I know, I know – 2023 is not the Summer of Dragons. Most of you have moved on from the battle for the Iron Throne, although maybe not the negroni…sbagliotos…with Prosecco in it. But some of us (ahem) are still catching up on last year’s slate of TV shows, and I’m sure I’m not the only one…right? For me, this means binge-watching House of the Dragon despite being a year late. The series, based on the novels of George R.R. Martin, offers a prequel to Game of Thrones, charting the early years—and dynastic politics—of the Targaryen family. While the fabulous slate of acting talent, not to mention the costumes, set design, and visual effects, garnered critical acclaim, everyone knows who are the real stars of the show: Syrax, Caraxes, Vermax, and other dragons who help secure Targaryen power. In the face of endless and often ruthless familial in-fighting, these giant beasts intimidate enemies, decide battles, and secure royal lineages.
The dragons’ centrality to HOTD invokes historical descriptions of dragons, including those in recipes, as explored by Madison Clyburn in her recent RP post. As Clyburn notes, dragons frequently appeared in western manuscripts and myths; they were also central to many Middle Eastern and South Asian texts and art. Yet, in contrast to the enormous, reptilian beasts dominating HOTD, historical depictions of dragons ranged in size, color, and shape. In her review of western manuscripts from the late fifteenth century, for example, Sarah J. Biggs charts creatures ranging from “a lizard-y animal with duck-like feet to a winged leonine creature and a demon.” Meanwhile, Kanishk Tharoor observes the global movement of dragon representations, including the ways that “[i]n Persian art, the form of the dragon looks very similar to traditional Chinese ones, with a snake-like body surrounded by wisps of fire.” Regardless of their appearance, dragons almost always conveyed important symbolic messages. In some instances, they were cast as opponents to “a saint or angel,” engaged in epic battles of good versus evil. In other cases, Dorothy Kim and others show how (real-life) aristocratic groups and families adopted the dragon in heraldic and artistic forms, as powerful symbols of prestige and standing.
They also functioned in recipes, as symbols of engineering, technology, and innovation. Clyburn’s post explores how, in the mid seventeenth century, writers across Italy, England, and Germany circulated recipes for “Flying Dragons.” These “mechanical dragons,” constructed out of paper, line, and cords, “demonstrate the role of recipes in producing technological entertainment.” Meanwhile, Samantha Sandassie mentions the inclusion of “dragon’s blood” in a late seventeenth-century recipe, “a plant-based resin, [which] was used as a wound coagulant historically but may have been added to…recipe[s] for aesthetic purposes.”
The widespread fascination with dragons, owing to their symbolic import, also connects to broader themes in histories of recipes, including the centrality of myth, magic, and conceptions of animal life. Over the years, RP authors have foregrounded the importance of exoticized animal ingredients, not to mention the power imbued in them, in a variety of times and locations. This includes:
While these posts primarily focus on “real” animals, guinea pigs and puppies nonetheless took on enhanced qualities in the imagination and hopes of recipe-writers who sought sustenance, relief, and health.
A broad range of animals may have been central to historical recipes, but let’s be clear – when it comes to HBO dramas, it’s the dragons that give HOTD its magic. Targaryens may come and go, but dragons will always reign supreme.
My 6x great grandfather, Timothy Butt, was a charmer. I discovered this recently when I came across a copy of a manuscript he wrote in a box of family papers.[i] Mostly a day book of accounts for his farm in Tillington, Sussex, it also contains a collection of thirty veterinary recipes, dated 1768.[ii] Amongst these, are two verbal charms, one for restoring a bullock that is ‘sprung’ (meaning poisoned in Sussex dialect) and the other for a bullock bitten by an adder.
Searching for some local context to this find brought me to an account of charmers and charming in the village of Fittleworth – just five miles from where Timothy Butt farmed – published by the folklorist Charlotte Latham in 1878. This includes a description of “an ancient dame” who had inherited a verbal charm for snakebite and another for curing giddiness in cattle from her mother, but had lost them both in later years when she moved houses (presumably they were written down). “Much did she grieve,” we are told, “over the loss of her viper charm; it had done such a power of good.”[iii]
It is not impossible that this lost charm was one and the same as my ancestor’s spell for snakebite, or a version of it. If this ancient dame was born around 1800, her mother could easily have known him.[iv] More pertinently, the old woman’s regret at losing it demonstrates that charms were important possessions. While they were commonly practiced for the benefit of the community as a whole, only a few knew and performed the words and restrictions applied to how they were transmitted.[v] It also demonstrates the ease with which such folk texts, carried in the memory or written on ephemeral materials, could disappear. According to Jonathan Roper, Timothy Butt’s book is one of only five known examples of a charmer’s book in English to survive, making it a significant document for the study of English verbal charms.[vi]
The snakebite charm itself appears to be a highly abbreviated, perhaps corrupted, example of a narrative charm that relates a micro-story (or ‘historiola’) in which a powerful protagonist confronts a snake that has bitten his servant and obtains a cure.[vii] The flesh and blood patient is healed by implication. While there is no space in this post to analyse the texts in detail, I reproduce them here in full since neither charm has been published in the last hundred years.[viii] I recommend muttering them aloud to appreciate their ‘incantatory force’ achieved through alliteration and repetition (especially the sibilant s’s used for addressing the snake).[ix]
For a Bulluck that is Sprung say these Words Our Blesed Saviour for his Sons Sake Pray Down the Bladder Blow that he may break In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Blessed Trinetey Saved may this Black Bulluck be— or let the Coller be what it will, Name it Then say the Lords Prayer and so Say it three times
For a Bullock that is Stung with an Adder take Salt and fresh Grees & anoint the Beast from the heart then say these Words — Simon Joan Hunt Why Wouldest Thou thy Sarvant thou Stungest thou my man. I wish it was thy man. Take Salt and Smare and lay to the Speer In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Gost. Amen
As well as being a rare example of a charmer’s book, Timothy Butt’s manuscript is also notable for its veterinary focus.[x] Only one recipe for ‘eye water’ is noted as being adaptable for ‘a Christian.’ The charms are interspersed with the physical remedies and, on the basis of the collection as a whole, we should probably consider Timothy Butt as much a cow doctor as charmer; one whose medical arsenal evidently included powerful words together with kitchen physic, exotic spices, and strong chemicals.
The charm for a ‘sprung’ bullock is probably intended for curing ‘the blain,’ an often fatal cattle disease in which small black blisters or ‘bladders’ appeared at the root of the animal’s tongue. Early modern veterinary books are ambivalent about the cause of this disorder, but it was generally thought to be the result of ingesting ‘some poisonous thing.’[xi] The remedy they recommend is to ‘break’ the bladders between finger and thumb, or lance them with a sharp knife. This was a risky operation and the charm offered a less invasive method of ‘praying down’ the dangerous blisters.
Two of the recipes are attributed to neighbours, which suggests the others probably derived from family tradition. Timothy Butt hailed from a long line of yeoman farmers. Born in 1743, he was 25 years old and establishing a family of his own at the time he wrote down the recipes (he and his wife Jane went on to have at least 19 children). It seems likely that the creation of this collection represents a passing on of knowledge from one generation of animal caretakers to the next.
Furthermore, the recipes are concerned entirely with the larger and more valuable farm animals: oxen (or ‘bullocks’), horses and occasionally pigs. This probably reflects a gendered division of labour whereby the farmer’s wife would have been responsible for the medical care of the family, the dairy cows and the smaller animals around the farmyard, while the farmer tended to the animals who worked alongside him in the fields and forests in plough teams and timber tugs.[xii] Oxen remained the most important source of draught power in Sussex in the late 18th century and are named in over half of Timothy Butt’s recipes. The fact that one third of the recipes are also for strains and injuries is suggestive of the physical toll this labour could exact.
The animals themselves remain mute in these recipes. Only in one instruction to apply a plaster of pitch, tar, and clay ‘hot as the bullock can abide,’ do we get a hint of the animal as a responsive agent in the healing process. When it comes to charming, it can be even trickier to account for the animal, since the verbal nature of the medium tends to focus attention on the thought-world of the human participants. And yet the performance of a charm could involve sounds, substances, and touch, becoming an embodied experience for both charmer and non-human charmee. The snakebite charm, for instance, calls for ritually anointing the beast ‘from the heart’ with salt and fat. It is not impossible to imagine that intentional touch and the whispering of words may have comforted both the charmer and his beast during a medical crisis. Charming, indeed, could provide rich ground for the study of human-animal relations in the early modern period.
[i] The original is held in West Sussex Record Office, Add Mss 1593.
[ii] Timothy Butt was the tenant farmer at Grittenham Farm, just over a mile to the west of Tillington village.
[iii] Charlotte Latham, ‘Some West Sussex Superstitions Lingering in 1868,’ Folk-Lore Record,1 1878: pp. 36-37.
[iv] Jonathan Roper notes that charms in the English cultural tradition sometimes show a greater continuity over the years than from place to place in the same period of time; Jonathan Roper, ‘Towards a Poetics, Rhetorics and Proxemics of Verbal Charms,’ Folkore, 24, 2003: pp. 27.
[v] See for example Owen Davies, ‘Charmers and Charming in England and Wales from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Century,’ Folklore, 109, 1998: pp. 42-43.
[vi] Jonathan Roper, English Verbal Charms, Helsinki, 2005: pp. 174.
[vii] I have found two other variations of this charm-type, both recorded in the nineteenth century, which shed more light on the narrative. See Henry George Nicholls, The Personalities of the Forest of Dean, 1863. The Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature, 17, 1885: pp. 121. The cryptic words ‘Simon Joan Hunt’ in Timothy Butt’s charm may represent an extreme abbreviation/corruption of the scenario of the historiola in which someone goes hunting/into the woods.
[viii] Timothy Butts charms were published in Sussex Archeological Collections, 52, 1908: pp. 187-9, and Notes and Queries, 1922 twelfth series, 11: pp. 147.
[ix] ‘Incantatory force’ is a phrase used by John Miles Foley in ‘Epic and Charm in Old English and Serbo-Croatian Oral Tradition,’ Comparative Criticism: A Yearbook 2. Cambridge: 1980: pp. 82.
[x] In a study of seventy-five seventeenth and early eighteenth century recipe books in the Wellcome Collection, Louse Hill Curth found only 11 containing veterinary recipes. Louise Hill Curth ‘A Plaine and Easie Waie to Remedie a Horse’: Equine Medicine in Early Modern England, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2013, pp. 191.
[xi] Michael Harward, The Herdsman’s Mate, Dublin, 1673: pp. 33-4.
[xii] See for example Louise Hill Curth, The Care of Brute Beasts: A Social and Cultural Study of Veterinary Medicine in Early Modern England, Leiden, 2009, pp. 69.
As spring is on the horizon in the northern hemisphere, this post from our archives presents a wonderful reminder of the ways that seasonality figured into early modern remedies and recipes. This piece originally appeared on March 17, 2016. Just as spring was thought to be an industrious time in 18th century England, let us all hope for vernal productivity in 2022! – R.A. Kashanipour
Spring has sprung and I can’t help but ponder the significance of spring for recipe collectors in the late 17th and 18th century. Citations of spring in recipes highlight the importance of changing seasons and new growth, in terms of both health and productivity in the household. As Melissa Schultheis recently explored, temporality was closely connected to understanding the body. Here I consider two aspects of springtime: the prominence of spring and changes in climate for humoral-based regimens, and spring as the season for gathering (or purchasing) medical ingredients.
In recipe collections, we often find information on what time of year and for how long a person should take a remedy, and the two seasons most often cited are spring and fall. In 18th-century recipe books, remedies for the king’s evil, scurvy, rickets, dropsy, and gout were often recommended with this temporal remit. Springtime regimens were used to treat and prevent ailments arising from shifts in temperature and climate, changes in activities, and diet modifications with seasonal food availability (and potentially allergens).
Galenic medicine, and with it the concept of balancing the four humors, remained fundamental in medical practice into the 18th century. Spring was a warm and moist time of year, meaning that its favoured constitutions were more sanguine and less melancholic. It was a time of rejuvenation, longer daylight, and individuals were encouraged to avoid napping and to exercise in the morning. Bleeding and purging in spring were also believed to be preventative measures for avoiding ailments like fevers.
Sister Arscott’s ‘Collick Drops’ remedy was said to cure the ‘Morbus Galicus’ (syphilis), among other ailments, when taking in two ounce doses three days a week in spring and fall. Sometimes recipes indicate specific months. The Trumbull family’s collection has a remedy for a rupture approved by an Aunt Barker, which included wearing a plaster and a truss while anointing it with amber oil twice a day, ‘especially [in] ye monthes of February March & April’.
Even commercial medicines specified spring as an ideal time to purchase and take a remedy. For treating scurvy, the well-known patent cure ‘Vegetable Syrup’ advertisement noted that a T. Huckings felt it was necessary to take ‘a quantity every spring and autumn’. Huckings claimed that he intended to begin a course ‘on the first of March next’. This testimony served as a marketing technique for promoting the remedy’s repeated use.
Elizabeth Jenner’s recipe ‘to make Green oyntment’ for conditions like burns used pilewort which, ‘in A forward Spring’ you can ‘get it ye end of April wn ye Green leafe is Something like A Scurvy Grass leaf & bares A yallow flower like A Crasie’. The Tyrrell family’s collection similarly has a wound drink listing 23 herbs to be ‘gathered in May to keep all the year’. The herbs were ‘not good after they are a yeare old, & after two yeares stark nought’. One eye remedy even went as far as specifying that the ‘briony [bryony] must be taken up ye 10th of march’.
Animals too were collected in spring. This is likely because animals were more active in spring, and juveniles (with their stronger medicinal properties) were also available. To make worm powder for treating colic and convulsions 14-15 worms were to be collected, and April and May were ‘the best time for making this’. Another remedy for convulsions was a powder made of moles, ‘to be made only in March & September’. Indicating that ‘a dead Mole is good for nothing, you must cut the throat alive’, suggests that this remedy was best prepared in the months when the moles were most active and also medicinally efficacious.
Spring was an industrious time in 18th century English households. It was a time to be pro-active in preventing illness through regimens of medicine, exercise and diet, particularly as the social and agricultural seasons approached. The environment’s influence on the body was a feature of 18th century healthcare, and remedies both made and purchased were tied to the centrality of self-management in changing seasons. Forward planning was also clearly necessary to source plant and animal-based ingredients and to create medicines. Recipe books hence usefully document spring as a productive time for household and health management.
 MS.981, f. 138. Wellcome Library, London.  Add.72619, f. 114. British Library.  MS.2363, f. 64. Wellcome Library, London.  MS.3029, f. 50. Wellcome Library, London.  MS.7822, f. 11r.-11v. Wellcome Library, London.  MS.27466, f. 85. British Library.  Add.72619, f. 115v. British Library.  D-LO/6/17/112, f. 2. Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies.
The book furthermore contains pharmaceutical chapters dealing with compound drugs such as stomachics, laxatives, eye-salves, and various oils. While most of his recipes for distilling and infusing oils call for ingredients like rose petals, bitter almonds, or basil, two of his formulas read as fairly peculiar to the modern eye.
The first of these is a literal snake oil, and al-Zahrāwī offers not one but two methods for its extraction, translated from the Arabic below:
Take three parts sesame oil and pour into a ceramic pot. Throw in five to ten black vipers, depending on their size. Close the pot’s lid and cook on a small flame. Take off the fire and leave to cool a little. Then open the lid, careful of the steam, and leave until it has cooled completely and the vapour is gone. Strain into a bottle and use as we have described by brushing it [onto the skin] with a brush. If you see that it causes harm, stop using it, then take it up again until it cures you, God willing.
Another method of extracting snake oil is to “cast [the vipers] into boiling water and to cook them until they fall apart. Then gather the oil from the water’s surface and store it. When it is needed, mix the oil with a bit of sesame oil and use, for it is stronger, God willing.[i]”
According to al-Zahrāwī, this snake oil is “useful against anything similar to leprosy when applied to [the skin].”
Viper flesh has a long history of being included in so-called theriacs—cure-alls and antidotes supposedly effective against all sorts of poisons, in use from antiquity up until the 19th century—because it was thought that viper flesh contained a cure to the snakes’ own poison. While there is no modern scientific basis for any of these claims, medical practitioners like Galen believed that theriacs containing viper flesh were effective against leprosy.
As if snake oil wasn’t odd enough, al-Zahrāwī immediately follows this recipe with an oil made from flying ants:
Take a thousand flying ants and soak in one pound of white lily oil. Leave in the hot sun for two weeks and use as an oil rub.[ii]
Some ant species do have medicinal properties, with one even being used to suture wounds, but otherwise most effects found through the medicinal use of ants are related to the insects’ venom. Even if al-Zahrāwī does not specify where exactly on the body this oil is to be rubbed, his indication that it is “useful for arousal” might give us a rough idea.
We luckily find clarification in a similar recipe, listed by Persian philosopher and scholar Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (1201–1274) in his Kitāb Albāb al-bāhīya wa-l-tarkīb al-sulṭānīya (translated by Daniel L. Newman as The Sultan’s Sex Potions), which assembles a variety of aphrodisiacs and sexual stimulants apparently in use in the medieval Arabic-speaking world.
Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī directed the reader to use just a hundred regular black ants instead of al-Zahrāwī’s thousand flying ants, and calls for “blue liquorice oil” instead of lily oil, but otherwise describes a similar preparation. He does, however, explain that it is to be used “on your fingers, teeth, armpits and elbows,” so that, “[e]ven if you were to engage in coitus with ten women during the night, you would not be incapacitated.”[iii]
It can only be hoped that al-Zahrāwī’s readers were somehow aware of these directions for the administration of this oil, since we can (hopefully!) only speculate what a flying ant oil might feel like when applied to one’s private parts.
[i] I would like to thank Timo Blocksdorf for his help in deciphering the uses of viper flesh, and Nicolas Hintermann for his feedback on this text. Hamarneh, Sami, and Glenn Sonnedecker, A Pharmaceutical View of Abulcasis Al-Zahrāwī in Moorish Spain. With Special Reference to the „Adhān“ (Leiden: Brill, 1963), p. 84, my translation.
[ii] Hamarneh, Sami, and Glenn Sonnedecker, A Pharmaceutical View of Abulcasis Al-Zahrāwī in Moorish Spain. With Special Reference to the „Adhān“ (Leiden: Brill, 1963), p. 84, my translation.
[iii] aṭ-Ṭūsī, Naṣīr al-Dīn, The Sultan’s Sex Potions. Arab Aphrodisiacs in the Middle Ages [Kitāb Albāb al-bāhīya wa-l-tarkīb al-sulṭānīya]. ed., tr., and introduced by Daniel L. Newman (London: Saqi Books, 2014), p. 118f.
Leonie Rau is a master’s student in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Tübingen, Germany. She is currently writing her thesis on a medieval Arabic pharmacological manuscript and plans to pursue a PhD after her graduation. She also writes and edits for ArabLit and ArabLit Quarterly and can be found on Twitter @Leonie_Rau_.