Snails in medicine – past and present

By Claire Burridge 

A treatment for teary eyes (Ad lacrimas oculorum):

Grind together frankincense, mastic, and snails with their shells. Apply to the forehead in laurel leaves in two parts. It is tried and tested.

(Tus et mastice et cocleas cum testas sua simul teris et in folio lauri in duabus partibus fronte impone probatum est)

Figure 1: A group of recipes for teary eyes (Ad lacrimas oculorum) in St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 44 (p. 359), an early medieval composite manuscript (this section was written in northern Italy in the ninth century) – the snail recipe is the last entry of the group (found on the final two lines). The transcription and translation are my own. A digitised facsimile can be accessed here; full reference below.

Medieval medicine is often assumed to be full of ‘hocus pocus’: irrational magical and religious cures, bizarre potions and lotions. Although the work of many scholars has countered this common perception, the negative stereotypes surrounding medieval medicine remain firmly embedded in the popular imagination. And I must admit that, as a historian of medieval medicine, I can understand how such stereotypes have persisted – despite, of course, disagreeing! At first glance, the treatment for teary eyes listed above – which recommends making a poultice from snails, frankincense, and mastic and applying it to the forehead – may sound more like a potion brewed by the witches of Macbeth than a useful medical prescription. Surely snails are better suited to escargot than medicine, right?

Yet our slimy garden neighbours actually have long been included as ingredients in medical recipes, from classical antiquity to the present day. In fact, a number of other RP posts have already touched on pre-modern snail-based prescriptions, such as Laura Mitchell’s post on amusing charms, Lisa Smith’s post on Mary Napier’s ‘Snaile Milke’, and Jennifer Sherman Roberts’ post on snail waters. While several examples have highlighted the use of snails in cosmetic preparations, including Katherine Allen’s post on animal ingredients in the eighteenth century, in my research on early medieval recipes I have come across snails as ingredients in treatments for all sorts of ailments, from headaches and nosebleeds to diarrhoea, spleen pain, and incontinence. Who knew snails were seen to be such a wonderful panacea?!

I have been particularly struck by the use of snails in a number of different treatments for cuts and open wounds. A recipe in BAV pal. lat. 1088, a ninth-century manuscript written around Lyon, suggests the following to heal ‘cut tendons’ (Ad neruos incisos) on f. 45r:

Burn and pound together live snails with their shells, add an equal amount of frankincense, apply. It heals cut tendons.

(Cocleas uiuas cum testa sua combustas et tonsas adiecto libano paripondere inponis praecisos neruos sanat)

Two other ninth-century manuscripts in the Stiftsbibliothek St Gallen, Cod. Sang. 751 and Cod. Sang. 759, contain nearly identical prescriptions, though the former recommends either slugs (limacis) or snails and the latter specifies that the cut was caused by iron (Ad neruus ferro precisus). Similar recipes can also be found in earlier sources, such as Pliny’s Natural History and its late antique descendent, the Medicina Plinii, as well as Dioscorides’ De materia medica.

Why did this tradition of the wound-healing power of snails catch my eye?

Figure 2: Materia medica on the move (slowly) – photograph by author.

As keen RP readers will know, the use of snails in cosmetics was not limited to pre-modern medicine but is, in fact, growing in popularity today (and you can read more on this in another piece from Katherine Allen). Snail slime, the mucus secreted by snails, has been widely marketed as a great addition to skincare products. You can find it in anti-aging serums, moisturisers, and other restorative cosmeceuticals. Given these uses, could snail slime also have applications in medicine? Indeed, snail slime is a hot topic in modern medical research, with recent work highlighting its many benefits, from helping to treat burns to its antimicrobial properties. With respect to wound healing, there are several significant features to note: first, snail mucus is well known to have agglutinant, adhesive properties. More recently, however, research has shown that it also protects against apoptosis (programmed cell death) and promotes cell migration and proliferation – processes essential to wound repair at the cellular level. The combination of snail mucus’ adhesive qualities, promotion of healing processes, and antimicrobial properties is immensely exciting, especially in the fight against antibiotic resistance.

While premodern medical practitioners and authors would not have been thinking about snails and their slime on the cellular level or as antimicrobial agents, their repeated use of snails and slugs, especially with respect to skin-related conditions (wound healing, cosmetics, etc.) suggests that they may have recognised that snail mucus had some medical benefits. So, the next time you encounter someone ridiculing the unusual or unpleasant ingredients in a medieval recipe, you can share with them the long history of snails in medicine – from medieval recipes and their ancient antecedents to current, cutting-edge research.

Full reference for manuscript image

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 44: parchment, 368 pp., 30 x 21 cm; Part I: Bible, consisting of Ezekiel, minor prophets, Daniel, with Prologues and Capitula – given to St. Gall around 780; Part II: collection of medical texts – written in northern Italy in the ninth century.

Brief Academic Biography

Claire Burridge is currently a Residential Research Fellow at the British School at Rome. She completed her PhD at the University of Cambridge in 2019 and will begin a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship at the University of Sheffield in May 2021. Broadly, Claire works on early medieval health and medicine and is particularly interested in exploring questions of medical practice and the transmission of medical knowledge during the Carolingian period. Her research draws on a range of disciplines, bringing together textual, archaeological, and biocodicological evidence.

Revisiting Laurence Totelin’s Fevers and the Dog Star in Antiquity

Well, the Dog Days of summer are upon us once again…To help us cope with the heat, we revisit Laurence Totelin’s wonderful post from 2018.  In “Fevers and the Dog Star in Antiquity”, Laurence tells us about the origins of the term “Dog Days” and about various ancient remedies for seiriasis a fever whose name evokes the Dog Star Sirius. Keep cool, everyone! Elaine Leong


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.

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).