All posts by laurencetotelin

I am a lecturer in Ancient History at Cardiff University (United Kingdom). My research focuses on the history of Greek and Roman pharmacology and botany, with a special emphasis on gender. I have my personal blog, Concocting History, where I discuss more recipes and at times experiment with ancient concoctions: www.ancientrecipes.wordpress.com

Fevers and the Dog Star in Antiquity

By Laurence Totelin

Summer this year in the UK has been particularly hot; we have experienced a heat wave for the first time in almost a decade. The hot days between roughly the tenth of July and the fifteenth of August are known as the Dog Days, so called because they are under the astronomical influence of the Dog Star (canicula in Latin, hence the French “canicule”, sometimes also used in English), also known as Sirius. Greek and Latin poets, starting with Homer and Hesiod, sang of the effects of the parching heat on the environment and people:

When the golden thistle blooms and the chirping cicada
Sits in a tree and pours down its shrill song
Continuously from under its wings, it is the season of exhausting heat,
Then goats are fattest, wine is at its best,
Women are most lustful, but men are weakest,
Because Sirius dries up the head and the knees,
And the skin is parched by the burning heat.
[Hesiod, Works and Days 582-588]

The constellation Sirius in the ninth-century manuscript Harley MS 647 . Source: wikipedia

To the Greeks, women were wet and men dry. The heat of the Dog Days caused both men and women to become drier; this brought positive effects to women, who became more like the ideal male, but weakened men. That weakness, however, was not a morbid state; it was not an illness.

Medical texts composed in later antiquity described a disease called seiriasis, which was an inflammation of the meninges accompanied by a burning fever. Its name evoked the Dog Star Sirius, although the physician Soranus of Ephesus suggested that the origin of the word seiriasis might be slightly more complex:

Some people state that the disease is called ‘seiriasis’ after the star [Sirius], because of the fever; but others state that it is thus called after the sunken forehead, because among farmers ‘seiros’ is the name of a hollow object in which they put and keep seeds. [Soranus, Gynaecology 2.55]

Soranus, and other medical writers, recommended the application of various ingredients to the forehead as treatment for the illness: egg yolk mixed with rose oil, the leaf of the heliotrope, grated colocynth, the skin of melon, or the juice of nightshade with rose oil. Most of these products, available in mid-summer, were thought to be cooling, and therefore effective in the treatment of fevers: opposite is a cure for opposite. The heliotrope, however, was not known as a cooling drug. The therapeutic principle at play here seems to be that of homeopathy (similar is a cure for similar): the heliotrope, the plant that follows the heat of the sun, is a remedy for a burning fever.

An altogether more colourful remedy for seiriasis is recorded in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History:

The inflammation of infants which is called seirasis is improved by the bones that are found in dog excrement, worn as amulets. [Pliny the Elder, Natural History 30.135]

Girl playing with a dog on a Greek funerary stele, second century BCE. Credit: British Museum

Bone shards are sometimes found in dog poop, and these might be what Pliny was referring to here. This ingredient was most certainly chosen because of the perceived link between seiriasis and the Dog Star Sirius. One can only imagine the despair that would lead the sleep deprived parents of a sick child to put their trust in such an amulet.

Eating Crow

By Michael Walkden

In 1936, the residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma were seized with a craving for crow. Butchers sent children into the fields, offering $1.50 for every dozen crows they brought back for the chopping block. Nurses and dietitians suggested that crow-meat could become a staple food in hospitals. And Miss Maude Firth, a domestic science teacher, established a class in crow-cookery. [1]

Tulsa’s crow craze was due in no small part to the efforts of one Dr. T. W. Stallings, former county health superintendent and self-professed “crow hater.” According to Stallings, crows – with their tendency to descend in droves upon staple crops – had become a serious problem for Oklahoma farmers in recent years.

With this in mind, Stallings launched a pragmatic attempt to stimulate interest in the extermination and consumption of crow, beginning with a series of ‘crow banquets.’ Only after the guests had finished their meals – and expressed their approval – was it revealed that they had dined on crow.

It appears that Stallings’ campaign to turn crow-meat into an American table delicacy enjoyed a degree of success. In February 1936, The Atlanta Constitution reported that a group of state officials, including Oklahoma Governor E. W. Marland, were to attend a banquet at which the piece de resistance would be “50 fine, fat crows.” [2] Marland was apparently so impressed by the meal that he established a “Statehouse Crow Meat Lovers Association.” [3]

The American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and its relatives have generally been shunned as foodstuffs in Western cultures due to their omnivorous diets, which often include carrion

Crow-eating was by no means limited to Oklahoma: by 1937, newspapers in Kansas, Georgia, Illinois, and Washington state were all reporting a surge of public interest in the much-maligned bird. In August 1937, it was estimated that an average of two Americans per day wrote to the Department of Agriculture asking for details on “how crows might be cooked, stewed, fried or roasted and how crow broth can be made.” [4] And in 1941, a group of sportsmen enjoyed “crow en casserole” courtesy of Fernand Pointreau, head chef at the acclaimed Hotel Sherman in Chicago. The crows were prepared as follows:

First they were skinned and dressed and put in a pan with butter to which a small amount of garlic had been added. Then the pan was drenched with one-third of a cup of white wine. Strong veal gravy [three tablespoons] and soy bean sauce were added. This sauce was poured over the crow meat and then the birds were cooked in a covered dish for about two hours. [Very young birds taken in the spring require just one hour, according to Chef Pointreau.] Mushrooms, small cubes of fried salt pork, and small glazed onions were added.

Those who sampled Pointreau’s creation were overwhelmingly positive. One diner remarked that he had been “agreeably surprised at the taste of crow,” noting that it “compares favorably with wild duck;” another described it as “A very tasty dark meat, deliciously prepared.” [5]

We should, of course, be wary of taking the ‘crow craze’ of the 1930s and 40s at face value. As we have seen, state officials had a vested interest in promoting the extermination of the birds, which were widely views as destructive pests. The 1930s also saw widespread dearth in the parts of the United States hit hardest by the ravages of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, a fact which could have rendered the crow – not traditionally considered a source of food – more appetising than it had previously appeared.

Despite this, it is also clear that many people were clearly sceptical or downright disgusted at the idea of eating crow. “Roast crow, bah,” exclaimed one Atlanta chef in 1936, “folks just don’t go in for that kind of meat. … So far as I’m concerned, eating crow will continue to be nothing but a political expression.” [6] A writer for the US Department of Agriculture in 1937 similarly declared that “I have eaten rattlesnake, but I have never eaten crow. And I don’t think I ever intend.” [7]

There is little evidence that the efforts made in the 1930s had any lasting impact on the public perception of crow-meat as a foul-tasting or even toxic substance: ‘eating crow’ in modern parlance remains a term for the unpleasant experience of being forced to retract a strongly expressed conviction.

E. W. Marland, 10th Governor of Oklahoma, was apparently so impressed by his own experience of eating crow that he set up an unofficial “Statehouse Crow Meat Lovers’ Association.”

Nonetheless, this brief chapter in the history of food is as an example of what happens when the pragmatic concerns of nutrition run up against shared convictions that certain substances are unfit for human consumption. As Paul Rozin and April Fallon have observed in a much-cited paper on the psychology of disgust:

Whereas people readily acquire disgust responses to substances, especially during the enculturation process, they rarely lose them. This presents a problem in public health, when members of a particular culture reject a nutritive, cheap, and plentiful foodstuff (e.g., fish flour, a fermented item, a particular animal species).[8]

The 1930s crow craze therefore raises several important questions about the parameters of edibility. What factors shape whether an edible substance produces a disgust response? Are these fixed or culturally variable? And how far can they be overridden or reshaped in times of famine or changing public health priorities?

Whatever the answers to these questions, it appears that Stallings greatly underestimated the resistance that his project to rehabilitate the culinary status of crow would ultimately face. “There is no reason why crow shouldn’t be good food,” he declared optimistically in 1936. “It’s just a silly idea that they aren’t good to eat. [9] And yet, almost a century on, while crows continue to darken the skies, they remain notably absent from American dinner tables.


Michael Walkden recently completed his doctoral thesis at the University of York, UK. His thesis explored the relationship between emotions and digestion in early modern English medicine. He will shortly be joining the Folger Shakespeare Library as a postdoctoral research fellow on the “Before ‘Farm to Table:’ Early Modern Foodways and Cultures” research project.


[1] “Tulsa enthusiastic over crow as delicacy,” The Atlanta Constitution, February 14, 1936.

[2] “Oklahoma’s Governor To Eat Crow Tomorrow,” The Atlanta Constitution, February 17, 1936.

[3] “Bids Legislature to Crow Meal,” New York Times, December 3, 1936.

[4] “Biologists Get 2 Queries a Day On Methods of Cooking Crows,” The Washington Post, August 15, 1937.

[5] Bob Becker, “SPORTSMEN EAT CROW MEAT AND FIND IT TASTY: Compare Flavor to That of Game Birds, Chicago Tribune, January 17, 1941.

[6] “Atlanta Gourmets Scoff at Crow As Substitute for Fried Chicken,” The Atlanta Constitution, February 14, 1936.

[7] “Biologists Get 2 Queries a Day On Methods of Cooking Crows,” The Washington Post, August 15, 1937.

[8] Paul Rozin and April E. Fallon, “A perspective on disgust,” Psychological review 94, no. 1 (1987): 38.

[9] “Tulsa enthusiastic over crow as delicacy,” The Atlanta Constitution, February 14, 1936.

Tales from the archives: Love and the Longevity of Charms

In September 2018, The Recipes Project will be six years old. There’s been a lot of blogging on this platform, and we are so grateful to all our wonderful contributors. But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month, I have chosen a piece written by our very own Laura Micthell, who is responsible for much of our social media presence. In this post, first published in March 2013, she presents us with a medieval love ritual and its Victorian equivalent, which has to be carried out on Midsummer’s eve. Enjoy!


By Laura Mitchell

For a long time I have been interested in the endurance/longevity of charms and recipes over extended periods of time, a topic which Alun Withey addressed in a recent post. The major tropes that make up medieval medical charms, for example, appear with relatively minor variations from the thirteenth through to the fifteenth centuries (at least in England, the area I focus on),[1] and of course there’s those herbal remedies discussed by Dr. Withey. A few years ago I encountered a somewhat surprising form of this longevity with a sixteenth-century love charm from Trinity College Cambridge MS O.1.57 (1081).[2]

This manuscript is a household notebook originally owned by the Haldenby family, members of the lower gentry in late medieval Isham, Northamptonshire. Largely written in the first half of the fifteenth century, it contains several later additions including a collection of (mostly) medical recipes written in the margins by a sixteenth-century hand. One of these later additions is a love charm on folio 20r:

To know who shalbe his wiffe or hir husband.

Say thus: “hempe seed, hempe I thee sow lede and vnlede. she that shalbe my worldes make come after one and rake sleepe sleepe and I her see, wake and her know.” this most be done on new yeares day at even taking alitle hempe seed in one hande and going thrise aboute the fire, sowing the hempe seede aboute the fier but not in the fyer. then go to bedde and lie downe vpon the right side speaking never a worde to no body but to say your pater noster and your Credo.

Imagine my surprise while watching an episode of the BBC show Victorian Farm where the presenter conducted a very similar Victorian ritual! The episode in question takes place at Midsummer’s Eve. The presenter, Ruth Goodman, and her daughter, Catherine, go out at midnight to the local churchyard. Catherine scatters hemp seed while saying:

Hemp seed I sow. Hemp seed should/will grow. He who will marry me, come after and mow.

According to Goodman, the future husband was supposed to appear in the churchyard, or possibly that night in a dream.

Obviously there are some differences between the sixteenth- and late nineteenth-century rituals. They take place on different dates: one on New Year’s Day; the other at Midsummer’s Eve. Only the first part of the ritual, spreading the hemp seed[3] and reciting the special words, appears in the nineteenth-century version – there is no fire and no prayers. Naturally, we must also keep in mind that aspects of the charm and ritual might have been changed for television – doing magic is not necessarily entertaining to watch after all! As well, a popular history show is not the best source for scholarly work. Nevertheless, I find this example very interesting and a good starting point to think about the traditions of charms over long periods of time. How did a charm get from the sixteenth century to the Victorian era and finally to a television show in the twenty-first century?

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, medieval medical charms continued to be used throughout the period with little variation in the major tropes used. Owen Davies has also shown that medieval and early modern magical texts continued to be used by cunning-folk in England right into the modern period.[4] The long-term use and survival of these kinds of charms speaks to the ingrained belief among people that magic worked. Much like the Welsh herbal remedies, magic charms and rituals continued to appeal to people for a very long time.


[1] See Lea Olsan’s article “The Corpus of Charms in the Middle English Leechcraft Remedy Books,” in Charms, Charmers and Charming: International Research on Verbal Magic, ed. Jonathan Roper (Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 214-237; and Tony Hunt, Popular Medicine in Thirteenth-Century England: Introduction and Texts (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1990).

[2] Naturally, the charm may have earlier antecedents but I am not aware of any at the moment. As a medievalist and not an early modernist or Victorian historian, I do not know of later examples of this charm, but I would be very interested if any readers know of other examples of this charm.

[3] I am not aware of any special property of hemp seed that might explain its inclusion in those sort of charm, although it has been suggested to me that it might be drawn from the use of hemp to make rope and thus “tie” the two people together somehow. Presumably the growing of the seed is meant to parallel the growing of the love between the two people. I am, of course, open to other suggestions.

[4] See Davies’s book, Cunning-Folk: Popular Magic in English History (London: Hambledon and London, 2003).

Recipes for honey-drinks in the first published English beekeeping manual

By Matthew Phillpott

The Roman emperor Augustus is said to have asked the Roman orator, poet, and politician, Publius Vedius Pollio, how to live a long life. Pollio answered that ‘applying the Muse water within, and anointing oil without the body’ would help to keep him free of sickness. Whether Augustus took up Pollio’s advice is not mentioned. Indeed, Thomas Hill was little interested in exploring the story further when he took it from Pliny the Elder’s The Natural History in the 1560s as part of his small treatise on beekeeping, A Pleasant Instruction of the Perfect ordering of Bees (London, 1568).

Drawing of Thomas Hill from his The Art of Gardening (1568).

The story’s purpose, as an opening passage of his twenty-ninth chapter, was meant only to introduce Muses water (otherwise called Melicrate by the Greeks or more commonly, Hydromel), and to suggest that it is a drink containing various health benefits. Hill went on to explain that the Muses water can ‘ease the passage of wind or breath, soften the belly’ and cure poisoning by Henbane. He then gave a recipe;

Let eight times so much water be mixed unto your honey prepared which boil or seethe so long, until no more foam arises to be skimmed off, then taking it from the fire, preserve to your use.

Hill provides no more detail than that, but he does go on in the next chapter to give a recipe for Oenomel – ‘a sweet wine made with honey’ – that he says is ‘not only for the preservation of health but also to expel the torment of sickness’. Hill advises his readers that the best Oenomel is made of ‘old and tart wine’ with ‘the best purified honey’. His recipe;

Take one gallon and a quart of wine and mix it with half a gallon and a pint of the best honey.

There are more recipes in Hill’s treatise on beekeeping. There are several that describes a distillation of the honey, and another that describes the making of a Honey Quintessence.

Hill’s manual was the first handbook published in English about beekeeping, and it was attached to the very first handbook on gardening (The Profitable Art of Gardening), also produced by Hill. The purpose was a simple one: to bring the knowledge of ancient authorities such as Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, and Virgil, to a modern audience as a means of providing ‘their knowledge and experience’ for the profit of ‘poor husbandmen’ and the better wealth of England more generally.

It seems likely that the recipes for Hydromel and Oenomel were common knowledge and all Hill did here was to cite an authority for something that was already known (he cited Paul Aegina – a 7th-century Greek physician – and Pedanius Dioscorides – a 1st-century Greek physician and botanist). The recipes for distillation and Quintessence were more advanced and might well have been one of the earliest published recipes for these drinks in the English language (although again, the general principles were likely well known).*

By including recipes in his book, Hill emphasises the benefits of beekeeping for his readers but also makes the manual useful beyond those strictly interested in managing a swarm of bees. Landowners or their land managers, who purchased the book to improve the gardens, might equally pass the knowledge of honey recipes to others in gentry households. It would be fascinating to discover if any manuscript recipe books from this period contained references to Hill’s honeyed-drinks or whether any copy of Hill’s books contains annotations or bookmarks related to the recipes.

At the very least, by initialising the genre of beekeeping manuals in England, Hill provided precedence in terms of the structure of content, if not in detail. Many of the beekeeping manuals published in the seventeenth-century also contained recipes for honeyed-drinks and many followed a similar structure to the one that Hill provided, even where they disagreed with many of his claims. How many people followed the recipes, however, is another question entirely.

* Quintessence was described by Andreas Vesalius in 1551 in a book called A compendious declaration of the excellent virtues of a certain lately invented oil, called for the worthiness thereof oil imperial.  He described the Quintessence as ‘nothing else but aqua vitae’ (i.e. distilled wine), and does not mention honey. In 1559, Konrad Gesner’s The Treasure of Euonymus included a much more detailed description of types of Quintessence as drawn out of wine made from a variety of wood, fruits, flowers, oats, leaves, seeds, stones, metals, flesh, and spices. There is a brief mention of honey quintessence, but not a specific recipe for it. I have yet to find any other English printed work before 1568 that describes Honey Quintessence in any kind of detail.


Matthew Phillpott lives in the United Kingdom and undertook studies in early modern history at Hull and Sheffield. He now works at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, and in addition investigates early modern printed materials for ideas about knowledge, history, culture, health, and food. He has recently started a new website to talk more about his research into bee culture in the early modern period called Early Modern Bees.