Mrs. Corlyon’s Pimple Cream: A Toxic Topical

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

Reading an early recipe book can be an emotional roller coaster. There’s disgust (“’Snail water’? With real snails? Eww”), delight (“’A pudding of pippins’? That’s like something out of The Hobbit!”), and dismay (“NO! Do not drink the cordial of horse dung! Don’t do it!”).

Most of these emotions arise from the awareness of historical difference, the sensation of reaching across time through these documents and sensing the foreignness of the past.

More often, however, are the prosaic moments, when you think, “Oh, well of course they had to worry about THAT, too.” Headaches. Cooking up extra fruit from the harvest. Toothaches.

And pimples. Ah yes, they also had to deal with pimples.

Salve for pimples on the face. Ms, 14th century, Vienna. Wellcome Library, London.
Salve for pimples on the face. Ms, 14th century, Vienna. Wellcome Library, London.

In Mrs. Corlyon’s A Booke of Diverse Medicines, we find a “A medicine to cure a face that is Redd, and full of Pimples.” It seems unique to me in that similar recipes address redness of the face (perhaps rosacea) or claim to cure pimples or boils, but they are not often treated together. The reason might be the different humoral imbalances thought to cause each: a red face would arise from an excess of blood, while the pus from a pimple or boil would develop from too much phlegm.

Mrs. Corlyon’s recipe, however, attempts to treat both at the same time. For curing the redness in the face, she advises, “Take two penny worthe of quicksilver [mercury], putt it in a little glasse add thereto so much fasting Spitle as will serve to kill it, then shake them well together, and the quicksilver when it is killed will looke like duste.”

The concept of “killing” the quicksilver and turning it to dust confused (and intrigued) me. I wonder if perhaps the potassium present in saliva reacts with the mercury to form a precipitate? It might look similar to the reaction in this video “How to Make the Pharoah’s Serpent” around 4:55.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PC3o2KgQstA

Obviously, the chemicals used in that experiment are purer, but perhaps something similar might have happened in this recipe? (At any rate, and completely off topic, do keep watching the video to see what happens when mercury thiocyanate is ignited—it is one of the coolest and most disturbing things I have ever seen!)

The quicksilver dust is then to be ground with bay oil and made into an ointment used morning and evening for two weeks. The quicksilver, with its cold and dry properties, would balance out the heat and moistness of the excess blood in the skin.

"Cures for red face and pimples." A book of diverse medicines, Mrs. Corlyon. MS.213 Wellcome Library, London.
“Cures for red face and pimples.” A book of diverse medicines, Mrs. Corlyon.  MS 213. Wellcome Library, London.

The recipe then tells us that for a week before using the ointment, the person being treated should have been drinking a special brew: 10 gallons of beer to which is added half a pound of madder (a plant often used in dying cloth red, but also valued as a medicinal with hot and dry properties). This was to be drunk in the morning and evening and “at divers times.” The addition of the madder would balance the phlegmatic humor in the body that was causing the pus to form pimples.

Mrs. Corlyon also advises the person being treated “keep close in [their] chamber” as their skin will actually look worse during the treatment, “untill such tyme as the humor be killed that is betwixt the fleshe and the skinn.”

At first glance, this recipe seems ridiculous. Who would smear mercury on their face and stay drunk and locked in their chamber for two weeks in order to get better skin? But then, don’t we still do this with chemical peels and other kinds of non-surgical cosmetic treatments? At least in Mrs. Corlyon’s recipe, the patient has sufficient beer to drink to lessen the pain.

 


3 Replies to “Mrs. Corlyon’s Pimple Cream: A Toxic Topical”

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