All posts by claregriffin

Women’s Health in the South Slavic Orthodox Tradition

By Adelina-Angusheva-Tihanov and Margaret Dimitrova

Visit to the witch from the Main Church of Rila Monastery, 1844. Photograph by Adelina Angusheva-Tihanov
Visit to the witch from the Main Church of Rila Monastery, 1844.
Photograph by Stavri Tserovski

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.

Detail from Fresco Photograph by Adelina Angusheva-Tihanov
Detail from Fresco
Photograph by Adelina Angusheva-Tihanov

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.

Map of the Balkans, c. 1340 from Wiki Commons

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.

A Medieval Bulgarian Bible from Wiki Commons
A Medieval Bulgarian Bible
from Wiki Commons

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.

In Search of Alchemy

by Agnieszka Rec

The exploits of John Dee in Prague cast long shadows over the history of Central European alchemy. Colorful tales of the English alchemist dominate both popular and scholarly legend, yielding countless stories and studies. Recent works on Polish and Hungarian noblemen alchemists have only begun to pull back the curtains to reveal activities outside the imperial capital. As I will show, a pair of sixteenth-century notebooks can illuminate this darkness.

The notebooks, now held at the Leiden University Library, collect recipes from throughout Central and Eastern Europe and are the work of the Silesian humanist Franciszek Mymer (c.1500-c.1570) and his sons, Franz, Adam, and Georg. The Mymer family found fellow practitioners as close by as the next village or as far away as Riga. They almost never sought recipes from Prague. The Mymer collections complicate the geography of alchemy in Central Europe, shifting the landscape from a single famous center to multiple, more everyday centers.

Map of recipe origins by Agnieszka Rec via Googlemaps
Map of recipe origins
by Agnieszka Rec
via Googlemaps

If we map the points of origin given for these recipes, the picture that emerges is one that pushes the boundaries of our understanding of the sixteenth-century alchemical market. While alchemical recipes make frequent appearances on this blog, it’s almost always in a western European context (see the discussions of English, Dutch, and German alchemists). In this post I will look at alchemical activity on the other end of the continent where the Mymer family pursued their art.

Over the course of their lives, Franciszek Mymer and his sons moved and travelled all over Central and Eastern Europe. Born in Lower Silesia, Franciszek went south to Cracow around 1519. He studied at the university there for a time and found work as a printer, translator, and poet. During his two decades in Cracow, Franciszek developed an interest in alchemy during this time. In 1540 or 1542, Franciszek left the Polish royal city and moved north, passing several years in Thorn (now Toruń), the town that had produced Copernicus a generation earlier. His first son, Franz, was born around this time. Franciszek made a final move to Dohna, near Dresden, where he served as a Lutheran pastor until his death around 1570. Franz followed his father’s religious calling and attended the Lutheran university in Wittenberg. He settled in Saxony for a time before moving to Moravia, near Olomouc. Of the two younger Mymer boys, Adam remained in Saxony, while Georg eventually returned Silesia and worked as a goldsmith in Breslau (now Wrocław).

The Leiden manuscripts – Vossiani Chymici Q29 and F19 – were a family effort, put together at various stages on their journeys across Central Europe. The Mymers were unusually careful in recording the supposed authors of each recipe – perhaps as a means of establishing authority, as was done with medical recipes at the time. The family collected widely: their recipes are attributed to priests, monks, cathedral provosts, doctors, goldsmiths, a nailmaker, a chef, and an unexpected number of Teutonic Knights. Some of these attributions are more fiction than fact. Many others, though, are accurate and testify to the Mymers’ wide-reaching network of alchemical friends and acquaintances.

Beginning of Georg’s account of his recipe hunt in Breslau, 21 August 1570. Leiden University Library, Vossiani Chymici F19, f.81v. by Agnieszka Rec
Beginning of Georg’s account of his recipe hunt in Breslau, 21 August 1570. Leiden University Library, Vossiani Chymici F19, f.81v.
Photograph by Agnieszka Rec

Franciszek’s long stay in Cracow yielded a number of recipes by Maciej of Miechów (a.k.a. Miechowita, 1457-1523), the famous doctor and professor of medicine at the University of Cracow. Alongside the more usual recipes for producing silver or extracting gold from mercury, Maciej explains how to make gold from two varieties of catnip(!). Franciszek’s sons strayed further afield. Adam and Franz both got a number of recipes from Martin Eyser, a draper in Glatz (now Kłodzko in southwestern Poland). Franz visited a Breslau surgeon and follower of Paracelsus named Johannes Scholz in Riga in 1579.

Georg is particularly wordy in describing the lengths he went to in pursuit of recipes. Most often, his stories start in the market square of Breslau. On 21 August 1570, for example, a friend from Madgeburg told him of a famous recipe in the hands of an unnamed Polish voivode (perhaps Olbracht Łaski, Palatine of Sieradz). According to Georg, acquiring this recipe took the help of no less than three goldsmiths, one imperial official, and one piper. And just in case you might doubt him, Georg had one of the participants confirm the story by writing his name in the manuscript at the head of the story.

Maciej of Miechów, how to turn catnip into gold. Leiden University Library, Vossiani Chymici Q29, f.327r. by Agnieszka Rec
Maciej of Miechów, how to turn catnip into gold. Leiden University Library, Vossiani Chymici Q29, f.327r.
Photograph by Agnieszka Rec

The Mymers looked far and wide for their recipes. They collected across a wide swath of Central and Eastern Europe, from Nuremburg to Vilnius and Riga, and a number of cities and towns in between. The Mymers chose to look east for their recipes and found alchemists there ready to supply them. This rich tapestry of alchemical practice is just waiting to be uncovered.

I am grateful to Anna-Maria Balbach, Center for Language Study, Yale University, for her assistance with the early modern German. The archival trip behind this project was made possible by a SHAC New Scholars Award and a Scaliger Fellowship from the Leiden University Library.

Agnieszka Rec is completing a doctorate in Medieval History at Yale University. Her thesis, titled “Transmutation in a Golden Age: Reading Alchemy in Late Medieval and Early Modern Cracow,” uses the biography of an alchemical miscellany to reconstruct the community of practitioners in Cracow and their ties to wider European traditions of alchemy. An article based on this research appeared recently in Preternature.



How to Fatten a Carp

by Christopher Nicholson

Few ingredients are as significant to the Czechs as carp. This fresh-water fish is so important that it has become the key ingredient in the now traditional Czech Christmas meal.

The centrality of carp to Czech cooking and culture has been understood for centuries. Janus Dubravius (or Jan Skála z Doubravsky, 1486 – 1553), a Czech humanist and the sometime bishop of Olomouc (1541 -1553), wrote a little book so that one could breed the best possible carp.

Janus Dubravius Wikipedia
Janus Dubravius

Dubravius’s book, De piscinis et piscium, qui in eis aluntur natura, was published in Wrocław in 1547 and dedicated to members of the German Fugger and Hungarian Thurzó families. The text gained popularity and was reprinted in 1596 (Nuremberg) and 1671 (Helmstadt). An English translation was published in 1599 as A New Booke of good Husbandry, very pleasant, and of great profite both for Gentlemen and Yeomen: Conteining, The Order and maner of making Fish-pondes, with the breeding, preserving, and multiplying of the Carpe, Tench, Pike, and Troute and diverse kindes of other Fresh-fish.

De piscinis offers readers more or less everything one might want or need to know to establish ponds and breed fish. Dubravius explains in great detail how to locate, construct and fill a pond. He also makes recommendations about the hiring of labour for the project. If a noble has to leave his estate during the building work then he should employ ‘a cunning, expert, and skilfull man to overlooke their work.’ Elsewhere Dubravius covers the breeding and harvesting of fish, while he also considers the crucial subject of what it is exactly that different fish eat. He even suggests that being a good builder of ponds might make a man more attractive to the opposite sex, but seems not to make any fantastic or medicinal claims about the fish.

Jan Dubravius' Latin Text From Open Library
Jan Dubravius’ Latin Text
From Open Library

This manly display will lead to the best-fed carp with which to woo the ladies, but first one must begin by finding the right location for your pond. The first thing to think about when considering a fishpond is where one should put it. Dubravius thinks this is critical for the nourishment of the pond’s potential occupants. The quality of the land is particularly important because carp require no supplementary feeding. The fish would be expected to find their food in their surroundings.[1] Dubravius warns against building ponds in rocky areas or in places where nothing will grow because these areas will not provide carp with the nutrients they need. As he explains: ‘barren and miserable ground’ is ‘most unfortunate for Carpe, because it wanteth the iuce and meysture of the earth, wherewith the Carpe is nourished and made fatte.’

Later, and referring to Aristotle, Dubravius describes the diets of a range of fish. He notes that conger, lamprey and wolf eels are carnivores that eat exclusively other fish, while ‘Mullets feedes on Fish and Sea weedes, Goldins feedes only of Sea weedes, Stockfish on Sea weedes and doung, Codfishes on slyme’.

In its desire for ‘slyme’, the cod shares something with the carp. The conditions that Dubravius says allow the carp to be ‘made fatte’ let it indulge in its preferred diet of ‘slyme and sande’. However, the carp is not a fussy fish. The carp will not eat other fish but it will take worms that live in the banks of the pond. It might also make attempts to catch gnats and flies that amble close to the surface of the water. Those who disbelieve Dubravius are invited to see for themselves: ‘if you walke quietly by the bankes and harken attentively, you shall heere him snatch after them.’

Jan Dubravius' English Text From EEBO
Jan Dubravius’ English Text

Dubravius, like many other contemporary authors, thinks not all foods are equal. The The carp eats ‘slyme and sande’ because it lies at the bottom of the pond, but it is more quickly fattened up if it consumes the worms, gnats and flies. Carp on noble estates might be left to fend for themselves, but Dubravius explains that common folk do things differently. They enclose the fish in weirs and feed to them grain. Another, slightly bizarre, option is thus: ‘Potters clay also dryed a little by the fyer, and annoynted over with the lees of oyle, maketh fatte Carpes, and is much better than corne.’

The point here, then, is not so much about what one should feed the carp. Rather it is where one should put them. In the right environment the carp will look after themselves. If the food is there they will find it. Nevertheless, if one does, through incompetence or bad luck, end up with a pond devoid of ‘slyme and sande’ for the carp to feast upon then one should not panic. Simply find some potters clay, oil and a fire.

Christopher Nicholson completed a PhD in History at UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. He is co-editor of Perpetual Motion? Transformation and Transition in Central and Eastern Europe & Russia (2011) and Between Worlds: The Age of the Jagiellonians (2013). He is currently involved with a project on the medieval laws of Croatia based at the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts and is co-editing a volume of essays on Emperor Sigismund.

[1]                Richard C. Hoffmann and Verena Winiwarter, ‘Making Land and Water Meet: The Cycling of Nutrients between Fields and Ponds in Pre-Modern Europe’, Agricultural History, 84, 3 (2010), pp. 352-80 (p.368).

Three Croatian Glagolitic Recipes Against Toothache

By Marija-Ana Dürrigl and Stella Fatović-Ferenčić,

Historians working on recipes often use sources that, from the outside, do not look like recipe books. One of the most common places for recipes to be found in pre-modern manuscripts is in liturgical books, and other works for priests. A recipe from a sixteenth-century Croatian liturgical manuscript reads:

Help for the teeth: On Holy Saturday when the church bells sound Gloria in Excelsis Deo … say three Pater Nosters and three Ave Marias in honor of God and Mary and Saint Apolonia.

Za zubi pomoć: na Velu sobotu kada se počne zvoniti k Slava va višnih Bogu on trat… rci 3 Očenaši i tri Zdrave Marie v čast Bogu i svetoi Marie i v čast sveti Polonii

This recipe is in the Croatian redaction of Church Slavonic language. Church Slavonic was the common language of liturgy and learning among Slavs in the Middle Ages. It is written in the Glagolitic alphabet; its angular variant was used primarily in the Croatian context. This particular recipe is then readable only by a select few. But its topic – toothache – and its location – in a religious (moral-didactic) book – is much more familiar. Marginal recipes are extremely widespread, as previously discussed on The Recipes Project. This post will take us into the world of marginal recipes by and for Catholic Slavs.

Kingdom of Croatia from Wiki Commons
Kingdom of Croatia
from Wiki Commons

In rural parts of medieval Croatia, a kingdom hugging the Adriatic sea, and a meeting point between the Mediterranean and Central Europe, priests also acted as medical practitioners. Recipes and therapeutic instructions are valuable sources, shedding light on outbreaks of epidemics, on ways of treating diseases, as well as on old terminology. The term “medical” has to be taken in its broadest sense, i.e. it pertains to the basic knowledge the priests possessed.



Medical texts in the Žgombić Miscellany (Croatian Glagolitic manuscripts, early 16th c.) by Marija-Ana Duerigl
Medical texts in the Žgombić Miscellany (Croatian Glagolitic manuscripts, early 16th c.)
by Marija-Ana Dürrigl

Texts in Croatian Glagolitic recipe collections do not follow a strict order (which organs are afflicted; which complaints are present; which kind of procedure is to be applied; which quantity of ingredient is to be used), but seem to have been copied randomly from various sources.

Extant recipes against diseases can be grouped into two broad categories. Concrete texts are instructions for curing ailments that invlolve administering various medications (based on experience and on older written sources). Such “concrete” recipes are applied to treat renal stones, sick eyes, gastrointestinal disorders, and other ailments. Prescribed medications are based primarily on local, Mediterranean, medicinal plants. In Glagolitic sources concrete healing instructions are interwoven with what we term abstract texts, i.e. incantations, prayers and amulets, for example against headaches, insomnia, and sore throats. Religious approaches to disease and healing share space on the pages of Croatian medieval recipe collections with empirical instructions, and both co-existed throughout many centuries. One did not exclude the other, and this kind of promiscuitas may seem a curiosity to the modern reader. However, a strict delineation between the different spheres of knowledge and belief did not happen for another few centuries.

A page from Žgombić Miscellany (Croatian Glagolitic manuscript, early 16th c.) by Marija-Ana Dürrigl
A page from Žgombić Miscellany (Croatian Glagolitic manuscript, early 16th c.)
by Marija-Ana Dürrigl

Here we present three small medical texts from a “marginal” source. The book called the Žgombić Miscellany (today in the Archive of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts in Zagreb) contains moral-didactic texts and religious prose (legends, visions, contrasts). On the last folios there are three recipes for treatment of toothache, one of which is quoted above.

The second reads:

Za zubi pomoć: kuša v belom vini kuhai tere zvanu stavi ča naiteple moreš ako bude Bog otil oćeš imat pomoć

Help for the teeth: Cook sage /Salvia officinalis/ in white wine and use it as a very warm compress – God willing you will have help

Recipe in the Glagolitic Alphabet by Marija-Ana Dürrigl
Recipe in the Glagolitic Alphabet
by Marija-Ana Dürrigl





Sage is often mentioned in Croatian Glagolitic recipe collections; one is reminded of the Latin saying „Cur morietur homo quia salvia crescit in horto?“ ‒ Why should man die, when salvation lies in the Garden? The use of sage in this case can be rationally explained, for it contains aetheric oils and can have antibacterial effect. It is still used modern stomatology for disinfection of the mouth.

The third recipe reads:

Za zubi pomoć: ružmarina i smažera od smreki … i beloga vina skup kuhai ako li pol zvre onem maži zubi imaš lek z Božiju volu

Help for the teeth: prepare an ointment by cooking rosemary /Rosmarinus officinalis/ and resin of the juniper tree /Picea albis/ in white wine and smear on the teeth – you will have help with God’s will.

This instruction, as well as the ingredients, suggests that it was more likely used to those suffering with gingivitis or similar problems, rather than against toothache. The resin of the juniper is rich in vitamin C which is important in healing of the gums. Both empirical recipes suggest white wine, which may have been of help in alleviating pain. Both also end with a smilar phrase reflecting a religious view of healing – if it is God’s will, you will be helped.

This sketch from the Croatian Glagolitic heritage shows the significance of “marginal” sources in tracing medical texts. Although not large in number, Croatian Glagolitic medical texts reflect the intersection of (medieval) Christianity and empirical healing. They should be included into a study of the wide framework of healing practices in medieval Europe.

Marija-Ana Dürrigl, Ph.D., is a senior research associate at the Old Church Slavonic Institute, Scientific Centre of Excellence for Croatian Glagolitism Zagreb, Croatia.

Stella Fatović-Ferenčić, Ph.D, is a Professor at the Department for the History of Medicine, Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Zagreb, Croatia.


1 Dürrigl MA, Fatović-Ferenčić S, „Marginalia miscellanea medica“ in Croatian Glagolitic monuments – a model for interdisciplinary investigations, Viator 30, 1999: 383-396

2 Fatović-Ferenčić S, Dürrigl MA, Za zubi pomoć ‒ odontološki tekstovi u hrvatskoglagoljskim rukopisima, Acta Stomatologica Croatica 1997, 31: 229-236 (Help for teeth – odontological texts in Croatian Glagolitic manuscripts)