Medicinal Compounds, Efficacious in Every Case

By Lisa Smith

Perhaps the most famous cure-all of all time is Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, immortalized in song as “Lily the Pink” (or “The Ballad of Lydia Pinkham”).* Although the original vegetable compound aimed to treat women’s ailments, the song suggests—tongue in cheek–that it might have much wider, rather miraculous applications. The boy with sticky out ears learns how to fly; the man who thought himself Julius Caesar becomes emperor of Rome.

Ridiculous. How, after all, could one drug cure so many ailments? In the modern world, cure-alls just don’t make sense.

But they did at one time. In early modern Europe, cure-all medicines were as likely to be sold by elite physicians as by “quacks” and were often made domestically. These treatments made sense. In a humoral body, with its properties of cold, hot, wet and dry, many seemingly different problems might have the same underlying cause.

Bridget Hyde’s book, late seventeenth century. Wellcome Library, MS 2990, f. 52v. Image Credit: Wellcome Library.

“Dr Stevens’ Water” was a common remedy in English remedy collections kept by well-to-do families. Authors sometimes provided lists of a treatment’s “virtues”, which usefully explain the underlying rationale. Bridget Hyde, for example, described Dr. Stevens’ Water as good for the vital spirits, inward colds, palsy, dropsy, gout, bladder stones, weak sinews, barrenness, worms, tooth-ache, stomach, and “rayns of ye back”. (Reins of the back refers to a urinary or genital discharge.)

An even more impressive and random list than Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound! What all of these illnesses had in common, however, was that they were caused by cold and wet humours. Looking up each ingredient in herbals and pharmacopoeias reveals that herbs like nutmegs, cloves, mace, aniseeds, lavender and rosemary (for example) had warming and drying properties.  Rosemary was ruled by the Sun and Aries; given its warming and comforting properties, it was commonly prescribed for any problems caused by cold humours. Mace, ruled by Venus, was chiefly used for treating problems of the womb.

Sometimes the connections are surprising. “Pertes de sang” (or blood loss) in French collections could refer to general losses of blood, excessive menstruation or uterine bleeding, miscarriage – or diarrhoea.  For example, one remedy for fluxes of blood in Mme Lievain’s book (Wellcome Library MS 3258, f. 132) also specified its use in diarrhoea. The main herb, cinquefoil, was commonly used for stomach problems as well as fluxes of all kinds, with a cooling property to sweeten the blood.

Most cure-alls did not try to treat everything, but had a clear rationale and focused on a group of closely-related ailments.

That said, not all cure-alls were created equal — and there were some weird ones out there. Lionel Lockyear, for example, claimed that his pills had the extract of the sun in them. Even better than Lily the Pink, then…

Broadsheet advertising L.Lockyer’s patent medicine. Image Credit: Wellcome Library.

*A rather entertaining song, though it needs an ear worm alert.

This has been cross-posted at the Cliopatra award-winning Wonders & Marvels, a fun group blog that focuses on odd stories and interesting historical tidbits. 

More on multi-purpose remedies can be found in my article, “Imagining Women’s Fertility before Technology”, Journal of Medical Humanities, 31, 1 (2010): 69-79.

The Recipe Collection of the Last Medici Princess

By Ashley Buchanan

Two summers ago in the state archive of Florence I discovered, filed under the heading of “miscellaneous Medici,” a simple sleeve which held a collection of over 200 recipes that belonged to the last Medici Princess, Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici (1667-1743). Born in 1667 in Florence, Anna Maria Luisa was the only daughter and second child of Cosimo III de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Marguerite Louise d’Orléans. In 1691, she was married to Johann Wilhelm II von der Pfalz (1658-1716), Elector Palatine. She lived in Düsseldorf, her husband’s capital, until his death in 1716. A year later Anna Maria Luisa returned to her native Florence. During her twenty-six year absence neither of her brothers, Ferdinando or Gian Gastone, produced a Medici heir. With the death of her father and both of her brothers, Anna Maria Luisa became the last Medici.

Antonio Franchi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Electress Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici by Antonio Franchi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Anna Maria Luisa’s collection of recipes covered topics as diverse as rare paint colors, desserts, fever waters, concoctions to control epilepsy and lung inflammation, and even forms of lapidary medicine. One rather strange recipe to control infant convulsions or a periodic fever (terzana) detailed how to make a powder from the precipitation of a pulverized skull of a man who died violently but was never buried, oriental pearls, red and white coral, yellow amber, and peony roots and seeds. Another simply prescribed female rhino blood for strokes and general blood flow, and yet another recipe recommended the vaginal insertion of St. Ignatius beans to “lower the monster of women.”[1]

Intrigued at what I had uncovered, I read on. I found that many of the recipes were straightforward directions for combining listed ingredients, like the infant convulsion powder, while others incorporated more complex alchemical techniques such as steeping, pulverizing, fermentation, and distillation. One of the recipes for fever water (acqua da febbre) called for the creation of a poisonous plant tincture and distillation of sulfur. The recipe then instructed to mix one ounce of each with Capraggine water (made from a European shrub) and leave it sealed to ferment in the sun for two days.

Pieces of folded paper and letters of correspondence grouped many of the recipes within the collection, making a few distinct categories apparent—techniques to create rare or secret paint colors and dye marble, the whitening of silks and lace, culinary recipes, and medicinal recipes and therapeutics. The sequential and identical page numbers penciled in at the top of every page indicated that these categories were the product of later archivists.

In addition to recipes for fever water, perfumes, and ointments, directions for applying balsams, and therapeutics for epilepsy and pleurisy (lung pain or inflammation), Anna Maria Luisa’s collection also included a lengthy and detailed Portuguese inventory of raw medicinal materials. This inventory not only listed materia medica, like roots and seeds from the Kingdom of Manica, beans from Manila, and “bread” from Timor, it also detailed the uses and virtues of each. Two pages, one written in Portuguese the other in Italian, were dedicated to the uses and virtues of Pietre Cordiali, or Goa Stones. The unknown author of the inventory explained that these stones, created by the lay Jesuit Gaspar Antonio, were the best heart medicines he had ever found, but could also be used to combat fevers, animal venom, poisons, and even kidney stones.

(Metmuseum.org), via Wikimedia Commons
Late 17th Century/Early 18th Century Goa Stone and container, Metropolitan Museum of Art (Metmuseum.org), via Wikimedia Commons

After reading through her collection, it was clear that Anna Maria Luisa collected recipes from her family’s ducal pharmacy (some of the recipes credit the Medici fonderia or are stamped with the Medici crest), received and exchanged recipes via courtly epistolary networks, and gathered exotic raw medicinal materials through Italian and Portuguese trade networks and Jesuit missionaries. As I read through the inventories of raw materials, it became apparent that Anna Maria Luisa’s collection was not only the product of European courtly customs, but was also connected to exploration, colonial expansion, and global exchanges through trade and missionary commerce, all of which facilitated the movement of people, things, and knowledge. 

Anna Maria Luisa’s recipes have become the foundation of my dissertation, which I have just begun researching. I look forward to sharing my findings as I search for what motivated Anna Maria Luisa to collect recipes, who (if anyone) she exchanged recipes with, and how she learned of the exotic raw materials she collected. On a larger scale, I hope this project offers the opportunity to study how people or groups outside institutional medicine contributed to the creation, dissemination, and legitimization of emerging scientific and medicinal knowledge. In this case, how did a Medici princess, courtly scientific patronage, Italian and Portuguese traders, Jesuit missionaries, and indigenous populations contributed to the discourse of early modern medicine through recipes?


[1] The rhino blood, presumably from Africa–“Dos Sangue d Abbada, Serve este sangue para cursos, e fluxos de sangue.” And the St. Ignatius beans from the Philippines–“Para fave (fazer) abaixar o menstro das molheres”

 

The Origins of Haggis: A Burns Day Post

Chris Hilton

Recent historical work casts doubt on the provenance of Scotland’s national dish, as reported on the BBC website on Monday 3rd August 2009. Historian Catherine Brown has located a reference to haggis in Gervase Markham’s 1615 work The English Hus-Wife, which predates Burns’ celebration of the dish by more than a century and a half (and is, of course, held in the Wellcome Library).

The hunt is on, then, for more seventeenth-century references to haggis, to prove or disprove its Scots origins. The Wellcome Library’s launch of a digitisation programme makes available the contents of seventy recipe books from this period, indexed down to individual recipes and available for remote study via the internet. Already one haggis recipe is visible to the public, in an early seventeenth-century volume held as MS.635. In a faded but perfectly legible hand, the author instructs one in the art of making a haggis:

Take a calves chaldron [entrails] and parboyle it; when it is cold mince it fine with a pound of beefe suet & penny loafe grated, some Rosemary, tyme, Winter Savory & Penny royall of all a small handful, a little cloves, mace, nutmeg, & Cinamon, a quarter of a pound of currants, a little suger, a little salt, a little Rosewater all these mixt together well with 6 yolkes of Eggs boyle it in a sheepes paunch and so boyle it.

Does this help to settle the argument? Not quite: the snag is that we do not know who wrote MS.635 or where. This sounds like sitting on the fence, or maybe on Hadrian’s Wall: but all we can do is invite readers in to the Library or onto our website, to view the manuscript, try to work out its origins, and join in the argument.

This post was originally published on the wonderful Wellcome Library blog in 2009. Thank you to Chris Hilton who has very kindly allowed us to edit (slightly) and post this for Robert Burns Day!

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.

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine