Revisiting Chelsea Clark’s The Wonders of Unicorn Horns: Preventions and Cures for Poisoning

Editor’s note: Today, we revisit a wonderful post from Chelsea Clark in 2012 on the intersection of magic and medicine from Early Modern England. Drawing on the seventeenth century  manuscript ascribed to the herbalist Johanna St. John, Clark examines the symbolic power remedies to unwind magical forces.  In this case, the remedy for the malicious magic of poison rests on unicorn, bezoar stones, and the bones of stag hearts.  Magical ailments, after all, would necessitate magical cures.  R.A. Kashanipour


By Chelsea Clark

Johanna St John’s Book, Credit: Wellcome Library, London

In Johanna St. John’s recipe book, the mysterious “Banister’s Powder by Dr Bates” lay nestled between the equally intriguing “Mrs Archers way of makeing My Lady Kents Powder” and the beginning of the letter “R” section of St. John’s efficiently organized recipe book. There is no indication what type of recipe this “Banister’s Powder” was, besides a powder, or what it’s intended use was. Following several pages of recipes for “pox” and “pills” this “Powder” is the tail end of St. John’s letter “P” section, however, even knowing this context offers little information. An analysis of the “Banister’s Powder” ingredients suggests a link between St. John’s early modern medicinal recipes and the presence of magical beliefs associated with medicine in the early modern period.

The first three ingredients required to make the “Banister’s Powder” are: powdered Unicorn horn, east bezoars, and the “bones” of a stag’s heart. Each of these ingredients had longstanding associations with the belief they were capable of preventing or countering the effects of poisoning. To a modern eye, these appear strange items to reside alongside many complicated recipes which rely on an expansive knowledge of medicinal, rather than magical, properties. These ingredients indicate that magical beliefs remained acceptable practices among home practitioners in the early modern period. This is possibly because the science to disprove them was not advanced and medical practitioners were only beginning to be skeptical and move away from such unreliable remedies.

The prevention and cure of poisoning was a genuine concern before and throughout the early modern period. It was quite common to be bitten or stung, to consume poisonous berries, roots, or herbs, or to believe a spell had been cast by a witch (Jackson, 96). It was also common for physicians to diagnose poison as the cause when they could not determine the source of an ailment (Auble, 17). This led to the necessity for remedies to detect, prevent and cure poisoning.

Rhinoceros Horn Vessel, Credit: Wellcome Library, London

 

Pharmacy sign, Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Unicorn horns were actually believed to come from the mythical creature and possess its symbolic purity and strength, though they were most often a narwhal tooth or powdered rhinoceros horn. The horns were commonly powdered and used in poison antidotes or as vessels to drink from before or after ingesting poison (Jackson, 97). Unicorn horns were also believed to have properties which allowed them to detect poison (Knight, 245). In addition to being thought to detect, prevent or cure the effects of poison, the horns were also thought to strengthen your heart, relieve headaches, resist the plague and pestilence, expel measles and small pox, and cure “falling sickness” in children (Brockbank, 3) all of which were reoccurring ailments in the early modern period.

 

Bezoar stones were solid masses from the intestines of goats, sheep or deer that were primarily believed to detect poisons but also, in some cases thought to provide a cure if small amounts of the stone were consumed. “Oriental” or “East” Bezoars, as St. John called for, were the most valuable type which came from a Persian wild goat (Jackson, 97). It was occasionally consumed, but more commonly mounted on a chain and dipped in to drinks to nullify the effects of poison if there was any (Jackson, 97). Queen Elizabeth I reportedly kept one “sett in golde hanging at a little Bracelett … The most parte of this stone being spent” indicating the Queen mounted and consumed her stone (Auble, 18).

Mounted Bezoar Stone, Credit: Wolfgang Sauber

The belief in the magical powers of the “bones” from a stag’s heart originates from a folk tale. The tale is that stags ate poisonous snakes by sniffing them out of holes and then after which they rushed to drink water. The “bones” in their heart were believed to be what protected the stags from being poisoned. The “bones” were actually caused by the degeneration of arteries into flat, oblong bone like objects. Powdering and consuming this “bone” was seen as a preventative measure to protect against the effects of poisoning (Jackson, 97).

Unicorn horn, bezoars and “bones” from a stag’s heart, were the key ingredients to the “Banisters Powder” in St. John’s recipe book. Because of the longstanding beliefs about these ingredients and their associations with poisoning detection, prevention and cures, this recipe was perhaps intended to cure or prevent poisoning. One can imagine the remedy would have been thought to be fool-proof against poison because it combined the powers of each of these ingredients. Although there was a movement away from magical remedies and cure-alls among physicians in the Early Modern period, belief in the curing power of magical objects was still present in the lives of home practitioners such as Johanna St. John. What we would consider scientifically impossible, they were only beginning to discover.

A strong belief in unexplainable phenomenon was common practice and popular beliefs are difficult to dispel, especially when they hold significant symbolic value. Just the other day the North Korean state media associated the discovery of a Unicorn Lair with their new young leader. It is hoped this association would strengthen the nation’s confidence in their young leader because of the symbolic meaning of the Unicorn and its ties to the state’s history. This example illustrates that a belief in the symbolic power of an object, like a Unicorn or its horn, bezoars, or “bones” from a stag’s heart can transcend both time and logic, persisting even when its truth is questionable.

Works Cited:

Auble, Cassandra. “The Cultural Significance of Precious Stones in Early Modern England.” Dissertations, Thesis, & Student Research, Department of History, University of Nebraska Paper 39 (2011).

Brockbank, William. “Sovereign Remedies: A Critical Depreciation of the 17th-Century London Pharmacopoeia.” Medical History 8.01 (1964): 1-14.

Jackson, William A. “Antidotes” Trends in Pharmacological Sciences 23.2 (2002): 96-98.

Knight, Katherine. “A Precious Medicine: Tradition and Magic in Some Seventeenth-Century Household Remedies” Folklore 113.2 (2002): 237-247.

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

Today we revisit a post originally published in 2017 by Erik Heinrichs on a seemingly odd treatment for plague buboes: the feathers from a chicken’s backside. Erik notes that there is a very long history of using chickens and chicken broths in medicine, partly because chickens are such commonly kept animals. I certainly remember being fed chicken broth when I was ill as a child, but I must say that I broke that tradition with my children. They still get ice cream though… Laurence Totelin


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.

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[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).

Variable Matters (Basel, 20-22 September 2019), organized by Barbara Orland and Stefanie Gänger

By Stefanie Gänger

Hosted at Basel’s beautiful Pharmacy Museum, the conference “Variable Matters” was designed to bring together historians with an interest in the movement of medicinals and knowledge about them between and across societies in the world of the ‘long’ eighteenth century. Participants talked about very different kinds of substances – vanilla, calomel, bezoars – and studied them in rather diverse contexts – anything from the Swiss Alps to the Bolivian Andes – but everyone was reflecting, in one way or another, on the subjects of medicine trade, therapeutic exchange, and epistemic brokerage.

Several speakers engaged with one or another aspect of the communication of medical knowledge about foreign or unfamiliar ‘simples’ to other cultural imaginaries, medical localities, and therapeutic traditions. Quite a few papers dealt with the acquisition, transfer and codification of remedies associated with the ‘exotic’. Emma Spary, in a public keynote lecture, discussed the introduction of vanilla to France. Vanilla, originally from the Spanish Viceroyalty of New Spain, was becoming familiar in France from the late 1600s, and the talk focused on the various issues – of translation, transport, and taste – involved in moving the plant and knowledge about it across vast expanses of space. In another paper, we heard about the growing consumption of tea in the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Low Countries from Marieke Hendriksen, who was just starting a new project on the role of subjective experience and taste in the acquisition and communication of knowledge about ‘new’, exotic materia medica. Hjalmar Fors’ talk, in turn, discussed the constraints that Europeans operated under in their encounter with ‘exotic’ plants more broadly – what they deemed worth knowing, or valuable about them, on account of those constraints – and on the botanical and (al-)chemical practices that would reduce them to a semblance of – European – order.

The delegates of the conference

Other papers discussed the acquisition, transfer and codification of remedies associated with the ancient, or artisanal. Francesco Luzzini spoke of the Italian physician and naturalist Antonio Vallisneri’s interest in ‘popular’ therapeutics, including his inquiries into the mineral remedies in use among miners, and artisans. Laurence Totelin, in turn, talked about the reception and critique of ancient antidotes like mithridatium and theriac in the eighteenth century, through treatises like William Heberden’s 1745 Antitheriaca. Heberden also figured in other talks, especially in Chris Duffin’s, which explored the contents of eighteenth-century medical chests – including Heberden’s teaching cabinet – that encompassed anything from Mesoamerican cochineal to album graecum.

Other papers engaged with the relationship between homegrown, or ‘indigenous’, medicines and novel, unfamiliar substances. Silvia Flubacher, in a paper co-authored with Simona Boscani, talked about the eighteenth-century market in ‘German bezoars’ extracted from Swiss chamois, or goats, a medical commodity that emerged in reaction to overprized exotic bezoars, as part of a discursive revaluation of the ‘local’. Other speakers engaged with ‘their’ substances’ ontological instability, the many acts of adaptation, customizing and calibration a medical substance’s journeys might entail. Irina Podgorny’s talk in particular, focusing on the example of eagle stones – hollow geode stones worn as amulets with a longstanding reputation for protecting pregnant women, or comforting women grieving the loss of a child – discussed not only shifts in the stones’ nomenclature and therapeutic indications as they travelled from Europe to Spanish America; it also studied how the very name – ‘eagle stone’ – was transferred to various objects that were concomitantly attributed analogous properties: to American fossils, and pietists collections of prayers alike.

Other speakers focused on the formats used to convey medical knowledge. Clare Griffin presented a paper on the gradual incorporation of American herbal medicines into Russian recipes over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while Matthew J. Eddy delivered a paper on a series of medical consultation letters between the prominent Edinburgh physician William Cullen and a Quaker woman, and the ensuing give-and-take of their negotiations over the proper medicines. Sabrina Minuzzi’s paper, in turn, studied the correspondence and publications – cheap pamphlets, in the majority – of Johannes Behm (c. 1640–1731), or Giovanni Beni, a physician, plant collector and broker who moved knowledge about medicinals and therapeutic practices around, especially between northern and southern Europe, but also with the East Indies, owing to his contacts with merchants, plant traders and botanists alike.

The Basel Pharmacy Museum.

In-between papers, we had the privilege of a guided tour of the Pharmacy Museum by the organizer, Barbara Orland, and the museum’s acting director, Philippe Wanner, who did their very best guiding a bunch of excited specialists through the collection (what with everyone chatting excitedly, and constantly getting side-tracked, by charred monkey skulls, preserved seahorses, or actual eagle stones!).

Exhibition Review: “Food: Bigger than the Plate”

By Catherine Price

Fig. 1. Wallpaper designed by Fallen Fruit. Image Credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 1. Wallpaper designed by Fallen Fruit. Image Credit: Catherine Price.

The Food: Bigger than the Plate exhibition is taking place at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London from May until October 2019. The exhibition takes you on a journey through the four zones of Composting; Farming; Trading; and Eating. Here, I highlight what I feel are the most thought-provoking exhibits.

The aim in the “Composting” zone is to encourage you to reimagine waste. Instead of considering waste as disposable and to be forgotten about, either in landfill or oceans, the aim is to think about waste as valuable and beautiful. By doing this, humans become reconnected to ecosystems.

Fig. 2. Oyster mushrooms growing in a bed containing used coffee grounds. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 2. Oyster mushrooms growing in a bed containing used coffee grounds. Image credit: Catherine Price.

Used coffee grounds from the Victoria and Albert Museum café are used in a bed to grow oyster mushrooms. These mushrooms are used as ingredients in the café, reducing waste and illustrating how food can be grown in the city.

Fig. 3. Totomoxtle created from the discarded husks of heirloom corn varieties. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 3. Totomoxtle created from the discarded husks of heirloom corn varieties. Image credit: Catherine Price.

The exhibit also showcases composting efforts from around the world, beyond the walls of the V&A. For example, Mexico has over sixty varieties of native corn. The show exhibits Totomoxtle, a veneer material created from the discarded husks of heirloom corn varieties. It was designed in response to the loss of native varieties of corn following the implementation of industrialized agriculture in the country. This supports the villagers of Tonahuixtla who are replanting heirloom corn varieties by providing them with a second income.

Fig. 4. Different varieties of heirloom corn. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 4. Different varieties of heirloom corn. Image credit: Catherine Price.

The next section of the exhibition concerns “Farming.” Hedge H.U.G.  (Horticultural Urban Growth) encourages you to reimagine a city that is concentrated around the edges of farmland. Instead of having hedges separating fields, buildings are built in their place. People living in cities are fed directly from the land.

Fig. 5. Hedge H.U.G. (Horticultural Urban Growth) exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 5. Hedge H.U.G. (Horticultural Urban Growth) exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.

 

Human-animal relationships are explored in the exhibit of ‘This Little Piggy.’ Elaine Tin Nyo followed the life of a piglet named Zelai from birth to death, including the final production into ham. She filmed his journey, and this video is actually very difficult to watch. Zelai’s hams will age two years, which is twice his actual lifespan. The rest of his flesh is preserved in 182 cans, which are on display and contain sausages, meat, and pâté.

Fig. 6. Some of the 182 cans containing sausages, meat and pâté in the ‘This Little Piggy’ exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 6. Some of the 182 cans containing sausages, meat and pâté in the ‘This Little Piggy’ exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.

The “Trading” zone encourages you to consider how food is transported, traded, and packaged. Uli Westphal created three landscapes designed to be both perfect and unsettling. They are intended to show how food marketing is designed to appeal to our desires to purchase food that is healthy and wholesome. As people are now so detached from agriculture and food production, we have to rely on the information provided to us by the food industry.

Fig. 7. Three landscapes created by Uli Westphal. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 7. Three landscapes created by Uli Westphal. Image credit: Catherine Price.

Björn Steinar Blumenstein and Johanna Seeleman’s ‘Banana Story’ is an exhibit which tells the story of a banana on its journey from a tree branch in Ecuador to a supermarket in Iceland. The banana was given a passport and an extended label to show its amazing journey. It travelled 8,800km, crossed multiple national borders, and passed through 33 pairs of hands. The accompanying video illustrates how important global shipping has become and how deeply we rely on it for the food we eat.

Fig. 8. The ‘Banana Story’ exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 8. The ‘Banana Story’ exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.

“Eating” is the final zone in the food story journey. It features three photos of women eating items that make them feel good, as part of a series taken by Sana Badri. They are an act of defiance against a food press that can be elitist, judgmental, and fat phobic, encouraging agency over pleasurable food choices.

Fig. 10. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 10. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Image credit: Catherine Price.

This section also features the 1861 publication, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. This book was aimed at the rapidly expanding Victorian middle classes, and includes recipes, advice on childcare, etiquette, entertaining, and how to manage household servants. Curators included it in the exhibition to demonstrate both household management and curating food for a reading public. The curators describe how ‘instructions on how to boil a cabbage rub shoulders with plans for seating guests at the dinner table. The positioning of the book in the exhibition is also interesting as it sits alongside cookbooks which are collections of handwritten or newspaper clippings of recipes accumulated over time.

Fig. 11. Instagram images of food. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 11. Instagram images of food. Image credit: Catherine Price.

Juxtaposed with the historical are images from the contemporary in the form of Instagram posts. Instagram enables us to see into the culinary lives of others, as well as celebrating everyday creativity for cooking for loved ones. It also provides businesses with the opportunity to sell food products by posting mouth-watering photos.

The table laid out at the end of the exhibition is designed to provoke deeper engagement and thought about our food, our bodies, and each other. New tableware and food products can prompt us to interact with each other as we eat, sharing food, conversation, and ideas. A plate from Paul Scott‘s project Cumbrian Blues depicts the bleak realities faced by farmers in one of the worse affected areas following the UK’s Foot and Mouth outbreak of 2001. Six million cattle and sheep were culled in an attempt to prevent the spread of the disease.

Fig. 12. A plate from the set called the Cumbrian Blues. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 12. A plate from the set called the Cumbrian Blues. Image credit: Catherine Price.

The highlights I describe provide just a snapshot of the exhibition. These are all designed to encourage us to question what we eat and to ask ourselves if we could eat differently. Eating is not just about health, diet, traditions, and cultures, but also land use, water consumption, energy and transport systems, and human and animal welfare. We have to determine the value we place on quality and the conditions in which our food is produced.