All posts by jenshermanroberts

I hold a Ph.D. in Early Modern (Renaissance) literature and spent a fair amount of time studying the history of science and medicine. I’m now writing a novel loosely based on the life of Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, a 17th-century writer, natural philosopher, and poet. I am also the mother of two daughters, partner of a family practice doctor, writing teacher, board member of a nonprofit library, and caretaker of one very freaky greyhound dog.

Scratching “The Itch Infalable”: Johanna St. John’s Anti-Itch Cure

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

Physical or metaphorical, itches are funny things.

"Just a little to the left" (Image credit: Vannie via Wikimedia Commons)
“Just a little to the left” (Image credit: Vannie via Wikimedia Commons)

Physical itches, as Atul Gawande points out, may well have been a response that evolved to alert us to insects and poisonous toxins. Previously thought to be triggered by the same nerve cells that control the sensation of pain, researchers have discovered that itching actually has its own special neural pathway, hence the biologically distinctive need to scratch (what Montaigne calls “one of the sweetest gratifications of nature, and as ready at hand as any”).

Metaphorical itches, too, need to be satisfied: the itch to write, the itch to see a country, the itch (as my graduate-student knitting circle phrased it) to stitch and bitch.

But then there is “the itch infalable,” a cure for which can be found in Joanna St. John’s 1680 recipe book (Wellcome Library MS4338). If itching is one of our primal biological functions, an “infalable” itch, one that could never be conquered, sounds like pure misery. Here is the text:

For the Itch infalable
Put the 3d part of an ounce of white mercury into a qrt of spring water with an ounce of salt peter & a small handful of ordinary salt let them boyle together gently an hower &a halfe and as it boyles put in more water to keep the same quantity let the party stand naked by the fire & dab in a rag wheresoever you se any itch let it dry in & wear stil the same shirt boyle the shirt in an earthn pot that may be broke & break the bottle for tis poison.

I’ll admit that I was drawn to this recipe by the poetry of the title rather than the contents of the cure, but after taking a few self-indulgent moments to admire what a fine novel title “The Itch Infallible” would make, I began wondering about the actual malady.

With lice, fleas, and newly documented scabies prevalent, itching in the seventeenth century would be a pretty common occurrence. But these were all relatively temporary conditions that could be eliminated, or at least ameliorated, by bathing and disinfecting. What then would an “infalable” itch be?

Robert Hooke, Micrographia, flea (Image credit: Wellcome Library)
Robert Hooke, Micrographia, flea (Image credit: Wellcome Library)

Could it have been responsible for the one mysterious death by “Itch” recorded in John Graunt’s 1679 book, Natural and Political Observations … upon the Bills of Mortality?

The only connection I could find between the seventeenth century and any sort of persistent itching condition is a circuitous, even backwards, one: a very modern and highly debated condition known as Morgellons Disease. Morgellons was named in 2002 by a woman researching the cause of her two-year-old son’s painful itching and lesions. She examined his skin under a microscope and disovered multiple fibers. Her search into medical history yielded an anecdote told by Sir Thomas Browne in a 1674 letter about children in the Languedoc region of France, “called the Morgellons,” who grew “harsh hairs” on their backs.

Full and nuanced discussions of the debate about Morgellons Disease can be found here and here, but to summarize, those who suffer from Morgellons have an insatiable desire to scratch in order to extract what feel like bugs burrowing into their skin. A hallmark of this condition is that sufferers find fibers in the lesions—fibers they say indicate an external source of their misery.

Many medical experts, however, believe that the mysterious fibers are simply from clothes, hair, and lint, and that the source of the patients’ suffering is parasitosis, a psychosis in which people believe they have been infested with parasites. Other experts believe that Morgellons sufferers have a very real neurological condition that causes them to feel the sensation of something crawling on them.

I am in no way suggesting that a person treated using St. John’s recipe in the seventeenth century would have suffered from Morgellons or even from Browne’s “harsh hairs,” but thinking about the possibility of a psychological connection to the very real feeling of bugs crawling over or burrowing into the skin (gah–it’s hard to write that without shivering) might help us reconstruct the lived experience of this treatment .

I could easily imagine a scenario in which a person experienced a real infestation of lice or fleas or scabies and then could not stop imagining the accompanying sensation and itching. If that were the case, a rather elaborate sort of “cleansing” in which one stand naked and exposed, wounds treat and clothing burned–such as we see in St. John’s recipe–could provide a healing for the mind.

Whether or not this treatment would be healthy for the body is another question altogether: contact with mercury is toxic. According to the National Institutes of Health, symptoms of mercury poisoning include vomiting, incontrollable shaking, and blindness.

And, in a bitter twist…itching.

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.

 

Pigeon Blood Visine?: An Early Modern Eye Wash

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

Close your eyes and imagine a chicken. Now a duck. Now a turkey.

Now a pigeon.

If this little experiment has worked the way I envisioned, when you thought of a pigeon you didn’t just think of a different bird but of a different environment. You likely pictured chickens and ducks and turkeys on a farm or in a natural setting (if not on your table).

We think of pigeons, however, as urban birds, mobbing together wherever large numbers of people congregate. Some even see them as “flying rats,” nuisances that spread pestilence wherever they go (see this article for an example of the lengths cities will go to in order to control pigeon populations).

It was not always thus, however. In the early modern period and before, pigeons were highly valued birds. They were good for carrying messages and for eating, but the pigeon was also highly symbolic, representing grace, lightness, and spiritual flight. The pigeon does, after all, belong to the same family (Columbidae) as the dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, pigeons were so prized that the right to keep them was reserved for monasteries and estates .

Pigeons were also often used in medieval and early modern medical recipes. The recipes usually involved pigeon dung, but I have also found a sub-strata of recipes utilizing pigeon blood to treat something called the “stroke of the eye.” Given the description in these recipes, I conjecture that the “stroke” referenced is subconjuctival hemorrhage or, put simply, a broken blood vessel in the eye.

This sort of ocular bleeding can occur from trauma or just simply from sneezing or coughing too hard. It is seldom painful.

While a broken blood vessel may sound like a relatively simple problem, the physical presentation of the condition is startling. (In fact, I would recommend NOT doing a Google Image search of this condition before going to bed. Yes, that’s from personal experience.)

James Heilman, MD. Wikimedia Commons
James Heilman, MD. Wikimedia Commons

However disturbing the sight of this condition, however, the remedy was sure to be worse.

In this anonymous medical manuscript of 1663 (Wellcome Collection MS.6812/26), for example, we are instructed to slit the vein on the wing of a pigeon and allow the blood to spurt into the patient’s eye.

For a stroke or pricke if it causeth payne:

Take a pidgeon and let hi[m] blood in one of the winges in the vein & let the blood spinne out of the veine into the eye & it will helpe you yf you use it 5 or 6 tymes.

A recipe for the same affliction from the recipe book of Lady Anne Fanshawe (Wellcome MS7113/25) is almost identical:

For a stroke or Bruise in the Eye:

Take a Pigeon, & let her blood in the great Veine of the Wing, & let the Blood Springe out of the Veine into the Patients Eye. You must dresse it 6 or 7 times.

And again, from Lady Ayscough’s recipe book of 1692 (MS.1026/30):

For A stroke in the Eyes if there Grow pain thereby or if you be pricked in ye Eyes by any thing.
Take of pigion & let her blood in one of the veins of ye wing and let ye blood spin out of ye vein into ye eyes and it will by gods grace cure it this must be done 5 or 6 nights, at gooing to bed.

In humoral medicine, birds were associated with blood, a sanguine temperament (hot, wet) and the element of air. Because of this, we might surmise that a broken blood vessel—and the ensuing red eye—would signal an excess of blood to an early modern physician. The treatment, then, would be oppositional: the patient would need something cold, dry and earthy… like tree roots, leaves, or plants.

Since the eye itself was considered to be a phlegmatic organ (cold and wet), the blood of the pigeon would balance the humors. Buttressing this idea is the recipes’ insistence that the blood be let from the wing of the bird: the seat of airy flight would be the perfect counterbalance to the watery mucus of the eye.

The idea that a pigeon would be salutary to somebody suffering an excess of phlegm or black bile, because of its choleric and sanguine properties, is reinforced in this direction from Sir Thomas Elyot’s Castel of Helth (1541):

Pygeons

Be easily digested, and ar very holsom to them, which are fleumatike, or pure melancoly.*

But whatever the theoretical underpinnings of the use of pigeon’s blood to treat subconjunctival hemorrhage, the lived experience of having bird blood spurting into your eye must have been horrible. And, according to the recipes, it also would have been frequent: the directions, though short, are consistent in directing the patient to undergo the treatment between 5-7 times. By that time, the white of the eye would have returned to its healthy appearance.

Of course, the eye would have returned to normal in about that time without the treatment, too.

Which leads me to the conclusion that (c’mon, you know you were expecting this) . . . this treatment is for the birds.

 

 

*I was pointed to this reference by a note by Michael Robinson in the online version of The Diary of Samuel Pepys.

Little Shop of Horrors, Early Modern Style

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

I like pretty words. Old, pretty words.

The problem with old, pretty words is that they can be awfully deceptive.

While (electronically) flipping through the recipe book of a Mrs. Corlyon from 1606 (Wellcome MS. 213), I came across sundry cures for dull-sounding medical issues:  coughs, agues, and pimples. I’m enough of a historian to know that just because something sounds dull doesn’t mean it is, but nevertheless I kept flipping, looking for a recipe to spark my imagination.

And then I saw it, the perfect attention-grabber: “The making of a Rosa Solis.”

Rosa solis: How lovely! Perhaps, given the possible Latin translation of “rose of the sun,” it could even be alchemical! My heart beat fast…

sundew
Drosera tokaiensis. Photo by Denis Barthel (Wikimedia Commons)

I did a little searching. One look at the picture, and I was struck by this plant’s luminous beauty.

Not only is the plant itself lovely, the recipe from Mrs. Corlyon’s book for rosa solis corial water sounds divine:

Take halfe a peck of the herbe called Rosa Solis beynge gathered before the Sonn do aryse in the latter end of June or the beginning of Julye. Pick them and lay them upon a Bord to drye all a day. Then take a quarter of a Pounde of Reisons of the Sonn the Stones beynge taken out: Six Date as 12 Figges. Shridd all these together somewhat smale, and putt them into a great mouthed Glasse. Then take of Lycoresse and Annisseedes of each an ownze of Cynamone half an ownze a spoonefull of Cloves three Nutmegges of Coryander seeds and of caraway seedes eche half an ownze. Bruise all these, and putt them into the glasse, add thereunto your Hearbes and two pounds of the best Sugar finely beaten and a pottell of good Aquavite. Then stir them well together, and when you have this doen, stoppe the glasse, very close, then sett it in the Sonn for the space of 7 or 8 weekes often turning the glasse about in the Sonn but Lett it stand where the raine may not come unto it and shake it oftentimes together and when it hath so long so stade, straine it and putt the water upp into a doble glasse and keep it for your use. And if you please when you have strained it you may put thereto a leafe of Golde, and a grain or two of Muske.

Raisins, dates, and figs. Licorice, anise, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, coriander, and caraway. Sugar and booze. What’s not to love?

Not only is the rosa solis plant beautiful and its cordial yummy, its effects are impressive. Recorded in the Sir Thomas Osborne recipe collection at the Wellcome Collection Library is the following recommendation:

For There is not the Weakest Man nor body in the world that wantest Nature or Strength or that is falne into a Consumption but it will Restore him againe & cause him to bee Stronge and lustie and to have a good Stomacke & Shortly, hee that useth this three time together shall find great remedie & Comforte.

Ahh, I thought, an intriguing and beautiful medicinal!

Here’s the thing, though: old, pretty words can cover deadly truths.

sundew2
The leaf of a Drosera capensis “bending” in response to the trapping of an insect.
Photo by: Noah Elhardt (Wikimedia Commons)

Rosa solis is also known as sundew, or drosera, and it is actually quite treacherous and deadly . . . especially if you’re a bug. The sundew plant is carnivorous. It grows in boggy, wet, marsh-like conditions—places in which soluble nitrogen is in short supply. To make up for the deficit, the sundew attracts insects with what looks like a fresh bounty of dewdrops, but is in reality a series of mucus glands that trap the insect on the leaf.

The insect dies either from exhaustion (from trying to escape) or from asphyxiation from the mucus. The sundew then excretes enzymes that dissolve the body of the insect.

Pretty much it happens like this:

Disturbing Video No. 1
Disturbing Video No. 2

(Yes, that’s tonight’s nightmare sorted for you.)

These videos are both time-lapse; it can take a sundew hours, even up to a day, to completely digest an insect.

This raises the question of whether early modern herbalists knew about the sundew’s carnivorous ways. Was the actual process too slow to notice with the naked eye?

Early modern recipes for rosa solis cordial make clear that the plant is to be harvested during June and early July. (Jennifer Munroe has discussed the fascinating implications of the detailed intructions for the harvesting of rosa solis.) But did the women and men harvesting the plant know of its unique pattern of feeding?

In the recipes I’ve encountered for rosa solis, I’ve seen no mention of insects or of how the plant feeds. I wonder, then: would the knowledge of rosa solis’s carnivorous ways have changed how herbalists, wise women, and amateur and professional physicians used it? Would the doctrine of signatures have changed pharmaceutical usage?

Knowing that fate of the hapless bug trapped by the mucus of the sundew, would the recipe writer in Sir Thomas Osborne’s collection still have recommended the cordial for aid in growing “Strong and lustie”?

*******

Postscript: Please understand that I could not write this blog without hearing the soundtrack to “Little Shop of Horrors” in my head. Then, for fun, I Googled “Renaissance Little Shop of Horrors.” This is what I found courtesy of Mental Floss:

littleshopofhorrors
Painted by Alison Sommers for Gallery 1988’s “Crazy 4 Cult 5.” Image used with permission of the artist.

Thereby proving that one can find ANYTHING on the internet.