matters, I come to a recipe from the Lady Frances Catchmay book with an eye toward soil. Or rather, “earth.” It is “A good Receypte to make metheglin,” about a third of the way through the book. In it, the person preparing the drink, “gather[s] around Michelmas or Lammas” an assortment of herbs: fumitory, fennel, rosemary, hyssop, chamomile, thyme, marigolds, ribwort, parsley, selfheal, and others. And then we get the following instruction: “When you haue gathered thes hearbs and roots, make them very cleane that no earth be lefte vpon them” (f.28r). To use the term “earth” begs a different way of thinking about the relationship between human and nonhuman things here. This recipe expresses an intimacy between the woman who gathers, slices, boils the plants–articulated, for instance, in the reminder to “haue care to slitt the ffenell roots and take out the harts stringe which groweth in the middest”–in water, over fire whose temperature she aims to regulate during the process. But what does it mean that she would remove the earth from the herbs, clean them so that “no earth be left vpon them”? Is this a disavowal of the unity of plant and earth, between the material growing and material grown? Or does the touching of earth by water and human hands, even if to remove it, simply express a different aspect of this intimacy?

This recipe, like so many others, articulates points of contact between human and nonhuman that are key to thinking about sustainability. If we understand this contact only insofar as it allows for separation–the slicing to sever leaf from stem of herb, the cleaning to remove earth–then perhaps we are simply reproducing the same distinction of dirt and soil with which I began this post. That is, to see dirt as that thing that is necessarily not part of “us,” of that which is separate from the human world; it would presume that nonhuman things are inherently not “human.” Removing earth from plant might seem to evoke this to be sure. But to have “no earth left vpon them” is only possible by way of the tactile contact between human and nonhuman; and perhaps it suggests that “earth” is not gone but rather just part of another (or multiple) thing/s and that it is intrinsically linked with the human? If the cleaning process uses water, then the “earth” is mingled with water; or if the cleaning amounts to brushing the earth from plant with the hand, then hand and earth mix, earth falls perhaps back to, well, earth. What if, that is, the process of cleaning and removing earth, as described here, details not a distancing of human and nonhuman thing but rather an ever-intimate reciprocal relationship that is bound by circular comings and goings and not teleological notions of here and gone? After all, that same earth will be the medium from which the woman harvests new herbs in the future, the surface upon which she walks to locate the herbs and do said gathering, as she repeats this and other recipes in the course of her domestic labor. And so, to understand “earth” in this recipe as we do “dirt” today seems at odds with the task the early modern woman would have undertaken. Rather, it seems that this recipe, its evocation of “earth,” suggests instead a process of something more akin to what we would think of as a sustainable and perpetual return of material to material, of intimate connections between human and nonhuman, whether that nonhuman thing is plant, element (fire, water), or “earth.”

Note: Transcription credit for this recipe goes to Kailan Sindelar.

The Colour ConText Database

By Sylvie Neven

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Fig. 1: screenshot of the starting page of Colour ConText database

Artisanal recipes are considered to be primary sources in the historical study of artistic practices and materials. Prominent examples of such documents include the De diversis artibus attributed to Theophilus and the Libro dell’arte by Cennino Cennini. However, hundreds of other such examples exist and were still largely unknown. In his 2001 publication The Art of All Colours, Mark Clarke compiled an inventory of 400 source documents, dating from the production of the first artists’ recipe collections up to 1500. Since then, dozens of other surviving writings containing artisanal recipes have been discovered. Many more recipes were written down in manuscript and print in the period after 1500.

The initial goal of the Colour ConText database is to facilitate the consultation and exploitation of a large corpus of recipes. The core data consists of medieval and early modern manuscripts and printed books.

The ‘Sources’ page

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Fig. 2: screenshot of the ‘Sources’ page in the database

To date, more than 500 sources (including manuscripts and printed texts) have been entered into the database, specifically located on the ‘Sources‘ page (fig. 2). In the ‘List view’, the entries are tabulated optionally by place of conservation or edition, or by title, author or date. Detailed information such as the source’s title, language, location, provenance and circulation of these manuscripts and books (place and date of origin/publication), scribes or authors, previous owners, and a description of their technical and/or general content can all be viewed on this first interface, on the ‘detailed view’.

From now, these sources can be searched by title, or by place of conservation or edition.The database also allows access to digital images of these sources via European Cultural Heritage Online (ECHO), or via digital collections made available by external institutes.

The ‘Recipes’ page

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Fig. 3: screenshot of the ‘Recipes’ page in the database

The database also makes the content of the recipe collections accessible at the level of the individual recipes. To date, more than 6,500 recipes—some consisting of only a few lines, others covering several folios—have been transcribed and recorded on another specific page within the database. The ‘Recipes‘ page allows users to consult the transcription of a particular recipe, and sometimes also provides an English translation. This translation may either have been done in the framework of this project or be reproduced directly from existing edition. In such a case references to secondary sources, together with the related bibliographical data, are specified. Finally, this layout also gives access to the specific image of the original recipe text (fig. 3).

Users can search for a specific request by library, source, title or ID number—a consecutive and unique number assigned to each individual source. It is also possible to search for specific words that appear either in the transcription or the translation of the recipe.

Thanks to subject classification, keywords can be used when researching specific recipes, methods or materials. The general search button – situated on top of each page – allow users to combine an ingredient with a specific technique, mentioned in a limited geographical/chronological framework, when making their search.

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Fig. 4: screenshot of the results for combinated search

For example, the combined search for ‘alum’ (an potassium aluminium sulphate notably used in the art of dyeing and for the producing of lake pigment) and the colour ‘red’ shows a number of entries, which can be further filtered by glossary, artistic technique or content type. We can read that 305 recipes are concerned with the substance alum and with the production of the colour red. These recipes are more specifically related to painting, illuminating, writing, dyeing, gilding and metalwork (fig. 4).

The Colour Context database can also help to identify specific, datable practices and materials. For example, we have observed that a significant number of procedures involving anthocyanin colourants (obtained from the juice of flowers and berries, such as poppies, cornflowers or blueberries) are specifically described within a certain group of manuscripts. More precisely these texts were written in the south of Germany and the north of France between 1400 and 1560.

The ‘Glossary’ page

The database also includes a complete list of the ingredients and substances mentioned in the recipes, indexed both by their current scientific name (‘Current names’) and by the ‘historical’ terms precisely as they are written in the source texts (‘Historical names’). Objects and materials are linked by relational tables that allow the retrieval of all the different historical names used for one particular material—detailing the historical written context—as well as enabling the user to see the various materials that may be related to a specific name.

These lists notably shed light on the diversity of colour names and the complexity of the varied colour terminology used in artisanal recipes. For example, the puzzling denomination ‘red of Paris’ relates to several different substances. In the Illuminier Buch von Valentin Boltz von Ruffach (first edition dated of 1549), it is used to designate a red pigment obtained from brazil wood (Caesalpinia sappan Linn. or Caesalpinia echinata Lamarck). However, other sources make a distinction between Paris red and the red pigment obtained from brazil wood by recommending the use of either the former substance or the latter (‘Ein guot röselin oder pfirsÿg bluot Nu nim presilgen oder paris rot’, Colmarer Kunstbuch, pp. 124-125, recipe 35). In Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. Germ. 489 [252], ‘Paris rot’ is a colour made from brazil wood and an unspecified lake called ‘Lacta’. Within this same manuscript, recipe [391] describes the preparation of ‘Rotenn Paris’ from a lake. It has therefore been hypothesized that this appellation was used as a way to distinguish a specific hue.

For more information on the Colour ConText database, see my recent MPIWG feature story, Colours and Their Context.