A Tale of Chiles, a Servant, and a Travelling Medical Scholar in Early Modern China

By Brian Dott

Fig. 1. A few of the many varieties of chiles available at a market in Kunming, Yunnan, China. (Image Credit: Dott, 2017)

 

Fascinated by early modern Chinese cultural history, I research popular religion, especially pilgrimage, and the culinary and medical uses of chile peppers.  Eating Sichuan food, I wondered “how did the Chinese begin to consume such a spicy, introduced plant?”  All the myriad varieties of the chile pepper originated in the Americas.  They probably reached China in the 1570s.  The earliest known Chinese source dates to 1591 (Gao Lian, Zunsheng bajian [Eight discourses on nurturing life]).  While past and present Chinese use chiles most for culinary flavoring, Chinese adoption and adaption of this American pod did not take off until the chile was classified medically and some of its empirical effects within the human body observed. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), there is no clear distinction between things taken into the body as sustenance and as medicine – everything taken in affects health.  Indeed, one medical text talking about chiles informs the reader: “To make medicine, chop finely, mix with pork fat and fry to make a dish” (Xu Wenbi, Xinbian shoushi chuanzhen [New compilation of the transmitted truths on longevity], 1771).  Furthermore, the earliest text to explicitly mention using chiles to flavor food is best described as a medical text (Shiwu bencao [Pharmacopeia of edible items], 1621).

As Carla Nappi has explored in her series of posts, Translating Recipes, some recipes read as stories or conversations.  Sharing medical recipes allows modern readers to listen in on narratives from the past.  A key author for my exploration is Zhao Xuemin (1719-1805).  Zhao was a medical practitioner and author who worked to update Chinese medical knowledge by including newly introduced ingredients (such as the chile pepper) and knowledge from less well-known practitioners.  He traveled extensively to consult with local experts, and incorporated materials from their manuscripts into his own work.  Indeed, less than a hundred years after his most famous work was completed, more than half of the works he cited were no longer extant (Bencao gangmu shiyi [Correction of omissions in the Systematic pharmacopeia]).

Chiles as Treatment for Malaria

Chiles were used as both a treatment for people who had contracted malaria and as a prophylactic to prevent infection.  A local history from Guangdong stated that “All [varieties of chiles] can remove water-borne malaria and disperse rheumatism.  . . .  In Guangxi malaria is even more prevalent.  One cannot go a single day without [them]” (Enping county gazetteer, 1766).  Zhao Xuemin recounts the following story about chiles and malaria:

Because [the chile’s] property is hot [it can act as a] dispersant by entering the heart and spleen meridians.  It can also disperse water damp.  In guihai (1743), I was in Lin’an [near Hangzhou], in the 6th month a young servant drank cold water and slept on the cold, damp ground, by autumn they had developed malaria.  [They took] myriad medicines without result.  In early winter, by chance [they] ate some chile paste.  They found this very palatable, and needed it with every meal.  In addition they also used [chiles] in a medicinal broth with meals.  Before long the malaria was cured. (Zhao Xuemin, Bencao gangmu shiyi, j. 8, 73b)

Zhao gives a scene setting – place and time.  He introduces the patient, including an emphasis on class, which indirectly provides an explanation for the poor choice of sleeping place.  Zhao also provides us with his explanation for how the infection occurred – conditions involving cold and water.  The heating and damp expelling characteristics of the chile are the traits Zhao sees as important for effecting this cure.  That the servant ate chile paste by chance means that it was probably commonly used, even in a region where the elite culinary traditions rejected strong flavors.  Here, we may be seeing class differences, as the lower classes in China tended to adopt the chile long before the elites.  Chiles could be homegrown, did not have to be purchased in a market, and helped make a starch-based diet tastier. 

The fact that the servant found the chile paste to be “palatable” reflects an understanding in TCM that an individual’s body can instill a craving for things it needs.  Furthermore, while that need and craving exist, strong or even unpleasant tastes and smells become bland or “palatable.”  Zhao is refreshingly candid that older cures (presumably including some of his own) had no effect.  We can also see the importance he placed on empirical knowledge – not just relying on systems and traditional classifications.  It appears that once he noticed an improvement in the patient’s condition, after the chance introduction of chile paste into their diet, Zhao introduced another form of chiles—medicinal broth – into the treatment regimen.  To modern readers, Zhao is frustratingly vague about the recipes for these treatments.  At one level, such details were probably not necessary for his intended audience – exact ingredients in the paste probably did not matter, as long as chiles were present, and everyone knew how to brew a medicinal broth.  More importantly, the anecdotal aspect of the description created an informal tone that may have made this treatment more believable to past readers than any mere list of ingredients.

 

For further reading (and recipes), see  Brian Dott, The Chile Pepper in China: A Cultural Biography, Columbia University Press, 2020.

Around the Table: Celebrating Our Contributors

With the advent of the new year, two members of our editorial team have stepped down from their positions: Recipes Project co-creator Lisa Smith and longtime contributor-and-editor Laurence Totelin. Today we celebrate Lisa and Laurence’s valuable contributions to the project and their service to our community! Amanda Herbert recently spoke with Lisa and Laurence to reflect on their time with the Recipes Project.

Amanda: Tell us about your introduction to the Recipes Project: when did you join, and why?

Lisa: It was a chilly April evening in Saskatoon, Canada, back in 2012… Elaine Leong was over for a week for a conference and various network-building meetings. We were sitting in my (then) living room plotting all sorts of recipe-related activities. We were both intrigued by the possibility of developing a blog that could bring together lots of different voices and would appeal to the wider public. We also wanted to think more widely about what is a recipe, anyway, which is why we took a liberal definition to recipe from the outset, which could encompass ingredient parts, books, magic, and more. Over the summer, we looked into different platforms and ended up going with hypotheses.org as being the most flexible one for a collaboration. We launched the blog on 11 September 2012, with a post on scribblings by Elaine, and were pleased with the good reception it received immediately. 

Laurence: I was on maternity leave with my second child when Lisa and Elaine invited me to contribute to the Recipes Project. At the time, I had never written a blog post, and I was rather nervous. But the invitation sparked something in me, and I started my own blog (Concocting History), which allowed me to grow in confidence. I wrote my first post for the Recipes Project in February 2013 and joined the editorial team at the beginning of 2015, with a series on Greek and Roman recipes. I did not hesitate one second to join because I knew that the Recipes Project was a supportive environment, in which I would be able to develop my editorial skills. 

Amanda: What was your favourite TRP project?

Lisa: What is a Recipe? A Virtual Conversation, an online conference we held in 2017 to celebrate our fifth year. This was a lot of hard work and required a lot of creativity, but we were definitely ahead of the game in terms of a virtual shift. Our goal was to make our conversations about recipes more inclusive, for both people around the world who could not afford to travel and to a wider, non-academic audience. It worked so well, as participants used YouTube, podcasts, blogging, photo essays, and Twitter to join in. We had students, farmers, famous authors, and museum specialists drop in accidentally–they didn’t know it was part of a bigger thing– and contribute to the conversations in thoughtful ways. As Laurence and I were saying the other day, we wish that we had written an article about the conference, which we had planned to do and just never got around to doing… When the pandemic happened, it turned out that our knowledge would have been useful to a lot of people, but by then all sorts of people were trying out virtual conferences with varying degrees of success anyhow. (Readers, let that be a lesson: don’t sit on your good ideas!) 

Laurence: I have two favourites. Like Lisa, I enjoyed the Virtual Conversation immensely. In the COVID era, we have had to switch to virtual conferences, but in 2017, this was very new. We didn’t try to replicate a ‘normal’ conference virtually; we threw away the rule book and tried all sorts of things. Some were more successful than others, but I think that I learnt a lot from the Conversation both in terms of contents and methodologies. My second favourite project was the interaction I had with Jennifer Park on the topic of curdled milk in the breast (here and here). This really demonstrated to me the potential of blogging as a venue for the exchange of ideas between scholars working on different periods (early modern period for Jennifer; Greek and Roman antiquity for me) and different types of sources (drama for Jennifer; medical sources for me). Exchanges between scholars have always happened of course, but blogging allowed us to have our conversation publicly and faster than if we had simply added references to each other’s work in more traditional academic publications. I can’t actually recall whether we had this blogging exchange before or after Jennifer and I met (at the Wellcome Library), but that exchange remains very special to me.  

Amanda: How do you think the project has grown and changed over the years?

Lisa: Our definitions of recipes got even broader. We actively sought out new voices and aimed to be more inclusive by moving beyond our own pre-modern European networks. We quickly realised that we could not do it all with such a small team and expanded to a much larger team of editors and social media editors. This has ensured that we could bring in even more new voices and exciting research! I can’t wait to see what direction the editorial team takes next. 

Laurence: Both the chronological and geographical scope of the project have widened, as we have attempted to decolonise our approach to historical recipes. We used to be a woman-only team, which felt like the right thing in the early days, but we made a conscious effort to change this in the last few years. The blogging format always allowed for flexibility and reinvention, and I look forward to witnessing where the editorial team will take the Recipes Project in the future. 

Amanda: What are your own new directions? 

Lisa: I’ve recently taken on a senior leadership role in my university (Faculty Dean Postgraduate, Arts and Humanities) and will take over as Chair of the Society for the Social History of Medicine Executive in the summer. But my work with the Recipes Project has very much shaped my aspirations in these roles. Through the Recipes Project, I developed my skills in mentoring new scholars and a deep concern about what opportunities are available to them. I also gained experience in virtual community building and collaborative work. These will, I anticipate, be useful in both roles.

Laurence: Like Lisa, I have learnt so many skills through working with the Recipes Project. Most importantly, the Recipes Project has shown me a model for a supportive scholarly community. I have tried to take some of that ethos to my current roles, which include several editorial roles and the co-chairwomanship of the Women’s Classical Committee UK. I’m currently on research leave and I feel at a crossroads from a career point of view, as many large projects I was involved in have come to an end. I’m not entirely sure which road(s) I will take next, but I’m excited to find out. 

Thank you Lisa and Laurence for your years of innovations and contributions! The entire Recipes Project team wishes you all the best in your future endeavors.

If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.

‘Dwale’: A Medieval Sleeping Drug in a Seventeenth-Century Receipt Book

Elizabeth K. Hunter

As part of my research into early modern sleep disorders, I have been examining the wide variety of sleep remedies available in England at the time.  Browsing through the manuscript receipt collections at the Wellcome Library in London, I came across one with this unsettling title:

To make a drinke to cause a man to sleepe till hee bee ript

Take 3 spoonfull of the gall of a barrow swine and for a woman of a gelt swine and 3 spoonefull of hemlocke the iuyce and 3 spoonefull of henbane and 3 spoonefull of the wilde nep [bryony] and 3 spoonefull of lettice and 3 spoonefull of popy and 3 spoonefull of eysell [vinegar] and medle them all together and boyle them a little and cloe them in a glasse well stoped and put therein 3 spoonefull to a pottle [half a gallon] of good wine and medle it well together till it bee used and lett him that shalbe cut sitt against a good fire and make him to drinke thereof untill hee bee asleepe and then mayst thou surely carve him and when thou sure hast donne thy cure and wouldest haue him to awake take vinegar and salt and wash his temples therewith and his wound and hee shall awake imeadiately. [Wellcome MS 373, fo. 99r-v]

Figure 1. A patient about to undergo a surgical operation, early 1700s. A man approaches with a cup containing a fortifying or anaesthetic drink. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

Rather different from the milk thistle possets and linen-wrapped compresses of rose water and poppy seeds I was used to, this was clearly not a remedy for sleeplessness, but a powerful drug intended to ‘knock’ a patient out who was about to undergo surgery.  It was written down by a woman called Jane Jackson in a book of recipes for physic and surgery she compiled in 1642.

Although the name of the drug does not appear anywhere in the source, upon further investigation I discovered that this is dwale, a recipe that had been in circulation in England since the twelfth century.  The Middle English word dwale (pronounced dwahluh), is derived from Old Norse dwol, dvalar, dvali meaning ‘sleep’ or trance’.  Well known in the medieval period, it is mentioned in famous works of literature, such as The Canterbury Tales and the fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman.

Dwale was still known about in England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, as can be seen from publications from the time.  Thomas Lupton included it in his book of secrets A Thousand Notable Things (1579) – ‘This I had also out of an olde wrytten booke’, he wrote.[1]  More suggestive of use in actual practice is Thomas Bonham’s inclusion of it in his collection of recipes for surgeons, published in 1630, where the ingredients are in Latin.[2]  It is likely that Jane Jackson copied it down from a similar publication.

Figure 2. Illustration of four poisonous plants – (clockwise from top left) hemlock, henbane, autumn crocus and wild lettuce. All except crocus were ingredients in English sleep medicine. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

What is striking about dwale is the potentially deadly mixture of poisonous plants with gall and wine.  It is based on ingredients associated with sleep since ancient times – henbane, wild lettuce and the white opium poppy.[3]  The anaesthetist Anthony J. Carter has hypothesised that, at one point, it may also have contained another ‘sleepy’ herb, mandrake.  At some point Bryony, a plant native to England that bears some resemblance to mandrake, has been substituted.[4]

 

While wild lettuce and white poppy were sometimes included in bed-time drinks and possets, henbane and mandrake were considered highly dangerous, and it is very rare to find a sleep recipe that recommends using them in anything other than topical medicine.  Jackson’s version of the recipe also contains the poison hemlock, and Linda Voigts and Robert Hudson found a number of fifteenth-century recipes for dwale that included the even more lethal plant morel (deadly nightshade).[5]  All these plants were considered useful in sleep medicine because they were believed to cool the humours, reducing the temperature in the brain.  Used excessively, however, they could be too effective, causing the body to fall into a lethargy from which the patient would never recover.

The inclusion of dwale in seventeenth-century sources demonstrates the continuity between medieval and early modern sleep medicine, and provides further evidence of the use of poisons in surgical anaesthetics around the world.  We will never know whether Jane Jackson ever attempted to use it to help a patient undergoing surgery, but her interest in copying it down is an indication of the ambitious nature of domestic medicine in relation to surgery (as has been written about by Seth LeJacq).  It is also further evidence of the importance of knowledge of handling poisons in early modern medicine, as discussed on this blog (here and here).  This was particularly important in sleep medicine, in which the ‘coldness’ of the traditional ingredients could be fatal.

FURTHER READING

If you would like to read more about the use of poisons in early modern sleep medicine, see my article “To Cause Sleepe Safe and Shure”  published in Social History of Medicine.

Acknowledgements

This research was funded by a Wellcome Trust Medical Humanities Award “Midnight Vapours: Sleep Disorders in Early Modern England, 1550-1700” [Grant No. 109069/Z/15/Z]



[1] Thomas Lupton, A Thousand Notable Things, of Sundry Sortes (London, 1579), p. 79.

[2] Thomas Bonham, A Chyrugians Closet (London, 1630), pp. 244-245.

[3] Ioanna A. Ramoutsaki, Helen Askitopoulou, Eleni Konsolaki, ‘Pain Relief and Sedation in Roman and Byzantine Texts: Mandragoras Officinarum, Hyoscyamos Niger and Atropa Belladona,’ International Congress Series: The History of Anesthesia, 1242 (2002), 43-50.

[4] Anthony J. Carter, ‘Dwale: An Anaesthetic from Old England,’ British Medical Journal, 319 (1999), 1623-1626, at p. 1624.

[5] Linda E. Voigts and Robert P. Hudson, ‘A Drynke Ϸat Men Callen Dwale to Make a Man to Slepe Whyle Men Keerven Hem: A Surgical Anesthetic from Late Medieval England,’ in Sheila Campbell and David Klausner (eds), Health, Disease and Healing in Medieval Culture (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1992), pp. 34-56.

Call for Editors: Social Media and Acquisitions

The Recipes Project is looking for new editors to grow our readership and expand the range of scholarship we feature on the blog. Are you a savvy Tweeter who loves the back-and-forth exchange of social media? Are you a regular reader with ideas about what you’d like to see us feature on the blog? Do you love thinking about recipes in all their myriad forms? Then you might make a great social media or acquisitions editor, and we would love to hear from you!

Editorial duties include:

Social Media Editors

  • Amplifying, sharing, and promoting writing on recipes, especially by underrepresented groups 
  • Running our social media platforms (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter)
  • Regular liaising with co-editors about site development, content, and promotion

Acquisitions Editors

  • Engaging with underrepresented groups and areas of study related to recipes, especially among underrepresented groups and non-Western societies
  • Connecting with and inviting potential contributors 
  • Organizing, editing, and uploading posts in rotation with other co-editors 
  • Regular liaising with co-editors about site development, content, and promotion 

About Us

The Recipes Project is an interdisciplinary, volunteer organization. This work is the unpaid product of a community of passionate scholars of recipes.

We welcome candidates from all backgrounds, including those engaged with the culinary arts, creative food writing, and academic research. We welcome scholars from a variety of disciplines: anthropology, comparative literature, classics, history, linguistics, literary criticism, sociology, and more. Graduate students are valued members of our community.  We particularly invite submissions from those from underrepresented groups and non-Western societies. 

The Recipes Project has an international reach that explores recipes of all kinds: medical, culinary, scientific, magical. Our posts cover a range of topics relating to historic cookbooks, instructions, ingredients, guidelines, and methods of cultivation and production across time and place. We value new writers and early career researchers, giving them a platform for new writing and supporting and amplifying their work. We have a broad audience—in 2021, we averaged 18,000 unique site visitors per month, and we have over 11.5K Twitter followers. We look forward to expanding further, with your help!

Application Details

To apply, please include a CV and one-page pitch describing what you wish to bring to the team. Acquisitions Editors: include two ideas for a month-long series and how you might expand our reach to new audiences. Social Media Editors: include two ideas for a week-long social media campaign that reaches distinct and diverse groups. Have other ideas? Send them our way! 

Please submit applications via email to recipesproject@brocku.ca. First review will begin on Feb. 1, 2022 and will continue until positions are filled.

Current Editorial Team

  • Clare Gordon Bettencourt
  • Jessica Clark
  • Amanda Herbert
  • R.A. Kashanipour
  • Sarah Peters Kernan
  • Melissa Reynolds
  • Joshua Schlachet
  • Miles Wilkerson