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

Ancient Cures for Asthma: Do They Really Work?

By Joanna Cunningham, as part of the Undergraduate Series

Find out more about ancient ideas on asthma, and whether the remedies that ancient physicians used actually work!

Asthma and Its Ancient Background

Asthma is an affliction of the lungs which numerous ancient physicians discussed in their writings. It was first mentioned in Homer’s works (Iliad, book 10) when men gasped for air in the moment of death. One of the Hippocratic authors was the ‘first physician to understand the relationship between the environment and respiratory ailments’ (Cserháti 2004, 248; Ryan 1793, 62), discussing cold air as a cause for asthma. However, his understanding is questionable, as he associated asthma with epilepsy and hunchbacks (On Airs, Waters and Places, 3). Galen referenced asthma over 70 times in his books (Jackson 2009, 23), but the extent of these ancient men’s understanding of asthma as a separate affliction is questionable; they make no distinction between different types of asthma (cardiac or bronchial). Instead, the Greek word asthma is used to describe the general symptoms of dyspnoea (Stolkind 1933, 37; Frea 2011).

Nevertheless, Caelius Aurelianus gave ‘a better description of bronchial asthma as a distinct disease’ than earlier physicians (Stolkind 1933, 37), and Aretaeus documented the earliest known description of the definition we use today; breathing difficulties after exercise. Therefore, we can see how the ancient understanding of asthma changed over time.

Ancient Remedies

Ancient medicinal techniques have been adapted throughout the centuries, informing modern medicine. Naturally, we are so caught up in the technology of modern medicine that we forget the routes of these discoveries. However, whether these original remedies work is something I was curious to discover. Therefore, I journeyed back in time to see whether myself, as a modern-day asthma sufferer, would have survived an ancient physician’s advice.

Ancient remedies for asthma mostly focused upon loosening the humours. There were the more dangerous and vile remedies, including drinking animal blood, eating rabbit fat and fox lungs, inhaling or consuming numerous herbs and plants, for example, coltsfoot, hellebore and hyssop (Dioscorides De Materia Medica 2.41, 2.30), blood-letting, cupping, and even surgery (Nutton 2004, 56)! However, there were just as many feasible remedies to try, including eating raisins, dried figs, vegetables, barley, capers, bread, and cake, alongside steaming, baths, wet compresses, and moderate helpings of wine with dinner (Jackson 2009, 16, 33; Stolkind 1933, 37; Sanders 2007, 73); certainly a contrast to the more gory options!

My Body on Modern Asthma Medication

My current asthma medication consists of a brown inhaler twice a day, and a blue inhaler when breathless.

On a weekly basis, I take part in numerous extra-curricular activities, including cheerleading and dance, which consist of practising our routine and performing full-outs (performing the routine as you would at the competition), with high energy stunts and bursts of energy throughout. Usually, I cope to a certain point, however, with vigorous exercise, I quickly become short of breath, and anxious about my breathing. So, let’s see how my body copes with the ancient remedies, alongside my inhaler…

My Plan

From my research, I devised the plan below, with the ancient remedies highlighted in red:

Week Plan

This plan varied depending on what I could buy in the shop, what extra rehearsals I had, and how much time I had that day.

My Body Using Ancient Remedies

Day 1

Breakfast: Porridge with Nutella, tea.

Lunch: Niçoise salad.

Nicoise Salad

Dinner: Chicken thigh fillets, roasted vegetables, glass of red wine.

Chicken and Veg

Day time:

Snacks

Dried figs, mixed nuts, raisins, and honey and lemon water

Bed time: Warm flannel on chest, arm massage.

Exercise: Dance (8-9.30pm) – my heart rate increased, I was sweating, and my breathing became rapid and difficult.

Findings: My breathing was no different to usual; I became rapidly out of breath during dance. However, after only one day, I cannot discredit these ancient cures just yet…

Day 2

Breakfast: 1 toast, with avocado and scrambled egg, tea.

Lunch: Niçoise salad, honey and lemon water, piece of birthday cake.

Dinner: Chicken, roasted vegetables, glass of wine, peanut m&ms.

Snacks: Honey and lemon water, and finished the snacks from the bowl yesterday. I dislike the figs, however, as with any medicine, you take it regardless.

Day time: 10 minute steam.

Bed time: Warm flannel on chest, arm massage, lavender-scented bath.

Bath Time

Exercise: Dance (8-9.30pm) – same as yesterday.

Findings: My breathing recovery time was speedier than usual, but I’m sure this was either psychological, or by chance.

Day 3

Breakfast: 2 toast, 2 poached eggs (I didn’t finish this), tea.

Lunch: Vegetable and barley broth.

Broth

Dinner: Chicken, roasted vegetables, glass of wine.

Snacks: A mini-roll, lemon and honey water.

Day time: Sing-along to my favourite playlist.

Bed time: Wet flannel on chest.

Exercise: Cheerleading (3-5pm)/Dance (9.30-10.30pm) – I sweated, and was a little out of breath.

Findings: My breathing was difficult by the end of each routine, but my recovery time was great!

Day 4

Meals: I was very ill, so didn’t eat anything.

Day time: Arm massage, 10 minute steam.

Bed time: Bath, wet flannel on chest.

Day 5

Breakfast: Toast with scrambled eggs.

Lunch: Vegetable and barley broth.

Dinner: Salmon, barley, asparagus, broccoli, glass of wine.

Salmon and Barley

Snacks: Mixed nuts, raisins and figs.

Day time: Another sing-along.

Bed time: Wet flannel on chest, arm massage, 10 minute steam.

Exercise: Cheerleading/Dance Showcase (6-8pm) – 3 full-outs of each routine.

Findings: After each run through, I felt out of breath, however, I recovered quickly.

What My Findings Have Shown Me…

My findings have shown me that these ancient techniques really do work, as my recovery time seemed to improve throughout the week. However, could this simply be a trick of the mind? Or could it just be that a relatively healthy life-style, ensuring to take care of one’s body, works wonders? In reality, only by the 16th century were doctors able to identify and diagnose asthma, and only sometimes able to treat it successfully (Hicks 2006, 30). I think I’ll stick to my inhaler for the foreseeable future, but I see no harm in ensuring to maintain a healthy lifestyle, minus the ancient addition of copious glasses of wine!


My name is Joanna Cunningham, I am 21, and I am currently in my final year at Cardiff University, studying Ancient and Medieval History. I am a cat lover and sushi fanatic, and have always been a keen writer. After writing my ancient asthma cures blog post for my second year Greek and Roman medicine module, I was totally inspired. Since this assignment, I have started up my own blog focusing on lifestyle, fashion, beauty, food, productivity, and travel (you can find  it following this link), and I am now looking to start a career in content writing, copywriting, and journalism, as this is what I am truly passionate about.

Introducing the UG series

By Laurence Totelin

For the last five years, the Recipes Project has been running an annual September Teaching series. That series has proven extremely successful, and the blog is now a mine of resources for any teacher in search of inspiration. Repeatedly, posts published as part of the series have demonstrated the extraordinary pedagogical power of historical recipes, as texts or as interface between the written and the material.

Parallel to this, fostering the career of younger scholars has always been part of the Recipes Project’s mission. It has published — and continues to publish — the work of MA and PhD students, some of whom have now settled into their careers, academic or otherwise.

Inspired by my own experience as a contributor and editor of the Recipes Project, in the academic year 2015/16, I decided to incorporate blogging into the assessment of my Cardiff University UG module on Greek and Roman Medicine. I was overwhelmed by the quality of the work of my students. Most of them had neither studied ancient medicine nor blogged before, but they took on both challenges! They inspired me to push myself further as a teacher. 


Advert for poducts of the Pharmacie Centrale de France representing a professor teaching pharmacy to students in mid-16th century Paris. Colour lithograph, after 1889. Source: Wellcome Images

They also sowed a seed in my mind: what about starting an undergraduate series for the Recipes Project? So, this month, for the first time, we are showcasing the fabulous work of  four undergraduate students: Joanna Cunningham, Allison Shichen Du, Eboni John, and Hazel Lunn.

We hope that our readers will enjoy their work. We also hope that those readers with teaching responsibilities will consider encouraging their UG students to blog and share their fresh insights into historical recipes.


Tales from the archives: the torture of therapeutics in Rome: Galen on pigeon dung

Recently, I have noticed fewer pigeons at Cardiff station. This probably mean that there has been a cull, which even though I’m no fan of pigeons, made me feel rather melancholy. So, in honour of the humble pigeon, here is, fresh from our archives, a fab post by Caroline Petit on pigeon excrement in Galen’s recipes.


Although Galen is more than reluctant to use disgusting ingredients and remedies wherever possible (De simpl. med. ac fac., X, 1), his catalogue of simple remedies, his recipes and case histories show that animal and even human dung and urine are not absent from his therapeutic arsenal. But this is not as contradictory as it sounds, because Galen uses careful qualifications in his approach to excrements. Why, did you think he was going to spread dog’s feces all over your face? Fear not, Galen uses only non-smelling dung.

File:Fresco pigeon Oplontis.jpg
A pigeon on a Roman fresco from Oplontis. Source: Wikipedia.

Galen reports an interesting case. In the dead of night, Galen was once called to the bedside of a Roman lady (Meth. med. V, 13); she had begun spitting blood and became extremely concerned, as she had heard Galen warn people against this dangerous symptom (Rome was justifiably anxious about the Antonine plague). She believed only prompt treatment would get the better of it, and she called for him. When Galen arrived, she begged him to submit her to whatever treatment he would deem suitable to cure her; the treatment designed by Galen would make any modern patient shiver, as it sounds very drastic indeed:

“I ordered the use of a sharp clyster and rubbing, and binding around of the legs and arms as much as possible, along with a heating medication. Then, having shaved her head, I applied the medication made from the excrement of wild pigeons. After an interval of three hours, I led her to the bath and and washed her without touching her head with any oil. Then I covered her head with a well-fitting felt cloth and, according to the prevailing season, I nourished her with thick gruel alone, afterwards giving her bitter fruits. Then, when she was about to go to sleep, I gave her the medication made from vipers that had been prepared four months before, for such a medication still has the juice of the poppy in strong degree whereas, in medications that have been aged, the strength becomes less. (…) Then, at intervals I repeatedly used on her head the customary salve from thapsia. I provided total care and nourishment for the body with passive exercises, rubbings, perambulations, abstinence from baths and a moderate and succulent diet. This woman became well without the need for milk.”

The poor woman, who was certainly elegant, perhaps fashionable and accustomed to elaborate hair styles (at least this is how we usually picture Roman ladies – Galen doesn’t comment on his patient), had to endure the shaving of her head, then the prolonged application of a paste made with pigeon dung – a well-known ingredient, known for its heating and drying properties, at least since Dioscorides (Mat. med. II, 80). The rest of the treatment is strikingly strong, with several powerful heating remedies (for example thapsia, which could cause burns if used at a high dosage) and must have been difficult to endure, especially as it lasted for a number of days. But the excrement of wild pigeon catches the eye, because it belongs to the much-maligned category of ‘disgusting’ (bdelura) remedies: so why does Galen mention it so casually here, in the case of a woman who must have been more delicate than any other, and for a readership who may have been just as sensitive as this poor woman? Well, Galen explains elsewhere in book X of his treatise on simple drugs that the key thing is to have dung that doesn’t smell, in order to remove the nauseating factor. For dung does have remarkable properties. Thus some forms of dung, especially the one coming from wild pigeons, is absolutely devoid of bad smell and is a powerful, reliable remedy praised by all. For some smelly kinds of dung (as in dog’s dung), it is preferable to let it dry first, before grounding it and thus, again, removing the problem of smell. Dung is disgusting only as long as it smells of dung. But once it is transformed into a powder, a paste, or any other pharmaceutical form you can think of, it is perfectly acceptable and pretty useful, as it is easy to find and inexpensive. What’s not to like?

Conference report: “The Words of Medicine”

By Isabella Bonati

From Wednesday 19th to Saturday 22nd September the international Conference “The Words of Medicine: Technical Terminology in Material and Textual Evidence from the Graeco-Roman World” was held at the North-West University of Potchefstroom (South Africa). Sixteen scholars from around the world exchanged knowledge, research and experience, and worked together on the exciting field of ancient medicine and its technical vocabulary. Papers presented at the conference approached the topic from different perspectives and in different typologies of texts and sources – Greek medical authors, as well as non-medical texts, papyri of medical content, Latin prose and poems. While on this journey into the words of medicine, they have explored the degrees of technicality used to express medical concepts and issues, the socio-linguistic aspects of medical vocabulary, the (re)use of medical terms and images in Greek and Latin authors up to Late Antiquity, that is, the crossing of medical terminology into other literary genres, but they have also dealt with the material side of ancient medicine and its practice. The deep interdisciplinary approach which has inspired the conference has proved to be fruitful to enhance our knowledge of the Graeco-Roman medicine and its technical vocabulary through the analysis of its sources, both textual and material. One of the aims of such an approach was to promote connections between disciplines also in a modern institutional context, given the relevance of the reconstruction of medical profession and health care of the ancient world for the Medical Humanities and, in general, Health Sciences. The main aim was to contribute to “revitalise” the past and to make it more accessible by rediscovering the medical terminology in its real and concrete dimension and allowing its issues to come alive, in a way that can improve our understanding both of the past and the present.


Pompeii, Wall Painting, House of Siricus, I century AD

On Wednesday evening, the Conference was opened by a cocktail reception and the Keynote address delivered by Stephen Harrison from the University of Oxford, who investigated the medical imagery in Horace’s poetry. The first panel, on Thursday 20th, was inaugurated by the Keynote address given by Alessia Guardasole from Paris-Sorbonne, who focused on a diachronic and contextual study of the technical vocabulary employed by Galen in his pharmacological treatises.  As a second speaker of that session, Nathalie Rousseau from the same University scrutinised other remarkable aspects of the technical words of medicine according to Galen.

The second and the third panels provided an opportunity to explore the medical terminology and the medical practice in the Greek papyri from Egypt. Anna Monte from the Humboldt University of Berlin analysed the terminology of private letters on papyrus dealing with medical topics. Isabella Bonati from the North-West University of Potchefstroom, organizer of the conference, surveyed the medical words and the context of medicine in the ostraca from the Roman praesidium of Mons Claudianus, in the Eastern desert of Egypt. Francesca Bertonazzi from the University of Parma approached the technical vocabulary of surgery in the papyri focusing on some terms for “threads”. Dimitris Roumpekas from the University of Athens dealt with metaphors and medical terminology in the light of the papyri of Graeco-Roman and Byzantine Egypt.


PSI XX Congr. 5: papyrus preserving a recipe for an ophthalmic ointment, III century AD

During the fourth panel, entitled ‘Illness and healing in Greek non-medical texts’, Caterina Manco from the University Paul-Valéry of Montpellier approached the medical terminology of Thucydides, and Maria Konstantinidou from the Democritus University of Thrace discussed the topic of disease and healing in early hagiographical texts. The day was concluded by a panel on ‘Technical terminology of specialized medical fields’. Jane Draycott from the University of Glasgow examined the vocabulary utilised in ancient Greece and Rome to refer to assistive technology, specifically mobility aids, in ancient textual evidence, and Tara Mulder from the Vassar College of New York approached the terms for uterus in ancient Greek medical and philosophical texts, early Christian writings, magical amulets, and Greek magical papyri.

The sixth panel on Friday 21st discussed the medical words and their technicality in Latin prose. Cristoph Weilbach from the University of Leipzig analysed the presence of medical themes and the manipulative command of medical language in the epistles of Seneca the Younger, and Michiel Meeusen from the King’s College of London explored Gellius’ acquaintance with technical scientific knowledge and his use of medical terminology in some passages of the Attic Nights.

The seventh session moved to the reuse of medical terms and images in Latin poems. Katharina Pohl from the University of Wuppertal dealt with Cassandra’s medicine-image in Dracontius’ De raptu Helenae, and Ezequiel Ferriol from the University of Buenos Aires with the trans-textual and trans-generic transformations in Quintus Serenus Sammonicus’ Liber medicinalis.

The following day, the conference was brought to a close with the last session concerning diseases and disorders between literature and medicine. Matthew Chaldekas from the University of California-Riverside focused on melancholy as a technical term and literary model in Sophocles’ Trachiniae. Finally, a rich and stimulating discussion concluded this journey into the words of medicine that will result in the publication of a peer-reviewed volume.