Revisiting Hannah Newton’s Bitter as Gall or Sickly Sweet? The Taste of Medicine in Early Modern England

Editor’s note: Today, we revisit a post by Hannah Newton, author of a wonderful book on illness and recovery called Misery to Mirth: Recovery from Illness in Early Modern England. In this post, Newton explores the essential gustatory qualities of premodern medicines.  Common afflictions of the era often affected all the senses, including the palate of tastes. As shown here, a remedy’s excessive bitterness or sweetness could, in fact, be an essential part of its remedial qualities. To that bitter pill! R.A. Kashanipour

By Hannah Newton

Adriaen Brower’s The Bitter Potion (1640) depicts a man’s reaction to the taste of a medicine – his face is contorted in an expression of deep revulsion (Figure 1). The image seems to confirm Roy Porter’s generalisation that ‘pre-modern medicine tasted foul’.[1] Contemporary medical recipes and patients’ memoirs tell a more complicated story, however. While some remedies were full of bitter ingredients, others were pumped with sugar. Below, we will see why this was the case, and discover that the actual flavours of medicines sometimes bore little relation to how they were actually experienced. This research is part of a new Wellcome Trust project, Sensing Sickness, which investigates the impact of disease on the five senses, and uncovers the sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations of the early modern sickchamber.

Figure 1: ‘The Bitter Potion’, 1640; by Adriaen Brouwer; © Städel Museum – U. Edelmann – ARTOTHEK

Bitter medicines

Amongst the most common bitter ingredients in early modern medicines were the herbs wormwood and aloes. Lady Barret’s remedy against ‘any illness in the stomach’ contains 4 drams of aloes, together with myrrh, saffron, and brandy. The Ayscough family’s recipe book suggests a remedy ‘to drive away agues’ composed of wormwood, marigold leaves, agrimony, and mugwort. A rare insight into the imagined reaction of a patient to these bitter drugs is provided in a collection of Italian medieval novels, published in English in 1620: as ‘soone as’ the man’s ‘tongue tasted the bitter Aloes, he began to cough and spet extreamly, as being utterly unable to endure the bitternesse’. Once taken, the mere sight of ‘the vessel in which the potion is kept’ is enough to provoke vomiting in some patients, wrote the physician William Bullein (c.1515-76). So notorious was the bitterness of aloes, it was used as a metaphor for describing any unpleasant experience, including pain, grief, and spiritual guilt.[2]

Figure 2: ‘Twenty Trees, Herbs, and Shrubs of the Bible. Chromolithograph, c.1850’, by MacFarlane and Erskine; Wellcome Collection, CC BY
Figure 3 : ‘Twenty Trees, Herbs, and Shrubs of the Bible. Chromolithograph, c.1850’, by MacFarlane and Erskine; Wellcome Collection, CC BY

Why did medicines contain these bitter ingredients? According to popular legend, the medicine has to be ‘as bitter as the disease’ for it to work. This idea is rooted in Galenic understandings of disease and treatment. Disease was due to the malignant alteration of the body’s humours, the constituent fluids of living creatures, and it was removed when the humours had been rectified or evacuated. Bitter medicine facilitated this process in two ways – first, it helped ‘devide, [and] extenuate…grosse and clammy humours, that they may be ready to flowe out’ of the body’.[3] Metaphors of cleaning were used in this context: the Dutch physician Levinus Lemnius (1505-68) averred, ‘the filth…of the humours stick no lesse to these mens bodies than the…dregs do to vessels, which must be soked…with pickle’, a bitter vinegary mixture, ‘to make them clean’. The second stage of evacuation was the movement of the humours from the body’s interior to its exit points, such as the bowels, where it could be expelled through defecation. Bitter medicines could be given to induce such movements. Lemnius explained that seeing that ‘attraction is made by the similitude of substance’, there must be a ‘natural familiarity’ between ‘the humour [to be evacuated] and the medicament’. Since the most noxious humours were bitter, medicines should be bitter too. Quoting Hippocrates, Lemnius expanded, ‘Physick when it come[s] into the body, it first…draws unto itself, that which is most…like unto it, then it moves the…humours…and forceth them out’. This idea was familiar to laypeople as well as doctors.

Sweet medicines

Although bitterness was necessary for purgative physic to work, the ‘cunning Physician…tempereth his bitter medicines with sweet and pleasant drinke’.[4] It was hoped that by disguising the bitter flavour, the medicine would be easier to swallow. This intervention was particularly important when it came to treating children, whose tolerance for bitter tastes was especially low due to the sensitivity of their taste-buds. This is still an issue today: in one survey, over 90 percent of paediatricians reported that a drug’s taste is the biggest barrier to completing a course of treatment. The most popular sweeteners in early modern England were sugar and honey. Speaking of her ‘speciall medecine’ for jaundice in c.1608, Mrs Corlyon instructed that ‘you must make it pleasant with Sugar according to your taste more or lesse’ (Figure 4). Anne Glyd’s recipe ‘Against the chin cough’ from the mid-seventeenth century states that it should be taken with ‘hony…or what the child likes best’.

Figure 4: Extract from Mrs Corlyon’s ‘A Booke of divers medecines’, 1606; MS 313, Wellcome Library, London

Intriguingly, these sweetened medicines did not always taste sweet. Recalling a recent illness, the natural philosopher Robert Boyle (1627-91), observed that some of his remedies had been, ‘sweetened with as much Sugar, as if they came not from an Apothecaries Shop, but a Confectioners. But my Mouth is too much out of Taste to rellish anything’. The Galenic explanation for these altered perceptions was that the organ of taste, the tongue, is ‘filled with some strange fluid’ during acute illness, which mixes with the gustatory juice of the medicine, so that ‘all things would seem salty to taste, or all bitter’.[5] Other causes were the drying of the tongue from the ‘fiery heat’ of fevers, or the presence of bitter humours in the mouth.[6] So familiar was the experience of altered taste that religious writers found it a useful metaphor to invoke when describing the more abstract idea that sinners fail to relish wholesome counsel. The Yorkshire minister Thomas Watson (d.1686), wrote in his treatise on repentance, ‘Tis with a sinner, as it is with a sick Patient[:] his pallat is distempered; the sweetest things taste bitter to him: So the word of God which is sweeter than honey-comb, tastes bitter to a sinner’.

We tend to be disparaging about premodern medicines, assuming they were deeply unpleasant. This brief foray into the gustatory qualities of remedies demonstrates that such a reading is too simplistic, and does not take into account the often benevolent intentions behind the use of bitter treatments, nor the attempts of practitioners to make their remedies more palatable. In any case, I think we need to be more wary about assuming the actual qualities of medicines were perceived by patients, since many diseases impaired the patient’s capacity to taste.



[1] Roy and Dorothy Porter, In Sickness and in Health: The British Experience 1650-1850 (London, 1988), 105; see also Lucinda Beier, In Sickness and in Health: The Experience of Illness in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1985), 170.

[2] E.g. Mark Frank, LI Sermons preached by the Reverend Dr. Mark Frank (1672), 391.

[3] A. T., A rich store-house, or treasury for the diseased (1596), preface. See also William Bullein, The government of health (1595, first publ. 1559), 9-10.

[4] William Kempe, The education of children (1588), image 31.

[5] Galen, ‘On the Causes of Symptoms I’, in Ian Johnston (ed. and trans.), Galen on Diseases and Symptoms (Cambridge, 2006), 203-35, at 220-21, 189. This text was available in Latin in the early modern period, translated from the Greek by Thomas Linacre as De symptomatum differentiis et causis (1524).

[6] Helkiah Crooke, Mikrokosmographia a description of the body of man (1615), 631.

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.


[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).

Revisiting Carla Nappi’s “Translating Recipes 1: Narrating Qing Bodies”

Editor’s Note: Today we revisit a classic post from our archives on Late Imperial China by Carla Nappi, which sits the intersection of medicine and storytelling. “Narrating Qing Bodies” kicked off an extended series of translations and commentaries on original Manchu recipes that ran on the blog from 2014 to 2015. You can find the entire series, Translating Recipes, at this link. As you will see, we leave off with quite a cliffhanger, so please do check out the second installment, A Drama of Butter and Pearls, for the dramatic conclusion. Enjoy! (Joshua Schlachet)

By Carla Nappi (Originally published January, 2014)

Image from the manuscript of Dergici toktobuha Ge ti ciowan lu bithe, from a manuscript (Mandchou 289) in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

I study and write about the history of science and medicine in early modern Eurasia, with a focus on China in that context. In particular, I’m interested in how medical and culinary recipes were translated in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, and how the recipe format became a medium of epistemic exchange across early modern Eurasia.

A text that has been particularly exercising me lately is the Xiyang yaoshu 西洋藥書 [Handbook of Western Drugs]. It was written by two French Jesuits, Joachim Bouvet (1656 – 1730) and Jean-François Gerbillon (1654-1707), some time after they had arrived at the court of the Kangxi Emperor in 1688. The book itself was smaller than a modern passport. It begins with a series of thirty-six recipes for treating myriad illnesses, many of which were broken down into varieties on a common theme. After this, the text opens out into almost forty further discussions of drugs and illnesses, many roughly translated from European-language texts about health and the body.

Importantly, the text was written in a language called Manchu, one of the official languages of the Qing court and a crucial medium of translation of scientific and medical knowledge during the Kangxi Emperor’s reign. Many of the recipes used the Manchu script to transliterate the names for drugs in Chinese, French, Latin, and other languages. The text contains many recipes for making remedies for poisons of all kinds.

Reading through this text, I began to think deeply about these recipes as literary objects. What if we understand a recipe not just as a kind of text, but also as a form of storytelling? If a recipe does tell a story, what kind of story might that be? And how might understanding recipes in this way change the way we read and experience them?

Thus began the Qing Bodies project, a long-term multi-media foray into considering various forms of scientific and medical writing in the Qing period from the perspective of a history of storytelling. Qing Bodies asks a very simple, but potentially transformative, question: how might reading Qing medical and scientific texts with an eye to narrative form open up creative possibilities for working and writing with the history of Eurasian science and medicine? This has been tremendous fun, to put it mildly!

One recent experiment stemming from this project (and inspired by the work of Raymond Queneau) has led to me thinking about the relationship between recipes and drama. Can we map a recipe onto–for example–a traditional three-act dramatic form? And how might that change how we experience recipes as literature?

If Act I of the recipe introduces the protagonist (or protagonists), sets out the conflict, and presents the incident that will set the ensuing events in motion, Act II introduces an obstacle for the main character and brings the protagonist to a moment of crisis. Act III resolves the crisis. Here, the recipe becomes a story involving characters (drugs, a body in crisis) that are transformed through their interactions in time.

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll share the result of this experiment with you…

When Medicine is a Sin: Sex and Heresy in Colonial Mexico

Farren Yero

Laboring in the Mexican mining district of Real del Monte, José Antonio de la Peña met Manuel Arroyo in the summer of 1775. The two young men struck up a secret relationship, sharing a bed, a blanket, and a provocative cure for syphilis. It was the latter that landed Arroyo in an inquisitorial cell, charged with the crime of heresy.[1]  As the trial records indicate, de la Peña had received over thirty bocados (or mouthfuls), the term Arroyo used to describe acts of fellatio he performed upon his friend in order to treat his venereal disease. Their sex life, however, was not the problem. It was the men’s potentially heretical claim that “it is not a sin to suck human semen for reasons of health” that galvanized ecclesiastical authorities to intervene.

Fig. 1: Inquisition Case of Manuel Arroyo. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.


The Holy Office of the Inquisition did police sexual proclivities.[2] However, maintaining religious orthodoxy remained their primary concern. For them, challenges to Catholic doctrine—including what might or might not constitute a sin—posed a far greater risk to the social order than clandestine sexual partners, even ones of the same sex. After all, if health demanded doctrinal exception—as Arroyo implicitly suggested—the Church would be hard pressed to preserve the strictures by which it managed its flock, a problem we continue to see play out over issues around access to contraception and abortion today. That Arroyo professed his oral ministrations to be acts of Christian duty only exacerbated the struggle to parse out the significance of his unusual claim.


According to Arroyo’s testimony, his acts were done to remove “bad thoughts” of women, prevent men from sinning with them in the first place, and—even more confounding for the judges—to heal. Arroyo insisted that, when aided by the medicinal effects of camphor and aguardiente (distilled spirits), these same benefactions were treatments for syphilis—an illness interpreted by Arroyo (and many others) as an outward symptom of impurities within. To prove this point, Arroyo recalled, for example, his quick recognition of the telltale pustules dotting his friend’s genitalia, a rash that purportedly required him to perform fellatio, employing a gargle of mixed herbs, in his words, “for his health, for his wellbeing, and for his remedy.” Though certainly damning, Arroyo did not shy away from these convictions. Instead, he worked tirelessly to convince his captors of their legitimacy, providing elaborate and intimate details of his time with de la Peña to defend his own knowledge and position as a healer.


When the local priest in Pachuca first learned of this strange ministry, he turned to a neighboring ecclesiastical judge, at a loss for what to do. Did something like this fall under the purview of the Inquisition? Or was this a matter for the civil authorities? Perhaps this was best left for the Protomedicato, the royal medical tribunal? Arroyo’s unorthodox assertions wove together the mind, the body, and the spirit, creating jurisdictional confusion and reflecting the myriad ways in which early modern patients and practitioners understood their relationship to health and disease. Because of this, his Inquisition case can tell us a great deal about how people made sense of their own bodies beyond the world of printed and professional medicine.


Read alongside indigenous-language volumes, such as the Chilam Balam, discussed by Ryan Kashanipour, and published tracts by natural philosophers, examined here by Heather Peterson, Inquisition documents can enrich our understanding of “different ways of knowing” the body, as Pablo Gómez puts it in his study of the Spanish Caribbean.[3] This is true for scholars working on both sides of the Atlantic. Early modern physicians throughout the world sought out and studied indigenous pharmacopoeia, such as chupirini or chinanteca, but Arroyo’s case suggests how patients themselves understood the value of such herbs and their relationship to disease. Translated primary source readers, such as Women in Colonial Latin America, can allow students the opportunity to weigh in on such cases, like that of Isabel Hernández, a midwife and healer, who appeared before the Inquisition in 1652.[4]


Of course, modern readers—not unlike colonial inquisitors—might question whether a remedy like Arroyo’s “bocado” can really be considered medical in nature. When caught, did the denounced simply turn to health to mask an otherwise compromising affair? We can’t necessarily rule it out. Yet, if Arroyo did make it up, then he also contrived a number of authorial forms to back it up as well. As he explained to the inquisitors, he knew that the remedy worked because a woman had performed it for him. To be sure it took effect, she would extract his semen for her doctor, who was able to then determine if it was, in his words, “damaged.” If this was not proof enough, Arroyo confessed that she had first learned this remedy through none other than her local priest. This kaleidoscope of evidence, regardless to what extent we believe him, suggests the complexities that underlay beliefs about medical efficacy at this time. We see similar kinds of invocations in other Inquisition cases, provided by the thousands of colonial subjects imprisoned at one time or another in the dungeons of the Inquisitorial Palace, a building that ironically enough, became the medical school for the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Today, it houses museums to both institutions: mannequins lay prone, emulating the bodies from which doctors and judges sought secrets hidden within.

Fig. 2. Palace of the Inquisition, now the Mexican Museum of Medicine. Photo by the author. 



[1] BANC MSS 96/95m, 13:1 (1775). The Mexican Inquisition Collection. The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

[2] On the question of sexual deviancy in this case, see: Zeb Tortorici, “Heran Todos Putos”: Sodomitical Subcultures and Disordered Desire in Early Colonial Mexico,” Ethnohistory (2007) 54 (1): 35-67.

[3] Pablo F. Gómez, The Experiential Caribbean: Creating Knowledge and Healing in the Early Modern Atlantic (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

[4] Nora E. Jaffary and Jane E. Mangan, Women in Colonial Latin America, 1526 to 1806: Texts and Contexts, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2018).