Tag Archives: eyes.

You’ll thank me later

In my previous post, I presented a comic parody of an ancient eye-remedy. That recipe, created by the comedian Aristophanes, was too horrid to be true. Yet eye-remedies were far from pleasant in the ancient world. Witness the achariston, the ‘thankless’. There are various recipes for acharista (that’s the plural of achariston) preserved in ancient medical writings. The following one, transmitted by Galen, is representative of this lovely (not) type of medicament:

Oculist stamp  Roman Britain, 1-4 century CE, Kenchester  Herefordshire This stamps bears the inscription: 'Titus Vindacius Ariovistus',  Source: British Museum
Oculist stamp
Roman Britain, 1-4 century CE, Kenchester
This stamps bears the inscription: ‘Titus Vindacius Ariovistus’,
Source: British Museum

The so-called ‘thankless’ against persistent flows of tears. Physicians who used it, in Egypt only, were succefsul, especially when using it on rustics: cadmia, 16 drams; acacia, 8 drams; burnt, washed copper, 8 drams; opium, 4 drams; seed of tree heath, 4 drams; myrrh 4 drams; gum, 16 drams. Take up with water. Use with woman’s milk.  (Galen, Remedies according to Places 4, 12.749 Kühn).

It is fair to say that this remedy, before curing any flow of tears, would have made the eye cry some more. Each of the ingredients, taken separately, might have had a beneficial effect on the eye, but this remedy just goes for the rather brutal approach of accumulating as many unpleasant ingredients as possible. Thankfully, perhaps, the remedy had to be applied with woman’s milk,a very mild product, which midwives still recommend today for a baby’s sticky eyes.

These ingredients were crushed in a mortar, mixed with a small amount of water, then moulded into ‘lozenges’ and dried. These lozenges were light and easy to carry around. When a physician needed to apply the medicament, he (or the patient) crushed one of the lozenges and mixed it with a liquid – here woman’s milk. The remedy was then applied to the eyelids. Not that this particular recipe specifies any of this… One needs to have read quite a few ancient eye recipes to fill in the gaps left by Galen.

This recipe, on the other hand, gives some interesting and unusual details. The remedy was used ‘in Egypt only’. Eye-ailments seem to have been common in the land of the Nile, and eye-remedies are recorded in hieroglyphs on papyri from the Pharaonic period, going as far back as the second millennium BCE. By the time of Galen (second century CE), Egypt was a Roman province, whose elite spoke Greek (yes it’s all rather confusing). The ‘physicians’ mentioned in the recipe above were probably Greek-speaking, although it is not possible to exclude the possibility of Egyptian-speaking physicians.

Eye-shaped votive. Roman period.  Source: Wellcome images
Eye-shaped votive. Roman period.
Source: Wellcome images

The recipe also specifies that the remedy was particularly successful when used on ‘rustics’. The ancients believed that ‘rustics’ and members of the elite required different types of medicaments. Where peasants could cope with harsh, but very effective remedies, rich people, softened by their luxurious ways of life, needed milder concoctions.

Thankless eye-remedies did not just exist as texts in recipe books; they are also attested archaeologically. Ancient oculists used stamps to mark their medicines (the ‘lozenges’ I described above). Numerous stamps have been preserved. Some of these carry the inscription ‘acharistum’ (the Latin form of the Greek word achariston). One can just imagine a mother telling her reluctant child suffering from an eye disease: ‘You will thank me later’… or perhaps not!

Spring: when thoughts of fancy turn to itchy, watery eyes

By Lisa Smith

A number of my Tweet-friends have recently been complaining about the severity of their hay fever this spring. @KateMorant asked:

Is there any #earlymodern advice/ recipes for hay fever? I’ll try anything short of applying leeches to eyes.

Advert for Histantin, a Burroughs Wellcome and Co antihistaminic agent showing a couple eating a picnic in a field while a farmer piles hay onto a cart, 1965. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Advert for Histantin, a Burroughs Wellcome and Co antihistaminic agent showing a couple eating a picnic in a field while a farmer piles hay onto a cart, 1965. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

But… trying to figure out what people might have used to treat their symptoms in early modern England is no easy matter. The term hay fever, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was not used until 1829. What we know now as “hay fever” was first described in 1819 by Dr. John Bostock, who presented his own case for study as being “an unusual train of symptoms”: itchy, swollen and watery eyes, sneezing, and difficulty breathing. Over the years, Bostock had tried bleeding, purging, blisters, diet, Peruvian bark, steel, opium, mercury, cold bathing, digitalis… and, of course, many eye remedies. None of these had apparently helped.

Keeping in mind the relatively new description of hay fever as an ailment, I decided that the best way to track down early modern hay fever remedies would be according to symptoms. Of the symptoms typically associated with hay fever, itchy eyes are the easiest to trace—and even this was no mean feat.

I started off with the Wellcome Library’s wonderful online collection of seventeenth and early eighteenth century recipe books. Although there are lots of remedies to treat eye problems, many of these were a bit general, such as “The Lady Iveys Eye Watter” listed in the Johnson Family’s book (1694-1725). These eye drops, which included the white of a new laid egg, spring water and alum, could be used to treat “all distempers in yr Eyes pertickuler for any thing that grows”. So, although allergy-ridden eyes could in theory be treated with this remedy, it was not the most specific choice.

Fortunately, none of the remedies I looked at used this as an ingredient! Thomas Rowlandson, A Village Doctress Distilling Eyewater, 1800. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Fortunately, none of the remedies I looked at used this as an ingredient! Thomas Rowlandson, A Village Doctress Distilling Eyewater, 1800. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Brumwich family (1625-1700) may have been hay fever sufferers, as there were three somewhat more useful remedies in their collection: “A watter for eyes that are red & watterey aproved”, “A resceipt for wattering eyes” and “A water for sore eyes whose lides are all swelled”. All had an “X” or a “+” beside them, indicating—along with the one “aproved” that the recipes had been tried. The “watter for eyes” was essentially a sugar water that could be sponged or dropped into the eyes, while “A resceipt” included orris [iris] root and white copris [possibly a beetle?] steeped in water. The “water for sore eyes” used red rose water and powdered aloes. Of course, there is no guarantee that these were for allergy symptoms, especially as the third recipe was included alongside remedies for blindness and sore eyes.

None of them give me any confidence.

The English Physician enlarged (1718) by Nicholas Culpeper, however, offered some potential explanations—as well as solutions—for itchy, watery eyes. A juice of celandine, field daisies and ground ivy in clarified water with dissolved sugar was a “soveraign remedy for all pains, redness, watering”, which sounds promising, but it also treated pins and webs and skins and films (p. 10). Barley, which was ruled by Saturn, could be cooling and cleansing, especially for inflammation problems (pp. 29-30). Eye drops distilled from green barley gathered at the end of May was particularly good for sufferers who had “Defluctions of Humours fallen into their Eyes”. Both remedies suggest that symptoms might be seen as defluxions (a discharge of fluid) or inflammations. Makes sense.

But another type of classification in Culpeper put itchy, swollen eyes alongside poisons and the venemous bites. This made sense; the blood in such cases was seen as poisoned and overly hot. White beets and borage and bugloss were all ruled by Jupiter, which made them cleansing and strengthening. The beets could treat internal obstructions, headaches, venemous bites, eye inflammations and—interestingly—“wheals”, something rather like a hive (pp. 36-37). Borage and bugloss roots and leaves were good for putrid and pestilential fevers and poisons, while the leaves and seeds might help cleanse the blood and excess heats. The distilled water could be used as an eye wash for red and inflamed eyes (pp. 50-51). Modern hay fever sufferers, no doubt, will also understand this parallel with poisoning, with  pollen and dust acting as daily sources of misery.

Trying to identify hay fever-like symptoms in early modern England is a difficult business, as these eye remedies reveal. And this, before we even get to the sneezing! A quick digital search through Culpeper’s on Eighteenth Century Collections Online shows that all references to sneezing were in positive terms. For example, under “Clary, or more properly Cleer-Eye”, Culpeper noted that the powder of the dry root “provoketh Sneezing and thereby Purgeth the Head and Brain of much Rheum and Corruption” (p. 90). In other words, while Culpeper offered up lots of remedies for the eye symptoms, nothing could—or should—be done about the sneezing.

Sneezing: nature’s way of purging the body? But at least no leeches were required…

Sticky eyes or weeping wounds: trying to interpret the Pozzino tablets

Thousands of pharmacological and cosmetic recipes have come down to us from the Greek and Roman world. On the other hand, archaeological discoveries of ancient remedies are few and far between, and findings that can be analysed chemically and botanically are even rarer. Recently, ancient medicine made the news with the publication by a team of Italian scientists of the chemical analysis of remedies found aboard a Roman shipwreck – the Pozzino shipwreck, second century BCE [1]. The ship carried numerous pharmacological preparations, some of which are still in the process of being analysed (see here for more detail), and the publication focused on six roundish tablets preserved in a tin box. The scientific analysis revealed that the tablets contained 80% of inorganic materials, mainly zinc oxide and hematite, as well as starch, beeswax, animal and plant fats, pine resin, and other plant remains.

The tin box (pyxis) in which the tablets were found
The tin box (pyxis) in which the tablets were found

The authors of the article, referring themselves to ancient treatises on simple medicines (that is, treatises dealing with one pharmacological ingredient at a time), suggested that these tablets are eye remedies. A search (with the help of the electronic database of ancient Greek texts – the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae) through ancient collections of pharmacological recipes also shows that zinc oxide and hematatite were used together in the treatment of eye diseases, as in the following example, which is extracted form Galen’s collection of Medicines according to Places :(second century CE)

Sweet-smelling remedy of Syneros against long-lasting ailments [of the eyes]: it works against eye-discharge and lachrymal fistula: cleaned Cadmia [zinc oxide], 28 drams; hematite stone, burnt and washed, 25 drams; Cyprian ash [i.e. copper], 24 drams; myrrh, 48 drams; saffron, 4 drams; Spanish opium-poppy, 8 drams; white pepper, 30 grains; gum, 6 drams; dilute with Italian wine. Use with an egg. (Galen, Compositions of Medicines according to Places 4.8, 12. 774 Kühn)

This recipe, like many others, gives very little indication as to how the remedy should be prepared. I would suggest that all dry products should be crushed together in a mortar; diluted in wine and moulded into tablets. These should then be dried and dissolved in a liquid (here an egg) when needed. The modern reader will wince at the use of pepper in eye remedies, but making the eyes cry appears to have been one of the aims of ancient ophtalmological preparations, one of which was so unpleasant it was called ‘the thankless’.

Powdered zinc oxide

While zinc oxide and hematite stone would confirm an interpretation of the tablets as eye remedies, fats, resins and waxes are rarely listed in ancient ophtalmological recipes. To find an ancient recipe combining mineral ingredients, wax, fat and resin, one must look at formulae for cicatrization. The following example is attributed to Asclepiades (first century BCE) and preserved by Galen:

Asclepiades wrote the following concerning cicatrizing poultices…: burnt zinc oxide prepared with wine; roasted copper; of each 16 drams; wax, 80 drams; Colophonian resin, 8 ounces; sufficient amount of Italian wine. Crush the copper and zinc oxide with the wine, until the preparation has the consistency of wet cerate. Break the wax and resin into pieces, place in a ceramic vessel and add to these 1 litra of myrtle oil. Place on coals and stir continuously. When the ingredients have dissolved, remove from the fire and let the preparation cool down. Add the crushed ingredients, mix together, and use diluted with myrtle oil. (Galen, Compositions of Medicines according to Types 2.14, 13.524 Kühn)

Experimentation would be required to determine the exact consistency of this remedy, but it is clear that it would have been much waxier than the Pozzino tablets. And here is the crux of the problem: it is impossible to find a recipe that lists all the ingredients entering the composition of these pills. And the same issue occurs every time scholars try to bring together written and archaeological sources in the field of ancient medicine. Some scholars will argue that many written recipes have been lost; others that every physician and pharmacologist in the ancient world had his own ‘secret’ recipes that were never written down. Whatever the case, the fascinating discoveries relating to the Pozzino tablets offer much opportunity for archaeologists, chemists, ethnopharmacologists and medical historians to collaborate and establish sound methodologies to bridge the gap between material and written pharmacological evidence.

[1] Gianna Giachi, Pasquino Pallecchi, Antonella Romualdi, Erika Ribechini, Jeannette Jacqueline Lucejko, Maria Perla Colombini, and Marta Mariotti Lippi, ‘Ingredients of a 2,000-y-old medicine revealed by chemical, mineralogical, and botanical investigations’, PNAS 2013 110 (4), 1193-1196

The Early Modern Matter of Fecal Medicines

Whilst perusing some seventeenth century recipes for medicines I stumbled across a few curious ingredients. Granted, many of the ingredients found in Johanna St. John’s recipe book – aside from now common herbs and spices like cinnamon or saffron – might look odd to the modern eye. Some of the ingredients that struck me were spermaceti (sperm whale fat); the sole of an old but clean shoe, burnt to ashes; a crab’s eyes, and the black tips of its claws.

As I read I couldn’t help but assume that the addition of spices, or the use of wine, sugar, and brandy might have best served to make some of the recipes more palatable. But then something caught my eye that all the cinnamon, saffron, and distillation could not possibly conceal. To put it lightly, it was, well, poo. Precisely, for smallpox, “a sheep’s dung, cleane picked”. Clearly you would want to make sure you were getting pure, uncontaminated crap. The recipe goes on to instruct the user to mix a handful of the stuff into a pint of white wine, “mash it well” and after leaving it to stand a full night, to serve a spoonful or two at a time. But wait, there’s more! A note tucked into the margin recommends this smelly recipe for gout and jaundice. Fecal wine, if you will: good for what ails you.

Manure. Credit: Petr Kratochvil

In the mid-seventeenth century Nicholas Culpeper’s Pharmacopoeia Londinensis (1652) heavily criticized the Royal College of Physician’s required inventory for Culpeper and his fellow apothecaries. In his work, which translated the tome on medicine to English from Latin for the first time during the English Interregnum, Culpeper wrote this of a section featuring “living creatures” and “their excrements”: “alack! alack! the king is dead, and the College of Physicians want power to impose the turds upon men” (Culpeper, 52). Culpeper was right, it seemed many were holding onto ideas about fecal medicine. However, while most insisted that ordure altered by the art that was physick was medicinal, some practitioners had more radical ideas about the uses of feces and medicine.

Culpeper’s Pharmarcopoeia, Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Paracelsus was an enthusiastic alchemist, whose writings from the mid sixteenth century blasted Galenic based humoral models that were then commonly taught at European universities. Historian Philip Ball explains that Paracelsus’ particular alchemy “was concerned not with gold making, but with medicines” (Ball, 164). The Swiss magus claimed that regular doctors forced “worthless, bookish remedies” on the sick  “by following ancient methods” strictly for gain (Ball, 165). Paracelsus claimed to have found an alternative to the medicines of the ancients by experimentation, which left him with the conclusion that alchemical processes could render the virtues of nature by separation: “a parting of the detritus and waste of mundane reality from the vital healing forces of nature” (Ball, 165).

Line engraving of Paracelsus, Wellcome Library no.7594i. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

And he just loved manure, as you may have guessed by now. Paracelsus was convinced by his alchemical experimentation that “‘decay is the beginning of all birth’ – and of all health, for ‘that which prevents putrefaction also will prevent health'” (Ball, 205). This is how Sir Robert Boyle, eminent scientist of the Royal Society would come to recommend human excrement, dried into powder, and blown into the eyes as a treatment for cataracts (Sugg, 152).*

During the period of the English Civil War, the writings of Paracelsus polarized the medical community, and Ball argues that as civil war approached, Paracelsians formed line with Parliamentarians while Galenic minded scholars went with the Royals (Ball, 358). Historian Richard Sugg explains,  “Paracelsianism flourished during the Civil War and Interregnum, congenial to many of those who – like Culpeper – practised iconoclasm at various levels” (Sugg, 39). Despite congeniality in iconoclasm, Culpeper wasn’t having the dung. Unfortunately for him, however, the divergent views of medicine both found their respective reasons to prescribe crappy remedies, with Paracelsians and Galenics promoting poop for years to come (Sugg, 163-168).

*Boyle’s manuscript reads: “Take Paracelsus’s Zebethum Occidentale (viz. Human Dung)”. Boyle explains that his recipes are classed by letter: “whereof A, is the Mark of a Remedy of the highest classes of these”. The recipe for cataracts was marked with an ‘A’.

Works Cited:

Ball, Philip. The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

Boyle, Robert. Medicinal Experiments 5th edition. 1712. Gale DocNumber: CW10708275

Culpeper, Nicholas. Pharmarcopoeia Londinensis, or The London Dispensatory. 1652.

Sugg, Richard. Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians. London: Routledge, 2011.