Category Archives: Secrets

Sickness Personified: Clandestine Remedies from Colonial Yucatán (Part 1)

By R.A. Kashanipour

“I curse you, little seizures! Whose erupting pox are you? Eruptions on the head and body, open eruptions, internal eruptions, fiery eruptions…” [1] So begins a highly ritualized remedy for fever, eruptions, and seizures from late colonial Yucatán. As I noted in my last post, sickness and disease were endemic throughout colonial Latin America and brought together distinct traditions of healing. As this remedy and the dozens of others from the manuscript known as Ritual of the Bacabs show, eighteenth-century Mayas of the Yucatán were not silent victims of disease. Instead, they understood sickness and infirmity as extensions of the natural and human world. They incorporated ancient traditions and firmly rooted healing in colonial context. And, as I would like to note in this post, healers personified and naturalized diseases to bolster their own therapeutic powers.

Before returning to this remedy, I want to touch on the manuscript source and then briefly make note of ancient traditions of Maya healing. Ritual of the Bacabs is a collection of healing incantations, prayers, and remedies written in Yucatec Maya sometime in the eighteenth century. This unique work, which today is held at Princeton University, addresses afflictions common to the colonial world, including pox (kak), difficulty breathing (coc), and difficulty walking (chibal oc). The devastating affects of disease are often noted as seizures (tancas). Several cures associate these outbursts with their origins, such as walking seizures (ah oc tancas), while others ascribe direct ties to the natural world as their sources, including macaw-jaguar seizures (mo balam tancas) and tarantula seizures (chiuoh tancas). The culturally bound ailment often described as madness (coil) regularly appears associated with extreme cases of the pox and seizures.

On the whole, the remedies of the text illustrate the ongoing revision of long-standing Maya traditions in the face of colonial institutions. In particular, in the pre-Hispanic period, infirmity and remediation were associated with the supernatural world and directly tied to the deities Ix Chel and Itzamná. In 1571, Diego de Landa, the second Bishop of Yucatán and infamous crusader against pagan practices, noted Ix Chel’s centrality to healing. “The physicians and the sorcerers assembled in one of their houses with their wives … they opened the bundles of their medicine, in which they kept many little trifles and … little idols of the goddess of medicine, whom they called Ix Chel.” [2] The two deities, the goddess of the moon and lord of the sun, were bound as husband and wife and mirroring elements of health and sickness.

Ix Chel and Itzamna This rollout image from a classic period pot depicts the goddess Ix Chel (center) caring for an ailing Itzamná (right) and a female healer (left) performing a healing ritual.  The leaves surround the infirmed and bedridden Itzamná most likely represent the purgatives used to induce the deer to vomit. A vulture appears underneath the old god’s bed, just to make clear that his condition is dire.  © Justin Kerr, K2794,
Ix Chel and Itzamna
This rollout image from a classic period pot depicts the goddess Ix Chel (center) caring for an ailing Itzamná (right) and a female healer (left) performing a healing ritual. The leaves surround the infirmed and bedridden Itzamná most likely represent the purgatives used to induce the deer to vomit. A vulture appears underneath the old god’s bed, just to make clear that his condition is dire. © Justin Kerr, K2794,

During the colonial period, local Church authorities attempted to root out any expressed association with ancient religions. In healing, however, it is clear they were unsuccessful. These deities, who were central to the creation mythology of the Classical Maya, were represented as powerful animistic forces in the healing text. In a remedy for a breathing affliction in Ritual of the Bacabs, both Itzamna and Ix Chel are invoked to harness the use of the powerful cardinal directions. The enchanter is to “for four days, shake the face of the red Ix Chel, the white Ix Chel, the yellow Ix Chel; four days he shakes the face of the red Itzamna.” [3] These supernatural forces figure prominently in the background of numerous remedies. They serve to root the cures in line with ancient traditions, which endured well into the colonial period.

The remedies of Ritual of the Bacabs represent a clandestine system of ritualized healing that directly built on past Maya practices. As a text designed for alienating and eliminating sickness, the curanderos that penned the work most likely identified themselves as a special Maya class of healers known as mak ik or benevolent shamans that controlled healing winds. In this way, they stood in line with ancient traditions, but were fully immersed in colonial experience.

In my next post, we will return to the issue of the personification of sickness as a means to frame healing. In particular, we will look how the curanderos of Ritual of the Bacabs animated diseases in order to position them in the natural and social colonial landscape of the Yucatán.

[1] Ritual of the Bacabs, Princeton University Library, Garrett-Gates Collection, Mesoamerican Manuscript No. 1, folio 100.

[2] Diego de Landa and Alfred M. Tozzer, Landa’s Relación De Las Cosas De Yucatan: A Translation. (New York: Kraus, 1966), 154.

[3] Ritual of the Bacabs, folio 65.

A Recipe for Trouble, or Criminal Chemistry

By Lisa Smith

It’s the tenth anniversary of The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913, a wonderful online resource that I frequently use for teaching and research. As one might expect, there is lots of medical history to be found in the court records. The expertise of physicians, surgeons, midwives and apothecaries was increasingly drawn on to describe injuries and deaths over this period. What may be more surprising is that recipes occasionally play a starring role in London’s criminal underworld. Previously at The Recipes Project, we’ve blogged about recipes being used for social or cultural currency, but today, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you an intriguing tale of a recipe for economic gain.

On 4 May 1698, F.P. of St. Giles-in-the-Fields stood trial for “washing and diminishing” two guineas (gold pieces worth approximately twenty shillings) “with a sort of poisonous Liquor” in order to commit fraud. The first witness recounted meeting the prisoner at a Pall Mall coffee-house where “they had some Discourse relating to the Mathematicks”. Naturally, the conversation turned to recipes and the witness told F.P. that “he had an excellent Receipt to make good Vineger”, which he would sell to F.P. for his servant. F.P. declined to purchase the recipe, but invited the witness to visit him, which he did.

During the visit, F.P. told the witness that “he knew of an excellent Liquor that would diminish Guineas 15 or 20 d. each, without defacing the Characters”. The problem was getting the guineas in the first place. Perhaps, F.P. suggested, “if they had a Banker to furnish them with Guineas” then they could wash up to five hundred pieces in a day.

William and Mary Guinea. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
William and Mary Guinea. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The witness visited the Duke of Schomberg, a military man, who advised the witness to find a willing banker. A banker found, the first witness set up a meeting with F.P. in St. James’s Park. The banker provided F.P. with two guineas “to make an Experiment”, which took place at a room on Dean Steet. The process entailed first weighing the coins, then putting them into water over the fire and stirring them “a pretty while” along with unidentified “Druggs”. The chemicals must have been rather expensive, as F.P. insisted that the banker would need to provide four-hundred guineas per day, or “it would not be worth his while”. The coins were weighed again afterwards to show the difference. The banker at this point complained that the coins have been too diminished (about four shillings each), but “the Prisoner condescended they should only be diminished to the value of 18 d. each, for the more easy covering the Cheat”.  F.P. further noted that only one of the coins might go undetected. Indeed, the coins were weighed at trial and there was a weight difference, with one coin “4 s. too light, and the other 3 s. 6.”

At this point, F.P. may have realised that trouble was not far behind.  The first witness reported that F.P. “designed suddenly to go to France, when he would leave ’em the Secret for their pains, they allowing him 30 l. per Month, which they were to remit thither; but in the mean time all the Profit while he staid here should be his own”. The witnesses did not take him up on his offer, but instead “delivered” the diminished coins to the Duke who in turn showed them to the King. The King sent the guineas to the Secretary of State, William Vernon, who ordered the prisoner’s arrest.  The stakes were high, with—as the banker put it—F.P.’s “Secret being enough to ruin the Nation”.

The prisoner did try defend himself, claiming that it was one of the witnesses who had tried the experiment. Although he called several character witnesses, it seemed he had few friends, as some of them “said he had been guilty of endeavouring to suborn Witnesses to swear falsly against one Camelle” on one occasion. In any case, there was clear evidence that the whole idea had been his in the first place: “the Names of the Druggs to be used being writ in one of the Evidences Pocket books by the Prisoner’s own Hand, which he owned in Court”. F.P. was found guilty of High Treason, punishable by death.

A curious story overall, and one very much of its time. Two men talking at a coffee-house about mathematics and recipes? How very urban Enlightenment. Secrets to be shared, for a cost? Typical of the early modern tension between public and private secret knowledge. A desire to use chemicals to make gold? Well, it’s not quite the Philosopher’s Stone that seventeenth-century alchemists continued to seek, but certainly much more practical. Condemned by a written recipe? Should have left it in the oral realm instead of trying to organise his knowledge…

The case of F.P. does show, however, the importance of recipes. He was in possession of one that worked and threatened to undermine no less than royal authority. But all that knowledge came to nothing. In the end, it was just a recipe for trouble.

Secrets of the Medici Granducal Pharmacy

By Ashley Buchanan

The last line of a recipe for a nerve ointment within Anna Maria Luisa’s (1667 – 1743) collection of culinary, alchemical, and medicinal recipes reads: “this being a balm, and particular secret, which is made only in the S.A.R. fonderia, and not in another location, even if others say they have the same recipe.” Five of Anna Maria Luisa’s recipes—two fever waters, one ointment for nerves and another for burns, and a powder to control epilepsy—are attributed to the fonderia of the most serine royal highness, the grand duke of Tuscany. Of these five, three are printed on small sheets of paper and prominently emblazoned with the Medici crest. The printed recipe for fever water stated that this particular water was useful for reoccurring fevers, both malignant and acute. The directions praised the water’s success in moderating the heat of fevers in patients of all ages. It advised giving the water four or five times in the morning, but suggested reducing the dosage based on age.  Of all the recipes in Anna Maria Luisa’s collection, this is the only printed text with multiple copies. The fact that this recipe was printed, and three copies remain in her collection, suggest that this particular fever water was widely used and produced by the Medici palace fonderia, or pharmacy.

Established by Cosimo I in the Palazzo Vecchio, the Medici Granducal fonderia was a laboratory where naturalists, alchemists, herbalists, pharmacists, and distillers experimented with recipes and techniques for medicinal therapeutics in addition to other metallurgical pursuits. Cosimo’s son, Francesco I, moved the fonderia to the Casino di San Marco, and again in 1586 when a new fonderia opened in the Uffizi. In 1643, Grand Duke Ferdinando II donated an additional room in the Uffizi dedicated to curiosities like stuffed exotic animals and even an Egyptian mummy, which also served in the production of medicines.

Il laboratorio dell'alchimista, Giovanni Stradano, studiolo di Francesco I
The studiolo or alchemical laboratory of Francesco I de Medici inside the Palazzo Vecchio (via wikimedia commons)

By the seventeenth century, and continuing well into the eighteenth century, the Uffizi fonderia was famous for its pharmaceutical production. The remedies produced in the Medici fonderia were gifted by the Grand Dukes and Duchesses in precious caskets to nobles and kings of Europe, the Middle East, and even the Americas. Numerous letters within the Medici archive (now available online, thanks to the Medici archive project) attest to the value of Medici medicines as diplomatic gifts. In 1630, Anna Maria Luisa’s great-grandmother, the Grand Duchess Maria Magdalena (Von Hapsburg), sent oils from the fonderia as a diplomatic gift to the Crown Prince of Spain.[1] In 1637 military captain and diplomat Piero della Rena, who at the time of writing was being held captive by the Pasha of Tripoli, wrote Grand Duke Ferdinando II and proposed a plan to negotiate his ransom.  In order to expedite his release, Rena suggested that in addition to money, Ferdinando send an amicable letter, a tent made of damask cloth, and a box of medicinal oils (una cassetta di olii di fonderia).[2] Clearly the products produced by the palace pharmacy were held in high esteem and as such possessed great value—value that could be used for the promotion of the Medici personally and politically.

Anna Maria Luisa’s recipes attest to the avid pursuit of alchemical and technical “secrets” at the Medici court. Later male and female Medici family members set up their own fonderie for the production of medicinal oils and therapeutics. The courtly patronage of science not only highlighted the Medici’s splendor and command of nature, it also produced tangible products, like fever waters. As a member of the Medici family, Anna Maria Luisa had access to these recipes to add to her own collection, to gift for diplomatic relationships, or to exchange for other recipes. The inclusion of the Medici crest and attribution to the Medici palace pharmacy was a way in which Anna Maria Luisa could increase the value of her recipe collection. As I continue my research, I am interested in investigating Anna Maria Luisa’s interaction with the granducal fonderia. Like other Medici dukes and duchesses, did she set up her own fonderia or did she patronize the existing granducal fonderia? Understanding Anna Maria Luisa’s affiliation with the granducal fonderia will reveal whether she was a patient who used and circulated Medici therapies, or if she was also a patron and practitioner of medicine.

[1] ASF, Mediceo del Principato 4962. (Entry 11641 in the Medici Archive Project Documentary Sources database.)

[2] ASF, Mediceo del Principato 4274 folio 196. (Entry 22136 in the Medici Archive Project Documentary Sources database.)



Gunpowder, treason, and plot? Not quite.

In keeping with the theme of my previous post, I wanted to look at another of the numerous trick recipes I’ve come across. The topic I’ve chosen for this post is rather less rude than the last one, however.

In late medieval books of secrets and recipe collections we can find a lot of recipes using dangerous substances like gunpowder (and its component parts) and mercury. The gunpowder recipes in particular are used for spectacular theatrical effects like propelling a dragon across a tether and making it breathe fire.[1] However, these ingredients often appears in recipes of a less spectacular nature – to play good-natured tricks on people or in children’s toys.[2] In many of these recipes the gunpowder and mercury are used to make a household object move about as if under its own strength.

Making a loaf of bread jump about is a common goal. I have come across numerous examples that all employ similar means. This example comes from Oxford, Bodleian Library Ashmole MS 1436, page 26:

In order to make a loaf run round about the house, take one hot loaf and put a little mercury on a penny and stamp the end with a little wax and put it in the loaf and it shall be done, it is proven.[3]

There’s a similar principle at play with this recipe from London, British Library Sloane MS 121, folio 91r to make a ring jump about:

To make a ring dance and run throughout the whole house by itself. Make a hollowed out oval ring out of whatever metal you like and fill it with saltpetre (potassium nitrate), sulphur, and quicksilver and then solder it well and firmly so that nothing can come out. And after a while when it is placed in the fire and it is warmed enough it will dance through the house.[4]

With the exception of the example with the ring, these recipes seem to focus on food. Joke recipes like this using food and chemical reactions were one of two kinds of joke cooking recipes (the other kind being parody recipes that created humour by using absurd or disgusting ingredients). They were entertaining while at the same time giving the performer the appearance of having magic powers, but without the threat of performing real magic. This final example comes from San Marino, Huntington Library, HM 1336, folio 5r:

In order to make a stew slip out of the pot. Take vitriol and saltpetre and Spanish soap and grind it all into a powder and throw it in the pot and all the stew in the pot shall run out, [I] guarantee.[5]

Unfortunately, we don’t know how these kinds of tricks went over in the medieval household. We can certainly imagine people’s delight, especially children’s, at seeing an innocuous loaf of bread suddenly start jumping around under its own steam. Gunpowder, quicksilver, and its various ingredients became popular in medieval recipe collections because they could turn ordinary household items like rings, bread, or even stew into fantastic and quasi-magical objects.

[1] Philip Butterworth discusses this use of gunpowder in early modern stage productions and includes a number of recipes similar to what can be found in the medieval sources. Theatre of Fire: Special Effects in Early English and Scottish Theatre (London: The Society for Theatre Research, 1998).

[2] For example, one of the earliest mentions of gunpowder in medieval Europe is believed to come from Roger Bacon describing its use in Chinese firecrackers. There are similar recipes in the c. 1300 Liber ignium of Marcus Grecus. See Pierre Berthelot‟s edition of the Liber ignium in La chimie au moyen âge, vol. I (Paris 1893; repr., Osnabrück: Otto Zeller and Amsterdam: Philo Press, 1967), 100-135; on Bacon see Joseph Needham, Gwei-Djen Lu, and Ling Wang. Science and Civilisation in China. Volume 5, Part 7. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 48–50.

[3] “for to make a lowfe to renne roun a bowte þe house take one hote lofe and put a lytyl quicsyluer on a penne et stape (sic) þe hende with a lytyl wax and put hyt in þe lofe and yt schal be doun ut probatum”

[4] “Ad faciendum Anulum saltare et currere per totam domum per se ipsum. Fac anulum de quocumque metallo quod tibi placuerit et quod sit ouum  modo concauus et imple illum de salpeter sulphure viuo et viuo argento et deinde soldatur (sic) bene et firmiter ita quod nichil queat exire. Et postmodum cum ponatur prope ignem et parum calefacietur saltabit per domum”

[5] “For to make potage slippinn out of þe potte. Take arnement and salt peter and spaynis sope and grynd it alle in poudire and caste it in þe potte and alle þe potage in þe potte xalt rene out a warentise.”
A variation of this recipe can be found in the Liber cure cocorum, a mid-fifteenth century cookery book in verse. The book begins with three trick recipes: two recipes to make cooked food appear raw and to make it appear full of worms and the recipe to make food leap out of the pot. The Liber cure recipe is designed as a trick to play on the cook: “Yf þe coke be croked or soward mane / Take sope, cast in hys potage; / Þenne wylle þe pot begyn to rage / And welle on alle, and lepe in / þat licoure is made, noþer thykke ne thynne.” [If the cook is a crooked or froward man, / Take soap, cast [it] in his potage, / Then will the pot begin to rage / And well above all, and leap in. / That liquid is made, neither thick nor thin.] Text and translation from Melitta Weiss Adamson,  “The Games Cooks Play: Non-sense Recipes and Practical Jokes in Medieval Literature,” in Food in the Middle Ages: A Book of Essays, ed. Melitta Weiss Adamson (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1995), 184.  The De mirabilius mundi contains a version to make “a chicken or other thing leap in the dish” using a combination of quicksilver and zinc carbonate. Best and Brightman, Book of Secrets, 98 and Adamson, “The Games Cooks Play,” 177-178, 183-185.