Category Archives: Bodies

Curdled Milk in the Breast

By Jennifer Park

In one of the most visceral images of corruption within the body, the ghost of Hamlet’s father describes his murder by poison at the hands of Claudius:

Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment; whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with a sudden vigour doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood: so did it mine. [emphasis mine] (1.3.61-70)

The power of the image comes from comparing the curdling effects of poison on the blood to the daily and material reality of milk going bad. As we and our early modern counterparts were familiar, the process of milk putrefying involved the separation of the solids and the liquids of the milk, as Shakespeare so eloquently put it, “like eager droppings into milk.” If the thickening of blood could be described in terms of the curdling of milk, I wondered: could the danger of curdled blood be applied quite literally to breast milk, which was thought to be a form of blood?

My investigation of this as a potential phenomenon began by considering Old Hamlet’s speech alongside the transformation Lady Macbeth calls for, to “make thick my blood…Come to my woman’s breasts, / And take my milk for gall” (1.5.43, 47-8). Her references to her milk have been explored as one of Shakespeare’s many references to breastfeeding, and central to discussions of early modern breastfeeding was the status of human breast milk. Since antiquity, as Laurence Totelin has written, breast milk was held to be an especially nutritive substance with healing qualities. It was a powerful substance capable of changing or altering the children who ingested it because it was thought to be “white blood” or “‘twice-concocted’ blood manufactured in the mammary glands from blood itself.”[1] But as I am interested in the darker underbelly of milk as an easily corruptible substance, I wanted to find out more about milk curdling and to what extent it was a physiological as much as a culinary phenomenon.

There were a variety of early modern remedies directed towards breastfeeding women, treating everything from “for a milk sore in the breast,” to “A Medecine to to drye vpp a woemans Milke troubling her in Childbedd,” to remedies “To Increase A Womans Milk” or “For a woman that hath lost her milke.”[2] Among these, sure enough, I found remedies that specifically mentioned the curdling of milk in the breast, providing some clues about the physical pain and hardness associated with the problem. Lady Frances Catchmay provided a remedy “for a Womans brest that is curdeled | wth milke” in her manuscript receipt book.[3] So too, Philip Stanhope recorded two receipts, one from “L[ady]. Hu.” for a remedy “Against the sorenesse of any breasts by reason of the Curdling of milke in womens Breasts,” and another for “A Cattaplasme for Breasts that are hardned with congealed milke.”[4]

MS761.48
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Philip Stanhope, MS 761, f. 197v, c. 1635.

Lady Ayscough’s receipt book provided a remedy for “Brest curdled with Milk to help,” but also one “For a Breast wherein | the Milk is wharled & knotted”–what an image!–which required a massage to “breake the wharles | easily with your finger morneing and euening.”[5]

Wellcome MS 1026, 1692
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Lady Ayscough, MS 1026, f. 83r, 1692.

Clearly, curdled milk in the breasts was a common problem, and a painful one at that, even, as one recipe notes, causing “rednes inflamation | swelling paine and torment.”[6] In light of evidence that milk could in fact curdle in the breasts, Lady Macbeth’s desire to “make thick my blood…And take my milk for gall” (1.5.43, 48) can be read as need for physiological hardening to accompany her emotional stoicism. Regardless of whether we think that Lady Macbeth’s spirits could enact such a transformation upon her body, or if she means it purely for the sake of metaphor, her desire for such a painful state is in stark contrast to the solace that most women were seeking for their breast pain. For such a well-documented problem among early modern women, how much more unnatural that Lady Macbeth should wish it! Perhaps we can’t help but admire her intention to practice what she preaches to her husband: no pain, no gain.

 

[1] Ken Albala, “Milk: Nutritious and Dangerous,” in Milk: Beyond the Dairy: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, 1999, (Devon, UK: Prospect Books, 2000), 21. See also Victoria Sparey’s discussion of blood and milk in “Identity-Formation and the Breastfeeding Mother in Renaissance Generative Discourses and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus,” Social History of Medicine 25.4 (2012), pp. 781-87.

[2] Anne Brumwich (and others), Wellcome MS 160, f. 89v, c. 1625-1700; Mrs. Corlyon, Wellcome MS 213, f. 38v, 1606; Elizabeth Jacob (and others), Wellcome MS 3009, f. 78r, 1654-c. 1685; Jane Jackson, Wellcome MS 373, f. 111r, 1642.

[3] Lady Frances Catchmay, Wellcome MS 184A, f. 35v, c. 1625.

[4] Philip Stanhope, Wellcome MS 761, ff. 182v, 197v, c. 1635.

[5] Lady Ayscough, Wellcome MS 1026, ff. 112v, 83r, 1692.

[6] Townshend Family, Wellcome MS 774, f. 21v, 1636-1647.

 

Ice (Fires Foe): Some lessons in love and burning

By Phoebe Dickerson

What should you do if you burn yourself? Ideally, you’d stand bent over a sink of cool or tepid water for half an hour. Instead, if you’re anything like me, you’re more likely to run around clutching some frozen peas to the afflicted area. Or maybe you’d try smearing on some antiseptic ointment. However, if instead you were to turn to the celebrated Dutch physician, Paul Barbette (d. 1666) for advice, you’d be recommended to take a quite different approach. In his Thesaurus Chirurgiae (first translated into English in 1675), he writes:

The chief care must be to draw out the fire, by which in a light burning you preserve from Blisters and Ulcers; in a great one, you free from all danger; therefore, what Medicine soever is at hand, is presently to be used; let the hurt Part be held to the fire, and fomented with Ink, Lye; or let there be applied Soot, or an Onion beaten with Salt.[1]

While the notion of applying Soot, Ink or Lye to a burn is positively eye-watering, it hardly stands out among the wealth of curious balms and plasters that fill the pages of any early modern recipe book: the concept, however, of holding a burn to a fire – of letting it get nice and toasty – is, even within this context, glaringly misguided.

Was Barbette’s a voice in the wilderness? Certainly, I have not come across this precise recommendation anywhere else: nonetheless, it is worth considering that the notion we readily accept today, of reducing the heat of the area by applying something cold, was considered – and frequently dismissed – by early modern thinkers as a ‘contrary’ remedy. Such treatments were widely thought to aggravate the constitution into dangerous imbalance. George Acton for example, in 1670, expounds against the ‘extinction of praeternatural heat by cooling Medicines, and refocillation of cold, by heating ones.’ [2] Arguing that heat and cold were symptoms – rather than causes – of ‘the enraged Vital Spirit’, Acton asks :

‘Does not Fire burn most vehemently, when constring’d by an extreme cold of the ambient? And hot water sooner extinguish Fire than cold, because sooner penetrating its Pores? I could multiply arguments against the Method of curing Diseases by contrary Remedies.’

Barbette’s suggested burn treatment adheres instead to the logic of sympathy, according to which the heat in the wound would be attracted to the original heat of the fire.

‘An Unknown Man with Background of Flames’ c. 1600 (V&A) attrib. Nicholas Hilliard (click on image to link to the image’s entry on the V&A’s website)

The notion that cold would only exacerbate a burn has implications outside the medical realm: indeed, it finds explicit poetic expression in ‘The Exclamation’ [3], a mid-century love-lyric by Hugh Crompton (fl. 1657). The speaker advises his reader thus:

‘Ice (fires foe) laid to the skin
Thats burnt, will cause the flesh to turn
Into a blister, and within
With greater vehemency to burn!’

His purpose with this medical tit-bit is, of course, romantic: with this poem – half plaint, half invocation – the speaker, burnt by love, asks that his beloved’s ‘icy heart’ might melt and ‘reflect’ the warmth of his own burning heart. He says,

‘[…] thy heart will me affect,
And with enlivening flames me cherish.’

Where her cold heart’s frigid enmity endangered his heart, her hoped-for warm heart – newly aflame – will offer sympathy. It does not dim or extinguish the lover’s passion: rather, the flames of her love are ‘enlivening’ where, alone in the cold, his own were destructive.

Burning hearts and freezing mistresses are common Petrarchan conceits, pervasive in the period’s literary and artistic (see above) effusions of amorous feeling. Crompton’s words may seem a cocktail of early modern romantic cliché and ill-founded medical beliefs. Nonetheless, there is something at once unusual and appealing in the fact that his allusion to burns so closely echos the language of contemporary physicians. In addition, it so happens many modern doctors would agree with his words: the NHS website advises us to ‘never use ice or iced water’. The Mayo-clinic advises that ice can ‘cause a person’s body to become too cold and cause further damage to the wound’.

So, a caution, if you will: whether you are a lover – or simply someone with a nasty kitchen burn – think twice before you reach for the frozen peas. And whatever Barbette says, if you’re already burnt, perhaps you should stay back from the fire.

[1] Paul Barbette, Thesaurus chirurgiae : the chirurgical and anatomical works of Paul Barbette (London : Printed for Henry Rodes, 1686), p. 191

[2] George Acton, A letter in answer to certain quaeries and objections made by a learned Galenist against the theorie and practice of chymical physick… (London : Printed by William Godbid for Walter Kettleby), 1670, p.

[3] Hugh Crompton, Pierides, or, The muses mount by Hugh Crompton, Gent. (London : Printed by J.G. for Charles Web), 1658, p. 79.

Medicinal Compounds, Efficacious in Every Case

By Lisa Smith

Perhaps the most famous cure-all of all time is Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, immortalized in song as “Lily the Pink” (or “The Ballad of Lydia Pinkham”).* Although the original vegetable compound aimed to treat women’s ailments, the song suggests—tongue in cheek–that it might have much wider, rather miraculous applications. The boy with sticky out ears learns how to fly; the man who thought himself Julius Caesar becomes emperor of Rome.

Ridiculous. How, after all, could one drug cure so many ailments? In the modern world, cure-alls just don’t make sense.

But they did at one time. In early modern Europe, cure-all medicines were as likely to be sold by elite physicians as by “quacks” and were often made domestically. These treatments made sense. In a humoral body, with its properties of cold, hot, wet and dry, many seemingly different problems might have the same underlying cause.

Bridget Hyde’s book, late seventeenth century. Wellcome Library, MS 2990, f. 52v. Image Credit: Wellcome Library.

“Dr Stevens’ Water” was a common remedy in English remedy collections kept by well-to-do families. Authors sometimes provided lists of a treatment’s “virtues”, which usefully explain the underlying rationale. Bridget Hyde, for example, described Dr. Stevens’ Water as good for the vital spirits, inward colds, palsy, dropsy, gout, bladder stones, weak sinews, barrenness, worms, tooth-ache, stomach, and “rayns of ye back”. (Reins of the back refers to a urinary or genital discharge.)

An even more impressive and random list than Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound! What all of these illnesses had in common, however, was that they were caused by cold and wet humours. Looking up each ingredient in herbals and pharmacopoeias reveals that herbs like nutmegs, cloves, mace, aniseeds, lavender and rosemary (for example) had warming and drying properties.  Rosemary was ruled by the Sun and Aries; given its warming and comforting properties, it was commonly prescribed for any problems caused by cold humours. Mace, ruled by Venus, was chiefly used for treating problems of the womb.

Sometimes the connections are surprising. “Pertes de sang” (or blood loss) in French collections could refer to general losses of blood, excessive menstruation or uterine bleeding, miscarriage – or diarrhoea.  For example, one remedy for fluxes of blood in Mme Lievain’s book (Wellcome Library MS 3258, f. 132) also specified its use in diarrhoea. The main herb, cinquefoil, was commonly used for stomach problems as well as fluxes of all kinds, with a cooling property to sweeten the blood.

Most cure-alls did not try to treat everything, but had a clear rationale and focused on a group of closely-related ailments.

That said, not all cure-alls were created equal — and there were some weird ones out there. Lionel Lockyear, for example, claimed that his pills had the extract of the sun in them. Even better than Lily the Pink, then…

Broadsheet advertising L.Lockyer’s patent medicine. Image Credit: Wellcome Library.

*A rather entertaining song, though it needs an ear worm alert.

This has been cross-posted at the Cliopatra award-winning Wonders & Marvels, a fun group blog that focuses on odd stories and interesting historical tidbits. 

More on multi-purpose remedies can be found in my article, “Imagining Women’s Fertility before Technology”, Journal of Medical Humanities, 31, 1 (2010): 69-79.

A Bag of Worms: Treating the Sick Child in Early Modern England, 1580-1720

By Hannah Newton

Parents today are all too familiar with the problem of worms in children. Tiny, threadlike creatures, they cause terrible itching. How did parents in the past respond to this common childhood complaint? In the following paragraphs, I use early modern collections of medical recipes, doctors’ casebooks, and medical treatises, to find some answers.

L0016479: Karl Asmund Rudolphi, ‘Entozoorum sive vermium intestinalium histor’: courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London. 

Worms were defined as ‘Annimals generated in the body, variously hurting the Operations of the Body’.[1] Growing out of rotting food in the stomach, these creatures were ‘deservedly reckoned among those Diseases which frequently afflict Infants and Children, seldom…troubling people of Years’.[2] The reason, according to the physician John Pechey, was that ‘Children eat greedily, and are delighted with…sweet things’, such as summer fruits and candied cherries, foods which easily putrefy and ‘nourissheth and fedeth’ the worms.[3] Children’s bodies provided worms with the ideal conditions to grow, because they were thought to be more moist and warm than adults, qualities which promoted putrefaction.[4]

The symptoms of worms were well known. ‘Worms are known to be in a Body’, stated Daniel Sennert in 1664, ‘when there is much spittle and a stinking breath, troublesom sleep, gnashing of teeth, crying and bawling’.[5] If the infestation continued over a long period, the patient became emaciated, as Walter Harris observed in his casebook: his thirteen-year-old patient ‘was much liker a Skeleton than a live Boy: His Face was like that of one raised from the Grave, his Eyes hollow; his Nose sharp, and his bones only covered with skin’. The child’s ‘ratling joynts’ could scarcely ‘carry him from one end of the room to another with the swiftness of a Snail’, lamented Harris.[6]

A child’s drawing: MS 1796 (From a collection of cookery and medical recipes written by two unidentified compilers. c.1685-c.1725), f.125v. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

How were children treated? ‘A special regard’, declared John Pechey in 1697, ‘is to be had to the Methods and Medicines, for Children by reason of the weakness of their bodies, cannot undergo severe methods or strong Medicines’.[7] Instead of using the usual remedies of the day – vomits, purges, and bloodletting – children were to be treated with milder medicines, such as ointments and suppositories.

Medical texts and manuscript collections of remedies are replete with recipes to remove worms. In 1664, the doctor ‘J.S.’ prescribed suppositories made of honey, by which ‘the Worms [are] drawn by sweetnesse, [to] the lower parts of the Guts’, where they could be voided by natural defecation.[8] Like children, worms loved sweet things, and could be tempted out of the body this way.

Wellcome Library, MS 1340 (Katherine Jones, Collection of medical receipts, c. 1675-1710), f.87v. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

Other, more bizarre treatments were recommended. In the late 1600s, Lady Mary Dacres suggested the following ‘rare thing for Wormes in…children’: ‘Tak[e] five live earth worms…sew them up in a piece of muslin, and lay them upon the navill’.[9] The London gentlewoman Katherine Jones suggested a similar remedy: she instructed, ‘Take Earth worms’, and put them ‘in a linnen bag, and bind the bag to the navel of the Child all night’.[10] It is not clear how these treatments were thought to work, but it is possible that people believed there existed a sympathy between similar creatures, so that when the earthworms died, so too did the worms in the child’s body.

Whilst early modern medicines might seem odd to modern eyes, it is clear that doctors were motivated by compassion. Francis Glisson noted in 1651 that he wished to make his remedies ‘grateful & pleasing to the sick Child’.[11] Clearly, children were regarded as different from adults, and in need of special medical treatment.

Occasionally children’s own thoughts leave a trace in the sources. In 1650, the Essex clergyman Ralph Josselin recorded in his diary the words of his eight-year-old daughter Mary, who was suffering from worms: she pointed to her tummy, and cried, ‘poore I poore I’. Five days later Mary died. [12]

Dr Hannah Newton is Wellcome Trust Fellow at the University of Cambridge, and the author of The Sick Child in Early Modern England, 1580-1720 (OUP, 2o12). Her current research project is about recovery from illness in the early modern period.


[1] J.S., Paidon nosemata; or childrens diseases both outward and inward (London, 1664), 167.

[2] Franciscus Sylvius, Dr. Franciscus de le Boe Sylvius of childrens diseases…also a treatise of the rickets (London, 1682), 127.

[3] John Pechey, A general treatise of the diseases of infants and children (London, 1697), 119. Thomas Phaer, ‘“The Booke of Children: The Regiment of Life by Edward Allde” (London, 1596, first publ. 1544)’, in John Ruhrah (ed.), Pediatrics of the Past (New York, 1925), 157-95, at 182.

[4] Nicholas Culpeper, Culpepers directory for midwives: or, a guide for women . . . the diseases and symptoms in children (1662), 239.

[5] Daniel Sennert, Practical physick the fourth book in 3 parts: section 2: of diseases and symptoms in children (London, 1664), 259.

[6] Walter Harris, An exact enquiry into, and cure of the acute diseases of infants, trans. William Cockburn (London, 1693), 129.

[7] Pechey, A general treatise, 15.

[8] J.S. Paidon nosemata, 172-3.

[9] British Library, Additional MS 56248 (Lady Mary Dacres, ‘Recipe Book…for cookery and domestic medicine, 1666-96’), 59v.

[10] Wellcome Library, MS 1340 (Katherine Jones, Collection of medical receipts, c. 1675-1710) 87v.

[11] Francis Glisson et al, A treatise of the rickets being a diseas common to children, trans. Philip Armin (London, 1651), 344.

[12] Ralph Josselin, The Diary of Ralph Josselin 16161683, ed. Alan Macfarlane (Oxford, 1991), 201