Heat and Women’s Fertility in Medieval Recipes

It seems rather ironic to be writing about ‘heat’ in the middle of a heatwave. I’m not sure anyone in Britain at the moment is keen to increase their level of heat any further! However, according to humoral theory, which underpinned many medical recipes throughout the medieval and early modern periods, heat could be a very good thing when men and women wanted to reproduce.  Heat, in the humoral sense, was believed to aid both sexual performance and fertility, and ‘hot’ foods and medicines were recommended as aphrodisiacs and fertility aids in many ancient, medieval and early modern medical texts.  Jennifer Evans has set this out very nicely for the early modern period – see her book and her post on the Recipes blog from 2013.  But heat wasn’t always a good thing: in some circumstances too much heat could also be a problem for fertility, and in that situation ‘cold’ foods and medicines might be suggested.

In my own work on the medical recipe books of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, then, I would expect to find a range of recipes to aid conception which include ingredients designed to raise or reduce a person’s heat. Although recipes were written in less complex language than Latin medical texts, and focused on treatment rather than theory, the recipes in these collections were often drawn from longer Latin medical works and so were often based on humoral theory even when this was not made explicit.  Nevertheless, my initial survey of recipe manuscripts in the Wellcome Library, British Library and Cambridge University Library suggests that the picture was more diverse than this.  I haven’t made a comprehensive search – and, given the number of unpublished medieval recipe manuscripts, I probably won’t be able to – but the recipes to aid conception that I’ve found so far work on a variety of principles.

Some do seek to adjust a person’s heat in order to correct a perceived humoral imbalance. For example, a series of recipes in Latin in Wellcome Library MS 541, a fifteenth-century medical miscellany of unknown provenance, is explicit about this.

A page from Wellcome Library MS 541. Credit: Wellcome Library.

In a chapter on ‘Impediment of Conception’ it includes recipes for:

If the sterility is because of cold humours… (Si sterilitas fuerit propter humores frigidos…)

If conception is impeded because of too much moisture… (Quod si propter nimiam humiditatem conceptio impediatur…)

If there is a distemper of heat or dryness in the woman which impedes conception… (Quod si caliditate aut siccitate fuerit distemperancia in muliere impediens conceptionem…)

In each case the first stage is to purge the excess humours, and then a selection of baths, plant remedies and suppositories is recommended. (Wellcome Library MS 541, ff. 137r-v)

The whole manuscript is digitized on the Wellcome Library website here.

Similarly British Library MS Harley 2378, quoted by Henslow in an edition of fourteenth-century medical recipes, also mentioned lack of heat as a cause of women’s infertility and suggested a cure to raise her heat:

‘For a womman þat may not bere no chyld for colde blode: Take and let hire blode, and take trisandali and diapendion, and take and ley þem to-gedere with hony, and ete iche day þer-of, and haue blode bothe hote and gode.’ (G. Henslow, Medical Works of the Fourteenth Century (London, 1899). p. 104.)

However, in many other cases the recipes found in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts are not obviously heat-related. Instead many of them require the man, woman or both to ingest animal parts, particularly genitalia.  These recipes work on another theoretical framework with a long history going back to the ancient world: the idea that certain substances were able to stimulate the reproductive organs because of a certain sympathy with them.  For example several fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts of the Liber de Diversis Medicinis, a collection of recipes in English, include a series of recipes involving animal genitalia. To help a woman conceive a male child, ingredients such as the womb and vagina of a hare; the testicles of a hare; and the liver and eyes of a pig (see Catherine Rider, ‘Men’s Responses to Infertility in Late Medieval England’, in The Palgrave Handbook of Infertility in History, ed. Gayle Davis and Tracey Loughran (Basingstoke, 2017), p. 281).

All of these recipes derive – directly or indirectly – from the Trotula, the twelfth-century Latin compendium of women’s medicine edited by Monica Green, although there were some changes in the process of transmission: the Trotula recommends the liver and testicles of the pig, rather than liver and eyes (see p. 77 in Green).  These recipes from the Trotula appear frequently in recipe collections from medieval England: the pig’s testicles appear again in Wellcome Library MS 407 (f. 61r), ‘Against sterility’.

As Green has shown, numerous manuscripts of the Trotula circulated in England, and the treatise had several Middle English translations, so perhaps it is not surprising that its remedies turn up frequently in recipe collections. Recipes based on animal parts have also featured on the recipes blog before: to take just one example, Laurence Totelin mentioned the use of a deer’s penis as an aphrodisiac in ancient Greece back in 2015.  The Trotula did also discuss the ways in which too much or too little heat might make men or women infertile (see Green’s translation, pp. 85-7). Nevertheless, its influence and the popularity of its genitalia-related remedies means that treatments based on heat and humoral theory were not the only fertility aids available to readers of medieval English recipe collections.  In the future I’m hoping to look in more detail at which aids to conception were particularly popular in English medical texts, and what that might tell us about the transmission of information from earlier Latin medical works.  But at the moment the picture – as regards heat – is looking rather diverse.

Recipes to Entertain in an Exeter Cathedral Library Manuscript

By Catherine Rider

Exeter Cathedral has several medieval medical manuscripts in its library, as well as a large collection of early modern printed medical books.[1] Recently I’ve been looking at the medieval manuscripts as part of a larger project on fertility and reproduction, but they contain material on numerous other topics, including many recipes. In this blog post I’ll be talking about one manuscript and highlighting the variety of recipes it contains and some of the questions it raises about recipes for tricks and illusions in particular.

MS 3521 is a miscellaneous manuscript, mainly dating from the fifteenth century, originally from the church of Ottery St Mary in Devon, UK.[2] It contains a few long works on logic and natural philosophy, but the bulk of the manuscript consists of recipes, in English and Latin. The size and format are fairly similar to this fifteenth-century recipe manuscript from the Wellcome Library in London:

L0049309 Medical Recipe Collection Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Collection of medical recipes [written in the area of Worcestershire, first quarter of the 15th century]. Coloured drawings serve as extravagant decoration for the catchwords. Medieval English oak board book binding. 15th century Medical Recipe Collection, England, 15th Century Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Medical Recipe Collection, Wellcome Library, London. Image courtesy of Wellcome Images.

One of the interesting aspects of the manuscript for me is the variety of the contents. Many of the recipes are medical: there are recipes and charms to treat a flow of blood; to treat pains and  toothache; a charm for childbirth; and a recipe for a male complaint, ‘balloks sore and swollen’. There are also recipes for waters and oils, such as rose oil, and cosmetic recipes, for example to make hair blond. None of these are unusual in recipe collections, and as in many other medieval recipe manuscripts they are interspersed with notes on other medical topics, such as blood-letting and the virtues of herbs. Also connected to health and medicine are several recipes to keep animals healthy.

More surprising, however, is a series of recipes fairly early in the manuscript which are designed to achieve marvellous effects. On pp. 97-8 we find a series of these, in Latin: ‘To make thunder and lightning [literally, ‘flying fire’]’, a recipe which involves saltpetre, sulphur and coal; ‘If you want a flame to spring from a fish’s eyes’, ‘If you want to be invisible’, or ‘To make a candle that no one can extinguish’. These examples look as if they are designed to entertain others with spectacular tricks, but some of the recipes seem more like practical jokes which may not have been enjoyed by the person on the receiving end: ‘If you want a woman to raise her clothes’, or ‘So that a man looks leprous.’ Some of the recipes are attributed to ‘Albertus’: I have not yet had a chance to track this down but would guess that they come from a work such as the Book of Secrets or Marvels of the World attributed to the thirteenth-century theologian Albertus Magnus.

These recipes are not unique and have a place in secrets literature. Other scholars such as Bruno Roy have also noted the ways in which magic tricks – in the modern sense of an illusion designed to entertain – appear in recipe collections.[3] More recently Laura Mitchell has posted on this blog about similar light-hearted recipes in other manuscripts, including another recipe to make a woman lift her skirts  and a recipe for invisibility:  Initiatives like Mitchell’s catalogue of English manuscripts containing magic (introduced on the Recipes blog last year) may also help to identify these recipes. However, my impression is that they remain under-studied compared with medical recipes. How commonly were recipes for entertainment copied? Do they appear in some contexts more than others? Are there any clues as to how they were regarded by copyists or readers? In the Exeter manuscript, for example, they are interspersed with medical recipes without much overt distinction being drawn between recipes for different purposes, but how usual was this? Did readers ever express doubts about some of the more dubious tricks? How do they relate, if at all, to evidence of medieval stage magic, such as descriptions of tricks with cups and balls?

I hope to look at these questions in more detail at some point, but for the moment am simply keeping an eye out for other examples.

[1] On these see Peter Thomas, Medicine and Science in Exeter Cathedral Library (Exeter: Exeter Cathedral, 2003).

[2] For a detailed description of this and the other Exeter MSS see Neil Ker, Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries, vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969-2002).

[3] B. Roy, ‘The Household Encyclopaedia as Magic Kit: Medieval Popular Interest in Pranks and Illusions’, Journal of Popular Culture, 14 (1980): 60-69.

Recipes in the Inquisition Records

Recently I’ve been working on a kind of source which has proved to be a surprisingly revealing source for magical and healing recipes: inquisition records. I’ve been working on the records of the Roman Inquisition in Malta, which are preserved in the Cathedral Archives in Mdina, as part of a larger project on ‘Magic in Malta, 1605: the Moorish Slave Sellem Bin Al-Sheikh Mansur and the Roman Inquisition’ led by my colleague Professor Dionisius Agius (click here for further details). The project revolves around the trial of Sellem Bin Al-Sheikh Mansur, an Egyptian slave living in Malta who was accused of practising magic for Christian clients. In most cases it was these clients who reported him to the inquisitors, often after they had mentioned the matter in confession and had been referred to the Inquisition by their parish priest.

Valletta, near the site of the slaves' prison where Sellem lived (author's photo)
Valletta, near the site of the slaves’ prison where Sellem lived (author’s photo)

The record is very detailed and, among other things, it describes some of the magical recipes which Sellem’s clients claimed that he used. It should be noted that Sellem himself denied ever using them, although he did admit to knowing astrology. This means that it is difficult to know how far these recipes were actually used, by Sellem or by anyone else. Nevertheless, the records describe these alleged magical recipes in some detail. For example, Marco Mangion testified that he sought Sellem’s help after he became ill with an illness that he suspected was caused by witchcraft. Sellem seems to have asked Marco for his mother’s name and written this down (the trial record is damaged here) on a slip of paper which he burned in his room in the slaves’ prison. Then he gave Marco several more slips of paper [carte] written in ‘Moorish’ (Arabic) with the instruction to wash them in water and ‘with the water of this infusion wash my face and my whole body, and he instructed me to fumigate with a piece of mongione [I have not been able to translate this]… I used these remedies and it seemed to me that the said remedies benefitted me.’ Marco claimed that Sellem also gave him other remedies: a square piece of lead, and another piece of paper with Arabic.

Although it is impossible to know whether these remedies were really used, they would probably have seemed plausible to Marco and to the inquisitors because they resemble what we know about early modern magical practices from other sources, including inquisition records from elsewhere in Europe. The idea of writing significant words, washing them into water, and then drinking or washing oneself in the water can be found in earlier Latin medical texts. More generally charms which involve the writing of powerful words are mentioned very often in medieval and early modern Europe.  Sellem’s use of Arabic is less common, however, and reflects his own background, and this exotic element may have made the charm seem even more powerful to Maltese Christians. A few paper charms also survive, like this printed one from late seventeenth-century Germany, now in the Wellcome Library in London.

L0059000 Amulet and charm to protect against plague, printed Latin ch

Similar written charms were also used in seventeenth-century Malta: although Sellem’s Arabic carte do not survive, the archives do occasionally preserve examples which the inquisitors confiscated. Thus while researching other cases in the archives we found a few slips of paper covered with symbols and prayers, cloths, and even an unidentified lumpy yellow substance. It is rare, and it feels rather strange, to find such a tangible result of an early modern recipe surviving into the present day.

It has long been known that inquisition records are an important source for the history of early modern healing and magic and there have been studies of records from Italy, Mexico, and elsewhere. They are also an intriguing source for early modern recipes, which give details not only about what might have been done, but also for whom, and why. As the project continues we hope to uncover more details about the recipes used by Sellem and other early modern Maltese healers. We’d also be interested to hear from anyone else working on similar issues in other inquisition records. (With thanks to Alex Mallett for double checking my Italian translations).

Recipes against the Supernatural

By Catherine Rider

I’ve been thinking recently about a kind of recipe I’ve been collecting for some time, with an eye to using them in a future project: recipes that protect against evil spirits and other supernatural entities. These take the form of charms, made up of spoken and written words, rather than more conventional mixtures of plants or animal parts.  As Laura Mitchell has noted before on this blog, many medieval recipe collections (such as the one in the Wellcome Library pictured below) include charms alongside other remedies.

L0013901 Charm to staunch blood, 15-16th century
Charm to staunch blood, 15-16th century. Wellcome Library MS 406. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Research by Lea Olsan, Eamon Duffy and other scholars has shown that although some medieval physicians and churchmen were uncomfortable with charms, most writers accepted them as legitimate cures for certain kinds of illness, including bleeding, toothache and epilepsy. They were also often regarded as a mainstream part of religious devotion.[1] Charms to ward off demons are not very common – nowhere near as common as charms against toothache or bleeding – but I’ve found several examples in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century recipe manuscripts.

The version given, in Latin, in a fourteenth-century recipe manuscript published by Fritz Heinrich begins ‘In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen,’ and goes on to list a series of saints and other objects of devotion commonly appealed to in late medieval prayers: Virgin Mary, the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), the Cross and the Passion, and the Five Wounds of Christ. This prayer is to be written down and God is implored to protect the person who wears these words when they are ‘sleeping, waking, drinking, eating, and especially dreaming’, ‘from every malign demon and every malign spirit and the instigations of the devil.’[2]

This charm, and others like it, are raising quite a few questions for me:

  • Bishop exorcising possessed men, 15th century. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.
    Bishop exorcising possessed men, 15th century. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

    They’re not that common.  Does that mean that demonic assault was not regarded as a common condition?  We do find accounts of ‘possessed’ people in the miracle collections kept by saints’ shrines, so clearly the idea of demonic attack was not unknown.  However, these cases may have been notable because they were unusual, not necessarily because they were common.

  • What symptoms or conditions were attached to this charm?  The reference to sleeping and ‘especially dreaming’ suggests bad or troubling dreams, rather than an illness. Another possibility is the medical condition which medieval physicians called ‘incubus’, in which a person feels a presence pushing down on them in their sleep.[3]  It is usually equated by historians with the condition now called sleep paralysis.  Educated medieval physicians generally argued that this condition had physical rather than supernatural causes, but they also noted that ‘some people’ believed demons were behind it.
  • There are also questions about continuity and change over the longer term.  Do we get more of these charms from the sixteenth century onwards, when we see rising concerns about witchcraft and more intellectuals taking an interest in demons and demonic illnesses? We know that magical illnesses continued to be a concern and Jennifer Evans discussed some early modern remedies for them in 2012 in a column for the Societas Magica newsletter.Also, what happens to this kind of medieval charm after the Reformation?  Did it appear too Catholic with its saints and Latin?  Were there Protestant equivalents?  Or did it continue to be copied despite its old-fashioned elements?
  • Was this charm used? And, if so, how? It would need someone who could write it down, and ideally someone who was familiar with Latin. By the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, that could include some medical practitioners and educated laypeople, but clergy also owned manuscripts of medical recipes and might be best placed to use this kind of charm.

I don’t have the answers to these questions yet, but in the long term I’d like to build the charms in to a larger project on supernatural illnesses in medieval medicine and I’m hoping that small pieces of evidence like these might eventually start to offer a bigger picture.


[1] See for example Lea Olsan, ‘Charms and Prayers in Medieval Medical Theory and Practice’, Social History of Medicine 16 (2003), pp. 343-66 (on medical writers); Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (New Haven, CT, 1992), ch. 8 (on charms and religion).

[2] Fritz Heinrich (ed.) Ein Mittelenglisches Medizinbuch (Halle, 1896), p. 166.

[3] Maaike van der Lugt, “The Incubus in Scholastic Debate: Medicine, Theology and Popular Belief,” in Religion and Medicine in the Middle Ages, ed. Peter Biller and Joseph Ziegler (Woodbridge, 2001), pp. 175-200.