Category Archives: Classical Antiquity

Cooking up the Romans: Mrs Beeton’s Antiquity

By Laurence Totelin

Paragraph 285 of the 1861 edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management is a recipe for baked red mullet with a sauce of anchovies, sherry and cayenne. As is usual in the Book of Household Management, this recipe starts with a list of ingredients (with quantities), followed by the mode of preparation, the time needed for the preparation, the average cost, an indication as to when the dish is seasonable (at all times), some notes on other modes of cooking, and an illustration. Paragraph 285 does not end there, however. It concludes with the following notes, in smaller characters, on the history of the red mullet:

THE STRIPED RED MULLET. — This fish was very highly esteemed by the ancients, especially by the Romans, who gave the most extravagant prices for it. Those of 2 lbs. weight were valued at about £15 each; those of 4 lbs. at £60, and, in the reign of Tiberius, three of them were sold for £209. To witness the changing loveliness of their colour during their dying agonies was one of the principal reasons that such a high price was paid for one of these fishes. It frequents our Cornish and Sussex coasts, and is in high request, the flesh being firm, white, and well flavoured.

Photo of a facsimile of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, showing pages 142 and 143. This includes paragraph 283 on the pickled mackerel; paragraph 284 on the grey mullet, with a drawing of a grey mullet, a type of fish; paragraph 285 on the red mullet, with a drawing of a red mullet, a type of fish; paragraph 286 on fried oysters, with a drawing of the edible oysters; and the beginning of paragraph 287 on scalloped oysters. The text on the red mullet reads as follows: RED MULLET. 285. INGREDIENTS -- Oiled paper, thickening of butter and flour, 1/2 teaspoonful of anchovy sauce, 1 glass of sherry; cayenne and salt to taste. Mode. -- Clean the fish, take out the gills, but leave the inside, fold in oiled paper, and bake them gently. When done, take the liquor that flows from the fish, add a thickening of butter kneaded with flour; put in the other ingredients, and let it boil for 2 minutes. Serve the sauce in a tureen, and the fish, either with or without the paper cases. Time. – About 25 minutes. Average cost, 1s each. Seasonable at any time, but more plentiful in summer. Note. – Red mullet may be broiled, and should be folded in oiled paper, same as in the preceding recipe, and seasoned with pepper and salt. They may be served without sauce; but if any is required, use melted butter, Italian or anchovy sauce. They should never be plain boiled. THE STRIPED RED MULLET. -- This fish was very highly esteemed by the ancients, especially by the Romans, who gave the most extravagant prices for it. Those of 2 lbs. weight were valued at about £15 each; those of 4 lbs. at £60, and, in the reign of Tiberius, three of them were sold for £209. To witness the changing loveliness of their colour during their dying agonies was one of the principal reasons that such a high price was paid for one of these fishes. It frequents our Cornish and Sussex coasts, and is in high request, the flesh being firm, white, and well flavoured.
Pages 142 and 143 of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, showing paragraph 285 on the red mullet [full text of paragraph 285 in the Alternative Text].

Beeton peppered her Book of Household Management with such historical notes, focusing especially on antiquity, which particularly interest me as an ancient historian. In these notes she named various ancient sources: the Scriptures, Homer, Herodotus, Aristophanes, Aristotle, Xenophon, Theocritus, Cato, Caesar, Horace, Martial, Virgil, Pliny, Dioscorides, Galen, Athenaeus, Apicius, and Julius Firmicus. However, in most cases, her knowledge of these sources was second-hand: she had borrowed it from a curious book published in 1853, the Pantropheon, which was circulated under the name of Alexis Soyer, a famous and flamboyant Victorian chef (but origianllly composed in French by Adolphe Duhart-Fauvet). The Pantropheon retraced the history of food and eating habits, with a focus on antiquity. It drew on numerous classical sources, listed, with varying degrees of accuracy, in the ‘table of references’. Beeton only acknowledged Soyer’s Pantropheon once (paragraph 1016), probably deeming the information to be, as it were, ‘in the public domain’.

Some of Beeton’s borrowings are word-for-word copies of what she found in the Pantropheon. In most instances, however, she reworked the Pantropheon’s material . For instance in her paragraph on the red mullet, she brought together various passages from the Pantropheon’s chapter on this fish, and added the information on where to find the fish in the British isles.

Even though Beeton’s historical notes are trivia apparently selected at random, two types of anecdotes recur with particular frequency. First, she often commented on the religious practices of the ancients, usually displaying a critical attitude towards what she deemed to be superstitions.  Second, she often included anecdotes relating to the excesses and cruelty of the ancients. We have already encountered her comments on the cruelty of the Romans towards the mullet. In paragraph 214, which is part of her general introduction on fish, she also wrote that ‘with all the elegance, tastes, and refinement of Roman luxury, it was sometimes promoted or accompanied by acts of great barbarity’. Writing on the luxurious excesses of the ancients (and more particularly of the Romans) was nothing new, but Beeton seems more angered by cruelty towards animals than by conspicuous displays of wealth. The theme of humane treatment of animals is  one that runs through the Book of Household Management: historical anecdotes helped Beeton reinforce her argument against animal cruelty. Thus, even with plagiarised material, Beeton managed to convey at least two moral messages. Her readers may have been oblivious to these implicit lessons, but they cannot have been to her explicit aim to educate her middle-class readers in every aspect of household management and its history.

Photo of a Roman mosiac displaying an eel and three fishes.
Roman mosaic with fish from Utica, Tunisia. Photo by Kritzolina, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia.

Including historical and scientific information in Books of Household management was not entirely new. Books of household managements published at the beginning of the nineteenth century sometimes included sections on geography, history, architecture, or similar topics. Yet, I would argue that what Beeton was doing was new in two respects. First, rather than concentrating all her historical notes in one chapter on the history of food, she offered food history in bite-sized parcels. Second, she integrated those  historical bites into the structure of her recipes. These innovations may appear trivial, but they are not. The readers of Beeton’s Book of Household Management could irgnore her historical notes only with some difficulty. These readers may have chosen not to read them, but it would have been very difficult not to see them. If the readers ever chose to examine some of these historical and scientific notes, they could do so in very little time. Beeton was well aware that time was of the essence for many of her readers who did not often have the leisure to read for pleasure.

It is for this time-poor reader that Beeton pre-chewed and bite-sized history. One could easily imagine a reader of the Book of Household Management pausing for two minutes to read the notes on the red mullet once she had placed her concoction on the stove. In that reader’s mind the trivia she had learnt about that fish thereafter would be associated with the smell of the roasting fish. To today’s reader, Beeton’s didactic method may appear surprisingly modern: she had chopped history into small bits easy to memorise, and by associating them with recipes, she made the learning experience a multisensory one. Of course, it would be wrong to overinterpret Beeton’s didactic method, but it would be equally wrong to deny that Beeton had didactic intentions. The Beetons were fervent advocates of female education.

In her small way, then, Beeton did contribute to the education of the middle classes. Isabella would certainly have disagreed with Sarah Sewell who in 1868 argued that ‘Women who have stored their minds with Latin and Greek seldom have much knowledge of pies and puddings’ (Woman and the Times we Live in, p. 51) . As any aspiring domestic goddess will know a woman’s brain can well accommodate pie and pudding recipes as well as Latin and Greek!


Ovid’s Toothpaste: Literary Allusion in One Medieval Cosmetic Recipe

By Chelsea Rae Silva

Women, declares the sixteenth-century physician Donatus Antonius de Altomare, “think nothing more unseemly… then when they laugh, to show their foule rusty & spotted teeth.” In order to remedy this issue, his text promises to “first shew how we may make [teeth] that are blacke as white as the shining pearles, & then how we may cover with flesh them that are weake & naked in their gums & how we may make them strong” (London, British Library MS Harley 4349, f. 258v). As Seth LeJacq noted on this blog back in 2013, the use of remedies would have been preferable for late medieval readers wishing to avoid painful surgical procedures like the one pictured below.

A dentist with silver forceps and a string of large teeth, extracting the tooth of a seated man (from London, British Library, MS Royal 6 E VI, f. 503v). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Altomare’s pronouncement, and the remedies that follow, attest to the indistinct boundary between cosmetic and medical arts, and between literary and medical discourse. I first encountered Altomare’s manuscript collection in the British Library last summer and have been fascinated by its contents for the better part of a year. Much of that fascination stems from Altomare’s use of literary techniques like allusion, personification, and narrative in his discussion of medical and cosmetic care.

The cosmetic recipes are grouped together and, unlike the other recipes in the manuscript, read as a continuous passage rather than a sequence of distinct texts. Altomare apparently anticipated the possibility of a reader who might crack open this portion of his medical collection to read—linearly, continuously—rather than to learn piecemeal. Perhaps the most interesting of these recipes are two deceptively simple ones for dentifricia, or tooth-paste or -powder:

“Also of the pumis stone the best & most profitable dentifricia weare prepared as Pliny saith. And the teeth rubbed with the poulder of yvory the teeth were made like yvory as Ovid.” (f. 259)

The allusion is explained at the top of the following folio, which bears the sentence “what if I command you to wash your mouth in the morning with water, that your teeth looke not blacke.” This is an admittedly poor translation of a question from the Ars amatoria—“Quid, si præcipiam, ne fuscet inertia dentes, / Oraque suscepta mane laventur aqua?”one that elides the original attention to handwashing in favor of emphasizing dental hygiene.[1]The textual evidence suggests that the scribe himself may have found this confusing, and the presence of the quotation on the top of the next page, without any clear connection to its original author’s name on the bottom of the previous folio, likely contributes to this uncertainty. But in its awkward placement, the reference to Ovid also invites a kind of literary thinking enabled by the text as it appears to read on first glance: the equation of some work by Ovid with the kind of transformation described by Pliny.

Ovid is better-known for his storytelling than his medical expertise (although his Art of Beauty, does include a number of cosmetic recipes, all are for facial cleansers or masks and none make use of ivory or claim to remedy dental issues). But the parallel implied between Ovid and Pliny is not necessarily medical in nature; instead, that two-word reference—“as Ovid”—suggests a literary resonance in the form of the story of Pygmalion. In doing so, it evinces the entanglement of literary and medical textual traditions, and the slippage that might occur between them.

Ovid’s version of Pygmalion properly begins with the Propoetides, women who became the first sex workers after denying Venus’s divinity. “Losing all sense of shame,” the story goes, “they lost the power to blush, as the blood hardened in their cheeks, and only a small change turned them into hard flints.” A skilled sculptor living in Amanthus, Pygmalion is disgusted by the Propoetides and, by extension, all mortal women. Rather than seek out a partner or a wife, he instead carves a beautifully lifelike statue out of ivory. The statue is so realistic that even Pygmalion himself is half-convinced that it’s a flesh-and-blood woman, and the craftsman falls in love with her. After he prays to Venus, the sculpture is transformed into a living being, and the two are married soonafter.

Pygmalion working on his sculpture (from Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose; MS NLW 5016D f. 130r). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

What I’m most interested in is just how that transformation is effected. Returning home from Venus’s temple, Pygmalion repeatedly kisses and strokes the statue’s body, and the ivory begins to soften like wax under his fingers. He continues to kiss and touch her, “reaffirm[ing] the fulfilment of his wishes, with his hand, again, and again,” until the transformation is complete. In other words, it is the repetitive press and rub of flesh against the statue’s ivory which changes it into flesh itself.

That’s a surprisingly rich allusion to find in a recipe for tooth powder, but as recent discoveries have shown, we can learn a lot from medieval teeth. The touch of Pygmalion’s hand transforms ivory into flesh; so too, the dentifricia recipe suggests, might the application of ivory to teeth transform those teeth into ivory themselves. That two-word note, “as Ovid,” may allude to the events of the Pygmalion story, popular throughout the medieval West because of its presence in texts like Jeun de Meun’s Roman de la Rose. But it may also work as a promise of efficacy, suggesting to the reader that her teeth will be as beautiful as the ivory maiden’s skin. The latter possibility makes this two-word addition an interesting twist on the regimens falsely attributed to various noble ladies, like the dietary of Queen Isabella, in circulation at the time. This tooth-whitening recipe suggest that the power of celebrity to sell things like skin care regimens might have extended to literary and mythological characters as well.

Correction: This post has been updated to attribute the Ovid quote to the Ars amatoria.

[1] Ovid: The Art of Love and Other Poems, trans. J. H. Mozley and revised by G. P. Goold, Loeb Classical Library 232 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1929), ll. 197-98.

Nit Picking the Greek and Roman Way

By Laurence Totelin

One of the ‘joys’ of parenthood is dealing with lice and nits. In the UK, the NHS helpfully states that ‘there’s nothing you can do to prevent head lice.’ You can only prevent them from spreading like wild fire. This school year, the problem has deepened in England and Wales, as general practitioners have been prevented from prescribing free treatments in an attempt to make savings. Treatments on sale in pharmacies and supermarkets are exorbitantly priced and don’t work particularly well. Cheaper treatments, basically covering the hair with hair conditioner and combing, are extremely time consuming but perhaps more effective in the long run.

Nineteenth-century lice comb, India. The Science Museum, London. Source: Wellcome Images

Fighting off lice infestations in our household this year has made me wonder whether the Greeks and the Romans also dealt with the issue, and if so, how. I discovered that the ancients distinguished between the adult insect, the louse (phtheir in Greek), and its egg (konis in Greek), thereby showing an understanding that one cannot get rid of the pest without removing all eggs. They also recognised that lice can live on the head, the body, and even the eyebrows. They appreciated that the easiest way to treat an infestation was to shave the hair, although perhaps not as assiduously as Egyptian priests, who according to the Greek historian Herodotus (Histories 2.37), shaved their entire body every other day to avoid lice. That method, however, was not available to those who had to wear their hair long for social or cultural reasons. Thus, Herodotus again noted of the Adyrmachidae, a tribe of Libyans, that:

Their women wear twisted bronze ornaments on both legs; their hair is long; each catches her own lice, then bites and throws them away. They are the only Libyans that do this (Herodotus 4.168, translation A.D. Godley).

This observation is meant to stress the oddness and otherness of the Adyrmachidae, whose women fight lice in a disgusting manner, without even relying on the social ritual of nit picking.

Delousing. Illustration to the Hortus Sanitatis, fifteenth century. Source: Wellcome Images

What about treatments? Ancient Greek and Roman medical authors offer some possible solutions. The first-century pharmacologist Dioscorides recorded several methods in his De Materia Medica, many of which are still in use today. Some consisted in spreading the hair with a sticky or oily substance, such as cedar oil (1.77.2) or boiled honey (2.82.2), which would presumably have asphyxiated the lice and facilitated a combing process. Others involved smearing the hair with a plant sap (sap of ivy, 2.179.3) or decoction (decoction of tamarisk leaves, 1.87.2), which might have acted as an insect repellent or poison. Dioscorides also recommended the use of alum (5.106.6) and sea water (5.11.1). Perhaps more surprising is his suggestion to give garlic, drunk with a decoction of oregano (2.152.2).

Other medical authors gave slightly more complex recipes for the treatment of lice infestation. Thus, the sixth century author Alexander of Tralles (1.459) recommended a mixture of sodium carbonate, alum, and wild grapes, each in the amount of an ounce, mixed with myrtle oil and smeared onto the head. The seventh century medical author Paul of Aegina for his part claimed that ‘I am always successful when I anoint the head with wild grapes crushed together with vinegar and oil’ (3.3.8).

In short, most of those remedies are highly sensible, if perhaps not entirely effective. But then again, what is ever effective in fighting lice? There were, however, some tall tales circulating in antiquity regarding nits and lice. Dioscorides tells us that authorities whose names were not worth recording ‘say that those who are given [viper flesh] grow lice, which is false. And some add that those who eat vipers become long-lived’ (2.16.1). The trade off for a long life, then it seems, is to eat viper flesh and become a growing field for lice. I’m not sure I would make that trade off!

A Pain in the Backside: Ancient Remedies for Haemorrhoids

By Glyn Muitjens

Although haemorrhoids are not often talked about, as many seem to consider them a source of embarrassment, they are anything but a rare condition. In fact, the Association of Coloproctology of Great Britain and Ireland suspects one in three people in Britain suffers from them sometime in life. Haemorrhoids seem to have been a common problem in Greek antiquity as well, and this inspired at least one medical author from the 5th century BCE to dedicate a treatise to them and their treatments – recipes included!

            Haemorrhoids (Greek haimorrhois, a contraction of haima, ‘blood’, and rhoia, ‘flux’) form due to prolonged pressure on the anal veins, which swell up and may in some cases lead to lumps appearing on the outside of the anus. The author of the treatise Haemorrhoids, which is part of the Hippocratic Corpus, describes their formation as follows:

Nineteenth-century representation of the excision of haemorrhoidal tumours. Source: Wellcome Images

When bile or phlegm becomes fixed in the vessels of the anus, it heats the blood in them so that, being heated, they attract blood from their nearest neighbours. As the vessels fill up, the interior of the anus becomes prominent and the heads of the vessels are raised above its surface, where they are partly abraded by the faeces passing out, and partly overcome by the blood collected inside them, and so spurt out blood, usually during defecation, but occasionally at other times as well. (Hippocrates, Haemorrhoids 1)

For this author humoral clogging, heat and the ensuing attraction of ‘like to like’ – staples of Hippocratic pathology – are to blame for the formation of haemorrhoids. Another Hippocratic claims that men from cities exposed to hot winds have heads filled with phlegm, often suffering from haemorrhoids “in the anus” (Airs Waters Places 3). The Greek word haimorrhois can be used to denote any vein that discharges blood, so some topographical precision is necessary to speak of haemorrhoids in our sense of the term.

            The Hippocratic author mentions several possible ways of treating haemorrhoids. Some of these are rather invasive: cauterization with heated irons, for example – a treatment not always welcomed with enthusiasm (“Let assistants hold the patient down by his head and arms while he is being cauterized so that he does not move – but let him shout during the cautery, for that makes the anus stick out more.” Haemorrhoids 2). The cautery wound is then covered with a plaster of boiled lentils and chickpeas for 5 or 6 days, after which an assemblage of different fabrics covered in honey is inserted in the anus and kept in place by a bandage tied around the body.

A tool to remove haemorrhoids: the Chassignae-type écraseur, London, England, 1880-1902. Source: Wellcome Images

            This final treatment points to an interesting aspect of treating haemorrhoids ‘of the anal variety’, namely that the backside is a difficult place to reach both for diagnosis – the author warns that using a device to dilate the anus for closer inspection might obscure the haemorrhoid – and for treatment, which elicits some creative responses. For example, having removed a “knobbiness” or kondulôma next to a blood vessel by hand, the author suggests to dry out the blood vessel by inserting a tube into the anus, and shove a heated iron into the tube, so as not to expose the patient to the burning directly.

            Haemorrhoids could also be removed purely with medications, for which the author provides several recipes, both for direct application and as suppositories. For example, after moistening the anus:

Grind myrrh and oak galls into a smooth paste, and add one and a half times as much burnt Egyptian alum and an equal amount of black pigment: apply this medication dry. (Haemorrhoids 8)

Recipes for this purpose were also provided by the 1st century CE pharmacological writer Dioscorides: bramble, and several kinds of frankincense when applied as a plaster could be used to treat condylomas and haemorrhoids (De Materia Medica 3.74.2; 4.37.1).

Frankincense, represented in the ‘Vienna Dioscorides’ manuscript, 512 CE

            At the end of the treatise, our Hippocratic author speaks of what he calls haemorrhoids “as pertaining to women.” The treatment is as follows:

Moisten with copious warm water in which sweet smelling substances have been boiled; grind tamarisk, burnt litharge, and oak gall, add white wine, olive oil, and goose grease, pound these all smooth, and after she has been moistened give this to be anointed. Also foment the anus after forcing it out as far as possible. (Haemorrhoids 9)

What does the author mean with “as pertaining to women”? The moistening treatment (the Greek verb used appears only a handful of times in the Corpus) is very reminiscent of those found in the Hippocratic gynaecological treatise Nature of Women, in which they pertain to the womb. Are we to imagine that these haemorrhoids are located in the uterus? The final sentence, “also foment the anus”, might be taken to point in this direction, as if the backside is not the primary concern.

            I hope to have broken some of the embarrassed silence surrounding haemorrhoids, putting them in historical perspective. Although haemorrhoids nowadays can be a nuisance, we should remember they are a common condition and rarely pose a serious threat to health. At worst, they have to be treated through minor surgery. Let’s thank the stars we’re not ancient Greeks.

All of the Greek translations, sometimes slightly adapted by me, are from Paul Potter, Hippocrates Volume VIII (Cambridge MA, London: Harvard University Press, 1995)