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.

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[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).

British? Or European?: George III’s dinner table and the taste of the nation, 1788-1801

By Rachel Rich and Lisa Smith

James Gillray, ‘Temperance enjoying a frugal meal’, 28 July 1792. Image credit: Wellcome Collections, London.

If we are what we eat, and the king is the father of the nation, then George III’s menus must have something to tell us about who the British people were at the end of the eighteenth century, as Britain moved from early modernity to modernity. As patriotism in the face of perceived French aggression gave way to a new sense of nationalism and national identity, it is revealing that the British persisted in giving their most elegant menu items French names and even French flavours.

Thanks to a grant from the British Academy (as part of their ‘Tackling the UK’s International Challenges’ scheme), we are–along with Adam Crymble–digitizing and analysing the royal household’s menus for each day when they were in residence at Kew Palace between 1788 and 1801. Doing this allows us to understand what was served each day, how it was served, and what kinds of ingredients were necessary to keep the kitchens going, and to keep the nation’s first family on their feet.

It is quickly apparent that the royal family’s meals were dependent on a number of networks. At Kew, food was prepared in one building, then carried to multiple buildings (the princesses, guests, and King, for example, all resided in different houses) and multiple dining rooms (even the main building had separate tables for the king, queen, equerries, etc.) around Kew. Kinship and friendship networks were at work providing local game and produce through the tradition of giving gifts of food.

Britain’s naval and imperial position in the world is well-documented in the menus, with numerous spices and condiments listed as staples of the grocery and oilery lists that had to be approved by the Board of Green Cloth. Britain’s place in Europe, even while France went through its revolution and war was declared, remained firm with French, German, Dutch and Italian dishes appearing frequently at their majesties’ table. As these overlapping and interlocking networks and trade routes suggest, to understand British identity is also to understand that Britain was a part of Europe, even as the metropole of an Empire that had yet to reach the height of its global power.

Writing about the late nineteenth century, April Bullock has argued that recipes were sources of cosmopolitanism, a way for aspiring middle-class men and women to experience the exoticism of abroad from the comfort of their own table. A century earlier, this kind of dining-chair travel was only available to the elite, and George III’s menus might, indeed, be representative of the ways in which people sought to recreate earlier experiences—of travel and adventure, or of the comfort they had known elsewhere—on a daily basis in the domestic realm. The question, though, is what the elite desire for foreign flavours in the domestic dining room actually meant. Does an ethnically German and proudly British King, for example, eat Dutch ‘Metworst’ and Italian ‘macarony’ because he is British or because he is foreign? And if Kew was the royal family’s retreat from the glare of public life, did the food they eat there reflect their real tastes or the fashion of the moment? 

Our diets are one of the areas that most quickly reveal how complex the construction of identity is. What we say about ourselves is one thing, but what we put into our bodies in another; our choices are bound by social and historical forces we seldom consider. It is far easier to assess other people’s choices. In the late eighteenth-century, one’s diet was treated as a symbol for personal qualities and morality. James Gillray, for example, regularly conflated nation, food, and identity in his political cartoons, as in ‘Temperance enjoying a Frugal Meal’ (1792) where the King’s personal stinginess was extrapolated onto the national stage. 

The wonderful Georgian Papers Project has just launched an interesting exhibition on The Eighteenth Century’s Most Prominent Mental Health Patient, George III. When we think of the health of Georgian monarchs, George III’s case is often the first thing that comes to mind–and rightly so, given how evocative it is! However, as our project will show, the royal household’s menus and food accounts can offer other insights into the daily lives of the royal household members, particularly in terms of their health, diet, cultural choices, seasonality and supply, and personal relationships.

Although sources such as the ordinary royal menus have often been overlooked, whether owing to the difficulty of interpreting them or to their ordinary domestic nature, they are–quite literally–accounts of national importance.  After all, what the king chose to eat (or not) shaped the culture and politics of the emerging British nation.