This intriguing fresco was painted on the walls of the Rila Monastery, Bulgaria, in 1844. If you look closely at the bottom left-hand corner of this fresco, you might spot a demon urinating in a woman’s potion as she hands it to a sick man. Here, viewers of this fresco are encouraged to connect the activities of female healers with demons and evil spirits. This negative depiction of female healers was a common sight on the walls of nineteenth-century Bulgarian religious institutions, and continued a centuries-long struggle between the Church and local healers. The Church demonised female healers, but regularly concerned itself with the health issues of one group that was more likely to rely upon the powers of these practitioners –women. Indeed, religious texts of various periods deal with health and sickness. Religious healing has been discussed on The Recipes Project before. Medieval South Slavic religious manuscripts commonly contain a range of texts relating to health: curative prayers; medical recipes; healing practices; short medical treatises; prognostications for an illness; and prophylactic instructions (such as dietary texts). In this post, we would like to share some common recipes, incantations and prayers addressing women’s health issues.
The Hodoş Miscellany (Hodoshki Sbornik), so called because of its association with the Hodoş monastery now in Romania, is one of the richest sources for fifteenth century South Slavic remedies. This collection contains a range of recipes, including several concerning women. One such recipe is for conception. For this, it recommends administering morning baths from a dried rabbit’s womb or placenta (lozhe) filled with water during the woman’s menstruation. Interestingly, this recipe bears close resemblance to another remedy for conception presented by Dioscorides. According to Dioscorides, rabbit’s rennet mixed with butter should be used for purging baths during menstruation to cause pregnancy. In the remedy from Hodoş the replacement of the ‘rennet’ (stored in the stomach) with a ‘womb’, perhaps stems from a belief in the sympathetic magical influence of the rabbit’s fecundity. Interestingly, versions of this remedy continued to circulate in South Slavic folk tradition well into the twentieth century. For instance, in the 1980s, Margaret Dimitrova interviewed an old woman from the village of Brestnitsa in the Lovech region who continued to use pessaries made with rabbit fat as a fertility remedy.
Aside from providing fertility aids, the Hodoş miscellany also offers readers medicines to ease the pains of childbirth. We would like to bring three of these to your attention. The first remedy advises users to place a wreath of Euforbia officinarum on the head of the woman in labour. The other two offer brief magical rituals accompanied by powerful Biblical formulae. One instructs the user to write the short biblical quote “Open you, Gate of heaven” on a piece of paper and place it on the woman’s back. The second advises the reader to have a well-watered sponge in his or her left hand, and with their right hand inscribe on the top of the door: ‘Tear it down to its foundations!’ [Psalms 136:7]. The use of the door here as a locus in performing the conjuration might be a symbolic gesture associated with transition. The biblical quotation here took on multiple functions. ‘Tear it down to its foundations!’ is also used in prayers against swelling and water retention in men and horses. The meaning of the Biblical text was quite literally understood. The implication was of liberation, rather than destruction. In all cases it was applied because of the similarity in the expected results, regardless of the nature of the pains. Evidence suggests the use of this kind of remedies was widespread in the Balkans.
The sources presented here from South Slavic literate culture inevitably show the role of medieval monasteries and parish churches in the transmission of healing practices. Indeed, the role of the – male-dominated – Church might help explain the spread of some of these recipes across South Eastern Europe: religious institutions formed a network of literate centres, exchanging texts and ideas. Those institutions preserved and employed ancient medical knowledge, healing practices and biblical texts to support women in the moment of pain and need. Unlike them, however, the female practitioners (as the one in the fresco), who helped medieval women throughout the lifecycle—be they midwives, local witches, or wise and older members of the family—have left behind no sources of their own.
Adelina Angusheva-Tihanov is a Research Fellow at the University of Manchester, working on magic, medicine, and religion in Medieval South Slavic Manuscripts. To find out more about women’s health in the Medieval South Slavic context, see Angusheva-Tihanov, A. “Ancient Medical Knowledge of the Woman’s Body in the Medieval Slavic Context: The Case of the Prague Manuscript IXF10.” Wiener Slavistisches Jahrbuch Vol. 51,(2005) : 139-152.
Margaret Dimitrova is a Professor at Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”, working on Medieval and Early Modern South Slavonic manuscripts. Margaret has published on medieval Slavonic translations of biblical texts and prayers.