Category Archives: Animals

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.

Heat and Women’s Fertility in Medieval Recipes

It seems rather ironic to be writing about ‘heat’ in the middle of a heatwave. I’m not sure anyone in Britain at the moment is keen to increase their level of heat any further! However, according to humoral theory, which underpinned many medical recipes throughout the medieval and early modern periods, heat could be a very good thing when men and women wanted to reproduce.  Heat, in the humoral sense, was believed to aid both sexual performance and fertility, and ‘hot’ foods and medicines were recommended as aphrodisiacs and fertility aids in many ancient, medieval and early modern medical texts.  Jennifer Evans has set this out very nicely for the early modern period – see her book and her post on the Recipes blog from 2013.  But heat wasn’t always a good thing: in some circumstances too much heat could also be a problem for fertility, and in that situation ‘cold’ foods and medicines might be suggested.

In my own work on the medical recipe books of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, then, I would expect to find a range of recipes to aid conception which include ingredients designed to raise or reduce a person’s heat. Although recipes were written in less complex language than Latin medical texts, and focused on treatment rather than theory, the recipes in these collections were often drawn from longer Latin medical works and so were often based on humoral theory even when this was not made explicit.  Nevertheless, my initial survey of recipe manuscripts in the Wellcome Library, British Library and Cambridge University Library suggests that the picture was more diverse than this.  I haven’t made a comprehensive search – and, given the number of unpublished medieval recipe manuscripts, I probably won’t be able to – but the recipes to aid conception that I’ve found so far work on a variety of principles.

Some do seek to adjust a person’s heat in order to correct a perceived humoral imbalance. For example, a series of recipes in Latin in Wellcome Library MS 541, a fifteenth-century medical miscellany of unknown provenance, is explicit about this.

A page from Wellcome Library MS 541. Credit: Wellcome Library.

In a chapter on ‘Impediment of Conception’ it includes recipes for:

If the sterility is because of cold humours… (Si sterilitas fuerit propter humores frigidos…)

If conception is impeded because of too much moisture… (Quod si propter nimiam humiditatem conceptio impediatur…)

If there is a distemper of heat or dryness in the woman which impedes conception… (Quod si caliditate aut siccitate fuerit distemperancia in muliere impediens conceptionem…)

In each case the first stage is to purge the excess humours, and then a selection of baths, plant remedies and suppositories is recommended. (Wellcome Library MS 541, ff. 137r-v)

The whole manuscript is digitized on the Wellcome Library website here.

Similarly British Library MS Harley 2378, quoted by Henslow in an edition of fourteenth-century medical recipes, also mentioned lack of heat as a cause of women’s infertility and suggested a cure to raise her heat:

‘For a womman þat may not bere no chyld for colde blode: Take and let hire blode, and take trisandali and diapendion, and take and ley þem to-gedere with hony, and ete iche day þer-of, and haue blode bothe hote and gode.’ (G. Henslow, Medical Works of the Fourteenth Century (London, 1899). p. 104.)

However, in many other cases the recipes found in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts are not obviously heat-related. Instead many of them require the man, woman or both to ingest animal parts, particularly genitalia.  These recipes work on another theoretical framework with a long history going back to the ancient world: the idea that certain substances were able to stimulate the reproductive organs because of a certain sympathy with them.  For example several fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts of the Liber de Diversis Medicinis, a collection of recipes in English, include a series of recipes involving animal genitalia. To help a woman conceive a male child, ingredients such as the womb and vagina of a hare; the testicles of a hare; and the liver and eyes of a pig (see Catherine Rider, ‘Men’s Responses to Infertility in Late Medieval England’, in The Palgrave Handbook of Infertility in History, ed. Gayle Davis and Tracey Loughran (Basingstoke, 2017), p. 281).

All of these recipes derive – directly or indirectly – from the Trotula, the twelfth-century Latin compendium of women’s medicine edited by Monica Green, although there were some changes in the process of transmission: the Trotula recommends the liver and testicles of the pig, rather than liver and eyes (see p. 77 in Green).  These recipes from the Trotula appear frequently in recipe collections from medieval England: the pig’s testicles appear again in Wellcome Library MS 407 (f. 61r), ‘Against sterility’.

As Green has shown, numerous manuscripts of the Trotula circulated in England, and the treatise had several Middle English translations, so perhaps it is not surprising that its remedies turn up frequently in recipe collections. Recipes based on animal parts have also featured on the recipes blog before: to take just one example, Laurence Totelin mentioned the use of a deer’s penis as an aphrodisiac in ancient Greece back in 2015.  The Trotula did also discuss the ways in which too much or too little heat might make men or women infertile (see Green’s translation, pp. 85-7). Nevertheless, its influence and the popularity of its genitalia-related remedies means that treatments based on heat and humoral theory were not the only fertility aids available to readers of medieval English recipe collections.  In the future I’m hoping to look in more detail at which aids to conception were particularly popular in English medical texts, and what that might tell us about the transmission of information from earlier Latin medical works.  But at the moment the picture – as regards heat – is looking rather diverse.

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.

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.