Tag Archives: History of Science

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:

winchef-63

A redy way to know the deseas called the Kings
evill

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.

History Carnival 117 — A Twelfth Night Edition

Twelfth Night, when the world turns topsy-turvy until midnight and the wassail is drunk to ensure a good apple harvest… A fitting day for the first History Carnival of 2013! This month, The Recipes Project has the privilege of rounding up the past month’s history blogging.

As you might expect in a Twelfth Night edition, there are several Christmas-themed posts to be found. In the winter, a blogger’s interests might turn to thoughts of dark poetry. Over at The View East, Kelly Hignett offers us “A Communist Christmas Carol”, in which Romanian children (c. 1980) request that Father Christmas bring some simple food items (and toilet paper). Lindsey Fitzharris (The Chirurugeon’s Apprentice) takes “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” as her inspiration for a reminder of our mortality, “The Dead Man’s Poem“, wishing us to “thank God you are safe and secure in your life”.

Other bloggers considered another potentially heavy side of Christmas: food! Many of you may have already been back to the gym and turned to salad-eating, but Twelfth Night is a time of cake and pie, so let us remember once more the feasts of yore. Tiffany Stoziciki gives us a taste of American Christmas dinners at the History Reporter (“Christmas Dinners, 1860-1960“), starting with the pared down offerings of the Civil War tables to the best meal of the year on Cold War tables (with some very American bubbly)…  At The Board of Longitude Project, Alexi Baker looks at what Board of Longitude members, whether on shore or at sea, got up to during the Christmas season in “Longitude and a Christmas lark“– and yes, this is a reference to roasted lark! For the lighter side of Christmas, see Caroline Rance’s hilarious “‘Set the Spirit Alight’: Victorian festive science” (The Quack Doctor): from fiery masks to breathing flames, it sounds like Victorian Christmases were rather fun–if dangerous.

In the spirit of Auld Lang Syne, you might check out the future of technology and entertainment at “Fun Places on the Internet (in 1995)” by Matt Novak (Paleofuture). The post is interesting in two ways: bringing back memories of one’s early online forays (ahhh–recalling the sound of a connecting modem still brings a thrill to my heart!) and considering the classification of “fun”…

What are the dark days of winter without a bit of inversion and oddity? Romeo Vitelli at Providentia examines the fascinating case of Mary Todd Lincoln’s mental breakdown in a four-part series, “Mary Todd Lincoln on Trial“. In a post on “Saintly Rivals – a brief comparison of the cults of Thomas Beckett and Edward the Confessor“, Steffan (My Albion) considers the seemingly contradictory ideas of what made a good medieval saint (peaceful virtue or violent martyrdom). Natalie Bennett at Philobiblon reviews Eleanor Hubbard’s City Women: Money, Sex and the Social Order in early Modern London, recounting several tantalizing stories of disorderly early modern women.

The ultimate inversion and oddity, perhaps, is that of tales of cannibalism. Ben Breen has written two intriguing (and beautifully illustrated) posts on medicinal cannibalism and other repulsive remedies in early modern Europe:  “Early Modern Drugs and Medicinal Cannibalism” at Res Obscura and “‘Ravens-scull & a Handfull of Fennel’: Early Modern Drugs” at The Appendix. (These last two posts, if read after Twelfth Night, may also aid in any weight-loss plans!)

December has also been a good month for pondering methodological questions. At The History Tavern and Prospero, the bloggers consider the usefulness concepts such as terrorism (“Boston Tea Party… Was It An Act of Terrorism?“) and genocide (“The Irish Famine: Opening Old Wounds“) in studying specific historical questions.

Trevor Owens and T. Mills Kelly, in turn, are concerned by the research and teaching challenges posed by rapid technological change. Owens–and the lively comments section–suggest ways that archivists might make their collections more searchable in a Google-dominated environment: “Implications for Digital Collections Given Historian’s Research Practices“. Kelly has a multi-part series in which he rethinks the entire history curriculum, specifically the imperative of integrating technology into teaching research skills: “The History Curriculum in 2023“.

The complicated relationships among history, narrative, author and audience were discused by Lucinda Matthew-Jones, Christopher Dummit and Christopher Jones. Matthew-Jones’ post “Doctor Who-ing the Victorians” (Journal of Victorian Culture Online) is a thoughtful response to a recent U.K. report on teaching history in British Schools. The use of history in Doctor Who, she argues, assumes a more sophisticated level of historical knowledge than the government report does! Dummit at Everyday History wonders if a historical novelist can be classed as a great historian  “Guy Gavriel Kay: Great Historian?” In “Narrative History and the Collapsing of Historical Distance“, Jones of The Junto discusses the problems and possibilities of blurring subject and author when writing narrative history. Rethinking our methodological practices and assumptions?  Contemplating non-linear Doctor Who history? Considering how best to tell stories? Fine questions to consider on Twelfth Night.

The world, obviously, didn’t end on December 21. For those who were disappointed, Sir Isaac Newton also had a few thoughts on the apocalypse, which he anticipated happening in 2034 or, perhaps, 2060: “Sir Isaac Newton’s Daniel and the Apocalypse (1733)” (The Public Domain Review).

In any case, it seems likely that we’ll all be here next month, so please come by next month’s History Carnival, which will be hosted by our own Sally Osborn at her blog Travels and travails in 18th-Century England. Happy Wassailing to you, tonight!