Eating of curds and whey: rennet in ancient medicine

Last month, I examined the issue of ‘curdled milk in the breast’ in Greek and Roman medicine. The texts I quoted all used the words ‘cheesy’ (turōdēs) or ‘to make cheesy’ (turoō) – they did not refer to rennet (putia), the curdling agent in cheese making. This month, I look into the role of rennet in ancient medicine, and particularly in ancient embryology and gynaecology. Rennet is a liquid found in the stomach of young mammals; it helps sucklings digest their mother’s milk. Used in cheese making, it causes milk to separate into curds (solid element) and whey (liquid element). In a well-known passage, Aristotle (fourth century BCE) compared the action of semen in generation to that of rennet in cheese making:

The action of the semen of the male in ‘setting’ the female’s secretion in the uterus is similar to that of rennet upon milk. Rennet is milk which contains vital heat, as semen does, and this integrates the homogeneous substance and makes it ‘set’. As the nature of milk and the menstrual fluid is one and the same, the action of the semen upon the substance of the menstrual fluid is the same as that of rennet upon milk (Generation of Animals 739b21-27. Translation: A.L. Peck).

Scholars have found similar analogies between generation and cheese-making in various cultures: semen is like rennet; women’s blood is like milk; children are like cheese.[1] In this context, it is interesting to note that actual rennet was used in ancient medicine either to help or to hinder conception, as well as for various other purposes. The pharmacological writer Dioscorides (first century CE) writes:

A weight of three oboloi of hare’s rennet taken with wine is suitable for those bitten by wild animals, for dysenterics, for women who suffer from discharges, for blood clots, and for coughing up blood from the chest; applied to the cervix with butter after menstruation, it aids conception, but if drunk after menstruation, it causes barrenees… (Dioscorides, De materia medica 2.75. Translation: L. Beck)

The reader can be forgiven for not immediately seeing the linking factor between these conditions. After several paragraphs, Dioscorides provides the key: rennet, he says ‘congeals substances that have been dissolved and dissolves substances that have been congealed’. Rennet dissolved clots of blood; in the case of bloody sputa and female discharge, it must have either liquefied that blood, enabling its elimination, or ‘curdled’ it; applied in a pessary, it facilitated the role of semen in ‘curdling’ the menstrual blood; but drunk after menstruation, it probably ‘dissolved’ any ‘curdled’ blood in the womb, that is, it caused what we would an early abortion; in dysentery it may have ‘curdled’ faeces in the intestine. What about the role of rennet in the treatment of bites? Bites were thought to cause blood clotting, hence the recommendation to use rennet.

After discussing hare’s rennet, Dioscorides turns to seal’s rennet, explaining that it is particularly good in cases of epilepsy and uterine suffocation, that is, the feeling of suffocation that accompanies movements of the womb. Both ailments were conceived as forms of ‘suffocation’ (pigmos). The rationale for the use of rennet might have gone something like this: suffocation is caused by a ‘choking’ agent; rennet can dissolve what is congealed; rennet will dissolve the choking agent in uterine and epileptic suffocation. Interestingly, seal’s rennet is the only rennet mentioned in the Hippocratic Corpus (a series of texts written in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE), where the following recipe is recommended for the treatment of uterine suffocation:

If the womb leans and lies against the groin: the skin of seal’s rennet, sponge and bryon (possibly a sea-weed); chope them fine; mix together with seal oil; and fumigate. (Hippocratic Corpus, Diseases of Women 2.203).

Theophrastus, in his Enquiry into Plants (late fourth century BCE), informs us that the all-heal of Heracles, mixed with seal rennet, helps in epilepsy (9.11.3).

Why seal’s rennet? Surely it would have been simpler to get the rennet from a hare or a calf? Well, seals were seen as liminal animals in the ancient world: they breast-fed their cubs, yet looked like fish; they lived both on land and in water. Their rennet – and Dioscorides says that one must use the rennet of a cub who cannot yet swim – must therefore have been thought valuable in the treatment of diseases that themselves involved ‘liminal’ states: the ‘near-death’ condition that characterizes epileptic seizures and other forms of suffocation.

 


[1] See in particular Ott, Sandra. “Aristotle among the Basques: the’cheese analogy’of conception.” Man (1979): 699-711.

 

A Recipe for Disaster: How not to Distill Turpentine

By Tillmann Taape

When sifting through early modern alchemical recipes, I am often struck by their inherent dangers which would make modern-day health and safety officers pull their hair out. Renaissance practitioners were remarkably unfazed by temperatures high enough to melt glass and metal, and they frequently recommended heating volatile and flammable liquid in sealed glass vessels which, by their own admission, had a tendency to crack if not handled with the utmost care. Surely these exploits must have gone wrong a lot of the time, resulting in burnt fingers or a faceful of boiling alcohol?

If we look at the stereotype of the alchemist in contemporary satirical literature, it seems that accidents came with the job. In his Ship of Fools (1494), German humanist and satirist Sebastian Brant echoes themes from medieval poetry in his depiction of the alchemist: a greedy and reckless fool whose dangerous and fruitless exploits leave him scarred, financially ruined and even blind. [1] As a source of historical information, satirical genres should of course be taken with a generous pinch of salt. It is significant to note, though, that early modern people saw alchemy as a potentially dangerous thing to do, even in times long before anything like today’s health and safety standards.

More direct evidence of alchemical disasters is, unfortunately, fairly rare. I would of course be delighted to be persuaded otherwise by readers of this blog, but to me it seems that while adepts of alchemy frequently wrote down instructions which sound like they might well blow up, they were frustratingly silent on whether this actually happened. I was quite thrilled, therefore, when I finally stumbled upon a first-hand account of an alchemical disaster: exploding stills, knocked-out practitioners and all. In his 700-page tome entitled Liber de arte distillandi de compositis or Large book of distillation, first published in 1512, my favourite surgeon-apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig (introduced here and here) includes the following cautionary tale.

Brunschwig was distilling turpentine to separate the watery fraction from the valuable oil, and when nearly all of the water had come out, he was interrupted.

 I was called away to a patient, so the oil went into the water, and when I came back, a layer of oil was sitting on top of the water. I didn’t have the sense to simply decant off the oil, so I poured the lot into a new flask and thought I’d just extract the water by distillation. But I was called away again, and in the meantime the water evaporated from the oil, and some of it condensed on the side of the flask and dripped back into the oil, which rose inside the flask with a great tumult, and fumes erupted from the flask, blowing off the alembic. [2]

 A lot to handle: picture of a still from Brunschwig’s Large book of distillation.  © Wellcome Images

A lot to handle: picture of a still from Brunschwig’s Large book of distillation.
© Wellcome Images

Things got worse when Brunschwig came back late at night and went to investigate the accident, telling his servant to bring along a light:

When the light arrived, the fumes touched it, and fire burst forth all around, and in the blink of an eye went out again, nevertheless burning off mine and my servant’s hair, clothes and eyebrows. We fell to the ground and did not know where we were, but before long we got up again and fetched a closed lantern so the same thing would not happen again, and threw ashes in the furnace to smother the fire. [2]

And this, dear readers of the Large book of distillation, is how you do NOT distill turpentine! Once the initial excitement about this truly adventurous tale had worn off, I realised that, to the historian, there was more to this anecdote than merely the satisfying confirmation that some procedures which look so precarious on paper did indeed go up in fire and smoke. In his description of this extraordinary incident, Brunschwig also reveals a number of interesting details about his everyday life and work. We get a glimpse of what it meant for an early modern practitioner to have multiple vocations. Juggling his alchemical activities with his duties as an apothecary and surgeon, it seems that Brunschwig could be called away to the aid of a patient at a moment’s notice, even at night. We also learn that he had at least one servant, and we can surmise that he did his distillations in an enclosed workshop, since a buildup of explosive fumes would be unlikely in the open air. Perhaps most importantly of all, this anecdote provides strong evidence that Brunschwig was actively performing many of the procedures he describes in his works, rather than just copying and compiling them for publication.

Anecdotes like these, then, are more than just an entertaining read and a well-earned reward for ploughing through hundreds of pages of Brunschwig’s Alsatian dialect with its erratic spelling. Descriptions of extraordinary events also grant us a glimpse into the reality of practicing alchemy, and into practitioners’ everyday life.

 

[1] On the stereotypes and changing ‘personae’ of early modern alchemists, see Tara Nummedal,  Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007, Ch. 2.

[2] Brunschwig, Hieronymus. Liber de arte distillandi de compositis […]. Strasbourg: Grüninger, 1512.

 

A Post-Summer Solstice Round-Up of Blog Posts

This post does not fall within the strictest definition of “recipes”, but since it was just the summer solstice, the best time of year for magic and pagan celebrations, it seemed like an appropriate time and opportunity to offer a round-up of links to some of the more “magical” blog posts that may be of interest to readers of The Recipes Project.

The Societas Magica has recently revived its blog with a post by Damon Lycourinos on Ritual Magic and Conjured Bodies: A Philosophy and Methodology. He presents some thoughts on his current doctoral research at the University of Edinburgh – essentially his philosophical framework for his dissertation. Interesting stuff, indeed.

Other academics will appreciate Wouter Hanegraaff’s post on the problems with terminology in, Alt & Neumann on Hermetismus, which discusses how widely or how narrowly a term like “Hermetic” should be applied. In a thoughtful review of Peter-André Alt’s book, Imaginäres Geheimwissen: Untersuchungen zum Hermetismus in literarischen Texten der frühen Neuzeit, he also addresses that persistent problem among scholars of not reading secondary literature outside our native language – certainly something that should be discussed in this international, digital, age!

Praeludia Microcosmica is a very new blog started by Mike Zuber of the University of Amsterdam and his most recent post, Investigating the ‘Real Frankenstein Potential’ of Johann Conrad Dippel, Pt. 1, examines the real man behind the supposed inspiration for Shelley’s Frankenstein. It’s a lively account of the man and his early life at the University of Gießen and whets the appetite for pt. 2.

The Heterodoxology blog alerts us to a new, open-access online journal on the history of Western esotericism. Even for readers uninterested in the subject matter, the growth of open-access peer-reviewed journals is an important subject in academia and it will be interesting to see how this journal fares.

Finally, the iCHSTM blog for the 24th International Congress of History of Science, Technology and Medicine (at which I’ll be presenting in a few weeks) has been posting some excellent entries. They are all worth checking out, but I will just note a couple. Anita Guerrini’s The Ghastly Kitchen: Animals, Cooking, and the Birth of Experimental Science gives a brief overview of the history of experimentation in the kitchen from the seventeenth to the eighteenth centuries and its role in modern science. Seb Falk’s post, How to Cast a Medieval Horoscope, provides a very informative introduction to the medieval equatoria, a device to model the motion of the planets, mainly for educational purposes (and to help medieval astrologers correctly construct horoscopes).

A Sweet Bath and Sweating: Renaissance Ladies and Bathing

by Colleen Kennedy

Bathing in the Renaissance could be a fragrant and languorous event, especially for a lady with her own herbal garden (or the extra money to buy spices, flowers, and herbs) and some free time.  Even sweating could be aromatic, rejuvenating, and relaxing. This post  reconsiders early modern bathing and hygienic habits, in response to a short article by Dodai Stewart entitled “Tudor Fashion: Pretty, But Best Not to Think About the Stench” posted to the feminist newsblog Jezebel. While my first post considered the types of early modern baths, today I turn to women’s recipe books to explore especially sweet baths and the art of sweating.[1]

Ladies could partake in steam baths—called a vaporary or a moist stove. Women, whose humours tended to be colder and wetter, especially benefited from sweating.[2] Men with certain phlegmatic conditions could also be treated by sweating, and “the use of this is most convenient in the winter, and spring, as of the bath in summer” (Morel 200). This implies that bathing was not regulated to just the summer months when the bather could avoid a chill, but rather that this vaporary could replace cold bathing in winter months.

The bather would sit in a tub (or on a chair) and the bather’s body would be encircled by some sort of enclosed cover or canopy, with the head sticking out. Sir Hugh Plat’s frequently republished Delightes for Ladies claims that “I know that many Gentlewomen as well for the clearing of their skins as cleansing their bodies, do now and then delight to sweat” (Recipe 27: A Delicate Stove to Sweat In”).[3] Aromatic and medicinal plants (“such proportion of sweet hearbes, and of such kind as shall bee most appropriate for your infirmitie”) would be brought to a steam and filtered by means of a pipe into the canopy, and this perfumed steam “will breathe so sweete and warme a vapour upon your bodie as that you shall sweat most temperately.” Rather than sounding archaic or unsanitary, this moist stove quite resembles a modern sauna.

A Lady in Her Bath François Clouet (c. 1571) oil on oak National Gallery of Art We do not know the identity of the central figure, but the National Gallery notes: "The masklike symmetry of the bather's face makes exact identification difficult; scholars have suggested that her aristocratic features indicate that she is one of several royal mistresses, most notable among them Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of Henry II. It is possible that the nude, a Venus type, represents ideal beauty rather than a specific individual." The painting, while alluding "to a happy, healthy home," also creates an allegory of the three major roles of a woman's life, centering around her fertility and highlighted by water. The central figure (mother) represents maternal fertility; her two children, including the ever important male heir are featured. Her tub's sideboard has flowers and fruits, further signs of fertility, and she even holds a flower in her hand. To the bather's left is a wet nurse (crone), a woman approaching perimenopause, but still able to provide milk for her charge. In the background we see a younger servant (maiden) with a jug of heated water for the bath; the unicorn represents chastity and the vessel of water is decidedly not a "leaky vessel."
A Lady in Her Bath
François Clouet (c. 1571)
oil on oak
National Gallery of Art
We do not know the identity of the central figure, but the National Gallery notes: “The masklike symmetry of the bather’s face makes exact identification difficult; scholars have suggested that her aristocratic features indicate that she is one of several royal mistresses, most notable among them Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of Henry II. It is possible that the nude, a Venus type, represents ideal beauty rather than a specific individual.”
The painting, while alluding “to a happy, healthy home,” also creates an allegory of the three major roles of a woman’s life, centering around her fertility and highlighted by water. The central figure (mother) represents maternal fertility; her two children, including the ever important male heir are featured. Her tub’s sideboard has flowers and fruits, further signs of fertility, and she even holds a flower in her hand. To the bather’s left is a wet nurse (crone), a woman approaching perimenopause, but still able to provide milk for her charge. In the background we see a younger servant (maiden) with a jug of heated water for the bath; the unicorn represents chastity and the vessel of water is decidedly not a “leaky vessel.”

In addition to “delicate stoves,” there were many pleasurable recipes for relaxing baths and sweetly scented soaps found in recipe books.  The Accomplished Ladies’ Rich Closet of Rarities (1687) offers a scrumptious recipe for a “Sweet Bath”:

Take the flowers or peels of Cittrons, the Flowers of Oranges and Gessamine, Lavenderr, Hysop, Bay-leaves; the flowers of Rosemary, Comfry, and the seeds of Coriander, Endive and sweet Marjorum; the Berries of Myrtle and Juniper: boil them in Spring-water, after they are bruised, till a third part of the liquid matter is consumed, and enter in a Bathing tub, or wash your self with it, as you see occasion, and it will indifferently serve for Beauty and Health (63).[4]

Another recipe describes an equally balsamic bath:

“This bath is very good, Take two handfulls of sage leaves, the like quantity of lavender flowers and roses, a little salt, boile them in spring water and therewith bath your body; remembring that you are never to bath after meals for it will occasion many infirmities; bath therefore two or three hours before dinner, it will cleare the skin, revives the spirits and strengthens the body, the same effects hath this following” (37).[5]

Even the most common of cleansing activities, the washing of the face and hands were not necessarily just plain well water. Hugh Plat offers a recipe for hand-washing water “very cheape” using items founds in any well-stocked house or garden: “Take a gallon of faire water, one handful; of Lavender flowers, a few cloves, and some orace powder, and foure ounces of Benjamin: distill the water in an ordinarie leaden still…” (Plat, Recipe 2: “An Excellent handwater or washing water very cheape”). In The French Perfumer, almonds could be scented with flowers, and after the oil was extracted, the remains could be used as exfoliating “cakes of almonds” to wash the hands (47).[6]

Such baths, we can see are pleasurable, sensuous, cosmetic, hygienic, and employ common medicinal and scented herbs for both their aromatic and therapeutic virtues.[7] Furthermore, we see that bathing was not limited to the face and hands, but to the whole body. Finally, we discover that even hands and faces could have fragrant soaps and sweet waters. Bathing, then, when it occurred could be a pleasure for all the senses.


[1] See my previous post: “Dipping Your Toes in the Water: Reconsidering Renaissance England’s Attitudes Toward Bathing.”

[2] For more on the colder, wetter humors of early modern women and the depiction of women as “leaky vessels,” see Gail Kern Paster’s erudite The Body Embarrased: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993). For visual representations of women at their bath and humoral theory see Zirka Z. Filipczak’s Hot Dry Men/ Cold Wet Women: The Theory of Humors in Western Europe Art 1575-1700 (American Federation of the Arts, 1997).

[3] Plat, Hugh. Delightes for Ladies, to adorne their Persons, Tables, closets, and distillatories. London: Printed by Peter Short, 1602.

[4] J. S. The accomplished ladies rich closet of rarities: or, The ingenious gentlewoman and servant-maids delightfull companion. London : printed by W.W. for Nicholas Boddington in Duck-Lane; and Joseph Blare on London-Bridge, 1687.

[5] Jeamson, Thomas. Artificiall embellishments, or Arts best directions how to preserve beauty or procure it. Oxford : Printed by William Hall, 1665.

[6] Barbe, Simon. The French perfumer teaching the several ways of extracting the odours of drugs and flowers and making all the compositions of perfumes for powder, wash-balls, essences, oyls, wax, pomatum, paste, Queen of Hungary’s Rosa Solis, and other sweet waters, London : Printed for Sam. Buckley …, 1696.

[7] I would like to return to these same bath recipes and crosslist the ingredients for these baths with the medicinal qualities described in standard herbals to cover the range of restorative effects.

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine