Ovid’s Toothpaste: Literary Allusion in One Medieval Cosmetic Recipe

Chelsea Rae Silva

Women, declares the sixteenth-century physician Donatus Antonius de Altomare, “think nothing more unseemly… then when they laugh, to show their foule rusty & spotted teeth.” In order to remedy this issue, his text promises to “first shew how we may make [teeth] that are blacke as white as the shining pearles, & then how we may cover with flesh them that are weake & naked in their gums & how we may make them strong” (London, British Library MS Harley 4349, f. 258v). As Seth LeJacq noted on this blog back in 2013, the use of remedies would have been preferable for late medieval readers wishing to avoid painful surgical procedures like the one pictured below.

A dentist with silver forceps and a string of large teeth, extracting the tooth of a seated man (from London, British Library, MS Royal 6 E VI, f. 503v). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Altomare’s pronouncement, and the remedies that follow, attest to the indistinct boundary between cosmetic and medical arts, and between literary and medical discourse. I first encountered Altomare’s manuscript collection in the British Library last summer and have been fascinated by its contents for the better part of a year. Much of that fascination stems from Altomare’s use of literary techniques like allusion, personification, and narrative in his discussion of medical and cosmetic care.

The cosmetic recipes are grouped together and, unlike the other recipes in the manuscript, read as a continuous passage rather than a sequence of distinct texts. Altomare apparently anticipated the possibility of a reader who might crack open this portion of his medical collection to read—linearly, continuously—rather than to learn piecemeal. Perhaps the most interesting of these recipes are two deceptively simple ones for dentifricia, or tooth-paste or -powder:

“Also of the pumis stone the best & most profitable dentifricia weare prepared as Pliny saith. And the teeth rubbed with the poulder of yvory the teeth were made like yvory as Ovid.” (f. 259)

The efficacy of powdered pumice stone is indeed attested to by Pliny’s Historia naturalis, as Altomare’s note promises (on recent explorations of classical skincare, see this Recipes Projects post). But the second sentence, which appears to mirror the first in its citation of an established authority, is in fact doing something very different. Ovid is better-known for his storytelling than his medical expertise, though his Medicamina faciei femineae (also called The Art of Beauty) does include a number of cosmetic recipes. All are for facial cleansers or masks, however, and none make use of ivory or claim to remedy dental issues. Instead, I believe, that two-word reference—“as Ovid,” written in a later hand than Altomare’s own—alludes to the story of Pygmalion.

Ovid’s version of Pygmalion properly begins with the Propoetides, women who became the first sex workers after denying Venus’s divinity. “Losing all sense of shame,” the story goes, “they lost the power to blush, as the blood hardened in their cheeks, and only a small change turned them into hard flints.” A skilled sculptor living in Amanthus, Pygmalion is disgusted by the Propoetides and, by extension, all mortal women. Rather than seek out a partner or a wife, he instead carves a beautifully lifelike statue out of ivory. The statue is so realistic that even Pygmalion himself is half-convinced that it’s a flesh-and-blood woman, and the craftsman falls in love with her. After he prays to Venus, the sculpture is transformed into a living being, and the two are married soonafter.

Pygmalion working on his sculpture (from Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose; MS NLW 5016D f. 130r). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

What I’m most interested in is just how that transformation is effected. Returning home from Venus’s temple, Pygmalion repeatedly kisses and strokes the statue’s body, and the ivory begins to soften like wax under his fingers. He continues to kiss and touch her, “reaffirm[ing] the fulfilment of his wishes, with his hand, again, and again,” until the transformation is complete. In other words, it is the repetitive press and rub of flesh against the statue’s ivory which changes it into flesh itself.

That’s a surprisingly rich allusion to find in a recipe for tooth powder, but as recent discoveries have shown, we can learn a lot from medieval teeth. The touch of Pygmalion’s hand transforms ivory into flesh; so too, the dentifricia recipe suggests, might the application of ivory to teeth transform those teeth into ivory themselves. That two-word note, “as Ovid,” may allude to the events of the Pygmalion story, popular throughout the medieval West because of its presence in texts like Jeun de Meun’s Roman de la Rose. But it may also work as a promise of efficacy, suggesting to the reader that her teeth will be as beautiful as the ivory maiden’s skin. The latter possibility makes this two-word addition an interesting twist on the regimens falsely attributed to various noble ladies, like the dietary of Queen Isabella, in circulation at the time. This tooth-whitening recipe suggest that the power of celebrity to sell things like skin care regimens might have extended to literary and mythological characters as well.

Palm Trees and Potions: On Portuguese Pharmacy Signs

By Benjamin Breen

Figure 1. A pharmacy sign in Paris. Photo by Daniel Stockman, 2010.
Figure 1. A pharmacy sign in Paris. Photo by Daniel Stockman, 2010.

Anyone who has walked in a European city at night will be familiar with the glow of them: a vivid and snakelike green, slightly eerie when encountered on a lonely street, beautiful in the rain. They were once neon; now most are arrays of ultra-bright Chinese LEDs that blink on and off in intricate patterns. The glowing emerald cross of the pharmacy is among the most familiar symbols in Europe.

When I moved to Lisbon in 2012, however, I was interested to find that the pharmacy on my street bore a striking variation on the iconic green cross. In Portugal, the green crosses of many farmacias contain a small palm tree with a snake wrapped around it, or inside of it.

Figure 2. Farmácia Moz Teixera, on the Rua do Poço dos Negros, Lisbon.
Figure 2. Farmácia Moz Teixera, on the Rua do Poço dos Negros, Lisbon.

At first glance, there’s a fairly straightforward explanation for this: the iconography seems to owe its origin to the Sociedade Farmaceutica Lusitana (Portuguese Pharmaceutical Society), the emblem of which has featured a variation on the snake + palm tree + cross motif since the 19th century. But as with many explanations in history, this doesn’t really explain much at all. The Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society in London glosses the symbol as simply representing the vegetable, animal and mineral kingdoms.

But this doesn’t satisfy – why a palm tree, in particular? Why Portugal?

As with many things in Lisbon, when we peel back a century or two, we find something surprising. The name of the street on which my local pharmacy was located, Rua do Poço dos Negros, offered a hint: literally translated, it means “The Road of the Pit of the Blacks.” Poço can also be translated as “well,” but as the historian James Sweet notes, this poço was in fact a burial pit, and Rua do Poço dos Negros was the main thoroughfare of a densely populated African neighborhood in sixteenth-century Lisbon known as Mocambo, the Kimbundu word for “hideout.” It was a center for what the Portuguese call feitiçaria, or sorcery, a term that was often employed by Portuguese-speakers in the early modern period to describe the practices of African healers who combined medical cures with religious rites that invoked ancestral spirits and divinities.

The snake and the palm tree were frequent motifs in early modern Portuguese depictions of African and indigenous American medical practices. To a Christian reader, the combination called to mind the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, thereby flagging the supposedly Satanic origins of cures from the non-Christian world.

But it also functioned as a proxy for the exotic and the tropical, showing up in places like the frontispiece illustrations of early scientific works about Brazil and the religious manuals of Catholic monks in Africa. Whenever early modern Europeans wanted to signify that a place was heathen, tropical and exotic, the trusty serpent and palm could be counted on.

Breen pharmacy 3
Figure 3. Left: an Italian capuchin monk destroys a Congolese “house of a feitiçeiro [casa d’un Faticchiero] filled with diabolical superstitions.” Source: Paolo Collo and Silva Benso, eds., Sogno: Bamba, Pemba, Ovando e altre contrade dei regni di Congo, Angola e adjacenti (Milan: published privately by Franco Maria Ricci, 1986), 163. Right: detail from the frontispiece of Willem Piso and Georg Marcgrave, Historia Naturalis Brasiliae (Amsterdam: Franciscus Hack, 1648).
To be sure, there were many, many ways of symbolizing the exotic and the colonial in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: alligators, dragons, Chinese maidens toting parasols, and mustachioed Turks with enormous turbans, to name a few. My personal favorite is the moose skull, seashell and pineapple combo that adorns this fanciful anonymous painting of an apothecary shop from early eighteenth century France.

Breen pharmacy 4
Figure 4. Anonymous eighteenth-century painting of an apothecary shop, University R. Descartes in the Faculty of Pharmaceutical and Biological Sciences in Paris, France.

 

But the snake and palm showed real longevity in the field of medicine and pharmacy, emerging as a common motif for the ceramic jars used to store drugs. Since at least the late medieval period, these jars had functioned as a form of advertising to display the wealth and judicious taste of the apothecary who dispensed drugs out of them: a shop with a full set of colorful Italian-made Maiolica jars, or with the more austere but beautiful blue-and-white Delftware jars favored in England and the Low Countries, promised to be a well-run establishment.

The introduction of new design motifs into drug jars was thus far from a random process. It was guided by the commercial needs of the drug merchant: how do I advertise the purity and potency of the drugs I have for sale? How do I broadcast my links to the Indies, where the most expensive drugs come from? We shouldn’t be surprised, then, to find our friends the serpent and the palm appearing as a prominent motif on jars containing tropical drugs by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries:

 

Breen Pharmacy 5
Figure 5. Nineteenth century drug jars for Basilicum (Basilicum polystachyon, a medicinal plant native to Africa and South Asia) and “Sapo Animal” (likely meaning “animal soap,” but perhaps the medicinal venom of the Amazonian sapo frog?) showing the serpent and palm motif in exoticized landscapes. Via Aspire Auctions.

The commercial pathways that carried medicinal drugs and recipes from the non-European cultures of Amazonia, Brazil and Africa also carried symbols. Can the palm and serpent motif of Portuguese pharmacies be directly attributed to this colonial-era transfer of materials and ideas between Europe and the tropical world? It certainly seems that way to me, although I acknowledge that the link is largely circumstantial.

What is more certain is that the larger culture of drug use in Portugal and its colonies was strongly shaped by indigenous American and African influences. Although today the contents of a pharmacy are divided from the domain of recreational drug use by formidable cultural and legal boundaries, this was not the case in the seventeenth century. This was a time when apothecaries freely dispensed opium, tobacco, alcohol and even cannabis alongside more familiar remedies like chamomile tea. And it is here, in the etymologies of three familiar words associated with recreational drugs, that the influence of the colonies upon Portuguese drug culture is most apparent.

Unlike other speakers of Romance languages, who typically puff on tubos or pipes, Lusophones smoke from cachimbos, a term derived from the word kixima in the Kimbundu language of West Central Africa. (This is an especially intriguing etymological origin because pipes are typically thought of as being introduced to Europeans via indigenous Americans, not Africans). From colonial times to the present, at least some of those who used cachimbos were filling them not with tobacco but with maconha, i.e. cannabis, derived from the Kimbundu makaña.

And perhaps they washed this down with a fortifying swig of jerebita, now known as cachaça or sugar-cane liquor, which, according to the historian João Azevedo Fernandes, has a not entirely unexpected point of origin: “the word jerebita very probably originated from the Tupi word jeribá, a species of palm tree.”

 

How to Make an Inca Mummy

Christopher Heaney

 

As any National Geographic reader will tell you, the Incas and their predecessors in the Andes made mummies, that category of deceased being whose selfhood is artificially or environmentally preserved. In the sixteenth century, however, learned Europeans weren’t sure of anything of the sort, given that ‘mummy,’ or momía, mostly referred to dried flesh of the ancient Egyptian dead that had been ground up to become a materia medica. Admitting the Incas to the Egyptians’ company meant an expansion of medical prowess, and civilization, well beyond the allowances of the day. In Les vrais pourtraits et vies des homes illustres grecz, latins et payens (1584), the French cosmographer André Thevet challenged Claude Guichard—a cataloguer of funerary customs who had claimed that the Andes yielded “mummy”

to ask merchants who deal at the Lyon merchant-fairs to enquire whether any of these good Mummies are found by these drug peddlers in these parts [Peru] and in that case (otherwise I presume that, had he known, he would never have dared publish such a lie) he will learn that there is no trace, any more than there is in his Lagnieu [Guichard’s hometown].

For Thevet, mummies came only from Egypt.

The burial of Huayna Capac Inka in Cuzco (379-380)
The body of Huayna Capac Inka, being carried from Quito to Cuzco. Felipe Guaman Poma, Nueva corónica y buen gobierno (1615). Credit: Det Kongeliege Bibliotek

In other words, before we recover the sacred and medical indigenous recipe of how “ancient Peruvians” made mummies, we must understand how Europeans made mummies Peruvian. That latterly recipe, centuries in the crafting, had two key ingredients: the sixteenth century study by Spanish chroniclers and natural historians of the means by which skilled Inca made embalmed bodies—embalsamados—of their emperors; and the Atlantic celebration of that recipe by half-Inca chroniclers, English translators, and French encyclopedistes, who made embalsamados into mummies.[1]

That the Incas and other Andean peoples preserved their elite dead to make sacred and still-living ancestors, illapa, or mallqui, is well-established, having intrigued the earliest Spaniards to the Andes. In 1533, when the first two Spaniards to Cusco found the breathless bodies of Huayna Capac, the last undisputed emperor of the Incas, and a second person—likely his principal wife, Coya Cusirimay—they described them as “two Indians in the manner of embalmed dead.” By the late 1550s, the chronicler Juan de Betanzos had learned—possibly from his wife, Angelina Cuxirumay Ocllo, formerly betrothed to Atahualpa—that Huayna Capac’s lords “had him opened, and all his flesh removed, adorning him”— aderezándole, which implies the use of a substance—

“so that no damage would be done to him, without breaking a single bone; they adorned and seasoned him in the sun and the air, and after he was dried and seasoned, they dressed him in expensive clothes and placed him on a litter.”[2]

Subsequent Spaniards declared that this was embalming, a distinction that credited the Incas’ medical expertise—and possibly advertised the New World balsam that to this day bears the name “balsam of Peru”—but also limited speculation that their preservation resembled the grace of Europe’s saintly dead. To further control their meaning, the Spanish in 1559 confiscated the illapa and displayed the best-preserved among them in Lima’s most sophisticated center of European healing and botanical knowledge—the Hospital of San Andrés. Once there, the Jesuit natural historian José de Acosta studied them, deciding (1590) that their “astonishing” preservation owed to the use of a certain resin or bitumen: literally, betún, a word redolent of associations with the Egyptian dead.

November, month of carrying the dead (258-259)
The eleventh month, November; Aya Marq’ay Killa, month of carrying the dead. Felipe Guaman Poma, Nueva corónica y buen gobierno (1615). Credit: Det Kongeliege Bibliotek

The Incas’ embalsamados only became mummies, however, through the process of celebration by their half-Inca heirs, and their interpreation by the English and French. In 1609, “El Inca” Garcilaso de la Vega remembered touching the finger of his great-uncle, Huayna Capac, which “seemed like that of a wooden statue, it was so hard and stiff.” Responding to Acosta, Garcilaso suggested that it was a combination of betún and the dry Andean environment, which the Incas had harnessed to “leave the bodies as whole as if they were still alive and in good health, lacking only the power of speech, as the saying goes.” The translator of Garcilaso into English in 1688 took the embalsamados to still greater heights, claiming that “these Bodies were more entire than the Mummies”—that is, the Egyptian dead. And in 1749, the French naturalist Jean-Marie Daubenton simply included the Inca dead as mummies, alongside those of the Egyptians.

Daubenton’s contemporaries had to take it on faith, however; the Inca illapa had long since disappeared, likely having deteriorated in Lima’s damp climate and been buried somewhere in the hospital. Hope remains that their bones might be someday be found, but until the means of their owners’ preservation is recovered via new archaeological studies of their contemporaries, our recipe for their making is as colonial and Atlantic as it is indigenous.

 

[1] This post draws from my recent dissertation, Christopher Heaney, “The Pre-Columbian Exchange: The Circulation of the Ancient Peruvian Dead in the Americas and Atlantic World” (Ph.D. Diss, University of Texas at Austin, 2016), Chapter Four.

[2] Juan de Betanzos, Suma y Narración de los Incas, Ed. María del Carmen Martín Rubio (Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, 2010 [Cuzco: 1557]), 235 [1557: Pt. I, Ch. 48].

Ambire: An Amerindian Antidote Against All Types of Poison. New Kingdom of Granada (today Colombia) ca. 1628.

Pablo F. Gómez

Ambire, an Amerindian remedy for bites and poisons

During the last decades of the sixteenth and the first ones of the seventeenth century, the Spanish surgeon Pedro López de León worked at the San Sebastian hospital in the city of Cartagena de Indias in the New Kingdom of Granada.  At the time, Cartagena was the most important port of the Spanish empire in the Caribbean and the official entry of all the slave trade coming into South America. Not surprisingly,  San Sebastian was the busiest hospital in the region. Drawing from his work at the hospital and around the region surrounding Cartagena and the wider Caribbean, López de León wrote a medical/surgical treatise called Practica y teorica de las apostemas en general y particular that detailed his experiences treating patients from all over the Atlantic while using state of the art surgical and medical techniques, and incorporating treatments he first saw in the New World.

The portada of the first edition of Pedro López de León’s Practica y teorica de las apostemas published in Sevilla in 1628. Credit: Google Books.

Salient among the treatments López de León details in his work was his use of an antidote he learned from Amerindian practitioners in the Caribbean coast of the New Kingdom of Granada. This treatment was, in his words, the only effective remedy against the bites of native snakes that, López de León thought, “were worst than the vipers of Spain.” The famous theriac from Toledo, a variation of the common medieval European panacea for poison, was completely ineffective against New-World snakes’ poison. When one of these snakes bit a person, López de León, said, health practitioners should instead use ambire—a remedy he had learned from Amerindian health specialists. Ambire was “a mix of many counter-herbs, tobacco juice and honey.” Amerindians cooked these ingredients until the resulting liquid was “as thick as the egypciaco ointment, and with the same color and consistency.” Ambire was “so strong and with such virtue,” López de León maintained, that if a person who had been bitten by a snake “drinks the weight of a real [3.5 gm.]” of ambire “dissolved in wine or water” within fifteen minutes of the snake’s bite, or that of any other poisonous animal, the remedy would stop “and kill” the poison and “repair the heart.” López de León recommended that—besides administering ambire orally to patients bitten by poisonous animals—health practitioners should “cut and suck the bite wound” and put “ambire macerated with four garlic cloves in a mortar” on the wound which should be then covered. This procedure, including the drinking of the ambire potion, should be repeated after three, seven, and thirteen hours. If the recipe was prepared correctly and the procedure followed strictly, “most patients would be cured,” López de León maintained.

Remedies for “Fresh Wounds” in Pedro López de León’s Practica y teorica de las apostemas general y particular (1628), 160.

 

More impressively, ambire served as a prophylactic against any “poison” that “one will be given” during a day. Death, one should remember, lurked around every corner in the early modern world, and poisons of all sorts (and not only of animal origin) were a particularly common menace. In order to be protected López de León said, a person should “put three drops of ambire” in her palm and “lick them every morning.” According to the Spanish surgeon, this was a remedy that was highly esteemed by both Amerindians and Spaniards. Everybody in the region thought that ambire was far better than theriac. After all, ambire protected not only against physical but also spiritual poisons. Ambire made people expel the “spells through the mouth or anus” in the form of vomit or diarrhea. López de León himself had seen people that, after having been treated for spells with ambire, “had expelled bones of little toads,” a common description in the New Kingdom of Granada of the widespread bundles of evil associated with witchcraft, “in the quantity of an escudilla [a small bowl].”

López de León’s account of the uses of ambire is an illuminating example of the vibrant, multi-originated, and epistemologically diverse world of early modern Caribbean medicine. It showcases an era of pharmacological exchange, and of challenges to old Western medical traditions (including that of the quintessential Galenic remedy, theriac) on the basis of experiences gained from exchanges with native populations around the globe. It also reminds us of the fluid avenues linking the human body with the physical and spiritual realms in the ideation about nature of early modern people

Reference:

León, Pedro López de. Pratica y teorica de las apostemas en general y particular: questiones y praticas de cirugia de heridas, llagas y otras cosas nuevas y particulares. Sevilla: Luys Estupiñan, 1628. 198.