The Wonders of Unicorn Horns: Preventions and Cures for Poisoning

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.

“And it is a marvellous thing”: The Lighter Side of Magic

By Laura Mitchell

In my last post I discussed the line between healing charms and recipes in fifteenth-century recipe collections and how the line between charm and recipe could blur. Healing charms, however, are obviously not the only kind of charm that can be found in late medieval recipe collections. Some of the surviving charms and natural magic experiments reveal a different side to recipe users beyond the altruistic or the practical, and show a more light-hearted, sometimes even lascivious, approach to magic. Here I will discuss two examples that highlight these ludic aspects of magic very well.

My first example comes from Bodleian Library Ashmole MS 1435, an anonymous collection of the fifteenth century. This particular recipe is from the manuscript’s very large recipe collection (over 190 items) and is found on pages 14 and 15:

If you want a woman to lift her skirts up to her belly button: take a green frog and cook it and afterward wash its bones in running water and you will find one bone which jumps against the water. Then take that one and touch her with it and it will seem to her that she is walking in a great river and lift [her skirts].[1]

What I find really interesting about this example is the implication that whoever was conducting this would have had to know this woman well enough to get close to her and touch her with a frog bone without raising a lot of suspicion. Presumably this would have been tried in private… although it is possible that some strange man ran around town prodding women with a frog bone and wondering why they weren’t lifting their skirts!

The internal logic of this recipe is fascinating as well. It’s designed to get a woman to raise just her skirts, rather than take off all her clothes (which is a goal of many charms). The fact that there’s a whole production about making the woman believe that she’s in a river and needs to lift her skirts to keep them dry–solely so that someone can sneak a peek–really speaks to the imaginative force that was an integral part of medieval magic.

Let’s turn now to another imaginative recipe and an example of the sillier side of magic. This example is from the De mirabilius mundi, a medieval book of secrets that was attributed to Albert the Great. My text is taken from the first English edition, printed in 1550 as The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus of the Virtues of Herbs, Stones and Certain Beasts. Also a Book of the Marvels of the World.

A marvellous operation of a lamp, which if any man shall hold, he ceaseth not to fart until he shall leave it.

Take the blood of a Snail, dry it up in a linen cloth, and make of it a wick, and lighten it in a lamp, give it to any man thou wilt, and say lighten this, he shall not cease to fart, until he let it depart, and it is a marvellous thing.

Once again, this is a recipe or experiment that would presumably have been done among people who knew each other fairly well. It reads rather like a party trick. One can almost imagine the scene in someone’s home as the host passes around the hilarious farting lamp to unsuspecting guests.

The purpose of these two recipes is clearly for laughs, although perhaps they are a little cruel. They reveal much about the sorts of things that medieval people found funny (fart jokes) and what titillated them (bottoms), which is really no different what interests people today. There are many similar charms and recipes from the medieval period–they can make people dance; make it seem as though someone has three heads, or has a dog’s head; there are more charms to make people take their clothes off; there are recipes that make a loaf of bread jump around. The possibilities are nearly endless and they illustrate another side to medieval magic.

[1] Si vis ut mulier leuat pannos suos vsque ad vmbilicum: accipe viridem ranam et coque illam et postea leva (sic) ossa sua in aqua currente et inuenies vnum os quod saltabit contra aquam. Tunc accipe illud et tange illam illam (sic) cum eo et apparebit ei quod vadit in magno flumine et euellet.

A Source for Young Bees: On the Oil of Swallows, Part 2

By Rebecca Laroche, with Michelle DiMeo

In the ongoing dialogue with each other and with the archive, time at the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia has provided an addendum to our conversation about the medicament Oil of Swallows (see Michelle DiMeo’s analysis in the previous blogpost). The College holds a recipe book with the ownership inscription “Anne Layfielde / her booke of /Physicke & / Surgery / 1640,” and, in its first few pages it contains, like so many collections from this period, a recipe “To make oyle of Swallowes good for / Sinewes that be stray^ned.” As the hand in the section is wonderfully clear, no transcription seems necessary:

MS 10a214, fols. 5-6. Courtesy of the Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia

This recipe is very like that found in Gervase Markham’s English Husvvife, with its twenty-two herbal ingredients and 20 “quick” swallows. Indeed, many examples of the Oil of Swallow recipe, such as that found in the 1654 collection of Elizabeth Jacob, seem to be copied verbatim from print sources:

Wellcome Library MS 3009, Digital Image 71

Unlike the Jacob example, however, the recipe from the Layfielde collection contains several variations, most notably, the topic of this post, the addition of “2 handfull of yong bees before they be ready to fly.”

A side-by-side comparison with the Markham makes it immediately clear what the issue is. What is “the tops of young bays” (bay leaves) in the print text miraculously (or less so) metamorphoses into “yong bees.” Whether this has resulted from oral transmission— “bees” sounding like “bays”—in the early modern English tongue or the mistranscription of a cramped italic hand, each is equally a viable possibility. Neither of these explanations, however, accounts for the “before they be ready to fly.”

We thus return to the evolution of a recipe as it makes its way through the archive. The ingredient of 20 quick swallows having necessitated a description of how and when to capture them and what to do with the feathers, the inclusion of young bees also raises the questions of “how” and “when.” The precedent of the swallows thus provides the answer, “before they be ready to fly.” This recipe contains other variations in the addition (tunhoofe, vervain, pellitory, thyme) or omission (tutsan and valerian) of specific herbs, and in the details of where to keep the ointment cool for nine days (Markham says “in a seller or cold place,” and this recipe says to “sett it a foote within the ground”).(1) How and when these changes occur in writing of the recipe is impossible to know for certain.

Also unknowable is whether or not the recipe with the young bees was actually made. We have testimony at the end of the recipe that it is “most approued per Eliza Downing.” Of the 134 recipes written in this humanist italic, 42 are attributed to Elizabeth Downing, “Eliza: Downing,” or “ED,” either alone or in conjunction with another practitioner.(2) This suggests that Elizabeth Downing is a central origin of the collection in general, and the addition to the recipe certainly could have been made after it left her hands in the process of posthumous transmission.

If the variation occurs in her practice, however, does this deviation indicate nothing more than a colorful moment in textual history, and should we thus collect such moments as we do spellchecker bloopers? What if such moments could actually transform the recipe indefinitely, adding and subtracting not through practice but through the fallible processes of transmission? Or, as another recipe proved by Elizabeth Downing later in the collection, one “To provoak urine,” begins “Take dead bees” and others call for honey and beeswax, might we imagine Mistress Downing among her beehives?(3)  Might we consequently see each collection as a new context for potential revision, one provided by the products of the household and the experience of the practitioner, as well as the illegibility of handwriting?


(1) Gervase Markham, Covntrey Contentments, or the English Husvvife (London, 1623), 52.

(2) The identity of Elizabeth Downing as possibly the mother of the historical figure Calybute Downing and/or the “Mrs. Downing” who is named with more than a dozen recipes in Natura Exenterata (1655) is in part the subject of my research during a two-week residence at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. I have also begun to locate the Layfields in time and place. Many thanks to the Francis Clark Wood Institute for its support.

(3) This imagining has brought me in dialogue with the recent work of Amy L. Tigner on beehives and honey as she presented it at Sixteenth-Century Studies Conference in Fortworth, TX, October 28, 2011.

On the “Oil of Swallows”, Part 1: Did anyone actually use these outrageous remedies?

By Michelle DiMeo, with Rebecca Laroche

Part of the appeal of old medical remedies is that many are filled with seemingly outrageous ingredients. A recipe “For deaffnesse” attributed to Sir Kenelm Digby, Fellow of the Royal Society, required one to “Take a hare new killed, Take out the bladder in which you will still find some urine … soe pouer into each eare by degrees”. The recipe concludes by suggesting one continue to do this “for several dayes with new hares”.[1] The chemist Robert Boyle’s medical remedy book includes plenty of unsavory ingredients, including wood lice and earth worms, as well a treatment for dysentery that involves drinking baked pig’s dung.[2] This, coupled with the fact that many early modern recipe books do not show all the burns, spills and edits one would expect to find in a heavily used book, leads to the question:  did anyone actually make these recipes? If so, how’d they accomplish it?

The “Oil of Swallows” is one such remedy. An early version may be found in Thomas Dawson’s The Good Husvvifes Ievvel [Housewife’s Jewel] from 1587, which begins “Take eight Swallowes readie to flie out of the nest, driue away the breeders when you take them out, and let them not touch the earth, stampe them vntill the Fethers can not be perceiued” (fols. 50r-50v). It also requires the addition of approximately five herbs to be mixed with butter, and it eventually produces an oil that should be externally applied to aches and bruises.

The recipe continues to evolve over the next 100 years and seems increasingly less believable. By the mid-seventeenth century, “Oil of Swallows” is almost ubiquitous in recipe books; however, the number of swallows greatly increases, as do the number of additional ingredients. This may be due to certain print versions of the recipe, such as that found in Gervase Markham’s The English House-vvife (1615), which requires more than two dozen separate ingredients and as many as 20 live swallows. This example from an anonymous manuscript compiled over the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries requires over twenty ingredients and “twenty Young Quick Swallows”, showing just how complicated the recipe became:

Late-17th-Century Recipe for "Oil of Swallows"
Wellcome Library, Western MS 1795, fol. 222v 

A historian’s first instinct might be to dismiss this as a remedy that was never actually tried. After all, how did they catch 20 live birds, and how did they beat them all in a mortar without the birds flying away? However, a closer reading of how the recipe language evolved over time shows contemporaries trying to sort through these complicated issues, providing tips for how and when to capture the birds, and what to do if you can’t get enough. Dawson’s recipe, quoted above, is an early example of this.[3]

But perhaps the best evidence that the “Oil of Swallows” was used is an undeniable reference to the final product in Elizabeth Isham’s autobiographical “Rememberance”, written around 1639. Isham recalls having a recurring pain in her thigh in her early adulthood. In her closet, she found a glass jar, which, upon opening, she “thought it to be by the smell oiles of swallowes”. She deduced that it must be about 40 years old and that it was made by her great grandmother “Who was … very skillful in Surgery”. Isham’s aunt “thought it might have some virtue because it retained the sent [scent]. Being close stoped.” So Isham applied the ointment to her aching thigh and found some relief, noting that “it [came] foorth in a rednes and after weared away by de grees”.[4]

Isham’s “Rememberance” makes it impossible for us to deny that the “Oil of Swallows” was actually made, and it provides contextual information to help us better understand the recipe.  If we continue to read recipes against other available archival material, including letters, diaries, and account books, we might continue to find surprising evidence that these seemingly outrageous remedies really were tried and approved. But while Isham testifies to the use of “Oil of Swallows”, we still don’t know exactly which ingredients comprised the final product she tried. And as Rebecca Laroche will explain in Part 2 of this blog post on Thursday, the ingredients in this remedy were sometimes even stranger than just swallows and herbs…


This blog entry has been from adapted research used in the essay Michelle DiMeo and Rebecca Laroche, “On Elizabeth Isham’s ‘Oil of Swallows’: Animal Slaughter and Early Modern Women’s Medical Recipes” in Ecofeminist Approaches to Early Modernity, ed. Jennifer Munroe and Rebecca Laroche (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) pp. 87-104.

[1] British Library, Sloane MS 1367, fol. 19v. Contractions have been silently expanded.

[2] Robert Boyle, Medicinal Experiments (London, 1692), p. 7.

[3] For more examples, and for a more detailed analysis of the language, see the original essay on which this blog post was based: Michelle DiMeo and Rebecca Laroche, “On Elizabeth Isham’s ‘Oil of Swallows’: Animal Slaughter and Early Modern Women’s Medical Recipes” in Ecofeminist Approaches to Early Modernity, eds. Jennifer Munroe and Rebecca Laroche (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) pp. 87-104.

[4] Elizabeth Isham, “My Booke of Rememberance”, Princeton University Library, Robert H. Taylor Collection RTC01 no.62, fols. 26v-27r. For an open-access modern spelling edition, see Constructing Elizabeth Isham, dirs.. Elizabeth Clarke and Erica Longfellow,