In a world view that relied on correspondences between macrocosm and microcosm, and in a humoral medical system that utilized similarities between bodily functions and features of the natural world, one can imagine no more fitting emblem than the cold, mucousy snail. This slimy and gooey creature would seem the perfect treatment for an excess (or lack) of slimy, gooey phlegm.
Many household recipe books had recipes for snail water. These recipes generally called for shelling the snails and cleaning and boiling them in a mixture of milk and white wine or ale. This recipe from Mrs. Elizabeth Hirst’s recipe book (early 18th century with some contemporary additions) is fairly typical, though it includes and additional ingredient: slimy, gooey earthworms.
Mrs. DeLawns Snail Watter
Take 6 scor snails gathered in a garden wash them and crack ye shells and pick them off then gitt a pint of great earthworms cut them in pieces and wash them and put them and ye snails in to a gallon of new milk and boile it for half an hour then put in in yr still and add to it coltsfoot cowslips harts tongue and alehoof of each a little handful spearmint a handful an half and distill it with a hot fire this quantity will yeld 2 quarts and to each bottle put in 2 ounces of whit suger candy finely beaten and let it drop on it now and then open ye stile and stir it to prevent burning or creaming atop a grown person may drinck half a pint twice or 3 times a day.
While Mrs. Hirst’s recipe gives yield and dosage, it doesn’t indicate what the water was intended to treat, possibly because snail water was so widely known to help with consumption and other treatments involving coughing and phlegm. In this anonymous recipe collection, the writer advises “Let the party Take of this Twice a day Eight spoonfuls at a time morning & Evening” before declaring “this is the only receipt in the world for a consumption.” Further down, in another hand, somebody has also attested to its efficacy: “This is very good to make.”
Snail water was also known (counterintuitively to this writer’s tastes) to whet the appetite. In this recipe for snail water in the collection of the New York Academy of Medicine, snail water is fortified with ale: “Let the Ale this water is made of, be the strongest that can be Brewed, this exceeding good to cause an Appetite.”
Snail water as a cure may seem strange to modern sensibilities, but as Alun Withey points out, oral testimonies taken in rural Wales as late as the 1970s reveal evidence of the medical usage of snails, “including one involving skinning 12 black snails, putting sugar on them and leaving them overnight, before eating the gooey remains the next day!”
One could argue, in fact, that vestiges of humoral thinking remain to this day, particularly in the beauty industry. In the last couple of years, snail mucus has been marketed as a wonder treatment for wrinkles, acne, and skin texture. For example, through a company called Holy Snails, you can buy a hydrating serum that contains snail mucen extract. And even the big-box store Target has joined the trend, offering the “Super Aqua Cell Renew Snail Skin Treatment” containing 30% snail slime extract.
If you’d rather have a more direct route from snail to skin, you can also opt for treatments in which technician prod specially raised, organically fed snails to ooze all over your face.
Regardless of efficacy, however, one can see in these skin lotions and spa treatments some vestiges of early thinking about correspondences and humoral theory–and of the very human urge to look to nature for answers, signs, and cures.
In 1525 a book called Opera nuova intitolata dificio di ricette was published in Venice. The book promised to reveal all kinds of secrets to the reader, from cosmetic to medical recipes. This anonymous Italian best seller (which we may call in English ‘Palace of Recipes’) was a collection of 187 short and straightforward recipes, most of them only 5 or 10 lines long. The printer combined utilitarian and pragmatic secrets (including treatment of everyday ailments) with playful elements. Indeed, a taste for the wonderful and a desire to entertain guests were a vital component of this book. After all, the printer included instructions to perform magic tricks such as ‘how to make a candle burn under water’. The work was a commercial success in Italy, and was reprinted 28 times in the forty years after its publication.
The Dificio di ricette also circulated across Europe in many different languages, giving it a truly Pan-European flavour. The work was translated into French in 1539 and in 1545, also translated into Dutch via the French translation. This kind of indirect translation was common in the secrets genre. As William Eamon has shown, Alessio’s Secrets were also translated in English through the French translation. It is notable that in both cases, the French translation served as a cultural and linguistic mediator and it was in France that the Palace of Recipes reigned supreme.
Titled the Bâtiment des recettes, the French edition of the work found even greater success than the Italian one. Between its first French publication in 1539 and the final edition in 1830, the book was published 60 times. The main reason for this enduring success is probably the fact that, in 1631, the Bâtiment des recettes was added to the series of books printed in Troyes and commonly known as the ‘Bibliothèque Bleue’, since all the editions had blue covers. This collection of cheaply printed booklets included many books of secrets, and the Bâtiment des recettes continued to be sold in France until well into the 19th century.
What makes the Bâtiment des recettes so interesting is that it is not simply a translation of the Dificio di ricette. Rather it is a collection of different texts, themselves anonymous compilations of recipes. These include a collection of 26 ‘Secrets Specially Proposed for Women’ added by the printer Jean III Du Pré in 1539 and the ‘Pleasant Garden’ (Plaisantjardin) added in 1551. A translation from Italian, the ‘Pleasant Garden’ consisted of 202 varied medical recipes ‘developed by doctors very experts in physic’. Therefore, this 1560 edition contained more than double the number of recipes in the original Italian Palace.
Of the many editions of the Dificio, the 1560 French edition proved particularly popular and was most reprinted. Recently, Geneviève Debloc published an annotated critical edition of the 1560 edition of the Bâtiment des recettes. This is a very useful tool for historians, tracing the several different additions and suppressions in the Bâtiment des recettes throughout its four centuries of history, as well as providing us with tables that offer a systematic account of the ingredients used in the recipes (see my review here).
Thanks to digitisation and new critical editions, a growing number of early modern sources are becoming more easily accessible to scholars. We can compare and contrast complex texts, as in the case of the Dificio. Through a bibliographical approach, we are given the opportunity to read an important primary source in the history of knowledge in a new way – at the crossroads of the history of the book and the history of technologies in tracing the evolution in the composition of the text (including paratextual materials and changes in vocabulary), it is possible to understand how multiple agents were involved in the production of the book, from translators to printers. The Bâtiment des recettes can therefore be understood as both process and final product of these interventions. Through its fragmentary and polymorphic constitution, this re-edited recipe book gives us compelling insight into early modern life in France and Italy and its medical practices.
Julia Martins is a PhD student at the Warburg Institute in London. Her research focuses on recipes about female fertility in Italian books of secrets (as well as their translations) from 1555 to 1700. Her aim is to show how knowledge about “women’s secrets” circulated in early modern print, drawing a comparison between Italian and French books of secrets and English midwifery manuals.
How did ancient people alter the basic human form? Without written records we rely on representations of humans in early art and on the remains of fleshed bodies, rather than dry bones, for information. In NW Europe the earliest examples of soft tissue preservation include a single Bronze Age ‘ice mummy’ (Utzi) who died 5000 years ago, with more extensive information available from over one thousand remains of Iron Age people preserved in peat bogs.
These bog bodies or bog mummies have been recovered from the peatlands of Ireland, Britain, Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, normally during the exploitation of peat for fuel or compost. The majority of individuals lived about 2000 years ago (Early Iron Age) but many have been mistaken for murder victims – their hair, nails and skin so well preserved that they appear to belong to the recent dead.
Men, women and children have all be found, some of whom appear to have been deliberately killed and placed in the bogs rather than representing accidental deaths. If sacrificed then their appearance may not represent the norm, but bog bodies can still provide information on Iron Age trends in hair styles, nail care and skin decoration. Individual in the following text are identified by their location.
All types of hair have been found preserved on bog bodies: head, facial, body and pubic. Surviving hair is often reddish as a result of changes within the bog, but analysis has revealed a range of hair colours and styles. Male hair was worn both long and short. Long hair was tied up – with examples of the Suebian knot, a form of twisted ‘sweep-over’ man bun (described by the Roman author Tacitus) worn by individuals at Datgen (age 30) and Osterby (age 55-60) or in an updo in Clonycaven (age 22). The later had a band of short hair surrounding his lice-infested quiff, which was secured by pine resin scented hair ‘gel’, from trees in South West Europe and a hair tie. There is one example of loose long hair, found in a 16-year-old boy, Windeby I, his shoulder length hair had been half shaved off. Short hair provides evidence of cutting tools, including the use of cross blades in the form of shears (scissors as we know them were invented later), with a range of simple single hair styles present.
Females of all ages generally have long hair, and some is extremely long (over 1.0m in the example at Elling, age 25). Many women have, often highly elaborate, plaits still in place but for a few the hair appears to be loose, cut, or shaved (e.g. Yde, age 14), and found alongside the body. There are also a series of severed loose plaits recovered from bogs in Denmark, interpreted as hair removal during a rite of passage (such as marriage), and some appear to be conglomerations of the hair of more than one individual.
Little is known about hair-care; evidence for shampoos is sparse and combs would have been used both to order and clean the hair. Preserved combs of this period are generally wide-toothed and made of bone or wood; it is not until the middle ages close-toothed lice combs were produced.
Many male bog bodies are clean shaven, employing stone or metal tools, whilst others have trimmed beards and sideburns. Few longer beards have been preserved and moustaches are scarce. Finely wrought and decorated metal razors are relatively common in Scandinavia and Ireland at this time, but in Britain they are relatively rare and it is unclear if men shaved regularly or for special occasions only. Hair removal may have had a ritual significance, for example underneath an upturned pot at a burial tomb in Wiltshire was a razor. This was found with a small pile of eyebrow hair, from many individuals, and has been linked to mourning. There is very little evidence for the management of body or pubic hair, although lice would have been an issue.
Like hair, nails are also preserved. There are a number of bog bodies with manicured nails typical of those not employed in regular hard labour.
The skin of the bog mummies is marked by the wear and tear of human life, with callouses clearly visible, but there is no evidence for skin care, marking or covering except in one case. During analysis a male British bog body, Lindow II, was found to be covered in a clay based copper compound which may have given his skin a blue/green hue. Bog mummies provide no evidence for the other historically described body art such as woad painting (as a battle body paint with styptic qualities) or for pricked, cut or branded images of animals and symbols. The earliest tattoos in Europe are preserved on Utzi, and these probably medicinal tattoos are a series of dots and lines placed on what today are described as acupressure points.
Although numerous bog bodies have been found, there are only about 40 examples left in the world. The preservation and recovery as yet undiscovered bog bodies is also under threat. Peat is now mechanically harvested and bogs are drying out due to human management and climate change. The insight these individuals can provide to life in North West Europe is unprecedented and offers a rare closeup and personal glimpse into our common past.
Miranda Alderhouse-Green. 2001. ‘Dying for the Gods: Human Sacrifice in Iron Age and Roman Europe’, in M. Alderhouse-Green (ed.), Suffocation: Drowing, Strangling and Burial Alive. Stroud: Tempus, pp. 111-135.
Miranda Alderhouse-Green. 2015. Bog Bodies Uncovered. London: Thames and Hudson.
A. Chamberlain and M. Pearson. 2001 ‘Bog Bodies’, in A. Chamberlain and M. Pearson (eds.), Earthly Remains: The History and Science of Preserved Human Bodies. London: British Museum, pp. 44-82.
E.P. Kelly. 2006. ‘Secrets of the Bog Bodies: The Enigma of the Iron Age Explained’, Archaeology Ireland 20(1), pp. 26-30.
Karin Saunders. 2009. Bodies in the Bod and the Archaeological Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Jacqui is a bioarchaeologist who takes archaeology to new audiences at music and arts festivals. She invented Guerilla Archaeology, a collective of archaeologists, artists, scientists and students who create and deliver events to thousands of people each year. Over the past five years GA have tackled evolution and domestication, the archaeologies of the sun, moon and stars, shamans, death, deer and most recently music – getting people involved in exploring the complexity and commonality of past and present human lives.
Jacqui has published widely on animal/human relationships and insular archaeologies of Britain and beyond.
Let me begin with a passage from the Digest of Roman Law within the section on the Lex Cornelia on murderers and poisoners (D.188.8.131.52):
It is laid down by another decree of the senate that dealers in cosmetics are liable to the penalty of this law (the Lex Corneliaon murderers and poisoners) if they recklessly hand over to anyone hemlock (cicuta), salamander, aconite, pine-worms (pituocampae), or buprestis,mandragora, or, except for the purpose of purification, cantharis beetles.
This particular decree of the senate was preserved by the jurist Marcian (active c. 200 and 222 CE), but the actual decree could date from any time between 81BCE, when it was passed, and Marcian’s own day. The main test of the law was not whether or not a murder had been committed, as it is with most modern legal systems, but the intent to murder. Penalties ranged from relegation (temporary exile) to death by wild animals.
Negligence should not have exposed someone to its penalties, but there is evidence in both the legal and literary record of medical professionals who unwittingly aided in a murder being prosecuted under the Lex Cornelia. Galen, for instance, mentions one unfortunate doctor who was executed when a wicked stepmother (of course) claimed a drug was for her own use, only to have her slaves slip it into her stepson’s food.
Other examples preserved in the Digest involve gynecologists, aphrodisiacs, and abortifacients; gender bias very likely accounts for the departure from the intent-test. Add to that the demographics of medical professionals in the Roman Empire–many of them were slaves and freedmen–and the pattern becomes even more clear. Elite moral panic likely drove the legislative policy in this decree of the senate, with chilling effects. Under it, suppliers are held liable for selling commonly used pharmaceutical ingredients.
So would these highly toxic items that an ancient pharmacist would carry? Absolutely! Dioskourides, author of a first century CE pharmacy manual (and standard reference for Roman pharmacists), listed several uses for them.
We begin at the end with Blister Beetles (Cantharis, buprestis, pituocampae): Here, I am grouping three similar insects, just as Dioskourides did (2.61). These insects are more popularly known as “Spanish Fly.” The oil produced by these beetles causes the skin to blister, and this made it a useful item for removing growths.
But Dioskourides does not mention its most famous application, and most dangerous–blister beetle poisoning irritates the urogenital tract, causing an erection. It was, in essence, ancient Viagra. It seems to have been responsible for quite a few accidental and embarrassing deaths, and likely accounts for the general anxiety surrounding the use of aphrodisiacs in Roman law and armchair scientists like Pliny the Elder. It also shows up in some cringe-worthy gynecological recipes, and must have caused many a woman severe discomfort.
Cosmetics sellers would stock it for people with warts, women would keep it handy, and Roman legislators were concerned. It is hardly surprising that this class of insect dominates the senate’s decree.
Aconite, also known as monkshood, wolfsbane, and the “queen of poisons,” is best known today as Professor Snape’s go-to icebreaker question for Potions class. It is deadly–strong enough to cause numbness when it comes in contact with the skin–and that is precisely what put it on the senate’s list. Dioskourides 4.77 declares it useful for killing wolves, and nothing else, but urban sales were almost certainly aimed at eliminating human nuisances like abusive slaveowners and inconvenient husbands, at least in the minds of lawmakers.
Another alumna of Harry Potter, the mandrake is best known for its use in magic. However, it also has a strong effect as a sedative and anesthetic; it was used as such into the early 1900s. But too much could cause death, as Dioskourides warns in his lengthy list of applications (4.75). It’s hallucinogenic properties, too, combined with its sedative effects, would have made it a prime candidate for abuse and accidental death. No wonder it makes the senate’s list!
Even today, Hemlock remains infamous for its role in the death of Socrates. So why on earth would a pharmacy sell it? Dioscorides 4.78 recommends it for topical applications only, first as a cure for shingles and erysipelas, both common and painful skin conditions. He goes on to prescribe it to stop lactation, to keep youthful breasts small, and, alarmingly, to cause a boy’s testicles to shrivel. The most shocking suggestion, though, is that it be applied to the testicles to prevent nocturnal emissions – surely a recipe for disaster if the man in question failed to wash his hands carefully.
So we have in this list a number of items common in recipes and associated with women and medical professionals, both of whom might respond to their systemic oppression with the covert violence of poisoning. If you were to open a pharmacy in the bustling streets of the Roman empire–especially if you were a woman, freedman, or both– it would be best to think twice about why your patient is so keen to buy his cantharis in bulk.
 The ingredients in cosmetics and pharmacy were often similar, and likewise cosmetics were made to also have medical benefits.
 See Lily Beck’s excellent translation and commentary for the most likely identification of the species involved. Taxonomy and nomenclature in antiquity is imprecise by modern standards; it can be difficult to link ancient names to known species.
 For example, Natural History 25.25: “I do not include abortifacients in my account, and not even love potions, remembering that Lucullus the most famous general perished from such a potion.”