Category Archives: Animals

The Live Chicken Treatment for Buboes: Trying a Plague Cure in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

By Erik Heinrichs 

Titlepage of Philippus Culmacher’s plague treatise, Leipzig: circa 1495
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

While researching German plague treatises I became fascinated by one odd treatment for buboes that appeared again and again, despite sounding so far-fetched. One sixteenth-century version calls for plucking the feathers from around the single hole in a chicken’s backside, then placing it on a person’s bubo. The instructions say to hold the chicken on the bubo until it dies, when it must be replaced with a new chicken, similarly plucked. I soon dubbed this the “live chicken treatment for buboes” and after years of casual encounters I began to track the recipe more systematically. As strange as it sounds, versions of this “live chicken treatment” were fairly common in plague writing, beginning with the Black Death and lasting, amazingly, into the eighteenth century. Tracing the long history of this recipe led me to explore questions such as: Where might this come from? Why chickens? Why might healers think that this was a good idea? Did anyone actually try this or is this all theoretical? As a historian, I was also interested in change over time within the recipe. Here I found much to explore, as I followed the recipe’s twists and turns over a seven-hundred year period, roughly 1000 to 1700.

The “live chicken treatment” turns out to have a long history, indeed. Its origins seem to lie in Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine, although it may be older than that. Chickens and chicken broth were a common source of medicine in early times, probably because chickens were such ubiquitous and useful animals since antiquity. Not only did Avicenna praise chicken broth for its general benefits for the body, but he also recommended placing a cut chicken on a poisonous bite or sting in order to fight poisons. In later centuries European physicians turned to Avicenna’s advice when they faced the mysterious and devastating epidemics of the fourteenth century. As Europeans emphasized the poisonous nature of the plagues around them, older treatments for poisons drew new attention. The first mention of using a chicken rump to draw poisons out of a bubo appeared in the very first plague treatise of 1348, coming in response to the so-called Black Death. Here the Catalan author Jacme d’Agramont seems to have introduced a novel and lasting adaptation of Avicenna’s recipe, although the “cut chicken” version persisted in plague treatises for centuries to come.

Most interesting for the history of trying and testing cures are the many variations of the “cut chicken” and “chicken rump” versions of the treatment, as well as physicians’ comments about how effective they are. Especially after 1400, physicians seem to be thinking about this recipe quite often as they seek practical treatments for the plagues of the time. Physicians were preoccupied with altering the recipe in order to reason out the nature of the mysterious poisons underlying the plague. Some add substances to the process, such as salt placed on top of the chicken as it is placed on the bubo. During the fifteenth century, a number of German physicians began to explain the treatment’s workings in a strikingly physical way—that the chicken breathes through its backside and thus pulls the bubo’s poisons into itself. This change led to the suggestion to hold the chicken’s beak shut during the treatment in order to force the chicken to breathe from below. My article (accessible here) show how all aspects of the treatment changed over time as physicians engaged with the recipe, including the quantity of chickens used, the amount of time required, and even the type of animal in question. This work demonstrates the importance of the recipe itself as a platform for thought, experimentation, and communication among physicians.

Perhaps a surprise to modern readers, many physicians praised their version of the “live chicken treatment,” describing it as effective and desirable. Such comments multiply after the introduction of print, which encouraged the production of plague treatises, some fitted with fetching cover illustrations for the marketplace (see image below of Philippus Culmacher’s treatise of circa 1495). In German-speaking lands especially, sixteenth-century physicians used their printed plague treatises to promote their own services and expertise at a local level.[1] This brought about a change in the genre whereby physicians seem more eager to discuss their own experiences with effective recipes in order to appeal to the practical interests of a broad audience. Amidst this change comes evidence that some German physicians witnessed first-hand the successful use of the “live chicken treatment.” Another interesting change during the sixteenth century is the increased attention to the bodily warmth of the chicken as the treatment’s active healing force. These emergent views provide a tantalizing link to modern medicine, since moist heat remains one of the treatments for buboes today. For more information, please read my article.

Erik Heinrichs is an associate professor of history at Winona State University (Minnesota). His interests are the history of medicine and religion in the late medieval and early modern periods. His book Plague, Print, and the Reformation: The German Reform of Healing, 1473-1573 will be published by Routledge this November.


[1] For a survey of German plague treatises from the first century of print, see: Erik A. Heinrichs, Plague, Print, and the Reformation: The German Reform of Healing, 1473-1573 (London: Routledge, 2017).

The Ichthyologist’s Garden

By Didi van Trijp  and Robbert Striekwold

On a gloriously sunny day in May we rang the doorbell of ichthyologist Martien van Oijen’s home in Leiden for a rather peculiar project. Even though the original plan had been to carry it out in a laboratory setting, on account of the beautiful weather we all agreed to move the project outside. In his garden, Martien had set up a table on which had been placed an array of equipment for dissection together with some specimens of red seabream that he had bought at the fish market that morning. The reason for all this? The replication of an eighteenth-century recipe for preserving fish skins.

The freshly bought breams. All images courtesy of the authors.
The freshly bought breams. All images courtesy of the authors.

This method was developed by Johan Frederic Gronovius (1690–1762), a physician and botanist based in Leiden. He boasted an extensive cabinet with all sorts of naturalia ordered according to the Linnaean system. In his quest for collecting specimens he developed a method for drying and compressing fish skins that would allow one to glue them to the pages of a book – much like dried plants in a herbarium. He described this method in a letter to Peter Collinson, who read it at a meeting of the Royal Society and had it published in the Philosophical Transactions in 1742.[1] Compared to other ways of preserving fishes Gronovius’ method was quite easy and affordable, as few materials were needed. The only requirements were a pair of scissors, wooden plates, a linen cloth, ‘minikin pins’, and cartridge paper. Thus, according to Gronovius, “in the space of 24 hours, the fish is prepared.”

We set out to replicate Gronovius’ method step by step, carefully documenting each act with photographs and taking extensive notes along the way.[2] The first order of business was to cut the fish open with a pair of scissors, while making sure that the fins were not accidentally destroyed.

Cutting the fish open. All images courtesy of the authors.
Cutting the fish open. All images courtesy of the authors.

Then most of its right half and all of the intestines were removed, which resulted in a rather gruesome sight.

Completely dissected. All images courtesy of the authors.
Completely dissected. All images courtesy of the authors.

Then we washed the left half and patted it dry with a linen cloth. After spreading the fins with pins, we exposed the half fish to the sun so that it could dry further (in the absence of sun, Gronovius recommended exposing it to the hearth).

Spreading the fins. All images courtesy of the authors.
Spreading the fins. All images courtesy of the authors.

We noticed fairly soon that some of the steps were not entirely clear to us. For one, what to do about the impressive swarm of flies that instantly flocked to the carcass once it was laid out to dry?

Swarming flies. All images courtesy of the authors.
Swarming flies. All images courtesy of the authors.

Most importantly, although Gronovius said the skin could be separated from the flesh “with very little trouble” after the drying step, it took considerable effort to do so. This may have to do with the fact that some of the steps are described in a somewhat ambiguous manner. We interpreted the step telling us the “back-bones are then to be cut asunder” to mean that the backbone should be cut but not removed.

Drying the inside of the fish. All images courtesy of the authors.
Drying the inside of the fish. All images courtesy of the authors.

After drying, however, these bones were very hard to remove, so we now think the entire backbone should be discarded before the drying step. Subsequent attempts with new specimens should shed more light on these issues.

The replication of this method is proving to be very insightful by giving us first-hand experience with a pertinent aspect of our respective projects: the preservation of fish specimens so that they could be collected, circulated, stored and classified. Fishes were notoriously difficult to preserve, losing their shapes, colours, textures, and often spoiling despite the collector’s best efforts to prevent these processes. So far, Gronovius’ method has indeed proven to be very quick and remarkably doable, and it appears to preserve the fish in very good shape, although we are not quite done with it yet.

After removing the dried flesh, the skin was placed between paper and left under a press overnight.

Pressing of fish skin between paper. All images courtesy of the authors.
Pressing of fish skin between paper. All images courtesy of the authors.

The next morning an elegantly flattened half-fish came out that would have done Gronovius proud.

Result (sans varnish). All images courtesy of the authors.
Result (sans varnish). All images courtesy of the authors.

Unfortunately, it did not smell quite as good as it looked. Our next step will be to use the recipe for a particular varnish that has been written up by Gronovius in a letter to one of his correspondents after having received a number of rotting fish skins. If all goes well, this should remedy the stench of the specimen – now safely stored in the freezer awaiting further treatment – and keep it in its current unspoilt state for many decades.


J.F. Gronovius, ‘A Method of preparing Specimens of Fish, by drying their Skins, as practised by John Frid. Gronovius M.D. in Leyden’ in Philosophical Transactions 42 (1742) 57-58.

[2] Robbert did the dissecting, Didi the documentation.

Wyl bucke his Testament, or, an Ode to Dining on Venison

By Sarah Peters Kernan

I recently stumbled upon a small print cookbook at the Newberry Library in Chicago while I was working on another project. I couldn’t help but request this 1560 volume which was supposed to have recipes, according to the catalogue entry. I was particularly intrigued given its title, Wyl bucke his Testament, which made no mention of cooking, food, or recipes. Once I began reading the book, I realized this delightful book had likely fallen through the cracks of culinary scholarship because it has been categorized as a poem rather than a cookery. The verse details a hunter’s killing of a buck and his last will and testament prior to his death. The subsequent recipes, which are in prose, coordinate with the verse, as they are entirely devoted to dishes featuring deer meat and offal. While this collection of sixteen recipes has not been listed in cookery bibliographies, it is not entirely unknown. The book was reprinted in 1827 and several literature scholars have recently, albeit briefly, discussed the introductory verse.[1] I found this unique cookbook to be very entertaining; here I hope to introduce you to recipes which may prove useful in your own academic and culinary adventures.

Richard Ansdell, “The Dying Stag,” 1871, New York Public Library Digital Collections. Source: The New York Public Library.

Wyl bucke is unlike any other medieval or early modern cookbook I have encountered. In a way, it is reminiscent of the fifteenth-century Liber cure cocorum in its literary attributes and oddity (for the entire cookbook is composed in verse), or even the famous eighteenth-century poem by Robert Burns, “Address to a Haggis.” Wyl bucke is personal; it is a voyeuristic peek into the last moments of a dying, anthromorphized deer. The recipes are a direct connection to the buck’s death and the instructions are interspersed with plain instruction for breaking down and preparing a deer for consumption. The buck bequeaths each part of his body for different purposes and people. The deer is cognizant of his destiny on the table as he bequeaths his body “to the colde seler.”[2] He feeds the royal and the ordinary, his body providing both sustenance and pleasure.

The recipes use different parts of the deer, both flesh and offal. Beginning with a menu for a three-course venison feast, the recipes are interspersed with instructions for harvesting the organs and breaking down the joints after the hunt. The recipes are not dependent upon the procuring of a male deer; the author provides options for buck and doe meat, as well as comments on cooking with the meat of a fawn or other small deer.

One of the most extraordinary attributes of this collection is that the recipes are focused on a single ingredient. The fact that the ingredient is venison is also remarkable. As a hunted ingredient, venison was typically reserved for noble households. Nevertheless, non-nobles could procure venison through both legal and illegal means as venison was available for sale and was poached. While venison recipes appear in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century cookbooks, it is usually in roasted or baked form. The recipes in Wyl bucke, however, are familiar dishes with deer meat and organs substituted for more typical meat products. One finds Ising pudding, haggis, frumenty, and chewets, as well as preparations for tripe, trotters, tongue, liver, and numbles. I was struck by the juxtaposition of high- and low-status ingredients in this cookery. Humble oatmeal appears with some regularity, and many recipes use few or no spices. Yet other recipes instruct a very liberal use of saffron, an always expensive spice, even when produced domestically.

There is a lone exception in this collection: a recipe for “tarte Barbones” excludes venison, or flesh of any variety.[3] I have not encountered this recipe in other collections. In fact, I cannot even find another reference to this dish after searching my own records as well as the Oxford English Dictionary, but it does look delicious despite its outlier nature. The tart is a low-walled cheese tart flavored with saffron and sweetened with sugar; no doubt an excellent accompaniment with or conclusion to a venison meal.

The authorship of Wyl bucke remains shrouded in mystery. The poem also appears in two sixteenth-century manuscripts (Bodleian Library, Oxford S Rawlinson C 813, fols. 30-31v and British Library MS Cotton Julius A V, fol. 131v), but the recipes only appear in the print form. The printed text credits John Lacy, but he is not otherwise known as an author.[4] I am tempted to say that the recipe author was from Northern England due to the reoccurrence of oatmeal. While this ingredient pops up in other early modern recipes, it is rare to see oatmeal multiple times in a single collection. I suspect that one could better hone in on the geographical origins of the recipes, and possibly the collection’s authorship, by delving into the provenance of two recipes in the collection: “tarte Barbones” and “Bawderikes.”[5]

A little more is known about the book’s printing than its authorship. Wyl bucke was printed by William Copeland. An active printer, Copeland produced a variety of books. Earlier in his career, he tended toward printing books with a theological bent, but by 1560 he was producing books popular in the late Middle Ages. That year he also printed A mery geste of Robyn Hoode and of hys lyfe, Syr Beuys of Hampton, and The knight of the swanne. Soon thereafter he produced several books which serve as friendly accompaniments to cookeries, like The craft of graffing and planting of trees (1563), The boke of secretes of Albartus Magnus of the vertues of herbes, stones and certaine beastes. (ca. 1565), and The first booke of the vertues of certayne herbes (ca. 1565). Wyl bucke’s account of a hunt, as well as many accompanying common medieval recipes, aligns with Copeland’s printing record. At only eight leaves, Wyl bucke is a small book which would have been priced inexpensively, and therefore available to middling and gentry consumers.

I hope that this very brief introduction has whetted your appetite and culinary scholars will remember Wyl bucke and include it in their own research. There is much more to learn about this small volume’s recipes, authorship, and connection to other contemporary texts.



[1] The most extensive treatment of this book is: Edward Wilson, “The Testament of the Buck and the Sociology of the Text,” in The Review of English Studies 45, no. 178 (1994): 157–184.

[2] fol. A. ii r.

[3] fol. B. iiii.r.

[4] Wilson, “The Testament of the Buck,” 157–8.

[5] fols. B. iiii.r–v.


Tracing Recipes to Kill Vermin

By Lisa Smith

Innocent Sport? T.L. Busby, 1826. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Innocent Sport? T.L. Busby, 1826. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Among the papers of the Newdigate family of Arbury Hall (Warwickshire), I found a pile of loose eighteenth-century recipes. The recipes are practical in nature: remedies for minor ailments, plasters and such for home renovation, medicines for animals, and poisons for killing vermin. It was the poisons that captured my imagination, as such recipes have not appeared in the early modern recipe books that I’ve examined—despite the troubles that would have been caused by vermin on a daily basis. A comparison of the Newdigate recipes with published early modern ones reveals an interesting process of knowledge transmission.

In mid-eighteenth century hand, the Newdigate papers includes the following recipes on one page (Warwickshire CRO CR 136B/2504B):

Poison for Mice or Rats. Roots of white Hellebore & staves are powdered & mixed with wheat Flour. Mr Pennant

D. for Moles. The Roots of Palma Christi & white Hellebore made into a paste & laid in their holes. Mr Pennant

Similar recipes to these appear in a horrible little book, The Vermin-Killer, which was published in seventeen different versions between 1680 and 1790. A how-to manual on the best ways of ridding the household of any type of vermin from adders to weasels, this book includes instructions on trapping (and torturing) animals, as well as several recipes for poison.

In 1680, The Vermin-Killer recommended laying a paste of hellebore leaves, wheat flour, and honey into the holes, ‘where the Rats and Mice come, and when they have eat of it, its Present Death. Approved Paxamus [1st century Greek author of a cookbook]’ (1). A combination of white hellebore, wheat flower, egg white, milk, and wine was also used to get rid of moles: ‘lay little cakes of it in the mouth of the holes, and the Moulds will greedily eat of it, and it certainly kills them, approved Pliny [1st century Roman natural philosopher]’ (10).

By 1710, the book was now rather more grandly titled, The Compleat English and French Vermin-Killer: being a Companion for All Families. The recipes had also changed slightly. To kill rats and mice, the recipe included wheat or barley-flour mixed with honey, metheglin (mead), and bitter almonds, though ‘I think if you mix a little of Helibore Leaves, powder’d with it, its better’ (5). The section on moles was greatly expanded. It included a version of the 1680 recipe in which moles could be destroyed with nut-size ‘pellets’ of the following ingredients strewn about their holes: white or black hellebore, wheat-flour, egg white, milk, and sweet wine or metheglin. The moles would eat the pellets ‘with Pleasure, and it kills them. Approv’d’ (9). But it added one more similar to the Newdigate recipe: pellets made of white hellebore, Palmus Christi root, barley meal, egg white, and wine or mead or milk. This was also ‘Approv’d’ (14).

Credit: Michael David Hill, 2005, Wikimedia Commons.
Credit: Michael David Hill, 2005, Wikimedia Commons.

The Vermin-Killer: being a compleat and necessary family-book (1765), drastically changed its layout. Whereas previous editions had started with rats and mice, the mid-eighteenth-century priority (if placement in the book is anything to go by) was bedbugs and lice. The recipes had also been updated. The one to kill rats and mice was nearly the same, but added at the end: ‘Hemlock seed thrown into their holes, kills them’ (10). As to the moles, both recipes remained the same as the 1710 edition, although the ‘approv’d’ tag was dropped for both; indeed, similar tags had been removed from other recipes throughout the book (13, 16).

In 1790, the book was reduced to an eight-page pamphlet: The Vermin-Killer, being a very necessary Family Book. But two recipes were retained. The latest version for killing rats and mice dropped the hemlock and listed fewer ingredients: hellebore leaves, wheat flour and honey (1). Only the first recipe to kill moles remained, but was closer to the 1680 version, specifying once more white hellebore, calling them ‘little cakes’ rather than ‘pellets’, and describing the moles as ‘greedily’ eating them (4).

Although the Newdigate papers listed Mr. Pennant as the source for both recipes, it’s clear that the two recipes came from a long tradition, dating in print to at least 1680 and, in manuscript, to the first century. These recipes, however, were clearly in wider circulation than even The Vermin-Killer editions would suggest. For example, I came across the same recipes in The Sportsman’s Dictionary (1778)  and the American Stockport Advertiser: Notes and Queries vol. 4 (1884). The Naturalist’s Pocket Magazine (1799) refers to the naturalist Thomas Pennant’s recommendation of Palmus Christi oil and hellebore to kill moles (27). Although this is likely the same Pennant referred to by the Newdigates, it is probable that The Vermin-Killer was his source, given his dates (1726-1798). I have so far been unable to trace the book in which Pennant discussed killing moles.

The Newdigates’ ingredient lists and directions are much briefer, suggesting implied—and possibly practiced—knowledge. Obviously a powder of wheat and hellebore would be less tempting than if it was mixed with something sweet, which would also ensure that the poison stuck to the rodent. (This is the logic specified in other similar recipes in The Vermin-Killer.) As to the recipe to destroy moles, the reference to ‘made into a paste’ suggests an implied knowledge of how to make a paste in the first place.

The ingredients remained, more or less, the same over the centuries, suggesting that the recipes were considered useful enough to remain in circulation. However, two issues were new in the eighteenth century. The first is the way in which printed recipes moved away from traditional statements of efficacy. The classical authorities were first dropped (1710), and then the ‘approv’d’ by mid-century. A new form of authority had emerged—that of the learned man of science, Thomas Pennant, who was attributed as the source for a recipe much older than him! One did not have to create knowledge to be credited; one need only be a contemporary authority who deemed the recipe useful.

Credit: .
Credit: .

The second relates to the perception of moles and their behaviour. Mary Fissell has written about the early modern personification of vermin, which emphasised their thieving and greedy behaviour that was a threat to social order. In the Newdigate recipes, there are no references to greedy moles tempted by fanciful little cakes. This is also a description that fades out over the eighteenth century, although it returned in the 1790 version, which is curious. Was the later re-emergence of the description tied more to the growing romantic view of nature than the earlier threat to survival? Or to a growing social concern with the frivolity and parasitic behaviour of the blind, governing elite who also ate little cakes?

The relationship between recipes in print and manuscript is not always so clear-cut, but comparison can be fruitful in uncovering details about the transmission of knowledge: shifting cultural interpretations, changing ideas about efficacy and authority, and usage.