My Charming Ancestor: Lost Spells and Sick Cattle

By Catherine Flood

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]

Charm ‘For a Bullock that is Stung with an Adder’ in Timothy Butt’s book, 1768. Reproduced with permission of West Sussex Record Office.

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.

Inula Helenium, Elecampane, paper collage by Mary Delany, 1778. Elecampane, also known as horse-heal, was a herb widely grown in Sussex gardens for medicinal and veterinary purposes. Following the logic that like cures like, it appears in one of Timothy Butt’s recipes for the ‘yellows’ (jaundice) along with other yellow flowers and spices (celandine, turmeric, and saffron).
British Museum (https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1897-0505-466). Copyright The Trustees of the British Museum.

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.

Sussex Oxen, hand coloured etching, 1808. Oxen often worked in the same pair for life. A team of six to eight pairs was used to pull a plough in Sussex. 
Wellcome Collection (https://wellcomecollection.org/works/uztak924)

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.


Notes:

[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.

 

‘A Few Drops of Milk Will Do’: Breast Milk as Medicine

The traditional Madonna lactans: the breastfeeding Mary. Madonna Litta, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci © Wikimedia Commons.
The traditional Madonna lactans: the breastfeeding Mary. Madonna Litta, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci © Wikimedia Commons.

By Julia Martins

A few weeks after my baby was born, I noticed her tear ducts were blocked. Echoing Galen, the midwife suggested a few drops of breast milk to help treat and open the ducts. A few days later, the problem was solved, much to my astonishment. If you Google medical uses for breast milk, you might be surprised at the number of articles mentioning it as a treatment for ear infections, eczema, acne, eye problems, and many other conditions in babies. While most of this evidence is anecdotal, we know breast milk has antimicrobial properties, so it may indeed help.

Using breast milk as medicine is nothing new, however. Nor is it only a Western phenomenon, with human milk being used in imperial China. For centuries, medical recipes (especially those in the vernacular tradition) contended that menstrual blood in its concocted form of breast milk could be used to treat a myriad of conditions. Vernacular books published for a broad readership, such as Thomas Reynalde’s The Birth of Mankind, a 1540 adapted version of the 1513 German midwifery manual Rosengarten by Eucharius Rösslin, contained many recipes using human milk. As a general reproduction and fertility manual, Reynalde’s book also contained advice about childrearing and how to treat childhood ailments. So, when discussing the swelling of infants’ eyes, Reynalde recommended a mixture containing ‘woman’s milk’. He also suggested putting amber dissolved in breast milk inside the child’s nose.

Reynalde’s breast milk medicines for infants, used for ailments ranging from hiccups to stomach issues and sleeping problems, were not unusual. Like many entries in the book, these uses were taken from Ibn Sina’s Canon or Rhazes’ Practica Puerorum. Other early modern books contained milk in their recipes, such as John Gerard’s and John Partridge’s formulas to provoke sleep. As in The Birth of Mankind, these were books aimed at a wide readership, to be primarily used in a domestic setting.

As a readily available, free resource, breast milk was not only recommended for treating children. Since antiquity, it was thought that milk could also answer questions about what the pregnant body contained. In a passage copied from Ibn Sina, Reynalde told readers how breast milk could be used to determine the sex of the unborn child:

But if ye be desirous to know whether the conception be man or woman, then let a drop of her milk, or twain, be milked on a smooth glass or a bright knife, other [or] else on the nail of one of her fingers. And if the milk flow and spread abroad upon it by and by, then it is a woman child. But if the drop of milk continue and stand still upon that the which is milked on, then it is a sign of a man child.

Female trunk, from The Birth of Mankind. © Wellcome Collection.
Female trunk, from The Birth of Mankind. © Wellcome Collection.

Human milk could even be used to treat the one giving birth. Following a difficult birth, early modern people believed that abscesses and other problems could be healed with medicines containing human milk. Reynalde also told readers how, if the foetus died in the womb, drinking breast milk (albeit from another woman) might help someone to ‘expel the dead birth’. This belief was probably inherited from the medieval tradition, such as the Trotula, reminding us of the many continuities in the history of medicine.

‘Woman’s milk’ was not the only kind of milk used in early modern recipes. For instance, in Alessio Piemontese’s Secrets, another best-selling vernacular book published in the period, Piemontese recommended that women drink mare milk to facilitate conception. The milk from a dog just delivered could induce labour in women whose babies had died and needed to be expelled; this resembled the recipe using another woman’s milk. The symbolic association between ‘mothers’ meant that animal milk could have similar effects to human milk, working sympathetically to produce the desired goals.

In early modern medicine, humoral theory played a crucial role in understanding the body and reproduction. In its concocted form of breast milk, menstrual blood was often found in recipes published in the vernacular. Even though human milk as medicine seems to have been more prevalent among laypeople who read and wrote in the vernacular than in higher, more educated circles, such as university physicians, it is important not to trace too sharp a divide between ‘learned’ and ‘popular’ traditions, with perceptions about menstrual blood and breast milk varying widely. However, it is comforting to think of the links between Ibn Sina, 16th-century vernacular books, and what I was told as a new mother that I could do to help my baby, even if the reasons behind these recommendations have changed.

References:
Gerard, John. Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes. London: 1597.

Partridge, John. The Widdowes Treasure. London: 1595.

Piemontese, Alessio. De’ secreti del reverendo Donno Alessio Piemontese. Milan: 1559.

Rhazes, The First Treatise on Pediatrics [Practica Puerorum], translated by Samuel X. Radbill. American Journal of Diseases of Children 112.5 (1971): 369-76.

Reynalde, Thomas. The Birth of Mankind: Otherwise Named, The Woman’s Book. Edited by Elaine Hobby, Farnham: Ashgate, 2009 (originally published in 1540).

Rosslin, Eucharius. Der Swangern Frauwen und Hebammen Rosegarten. Strasbourg: 1513.

Ibn Sina, The General Principles of Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine [Liber Canonis]. Translated by Mazhar H. Shah. Karachi: 1966.

The Trotula: A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine. Edited and translated by Monica Green. Philadelphia: 2001.

*****
Julia Martins is a PhD candidate in History at King’s College London. Her thesis focuses on the translation of early modern recipes about the female body and reproduction (‘secrets of women’) from Italian into French and English. Her research is about how medical knowledge was changed as it circulated in print in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century vernacular books of secrets, and what these modifications can tell us about the way gender and the sexed body were understood in the period. Julia’s research interests are gender history, the history of medicine, and recipes literature.

A Spider at the Pulse

By Yijie Huang

I received a gift from my supervisor this spring, a vial of “POSITIVITY Pulse Point Oil” from ESPA. As a historian of pulse diagnosis in early modern medicine, I am fascinated by it–not so much by the joyful fragrance, but by what “pulse” indicates in its label. It reminds me of the popular tip to wear perfume on one’s wrists, said to help the scent to spread over the whole body and to last longer. It also reminds me of a story about Robert Boyle (1627-91), a leading natural philosopher and one of the founders of the Royal Society. Among his many accomplishments, Boyle contributed significantly to the corpuscularian philosophy: that matter is made up of numerous invisible corpuscles whose quality determines its overall properties. He was particularly interested in explaining the efficacy of recipes at the corpuscularian level–which shaped his understanding of the pulse.

This is an image of the ESPA pulse point oil box.
ESPA Positivity Pulse Point Oil.

 

Boyle was immersed in a diagnostic tradition, extending from antiquity into the early modern period, in which people took assessed the pulse’s quality (magnitude, speed, strength, hardness) to assess the bodily state, especially the heart. In his Essays of Effluviums (1673), Boyle recounted a seemingly absurd anecdote from German physician Daniel Sennert (1572-1637). Some Nicolaus of Florence reported that a Lombard in the city had burned a big black spider upon a nearby flame, then soon after fell into a faint. Although the Lombard’s heart was severely affected, with his pulse scarcely perceivable overnight, he was eventually cured. In the Essays, Boyle discussed how objects release effluvia–that is, streams of minute constituent particles–to cause effects upon the human body. It was by the means of effluvia, he claimed, that ambrosial objects like ambers could perfume the body even one does not wear them next to the skin. Yet effluvia might also bring dreadful threats across distance. Contagious patients carrying them could infect others without physical contact. Poisonous effluvia could kill people in a scarcely noticeable manner. The poor Lombard’s weak pulse warned of such danger. According to Boyle, the vapour of the lit spider was inhaled into the Lombard’s body, resulting in a contactless poison.

While this spider interrupted the pulse indirectly, another spider might be placed exactly there as a cure. Boyle referred to the ancient Greek pharmacologist Dioscorides (c. 40-c. 90) and the Swiss alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541) who described individuals sealing a spider inside an empty nutshell and binding it to certain bodily parts. The amulet was to prevent ague, as spider–especially its oil–was believed remarkably efficacious in curing agues and quartans (Works, vol. 13, 248).

Nonetheless, Boyle doubted the validity of this type of spider remedy. He discussed a case in which a gentleman wore at his wrist a half of a walnut shell, within which was sealed a great, living spider. He was trying to prevent a coming fit of ague, but (ironically) died from it. Why did the spider kill the man despite being kept separate from his body by the walnut shell? Some physicians’ judgements echoed Boyle’s ideas about effluvia: the spider permeated its malignant steam into the veins near the pulse. Through the circulation of the blood, it finally reached and destroyed the heart.

Boyle paralleled this deadly spider at the wrist with many other noxious amulets, arguing that they probably influence the human body in a similar way. His argument gestures at the invisible fluidity of materials across the skin. Everything penetrates everything, thus toxics applied “outside” the body could have detrimental effects deeply “inside”. This made the pulse more than a site of diagnosis. With poisonous objects attached to it, the pulse could became a fatal portal into the body, potentially allowing the poison to flow to the heart at the centre.

Yet the portal of death may also be the portal of life: what if things put at the pulse were healthful, not toxic? Boyle was aware of this potential method of healing, which he put into practice by tying many herbal, mineral and animal ingredients to the wrist. He referred to them as pericarpia, wrist remedies (in Greek, peri means around, karpos means wrist). Recommending them as incredible cures to a range of diseases from agues to eye ailments, Boyle shared his own experience of a wrist remedy. Once he suffered from a violent quotidian fever, and no normal therapies had proved effective. Eventually, a physician applied to his wrists “a mixture of two handfuls of Bay-Salt, two handfuls of the freshest English Hops, and a quarter of a Pound of blew Currants very diligently beaten into a brittle Mass” and successfully cured him (Works, vol. 3, 420). This remedy should have been prescribed many times; Boyle reported that despite occasional failures, it showed “great Effects” on quotidian, tertian agues and continual fevers.

The underlying concept of the body has proven resilient. Under microscopes we observe the porosity of skin under microscopes; by X-rays and infrared photography, we see the deep landscape of the body and its material exchange with the outside environment. Such corporeal facts, many may assume, can only be excavated with the help of advanced visual technologies belonging to our age. But Boyle’s pulse-related discussions are testimony to the provocative insights into the openness and fluidity of the body which far predate our rediscovery of it (Murphy). Early modern people approached these facts using their distinct technologies, including the spider at the pulse. But it is that spider at the pulse that can serve as symbol of how early modern people imagined–and experienced–medical interventions that worked beyond, across, and beneath the skin. 

The spiders at the pulse, Boyle’s wrist remedies, and the ESPA aromatherapy substantiate a probably coherent historical lineage of the pulse as a therapeutic locus. Medical activities we engage in today seldom preserve this notion, as most of us view the pulse simply as the synonym of pulsebeat. In such fashion, pulse becomes nothing but a numerical result, told by counting and clocks, not touch. However, our wrists anointed by fragrances remind that we still enjoy the legacy of the pre-modern recognition of the pulse not only as a means to assess the body, but one to manipulate it. 

References

Boyle, Robert.  Essays of Effluviums. London, 1673.

Boyle, Robert. The Works of Robert Boyle, Electronic Edition, Vols. 3 and 13: Unpublished Writings, 1645-c. 1670, ed. Michael Hunter and Edward B. Davis. Brookfield, Vt.: Pickering and Chatto, 2000.

Murphy, Hannah. “Skin and Disease in Early Modern Medicine: Jan Jessen’s De cute, et cutaneis affectibus (1601).” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 94, 2 (2020): 179-214.

 

“Like a Collapsible Concertina”: Cosmetic Interventions in Fin-de-Siècle London

Jess Clark

In the Fall of 2020, new reports revealed a marked increased in cosmetic procedures—surgery, injectables, and other dermatological treatments—over the course of the COVID pandemic. During the global crisis, some people of means have flocked to plastic surgeons, cosmetic dermatologists, and other experts for appearance-altering treatment. Observers attributed this uptick to patients’ “opportunity” to be out of the public eye for extended recovery periods, not to mention the distorting effects of long hours on social media and online meetings. Whatever the cause, the “Zoom Boom” meant a surging interest in artificial enhancements. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, some 64 per cent of its practitioners experienced increased demand for online consultations since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Face Harness,” from William A. Woodbury, Beauty Culture (New York: G.W. Dillingham Company, 1911), p. 341. Public Domain via Hathi Trust.

While this level of interest in cosmetic interventions may be unique to 2020-21, invasive procedures that required weeks of downtime are not. We need only to look to a handful of court trials taking place in fin de siècle London to hear dramatic accounts of cosmetic enhancements, their demands, and dangers. In the early twentieth century, London’s periodical press focused on a spate of cases against self-proclaimed “beauty doctors” who promised to renew the youth and looks of British women. The fact these stories only appear in the public record in the case of botched procedures suggests far more widespread—and concealed—instances of dramatic cosmetic enhancements that remain beyond the reach of historians.

One notable case unfolded in October 1904, when Britain’s periodical press covered the scandalous story of a “beauty doctor” taken to court over the alleged defrauding—and deep discomfort—of a client. Under headlines like “Wrinkles Came Back” and “’Beauty Doctor’s’ Promise,” articles detailed a Marylebone Police Court case in which a dissatisfied dressmaker described the effects of unsuccessful cosmetic treatments. Garnering laughter from the court, the dressmaker used vivid language to describe the beauty doctor’s dealings, conjuring unsavory images invoking various foodstuffs:

Madam, she said, put some stuff on her clients’ faces, which had a burning effect, and caused them to swell to a tremendous size. She then put on a sticky plaster, which was allowed to remain fifteen or sixteen hours, and when it was removed the face was like a half-roasted beefsteak. After that she administered a sticky jelly. That left the face like a pudding basin, and it was allowed to remain in that state four or five days, during which time the unhappy victim was unable to part her teeth, and had to be fed with milk in a feeding cup.

Despite these unappetizing descriptions, the dressmaker reported that the treatment’s effects were transformative. When “the mask was taken off….whatever your age, the face was that of a young woman of 18 years of age—full, clear, and fat; beautiful, in fact, without a wrinkle, a scar, or a blemish.” Although the client’s skin was “very, very red,” the effects reportedly delighted the “deluded” customers. Within days, however, “wrinkles gradually reappeared, and the face became like a collapsible concertina.”[1] Like contemporary injectables and thread lifts, the results were temporary, despite the pain experienced to garner these results.

“The Geography of a Dissipated Woman’s Face,” from Harriet Hubbard Ayer’s Book of Health and Beauty (New York: King-Richardson 1902), p. 318. Public Domain via Hathi Trust..

 

It is unclear what precisely went into these “rejuvenating” recipes. While not identified by name, the description of the “sticky jelly” suggests some form of “face skinning”—or chemical peels—which grew in popularity through the early twentieth century. As historian of cosmetics James Bennett has shown, early experimental peels could include “[t]inctures of iodine and lead, lime compresses and chemicals such as salicylic acid, resorcinol, phenol, croton oil and trichloroacetic acid.” By the twentieth century, processes of “écorchement” (or “flaying”) included caustics like salicylic acid, resorcinol, carbolic acid, and electricity to remove upper layers of the skin and reveal the “youthful” skin below. In most cases, reported American beauty entrepreneur Harriet Hubbard Ayer, a client took “board for a week or two or three with the professional skinner.” In doing so, “she pays for her board and torture in advance.”[2] Then, as now, clients remained out of sight in the aftermath of their cosmetic procedures. Whether due to self-imposed or government-mandated isolation, this time represents processes of alleged transformation, albeit at a potential cost.

 

 

[1] “Price of Beauty,” Daily Mirror (24 October 1904): 5. See also “A ‘Beauty Doctor’s’ Victim,” The Lancet (22 October 1904): 165; “Beauty for £20,” Daily Mail (24 October 1904): 3; “A Concertina Face,” Daily Express (24 October 1904): 5; “A Face Cure,” The Times (24 October 1904): 11; and “Another ‘Beauty Doctor’s’ Victim,” The Lancet (29 October 1904): 1230.

[2] Harriet Hubbard Ayer, Harriet Hubbard Ayer’s Book of Health and Beauty (New York: King-Richardson 1902), 185, quoted in James Bennett, “Face Skinning,” Cosmetics and Skin, 25 January 2019, http://www.cosmeticsandskin.com/aba/face-skinning.php