Tag Archives: Jennifer Park

Soul Food: Paracelsian Spiritual Mummy and the Virtues of Ingredients

by Jennifer Park

What is it in food that nourishes us? In a curious Paracelsian treatise, Medicina Diastatica, translated into English from the Latin by Ferdinando Parkhurst and published in 1653, it is written that that which is proper for food must be “alible and vitall, because our life and spirit cannot be otherwise sustained, then by the Analogicall and vitall spirit of another” (6). This vital spirit is one that Paracelsus aligns with what he calls spiritual mumie, which can be “taken from a living body” and “separated and prepared accordingly” (8-9).

To explain how the power of this transferable—and ingestible spiritual mummy works, and where to locate it in matter and vitality, Paracelsus compares its virtues to male seed. In the same way that the “seed of man” is “neither part of the man, nor any substantiall of the parts of the same body, but only a power or certain form descending into the Testicles,” and furthermore “augmented by the mechanick and subordinate spirits, and…endued with a multiplying faculty of it self in the place and time appointed by the Liturgie and rule of Nature,” so too spiritual mumie “cannot be part of…the body it selfe; but must of necessity be a kinde of…addition or trajection,” which “dissipates its self, not only amongst the utmost parts of the body, but even into the best disposed matter” (11). In other words, Paracelsus’s spiritual mummy takes on the characteristics of the soul.

It is thus that the soul, or spiritual mummy, “dissipates” itself in matter to be ingested: it “disposeth it self into the alimentall accession of new matter” (12). For Paracelsus, then, spiritual mumie is the key to why various ingredients and simples embody the virtues that they do, and why they might be used in specific types of recipes and remedies, or avoided in other ingestibles for humans. The text mentions that there is a “proper aliment or food ordained for every kinde of Creature” (13). As such, certain animals are able to find nourishment from plants known to be poisonous to humans. For example, a certain kind of fly is able to “feed on the leaves of Napell, by some called Wolfebane,” the starling finds nourishing “Hemlock, which is poysonous to man,” and the quail can feed on “the hearb Hellebore that is noxious to men” (13).

In terms of such “proper aliment,” it is indeed the “Mumie” of the creature which “requireth the proper Mumie of another for the conservation of it self,” in the same way that it was thought that the consumption of bones was needed for bone growth, and the same with flesh for flesh (13). Having made this point, Paracelsus provides a number of recipes or remedies that are in dialogue with analogies in nature that demonstrate the ways in which such spiritual mumie is transferred. The acquiring of mummy is thus essential to curing “Phthysick (or Consumption of the Lungs),” which requires “eating the Lungs of a Fox” for its cure (13-14). So, too, the author reports a remedy from Galen preserving the individual from epilepsy, or the falling sickness, requiring that the “Masculine Paeony” be “hung about one after the manner of an Amulet (or Charm) being gathered in a Balsamick or proper time” (14). These recipes or remedies enable the author to make an argument about how the virtues of spiritual mummy, or the soul, works: it is the “aforementioned faculties or…powers” that “lay hidden in and with the Nerves and strength of its operation,” found in “the Mumie of the Paeony, Rose, or of any other thing” (15).

Martin Schongauer (German, about 1450/1453 – 1491), Studies of Peonies, German, about 1472 – 1473, Gouache and waterolor, 25.7 x 33 cm (10 1/8 x 13 in.), 92.GC.80. Image Credit: The J. Paul Getty Museum.

Using these examples, the author seems to attribute to Mumie what others have called sympathies, and provides answers to such mysteries as love potions work to “allure the affections and minds towards this or that party,” as well as provides the explanation for why an ancient fable that recounts how “Tigres and other wilde Beasts have been made tame by being nourished with humane milk,” may not have been simply a fable (15). It is, the author affirms, “Mumie” which is “the cause, foundation, architect, and medium of these things” (15). And thus is mummy Paracelsus’s explanation for the virtues of different natural simples that make them useful in various recipes. Though materia medica and drugs lost their medicinal virtues over time, as Tillmann Taape has examined, Paracelsus’s emphasis is on how despite being “pluckt up and dryed, or in any wise dead,” herbs and plants and other simples are able to retain the virtues of the spiritual mummy that was “first infused into them” (16). Just as we can ingest in “every root of Poeony” what Paracelsus calls an “Antepilepticall faculty” (16) that preserves the consumer from the falling sickness, so too we, and our own spiritual mummy, can continue to be nourished by other herbs and ingredients “till their Mumie is wholly extinguished” (17).

Bright Red, Dark Red: Coral’s Color-Coded Virtues

By Jennifer Park

I have long wanted to explore the fascination with coral as an ingredient in the history of science and medicine. Laurence Totelin wonderfully began her post on the use of coral in an ancient amulet by placing coral “centre stage,” noting its curious and complex categorization as animal, plant, or stone, and bringing attention to the other posts in which the red ingredient has cropped up. In tandem with these fascinating mentions of coral, I have been struck for years by a remarkable image in the medieval French Livre des simples médecines which depicts coral on an apothecary’s shelf in a beautiful, vibrant red.

Livre des simples médecines, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS n.a. fr. 6593, fol. 12322.

In this post, I’d like to focus on coral’s red color, a key indicator of the ingredient’s effectiveness, and its naturally occurring virtues as explained in early modern texts. In his medical treatise, translated into English as Paracelsus his Dispensatory and Chirurgery (London,1656), the physician Paracelsus provides an entire treatise on “the Vertues and Preparations of CORALS.” From the start, Paracelsus’s examination focuses on the color of red coral, determining two main kinds: a “dark red colour, or toward a purple colour,” and “a bright, shining red colour” (39). It is the quality of the redness of coral, Paracelsus insists, that indicates its virtue and effectiveness.

Coral that has the “clear, bright, shining red colour”—and additionally which is “full of boughs, and no where broken”—is “full of power and vertue” (40). This virtue is lessened if the coral has “clefts” or is missing parts. Paracelsus uses this to begin his analysis of color differences in coral, and how those color differences indicate the use value of the coral in a number of different remedies.

Paracelsus’s starting premise is that the corals that have the bright red color are “pleasant and delectable,” while the “dark red” or purple are “not pleasant to the eye” (40). Correspondingly, Paracelsus advises that if you carry coral with you, one should “chuse and love the bright Coral,” but “beware…the dull, dark Coral” (40). This leads to Paracelsus’s emphasis of the role of color in distinct affective differences in coral. “As joy differs from sorrow, and laughing from weeping” he outlines, “so these two sorts of Corals differ the one from the other” (40). Therefore, a “sick or weak man, who would have his heart merry and joyfull” would “increase his disease and sadnesse of heart” were he to carry with him the darker colored coral (40-41).

In addition to the affective differences in brightly or darkly colored red coral, the redness of the coral, according to Paracelsus, serves to address one’s susceptibility to various mental, psychosomatic, and spiritual concerns. For example, bright red coral is “good to quicken Phansie, or imaginative faculty” (41), which helps to aid the “studie of Secrets, of Arts and Sciences, and new Inventions” without tiring the mind (41). This is because bright red coral prevents the mind from being infected by “the Divel,” or with “impurity, wickedness or vanity” (41); the dark red coral, however, “doth the contrary” (41).

Bright red coral also protects against “Phantasms, or nocturnal spirits” as well as “vain visions, or vain sights, call’d Spectra” (41). Phantasms and nocturnal spirits were believed to be both good and bad, related to nightmares. Though not of much use to humans, these phantasms were cumbersome in that they could trouble one’s thoughts. Bright red coral provides a remedy, as these phantasms “fly from these bright Corals as a dog from a staff,” although one must beware of the darker colored corals which, in contrast, attract these nocturnal spirits (42). Spectra, on the other hand, are ghosts, or as Paracelsus describes, the “Starry bodies of dead men” (42). These ghosts “cannot endure to be where the bright Coral is,” and thus bright red coral can be used as protection from them. In contrast, however, “dark coloured Coral allures” the ghosts (42).

It is perhaps due to the influence of bright red and dark red coral on both psychosomatic and supernatural afflictions, the spirits and ghosts that can plague early modern minds, that it also gains the reputation of aiding with melancholy. Melancholy, according to Paracelsus, is “a disease which makes a man sad whether he will or not; that he grows weary of every thing, and becoms dull: and by his diverse thoughts and speculations makes him grieve and weep” (43). Bright red coral is able to drive melancholy away, whereas the dark red coral increases melancholy.

Indeed, the early modern description of these virtues of a coral’s redness fits with the ways in which we ascribe affective significance to colors. The vibrancy of red coral thus contributes to its use in recipes that draw upon its redness, not only for its affective influence but also for its sympathetic properties, like the blood staunching remedies of antiquity that Laurence Totelin brings to light and the eighteenth-century bloodstone that Marieke Hendrikksen examines. As Paracelsus himself exclaims, “the mysteries and secrets of Corals are wonderfull” (51)!

The Curious Case of the Homunculus, and the Allegorical Recipe

By Jennifer Park

This post derives from a current chapter of my PhD thesis in which I work through a number of questions about generic categories, i.e. the receipt, and the concerns they reveal about the relationship between the literal and the metaphorical in the early modern English fascination with the preservation of life.

Among various secrets and recipes that I continue to sift through in my research, one note in particular has stayed with me as my first encounter with what the early moderns referred to as the Homunculus. In this brief but bizarre description, Simon Forman defines the Homunculus as a materially constructed figurine that can be manipulated:

Homunculus is a lyttelle ymag or man made to
the form of a man or woman in mettall wax or clay
or cloutes or paste by the which a man may Worke
& doe many thinges in good or ill to the partie for whom it
is made (Ashmole MS 1494, 579)

It calls to mind analogous references, as in John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, in which the Duchess refers to a traumatic image making her waste away more “Than were’t my picture, fashion’d out of wax, / Stuck with a magical needle, and then buried / In some foul dunghill” (4.1.63-65). If the Duchess’s wax picture, manipulated and buried to cause an effect on her, serves as an example of something like a Homunculus, I wondered if there were any receipts that detailed the making of a Homunculus in this way.

What I’ve ended up finding is indeed a recipe for a Homunculus, but in a different form than I’d expected. In John French’s Art of Distillation (1653), a chapter called “The famous Arcanum, or restorative Medicament of Paracelsus, called his Homunculus” provides a recipe for the production of the Homunculus in one of its various forms.[1]

French first clarifies that “Homunculus” referred to three distinct but related realities:

  1. it was “a superstitious image made in the place or name of any one,”
  2. it was “an artificiall man, made of Sperma humanum Masculinum, digested into the shape of a man, and then nourished and encreased with the essence of mans bloud; and this is not repugnant to the possibility of Nature and Art. But is one of the greatest wonders of God which he ever did suffer mortall man to know,”
  3. and it was “a most excellent Arcanum or Medicament extracted by the spagyricall Art” (115).
Homunculi in the human semen. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org
Homunculi in the human semen. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

In other words, the homunculus was an image or an artificial man, much like what Forman and what Webster’s Duchess describe, but it was also a medicine.

Furthermore, what interested me is that the recipe to make the Homunculus as “medicament” was, as French notes, “in part…set down allegorically.”

The recipe begins familiarly enough:

Take the best Wheat and the best Wine, of each a like quantity, put them into a glasse, which you must hermetically close: then let them putrifie in horse dung three days, or until the Wheat begin to germinate, or to sprout forth, which then must be taken forth and bruised in a Mortar, and be pressed through a linnen cloth, and there will come forth a white juice like milk; you must cast away the feces: Let this juice be put into a glasse, which must not be above half full; stop it close and set it in horse dung as before, for the space of fifty days. If the heat be temperate, and not exceeding the naturall heat of a man, the matter will be turned into a spagyricall bloud, and flesh, like an Embryo. (115)

After a while, the recipe begins to take on the form of allegory (French explains that “thus you have the four Elements separated from the Chaos of the Embryo”) (116).[2] Finally, ending in the typically symbol-laden language of alchemy, what French refers to as the “two former sperms, viz. of the man and woman, the parents of the Homunculus” are “closed up together in a glazen womb sealed with Hermes seals for the true generation of the Homunculus produced from the spagyricall Embryo” (117). This, in terms, he concludes is “the Homunculus or great Arcanum, otherwise called the nutritive Medicament of Paracelsus” (117).

Homunculus. https://www.flickr.com/people/britishlibrary/

The virtues of the medicinal Homunculus, French finally explains, are that once the “nutritive Medicament” is presumably ingested and “turned into bloud, and spirits,” it works not only to overcome diseases, but additionally “By this Medicament…youth is renewed, and gray hairs prevented” (117).

Thus my first foray into the Homunculus, as with most research leads, ends here with more questions than answers. How does the medicinal Homunculus relate to the symbolic or effigial Homunculus, and how do they contribute to early modern ideas of the renewal of youth or the reversal of time? What purpose does the allegorical serve in a genre like the receipt or recipe, and what can such recipes tell us about the different symbolic registers within which medicinal substances signify? The preponderance of questions gives me hope that there are rich connections to be made here. There is more to learn, I imagine, about the curious case of the Homunculus in literature, medicine, and recipes.


[1] John French, The Art of Distillation (London, 1653). For more on distillation and a fascinating annotated later edition of French’s work, see Katharine Allen on “The Art of Distillation.

[2] I’d be curious to look further into the clear connection between “allegorical” recipes and the “visual recipes” in alchemy that Anke Timmermann makes reference to in her post on images in alchemical manuscripts.

The Recipes of Cleopatra

By Jennifer Park

In Robert Allott’s edited prose commonplace book, Wits Theater of the Little World (1599), he introduces a section on beauty with this line: “Cleopatra writ a booke of the preseruation of womens beauty.”[1]

Cléopâtre (étude) by Alexandre Cabanel, at the Musée des Beaux-Arts - Béziers. Image available on Wikimedia Commons.
Cléopâtre (étude) by Alexandre Cabanel, at the Musée des Beaux-Arts – Béziers. Image available on Wikimedia Commons.

Today’s post is an introductory foray into the figure of Cleopatra as an apparent source of medical knowledge in early modern England, with recipes that apparently come from the “Book of Cleopatra.” During the time when Shakespeare was believed to have been writing Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra’s book was mentioned in a range of early modern works. What’s fascinating about the recipes attributed to Cleopatra is that they appear in a wide range of works, from secrets to cosmetics to surgery and medicine to natural history and the natural sciences.

To provide a brief example, I’ll begin with a few recipes that dealt with the problem of hair loss, found in a work on surgery, as well as in a work on, surprisingly, insects. The first is physician Thomas Bonham’s The Chyrurgian’s Closet (1630), a posthumously published compilation of his medical work.[2] Cleopatra is listed as one of the “Authors of this Worke,” and is referenced in two brief unguent recipes to restore hair growth, a concern explored for the early modern period by Jennifer Evans and for Graeco-Roman antiquity by Laurence Totelin. The first recipe is for greater ease of hair renewal and growth:

Rx. Cort: arundinis, & Spuma nitri, ana {ounce} ss. picis liquida, q. s. f. vng. *. To restore hayre in an inueterate Alopecia [or baldness]. It will be [ B] very profitable daily to shaue the place, and to rub it with a lin|nen cloath, and then to anoint it, by which meanes the hayre will grow with more speed. Cleopatra. [3]

The other is to preserve hair from falling:

Rx. Brassicae aridae, q.s. stampe it cum aq: q.s. vnto the forme of an vng: *. To preserue haire from falling. Cleopatra. [4]

Cleopatra’s expertise in this domain also appears in Thomas Moffet’s work on insects, which was completed in manuscript form in the 1590s and posthumously published. In his section “On the use of Flies”, Moffet mentions a recipe purportedly contained in Cleopatra’s book in which flies are used to treat baldness.

Title page of Thomas Moffett's work on insects, posthumously published. Image available on Wikimedia Commons.
Title page of Thomas Moffett’s work on insects, posthumously published. Image available on Wikimedia Commons.

For Galen out of Saranus, Ascle|piades, Cleopatra, and others, hath taken many Medicines against the disease called Alopecia or the Foxes evill; and he useth them either by themselves or mingled with other things. For so it is written in Cleopatra’s Book de Ornatu. Take five grains of the heads of Flies, beat and rub them on the head affected with this disease, and it will certainly cure it. [5] 

[Nam Galenus é Sarano, Asclepiade, Cleopatra, & aliis, medicamenta contra alopeciam exscripsit: iisdénique nunc solis nunc mixtis usus est. Sic enim in libro Cleopatrae de ornatu scribitur: R. muscarum capita.g.v. contere et affrica capiti alopeciâ laboranti, & certò sanabitur.] [6]

That Thomas Bonham and Thomas Moffet, who practiced medicine around the turn of the seventeenth century, both reference Cleopatra for these hair-related remedies establishes that they took for granted Cleopatra’s perceived expertise in this area.

Cleopatra’s medical knowledge primarily passed into early modern use through the work of Galen, the Greek physician whose work on the four humors would form the foundation of early modern medical beliefs about the body. Laurence Totelin, for example, provides an example of a recipe in Galen’s work, excerpted from “Cleopatra’s Cosmetics”. The figure of Cleopatra closer to her time was, it turns out, a figure closely associated with cosmetics, gynaecology, and alchemy. That Shakespeare’s Cleopatra—Cleopatra VII, former Queen of Egypt—was probably not the actual author of these receipts seems not to have mattered much for their transmission. Totelin documents a few such Greek cosmetic recipes that used her name and convincingly reads Cleopatra in early Greek medical writings as an example of medical authors claiming famous women as an authority for gynaecological and cosmetic remedies. The attribution of Cleopatra as the author or source of recipes in the early modern period is, I suspect, the inheritance of this practice put into use in posterity. Since the beginning, then, it seems that Cleopatra’s reputation has exceeded her.

What we get is a female figure whose relationship to medicine and to recipe-culture throughout the centuries was quite different from that of the early modern woman. Rather than having to develop and prove expertise in culinary, medical, and pharmacological knowledge by experimenting with receipts, as early modern women did, Cleopatra in the early modern period was already held to be a figure of medical authority. During a time when women were carving a place for themselves in the domain of household physic, Cleopatra may have been a shining example of a woman memorialized through her recipes as evidence of her medical expertise.

[1] Robert Allott, Wits Theater of the Little World (1599),75v.

[2] Thomas Bonham, The Chyrurgians Closet, or, An Antidotarie Chyrurgicall (1630).

[3] Bonham, 283.

[4] Bonham, 283.

[5] Translation quoted in John Uri Lloyd, “Ancient Therapeutics,” The Eclectic Medical Journal 76.4 (1916), 177.

[6] Thomas Moffet, Insectorum, sive, Minimorum animalium theatrum (1634), 71.