Tag Archives: herbal medicine

Recipes and the “Weird”: A Halloween Rumination

By Jennifer Munroe

Henry Fuseli, Weird Sisters (1783).
Henry Fuseli, Weird Sisters (1783).

We might recall Shakespeare’s “Weird Sisters,” the seemingly-sinister witches from Macbeth. Their “Double, double toil and trouble” resonates in our memories as it does in their incantation before Macbeth: “Double, double toil and trouble: / Fire, burn; and, cauldron, bubble” (4.1.20-21). As All Hallow’s Eve approaches, it seems to me useful to revisit their charms; or, as it were, how we might use our sense of Macbeth’s witches to rethink some of the more unsavory of ingredients in early modern recipes, and how we might use these recipes to rethink our assumptions about the witches.

The Weird Sisters’ “hell-broth” includes such mammalian and amphibious creature parts as “eye of newt,” “Gall of goat,” “Adder’s fork,” “Wool of bat,” and “tongue of dog.” Macbeth is appalled at the concoction they brew, and, as it seems, so are audiences (especially modern).  The witches, so often portrayed today as elusive, macabre, dangerous, even grotesque, have been written into our modern imagination as integral to the darkness engulfing Dunsinane.

But what if their witchy-work is not-so-sinister after all? What if they simply get a bad rap? After all, it is Macbeth who does the killing in the play; they merely prognosticate his actions.

I turn to the manuscript recipe book of Rebeckah Winche, a contemporary source, though not of the kind we typically turn to when we ask about early modern witchcraft. For that, we more often go to Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) or the like. However, such animal ingredients were not uncommon in early modern recipes; and in those books, they certainly do not denote the dark arts. In Winche’s book, we find a series of recipes for “The King’s Evil,” Scrofula (or, tuberculosis), one that helps to identify the disease, and two to cure it:


A redy way to know the deseas called the Kings

Take a grownd worme & lay itt alive to the place greved &
take a green docke leafe or 2 andlay them upon the worme
& bine them to the place at night when the patient goes to
bed & if it be the kings evill itt will turne to dust or poud
=er by the morning otherwise it will remayn dead in his owne
former forme as it was a live

A perfect remydy to cure the desease called the kings evill
Take an ounce of pure yellow bees wax or something more
& an ounce uenice turpentine a good quantity of sheepes
suet clarified. boyle them alltogether & when thay are well
boyled put therein 2 good handfulls of the purest barly flower
clear without weedes then temper this flower with the other
things. then put therein 3 spoonfulls of the urin of a man
childe he being not above 3 years olde then boyle it agane
put itt in some earthen or gally pot & stop itt close, keepe it
for your use: when you use it spread it on a peece of fine
linin or on lether and lay it on the sore plaster waise &
by gods helpe it will cure the patient

A nother for the same deseas
Take a live toade & cut of one of her hinder legs
sewe it up in a pece of silke & hange it presently about the
neck of the party greeved. observe if it be a boy or man that
is greeved then a girl or woman must kill the toade but if
a girle or woman be ill then a man must kill it
this hath cured many however if doth sertanly help the other
remydy or any other you shall apply to the sore (if any) to
worke the better efect & sooner cure.

To diagnose “The King’s Evil,” one is instructed to lay a live worm to the aggrieved area, to fix to the unfortunate worm to  “green docke leafe” and wait to see whether the worm desiccates or remains plump (but still deceased) to determine whether the patient is indeed infected.

And to cure “The King’s Evil,” should the patient (and the worm) be so unfortunate, the practitioner summons not the powers of the otherworld, but the urine of a man-child… or the pieces of a toad, who is taken alive and dismembered, removing one of her “hinder legs,” which is then sewn into a silk parcel and hung from the patient’s neck. If a male patient, a woman kills the toad; if a female patient, then a man.

Certainly, this diagnosis and cure might strike some as hocus-pocus, drawing on superstition more than sound medical training and having no more validity than, say, snake oil or verging on something much darker. However, early modern medicine is flush with examples of such diagnoses and cures, and its practitioners appeared quite ready to employ them.

While early modern men and women used these cures as healers and patients, this sort of household medicine was also (and increasingly) understood as inferior relative the professional medicine of scientists and doctors, as practice not to be trusted—or, as we see so often in depiction of witches, as that which ought make us suspicious of its source and its agents.

So what is it about domestic medicine and cookery that has lent itself to this sort of denigration, or the fear associated with witchcraft that enables its marginalization? After all, early modern domestic medicine is not unlike modern herbal medicine, both of which have been relegated to inferior practice, nudged out by codified and “professional” modes of healing that tend to privilege machinery over touching, pharmaceuticals over tinctures and teas.

By juxtaposing Macbeth’s “Weird Sisters” with the recipes from the Winche book, both of which contain what are often associated with “witchy” ingredients, we focus less on the contents of the concoctions. Instead, we are forced to see the ways in which both highlight ways of knowing that are not easily quantified; this is not the ostensible “objective” knowledge of (early modern) science, but something more murky.

This does not mean they are at best silly frivolities and at worst sinister machinations. For Macbeth’s witches are guilty of nothing more than “knowing” (or foreknowing, since they merely predict his actions); they no more dictate Macbeth’s murderous ambitions than he can direct their appearances and disappearances. Early modern recipe practitioners who administer the earthy worm, who collect and pour the spoons full of man-child urine and dismember the toad and make a modern reader say, “Ew,” arguably did no less to diagnose and cure tuberculosis than the scientists of the day.

And as these amateur practitioners worked their medicine, they were necessarily called upon to observe their patients (and their ingredients) in ways that professional doctors and scientists were beginning to move away from: their tactile contact with worm, toad, urine, human skin, and the intensive observation within natural surroundings (rather than a lab) meant that they had to look, listen, and touch differently. Rather than in the laboratory, such amateur practitioners adapted their cures on site, modified their medicine according to individual need (see the many recipes “for another”) rather than generic conditions.

And so, I wonder if on this All Hallow’s season we might take the opportunity to revisit what seems “weird” about the sisters, and how the ingredients and practices of so many early modern men and women, might help us revisit the seemingly strange aspects of medicine in the period and its relation to its ostensible opposite, science. For in these recipes, the strange, the “weird,” may indeed be the very thing that we have made alien—the intimate connections between person and patient, between animal or plant and human, between self and Other–rather than what has in fact been alien all along.

Recipes for Curing Syphilis from Colonial Mexico

By Heather R. Peterson, Assistant Professor of History University of South Carolina, Aiken

Syphilitic man attributed to Albrecht Dürer (1496) Credit Wiki Commons

While there is debate about the origins of syphilis, most Spanish doctors in the sixteenth century followed the physician Nicolas de Monardes in believing it to be of New World origin. Because the disease had appeared and spread so suddenly, Albrecht Dürer and others supposed that the new disease was caused by an astrological conjunction. But Monardes pinpointed the moment of European transmission to Columbus’s return voyage. He supposed that there must have been sexual concourse between the Indians Columbus brought back and all of the armies of Europe who were assembled in Naples; they then spread the disease throughout Europe.[1]

Confronted with curing this new disease, Spanish doctors looked to New World medicinal herbs arguing that where God had planted the seed of contagion, he would also plant the remedy. Eager to understand the new pharmacopeia the Crown sent doctors, such as Francisco Hernandez, and included questions regarding local herbs and cures in the Relaciones geographicas, an ambitious survey of the lands and peoples in the Spanish realms (1580). While the reports identified a number of local cures for syphilis, such as chupirini, which apparently caused the genitals to go on fire, or the herbs administered by female doctors in Oaxaca chinanteca and matlacaptl, only mechoacán, a powerful emetic became a staple part of the Spanish pharmacopeia.[2]

File:A three-headed eagle in a crowned alchemical flask, represen Wellcome V0025636.jpg
An alchemist’s flask decorated with a three-headed eagle representing mercury sublimated three times. Splendor solis, attributed to Salomon Trismosin (1532). Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Many young doctors also made the voyage, hoping to capitalize on first hand experience of native cures. In his 1567 treatise, Pedro Arias de Benavides touted the New World origins of his cure for syphilis, which he claimed to have practiced and “perfected” during an eight-year stay in New Spain. The secret to Arias’s cure was mercury, the alchemists’ prima materia, which he argued opened the channels of the body to receive the herbs and oils. Arias had first witnessed a mercury cure in Salamanca, but claims that his cure was an improvement over the first, which left the cleric “cured” but missing four teeth. Though he claimed it was a New World cure, Arias’ recipe involved items such as theriac (which contained opiates from the Near East), pork fat, and three unguents, two of which refer to regions or places in Spain “aragon” and “dealtea” (de Altea contained fenugreek, a root from India that was probably introduced to Spain under the Moors) suggesting the transfer of pharmaceuticals went both directions. [3] What follows is a transcription of Arias’s recipe.

Doctor Pedro Arias de Benavides’s cure for Morbo Galico (1567)

Mix three quarts of mercury, weighing a mark, with theriac and beat it in the mortar until it is “dead,” which you will know because it does not return to mix although you throw a drop of oil in the mortar, and thus being well mortified, take the mixture from there, and beat six ounces of pork fat without salt, very ground up, and cleaned of all the little veins and nerves that it has, and this being well ground, return to incorporate it with the theriac and the mercury, and leave it there for fifteen minutes.

I have for certain that the theriac quits the harm of the mercury, for the following, because the teeth stay very firm and whiter than before (!) and [patients] are able to chew after the cure, because it does not impede the teeth, because this cure expels [the humors] through the stool and urine. This being so copious that there are men who will urinate thirty or forty times in a day, and it stinks so much that there is not a person who does not suffer from the stench of the urine.

Then in two days I give them one ounce of the unguent “macieton” and another ounce of “aragon” and another of “dialtea.” Later I would incorporate all of these unguents, and let them sit for two days, and after this time, I threw in four ounces of ash of vine shoot and another half of mastic, and another half of incense, and one clove, and another cinnamon, all well sifted, and oil of berry and of chamomile, of each one ounce, and three of oil of brick. And if you want to fortify this unguent for the more robust, throw in a half-dram of “euforbio” but if it is during a hot season I do not throw in any. This unguent has the property that it may go bad later, because all the things that are in it are good and noble and are incorporated, they make a good operation, as will be seen by whomever experiments with it.

Arias did not think that the mercury was a medicine in itself, but that it opened the channels of the body for the real medicine: the mixture of herbs. He argued that bubos was caused by an abundance of melancholy in the body, and noted that though it was normally spread by concourse with “unclean women” it could also arise from a corruption of the humors in the body, as must have been the case for the first person to have the illness. This sort of bubos, he claims to have seen among “very honored clerics, who could not be doubted,” and he sought to restore their honor from suspicion.

[1] Nicolás Monardes, Primera y Segunda y Tercera Partes de la Historia Medicinal de las Cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales que sirven en Medicina (Sevilla: Alonso de Escrivano, 1574), 13-13v.

[2] Anonimo, Relaciones Geográficas de la Díocesis de Michoacán Papeles de Nueva España (Guadalajara 1958), 12, 57. Francisco del Paso y Troncoso, ed. Relaciones Gegráficas de la Diócesis de Oaxaca vol. Tomo IV, Papeles de Nueva España (Madrid La Real Casa: Paseo de San Vicente núm 20, 1905), Atlatlauca y Malinaltepec, Item 17, pp. 172-73.

[3] For a recipe for unguent of de Altea see: http://www.henriettes-herb.com/eclectic/journals/ajp1885/11-mex-prep.html  For the recipe for theriace see the list of ingredients for the Amsterdammer Apotheek (1683) on: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theriac

[4] See the list of ingredients for the Amsterdammer Apotheek (1683) on: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theriac


Introduction – Joyful News of Medicine from Iberian Worlds

R.A. Kashanipour

Nicolás Monardes, Dos libros, El uno que trata de las cosas que traen de las Indias Occidentales, que sirven al uso de Medicina y como se ha de usar dela raiz del Mechoacan, purge excelentissma. (Sevilla, 1569).
Nicolás Monardes, Dos libros, El uno que trata de las cosas que traen de las Indias Occidentales, que sirven al uso de Medicina y como se ha de usar dela raiz del Mechoacan, purge excelentissma. (Sevilla, 1569).

In 1565, the Spanish physician and herbologist, Nicolás Monardes wrote of the great secrets of nature revealed by Spanish encounters of the New World. In the first book of his Dos libros of medicine, Doctor Monardes remarked of the discovery of new and diverse kingdoms in the Occident that abundantly produced gold, silver, pearls, emeralds, and turquoise that were “a greatly admired by the millions all over the world.” The physician, who never ventured across the Atlantic, marveled at the bounty of the Indies as he wrote from the capital and imperial port of Sevilla. He noted that every year hundreds of ships arrived laden with animals and agricultural products—from across the region came “parrots, monkeys, griffons, lions, falcons, owls, tigers, wool, cotton and sugar.” [1] For the doctor, however, the wealth and abundance of the Indies lay not in minerals, animals, and cash crops, but rather in the botany and knowledge of medicine that grew in the Iberian worlds.

Our Indies have given unto us many trees, plants, herbs, roots, juices, gums, fruits, seeds, liquors, and stones that have great medicinal virtues, that have been found to have great effect and precious value, all of which is said to be excellent and more necessary for corporal health than those things known through the world… And as our Spaniards have discovered new regions, new kingdoms, and new provinces, so too have they brought unto us new medicines and new remedies that cure many infirmities, which, without them, would be incurable and without any remedy.

In the Dos libros, Monardes celebrated the remedial uses of saps and resins, bitumen and bezoars, and fruit and stones that came from the provinces of New Spain and Peru, such as the incense Copal from Mexico, the gum of the Caranna from Cartegena, and the Sulphur vivo (quick sulfur) of Peru. He advocated for the use of the Piedra de sangre (blood stone) as a remedy for the bloody flux the Pimienta de Indes (Indian Pepper) as a purgative. In the first published accounts to detail Çarçaparrilla (sarsaparilla), Monardes characterized the plant as critical medicine well known to both Natives and Spaniards from Nicaragua to Peru. Knowledge of the plant could provide remedies to grave pains and afflictions.

El tobaco. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., USA.
El tobaco. Nicolás Monardes, Joyfull Nevves of the newe founde world (London, 1577). Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., USA.

Although Monardes championed Spanish discoveries of subject populations and mineral wealth in the New World, he noted that medical knowledge was a product of experimentation and consultation with local sources of authority, including Natives and Africans. For instance, the knowledge of the healing roots of a plant known as Mechoacan, which were used to treat sores and pox among other afflictions, came from indigenous caciques and healers that encountered the first conquistadores in Central Mexico. Similarly, Spanish friars learned of purgative qualities of the milk of Pinipinichi plant from Nahuatl-speaking natives of the region. Africans experimented with sarsaparilla and Natives across the New World knew of the curative properties of tobacco.  Monardes, a resident of Sevilla all of his life, drew upon the diverse sources of knowledge that flowed through Iberian intellectual and material world.  Based on his work, it is clear that he drew upon the experience and perspectives of Spanish merchants and settlers as much as he took inspiration from Native informants and African healers.

Joyfull Nevvs of the new founde world (London, 1577). John Frampton’s 1577 translation of the compilation of the works of Nicolás Monardes. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., USA.

Within a decade of the publication of  Nicolás Monardes’s Dos libros, the work was translated and published across Europe, with editions in Latin, French, Italian, German, and English. John Frampton’s English publication in 1570 bore the laudatory title Joyfull Newes of the New Found World, which emphasized the optimism and triumphant themes in the original work.

Although some have [medical] knowledge, it is not common to all people, for which cause I did attempt to heal and to write, using all things from our Indies, utilizing to the art and practice of medicine and remedies for the pains and diseases that we do suffer and endure, where of no small profit does follow to those of our time and also unto them that shall come after us…”[2]

El armadillo. Image courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Providence, Rhode Island, USA.
El armadillo. Nicolás Monardes, Primera y segunda y tercera partes de la historia medicinal (Sevilla, 1574). Image courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Providence, Rhode Island, USA.

In subsequent works, the doctor went on to provide some of the earliest descriptions of the useful qualities of materia medica from the Iberian World, including tabaco (tobacco), dragon (dragon fruit), and armadillos.  He championed the materia medica of the Iberian world of the sixteenth century.  His work, however, was but one in an expansive intellectual world.

This series of posts on medicine in Latin America and the Iberian World will look at those connections as a means to examine material, intellectual, and power relations. Monardes work demonstrated that the so-called Joyful New of medicine in the Iberian world was not simply a product of colonial discovery, but a result of complex interactions between Europeans, Natives and Africans across Iberian worlds. As the search for remedies took place across the Atlantic , medical knowledge systems created connections within and across imperial boundaries. The history of early modern Iberian and Latin American medicine shows that these connections were the products of local interactions that connected diffuse, diverse, and often disparate knowledge systems that took place on a global scale.  In these posts we will explore remedies from across Iberian worlds, from Mexico to Peru to Brazil and the Caribbean.  The recipes and posts that come in this series, we hope, will further shed light on the fascinating growing scholarship on the history of medicine in the early modern Iberian world, much as Monardes did himself more than four centuries ago.   Joyful News!

[1] Nicolás Monardes, Dos libros, El uno que trata de las cosas que traen de las Indias Occidentales, que sirven al uso de Medicina y como se ha de usar dela raiz del Mechoacan, purge excelentissma. (Sevilla, 1569), 1v, 2r.

[2] Monardes, Dos libros, 2v-3r.