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:

An invitation to EMROC’s Thankful Thanskgiving

For this Thanksgiving, why not try cooking from a seventeenth-century recipe?

EMROC is hosting a transcribe, cook, and post of FB party as its “Thankful Thanksgiving,” and is inviting you to join them.

EMROC would like you to transcribe a recipe from the mid-17th-century cookbook, “Mrs Fanshawes Booke of Physickes, Salues, Waters, Cordialls, Preserues and Cookery”(MS7113), which is housed at the Wellcome Library and available digitally.

If you are interested in participating, visit the EMROC blog!

Tales from the archives: Green sickness, red plants

In September, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 470 posts in our archives and over 117 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.)

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 want to share a post by Helen King on the green sickness. In this post, Helen asks why red plants feature so prominently in treatments for the green sickness. She suggests that the redness of the plants was meant to restore a proper menstrual flow. I have chosen this post not only because of my interest in ancient gynaecology, but also because it features a photo of a copy of William Langham’s ‘Garden of Health’ (1597) held in my own institution, Cardiff University. Time for a little trip to  the Special Collections and Archives I should think.

I hope you enjoy it! And if you have any favourites you want us to revisit, please send in your nominations


By Helen King

I’ve been interested for a long time in green sickness, a condition affecting girls at puberty that involved menstrual suppression, often along with some sort of dietary ‘blockage’. The remedies for it, over the 400 or so years that it was recognised as a disease, raise all sorts of problems. For example, in the 19th century it was seen as a form of anaemia, so iron was prescribed. In the 17th century, before that level of knowledge of blood existed, ‘steel filings’ were often part of the remedy, and iron is a constituent of steel. So, how did they know to use steel? Or was this nothing to do with the iron content, but instead about steel being imagined as ‘cutting through’ the blockages?

Langham’s text. From . Copyright: Cardiff University, used with permission.

William Langham wrote ‘The Garden of Health’ in 1597. It was based on earlier recipe collections, and I came upon it when I was thinking about using recipes to tease out what exactly was supposed to be causing the symptoms – so, if the recipe involved plants that were clearly evacuative, then this could suggest that the cause of the disease was seen as a blockage. Langham arranged plants in simple alphabetical order, rather than arranging the material under the names of diseases; but, as part of his accessibility, he also gave a list of conditions with references to the different plant entries where the reader could find out more.

Langham gives a range of recipes for green sickness. One is packed full of ‘red’ plants –

‘seethe powder of the Keyes [i.e. the ash tree] with Betonie, red Sage, red Mynts, and Magerom [marjoram] in running water from a pottell [= 2 quarts] to a quart, and drink thereof a good draught with sugar warme morning and evening’

Elaine Hobby pointed out to me that this recipe also appears in 1677 in ‘The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight’ by ‘T.P.’ (possibly Hannah Woolley), but with ‘red Fennel’ instead of ‘red Mynts’. There was a second edition of Langham in 1633, and maybe the author used this.
So what’s all this red about? Betony, sage and marjoram often appear together in later collections as a gentle sternutatory. Red sage and betony are used against bilious attacks. Ash keys feature today on ‘wild food’ sites with the warning that they are very bitter and need to be boiled several times before eating, but what was used here was the ripe seed, dried and then reduced to powder. The ash-powder is used elsewhere for the stone (by provoking urination), jaundice and dropsy.

So maybe there’s something here about getting rid of obstructions. But to me, all this redness suggests the colour of blood, and the use of running water also makes me think that this is aimed at restoring or establishing a normal menstrual flow. How do we balance the known effects of the plants chosen, with the symbolic power of red? Comments please!

Helen King is Professor of Classical Studies at the Open University, UK. Her book on green sickness is  The Disease of Virgins.

You can find more of Helen’s thoughts on the green disease in this recent The Conversation article  also available in the Guardian

New Digital Tools for the History of Medicine and Religion in China

Originally posted on China Policy Institute: Analysis


By Michael Stanley-Baker

When we do textual research on China, we rely on canons that were made with paper. The gold standard for a digital corpus is that it is paired with images of a citeable physical text produced in known historical conditions: at a specific time and place, by a known author or community, or as close to that as possible. Even more, the basic organisation of our wonderful modern databases is structured according to the catalogue and chapter headings of the original collections, which are essentially finding tools for paper archives. While these categories organised the literature and made it easier to find, they also profoundly influence how we, in turn, organise our own research, and how we write history.

The problem is that the categories of researchers change with time. As we analyse our sources in new ways, we give priority to certain texts or features over others, effectively re-indexing them to suit our purposes. Usually, textual scholars will privilege a few texts as case-studies for close study, because we lack the tools for large-scale analysis of textual corpuses to make summative statements about a field of knowledge, or to track changing patterns of a field over time. We can perform thorough and extensive searches for single or a few terms across wide sets of literature, but the long lists of results that are returned are unreadable by humans.

Figure 1: Search result for a single term, gancao 甘草 (liquorice) in a major text collection
Figure 1: Search result for a single term, gancao 甘草 (liquorice) in a major text collection

We have a problem of too much information, and too few ways of making sense of it.

In my digital work in the combined histories of Chinese medicine and of Chinese religions, I wish to make a critical intersection into how we theoretically interpret, and digitally analyse our sources. The history of Chinese religions has recently taken on some new directions in the theory of practice. In order to better understand the ways in which historical actors creatively combine aspects of “different” religions, such as Buddhism and Daoism, some scholars have started modelling religions as “repertoires of practice.”  This has a very productive overlap with actor-network theory in Science and Technology Studies (STS), which also sees knowledge as produced by “clots” or “assemblages” of people and things, practices, thoughts and institutions and many more.  Furthermore, the concept of “situated knowing” that came out of STS argues that different actors organise knowledge differently; there is no single, authoritative perspective on a particular field of knowledge.

This theoretical conjunction raises an important methodological question: How can we identify, sort through and organise a history of “repertoires of practice,” as they are enacted by historical actors of different stripes? Especially when these practices are disparate and escape the cataloguer’s eye?  How can we tell when and which practices are being combined and deployed, in concert or separately, and whether concentrations of practices remain constant across different sectarian affiliations, or whether they change in significant ways?  Can we identify patterns of change or stability?

In the Drugs Across Asia project, Chen Shih-pei and I are developing a pilot platform to test how to do exactly this. With generous support from Department III of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG), in collaboration with the Research Center for Digital Humanities at National Taiwan University (NTU), and with Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts (DILA), we are undertaking a pilot study to analyse all Daoist and Buddhist Canon and most medical sources up through the Six Dynasties (to 589 CE) for the presence of drug terms.

In stage one, I use a statistical tool developed by NTU to analyse the texts to identify where drug knowledge is located among the set of sources. NTU have uploaded all the texts for analysis as separate juan in the form of *.txt files. I have selected a combination of open source texts from various sources, primarily drawing from Kanripo. I then upload a large list of known drug terms (11,000!), which the tool uses to analyse which drugs appear in which juan according to frequency, and produces a list like this one.

Figure 2: Chapters from Buddhist and Daoist Canons, according to Drug Term Frequency
Figure 2: Chapters from Buddhist and Daoist Canons, according to Drug Term Frequency

From this list, I select the juan for further analysis. It is somewhat self-selecting, as I sort according to how many terms appear per juan. After this, I analyse whether or not the found terms are homonyms for other things, such as relics, deities, or other terms. In this method, more hits is a good thing, because a high concentration of terms per juan is an indicator that drugs are an important topic in that text.

Figure 3: Drug terms in Buddhist monastic codes
Figure 3: Drug terms in Buddhist monastic codes

From this data set, I can already begin to compare drug repertoires of different communities. For example, the graph above shows clusters of drug terms from five different Buddhist monastic codes. The terms that appear between the clusters are shared between two or more texts. When compared to an early Chinese materia medica, as in the graph below, it is visibly clear how different the drug lore from China and from India was.  There are only a very few common terms between the Chinese text and the five Indian texts. These terms need to be more thoroughly analysed to explain these differences and correlations, but the foundations of a research paper are already here.

Figure 4: Buddhist Codes compared to Chinese Materia Medica
Figure 4: Buddhist Codes compared to Chinese Materia Medica

In the second stage, we mark up individual juan. It is exciting how easy MARKUS [1] makes it to do this work. Using Keyword Search, I can paste my entire list of drug terms into MARKUS, and with one click identify which of those 11,000 terms appears in the text and where. This lets me quickly and easily see where the “action” is, where the drug knowledge is concentrated, without having to read through the entire juan first.  I can then go and review how drug knowledge is framed and organised in that text in particular.

This way of organising reveals the “ontology” of the drug knowledge in the juan. Does it mention other important data like disease terms, drug properties, anatomical terms, or material practices like decocting, chopping, or roasting? Geographic terms? Famous people or locations? These are all important for how drug knowledge is figured. I scan through the text to pick out a representative section, and use Manual markup to highlight these salient features. Having been captured by MARKUS, they can be produced as a data table. Through this process of reading and marking up terms, MARKUS enables the ontology of each text to emerge as a data structure directly from the organisation of the text itself.

Figure 5: Ontology marked up in MARKUS
Figure 5: Ontology marked up in MARKUS

I then work closely with DILA to mark up the texts. DILA are responsible for producing CBETA, one of the foremost digital humanities projects in East Asia, and thus have extensive experience with marking Buddhist texts. I forward them the file, and they clean up the automatic marking, and use the sample ontology I’ve provided to continue to manually identify corresponding features throughout the rest of the text.  I check over the results, and forward the marked file to NTU to upload into the analysis platform.

NTU are currently developing a platform called DocuSky, based on the engine behind the Taiwan History Digital Library. This platform will enable detailed analysis of the resulting markups.  It will incorporate detailed meta-data for each text – telling when and by whom a text was compiled or written, in what literary genre, with what sectarian identity, and if available, in which geographic location. By analysing this detailed meta-data along with the markups, I will be able to analyse through which communities what drug knowledge travelled, and, given enough meta-data, at which times and places. The platform will also be capable of visualising the data on a GIS map and dynamic timeline, as in the existing MPIWG platform, PLATIN.


With this tool, I should be able to quickly identify identical and similar drug recipes at scale, as well as when, where and with whom they travelled, and how they were interpreted. This will provide a much broader and more complex picture of who knew what about which drugs than can currently be known from studying materia medica (bencao 本草) literature. I should be able to track changes in properties of drugs and recipes as they circulated through historical communities, and to do so at scale. It is a mainstay of medical history to compare different community interpretations of a single drug or recipe, but no one has compared large-scale patterns of change and transfer before. By identifying which communities possessed and transmitted which drug knowledge, this platform will facilitate a large-scale picture of one important feature of the relationship between medicine and religion in the Six Dynasties.

While this model is custom-tailored to do research on drugs, it is highly adaptable. In the future, researchers should be able to change their categories and term sets to search for any “repertoire” or “assemblage” of terms. This could include medical data such as anatomical locations or disease names.  But it could also be used to capture divinatory arts, health cultivation exercises, pantheons of gods, philosophical terms – anything you can develop a good term list for. I hope this set of tools will enable the fields of religious studies and medical history to come to much more nuanced descriptions of the histories of material (and immaterial) practice.

Michael Stanley-Baker is a post-doctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Department III. He researches medicine and religion in medieval China. Image credit: Michael Stanley-Baker.

[1] Ho, Hou Ieong Brent, and Hilde De Weerdt. MARKUS. Text Analysis and Reading Platform. 2014- Funded by the European Research Council and the Digging into Data Challenge.

The Bog Body Shop: a prehistory of personal grooming

By Jacqui Mulville

How did ancient people alter the basic human form?  Without written records we rely on representations of humans in early art and on the remains of fleshed bodies, rather than dry bones, for information.  In NW Europe the earliest examples of soft tissue preservation include a single Bronze Age ‘ice mummy’ (Utzi) who died 5000 years ago, with more extensive information available from over one thousand remains of Iron Age people preserved in peat bogs.

One of the bog bodies: the Tolland Man, found in Denmark and dating to approximately 375-210 BCE. Source: Wikimedia.

These bog bodies or bog mummies have been recovered from the peatlands of Ireland, Britain, Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, normally during the exploitation of peat for fuel or compost. The majority of individuals lived about 2000 years ago (Early Iron Age) but many have been mistaken for murder victims –  their hair, nails and skin so well preserved that they appear to belong to the recent dead.

Men, women and children have all be found, some of whom appear to have been deliberately killed and placed in the bogs rather than representing accidental deaths.  If sacrificed then their appearance may not represent the norm, but bog bodies can still provide information on Iron Age trends in hair styles, nail care and skin decoration.  Individual in the following text are identified by their location.


The Suebian knot on the Osterby Man, found in Denmark. Source: Wikimedia.
The Suebian knot on the Osterby Man, found in Denmark. Source: Wikimedia.

All types of hair have been found preserved on bog bodies: head, facial, body and pubic.  Surviving hair is often reddish as a result of changes within the bog, but analysis has revealed a range of hair colours and styles. Male hair was worn both long and short. Long hair was tied up – with examples of the Suebian knot, a form of twisted ‘sweep-over’ man bun (described by the Roman author Tacitus) worn by individuals at Datgen (age 30) and Osterby (age 55-60) or in an updo in Clonycaven (age 22).  The later had a band of short hair surrounding his lice-infested quiff, which was secured by pine resin scented hair ‘gel’, from trees in South West Europe and a hair tie.  There is one example of loose long hair, found in a 16-year-old boy, Windeby I, his shoulder length hair had been half shaved off. Short hair provides evidence of cutting tools, including the use of cross blades in the form of shears (scissors as we know them were invented later), with a range of simple single hair styles present.

Reconstruction of hairstyle of the bogbody Elling Woman, found in Denmark. Photo by Chris Wenzel, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Source: Wikimedia.
Reconstruction of hairstyle of the bogbody Elling Woman, found in Denmark. Photo by Chris Wenzel, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Source: Wikimedia.

Females of all ages generally have long hair, and some is extremely long (over 1.0m in the example at Elling, age 25). Many women have, often highly elaborate, plaits still in place but for a few the hair appears to be loose, cut, or  shaved (e.g. Yde, age 14), and found alongside the body.  There are also a series of severed loose plaits recovered from bogs in Denmark, interpreted as hair removal during a rite of passage (such as marriage), and some appear to be conglomerations of the hair of more than one individual.

Little is known about hair-care; evidence for shampoos is sparse and combs would have been used both to order and clean the hair. Preserved combs of this period are generally wide-toothed and made of bone or wood; it is not until the middle ages close-toothed lice combs were produced.


Many male bog bodies are clean shaven, employing stone or metal tools, whilst others have trimmed beards and sideburns.  Few longer beards have been preserved and moustaches are scarce.  Finely wrought and decorated metal razors are relatively common in Scandinavia and Ireland at this time, but in Britain they are relatively rare and it is unclear if men shaved regularly or for special occasions only. Hair removal may have had a ritual significance, for example underneath an upturned pot at a burial tomb in Wiltshire was a razor. This was found with a small pile of eyebrow hair, from many individuals, and has been linked to mourning. There is very little evidence for the management of body or pubic hair, although lice would have been an issue.


Like hair, nails are also preserved. There are a number of bog bodies with manicured nails typical of those not employed in regular hard labour.


The skin of the bog mummies is marked by the wear and tear of human life, with callouses clearly visible, but there is no evidence for skin care, marking or covering except in one case. During analysis a male British bog body, Lindow II, was found to be covered in a clay based copper compound which may have given his skin a blue/green hue. Bog mummies provide no evidence for the other historically described body art such as woad painting (as a battle body paint with styptic qualities) or for pricked, cut or branded images of animals and symbols.  The earliest tattoos in Europe are preserved on Utzi, and these probably medicinal tattoos are a series of dots and lines placed on what today are described as acupressure points.

Although numerous bog bodies have been found, there are only about 40 examples left in the world. The preservation and recovery as yet undiscovered bog bodies is also under threat. Peat is now mechanically harvested and bogs are drying out due to human management and climate change. The insight these individuals can provide to life in North West Europe is unprecedented and offers a rare closeup and personal glimpse into our common past.

Further Reading
Miranda Alderhouse-Green. 2001. ‘Dying for the Gods: Human Sacrifice in Iron Age and Roman Europe’, in M. Alderhouse-Green (ed.), Suffocation: Drowing, Strangling and Burial Alive. Stroud: Tempus, pp. 111-135.
Miranda Alderhouse-Green. 2015. Bog Bodies Uncovered. London: Thames and Hudson.
A. Chamberlain and M. Pearson. 2001 ‘Bog Bodies’, in A. Chamberlain and M. Pearson (eds.), Earthly Remains: The History and Science of Preserved Human Bodies. London: British Museum, pp. 44-82.
E.P. Kelly. 2006. ‘Secrets of the Bog Bodies: The Enigma of the Iron Age Explained’, Archaeology Ireland 20(1), pp. 26-30.
Karin Saunders. 2009. Bodies in the Bod and the Archaeological Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

National Geographic

Where to see Bog Bodies
Lindow Man – British Museum
Kingship and Sacrifice – National Museum of Ireland
Tollundman – National Museum of Denmark
Woman from Huldremose – National Museum of Denmark

Jacqui is a bioarchaeologist who takes archaeology to new audiences at music and arts festivals. She invented Guerilla Archaeology, a collective of archaeologists, artists, scientists and students who create and deliver events to thousands of people each year. Over the past five years GA have tackled evolution and domestication, the archaeologies of the sun, moon and stars, shamans, death, deer and most recently music – getting people involved in exploring the complexity and commonality of past and present human lives.
Jacqui has published widely on animal/human relationships and insular archaeologies of Britain and beyond.