Category Archives: Bodies

Tales from the Archives – Gumpowder? A strange little recipe for sensitive teeth…

In September 2017, The Recipes Project celebrated its fifth birthday. We now have over 600 posts in our archives and over 150 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.) But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

November in the UK is marked by fireworks, which commemorate the failed Gunpowder Plot, orchestrated by Guy Fawkes in 1605. When I first moved to the UK in 2001, I was a little surprised to see firework displays in the Autumn – in Belgium and France they are much more common in the Summer. However, I quickly got used to wrapping up warm to go and enjoy sparkling nights.

I have trailed the Recipes Project archive for a firework-related post, and have found this post from 2012 by Katherine Foxhall on the therapeutic uses of gunpowder. Certainly not one to try at home!

By Katherine Foxhall

If you go to your bathroom and check the ingredients in your well-known brand of sensitive toothpaste, you may well find that the recipe contains the active ingredient potassium nitrate. Also known as saltpetre or nitre, this naturally occurring mineral is found in foods as a preservative (e.g. corned beef), and used in fertilizer, cigarettes, blood pressure medicines and fireworks. Since medieval times it has formed one of the main ingredients in gunpowder, and it is this connection that has also given potassium nitrate a long association with teeth and gums.

Many of the seventeenth and eighteenth century recipe books in the Wellcome Library’s manuscripts include treatments for gunpowder burns, but some also proposed that gunpowder could be therapeutic. Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh (sister to the famous chemist Robert Boyle), recommended a ‘little gunpowder’ applied in a linen cloth to ease toothache. On one page of Anne Brumwich’s recipe book (Wellcome MS 160, p.83) we can find nine recipes for toothache remedies written in two different hands. One, ‘An aproved medecine for ye toothake’ (approved meant that it worked) required gunpowder, aniseed water and lint, mingled together to ‘make a litell thing’.

Once the sufferer had picked their tooth very clean, the recipe instructed them to push the preparation into the tooth, taking care not to allow any of the mixture down the throat.

A century later, in A Treatise on the Scurvy (1795) David Paterson introduced his fellow naval surgeons to a wonderful, and apparently unknown remedy for scurvy: during a voyage in 1784, he claimed, he had restored the health of eighty sick seamen not with lemon juice, fresh fruit or vegetables, but with the potassium nitrate extracted from the gunpowder in his ship’s stores. Paterson’s remedy was soon forgotten, until in 1828, a desperate surgeon named Charles Cameron, having used up all his supplies of lemon juice, remembered Paterson’s recipe. Cameron was stranded in the calms near the equator and he was faced with a ship’s hospital full of scorbutic convicts, less than half way through the voyage to Australia. He extracted the nitre from the powder, dissolved some of it in vinegar, and mixed some more with vinegar and lime juice. He also added a little sugar (to taste?!) The effects were ‘miraculous’.

For the Navy, if Cameron was right, this was a money-saving opportunity; nitre was cheap and did not decompose over time. In the following decades surgeons continued to experiment with different remedies for scurvy until, in 1840, the Admiralty decided to perform a large-scale experiment to determine once and for all the best scurvy remedy. Over the next four years the surgeons of sixty ships transporting fifteen thousand convict men from Britain and Ireland to Australia received crystallised citric acid, potassium nitrate, and lemon juice. Their instructions clearly forbade the surgeons from trying to cause scurvy during the voyage but if the disease did appear, the patients were to be divided into three groups, each group receiving one of the remedies. Of course, the surgeons often had their own ideas, and often altered, combined and varyed the doses according to their own personal favoured recipe. So, while Surgeon Deas mixed some nitre with lime juice and some with citric acid, and felt that both mixtures were useful, Alexander Bryson gave each group the remedies mixed in a glass of wine, water and sugar. After many of the convicts developed severe scurvy, Bryson finally decided that potassium nitrate was ‘objectionable’. The surgeons had come to very different conclusions about the value of potassium nitrate but the results of the experiment were clear; potassium nitrate was abandoned as useless, lemon juice was in for good.

In the mid 1970s, dental researchers – in laboratories this time, rather than on ships – began to report a strange occurrence: mixing potassium nitrate with toothpaste seemed to reduce dental sensitivity in sufferers.  More work confirmed the compound’s beneficial effects, but the scientists still admitted that they were unclear why it should work; being soluble, it seemed that it should simply dissolve in water and wash out of the teeth at first rinse.

Jump forward again to the present, and potassium nitrate is often used as the active ingredient in products for sensitive teeth. So we have come a long way in medical understanding since women like Anne Brumwich stuffed aching teeth with gunpowder soaked lint, or Victorian naval surgeons dosed their convicts with nitre in the certainty that it helped with scurvy, and yet nitre has proved persistent: these earlier ideas about potassium nitrate’s ability to reduce not only the pain of toothache, but the symptoms of scurvy – a disease so commonly experienced in the mouth and gums – are worth wondering about.

The Live Chicken Treatment for Buboes: Trying a Plague Cure in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

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.

Erik Heinrichs is an associate professor of history at Winona State University (Minnesota). His interests are the history of medicine and religion in the late medieval and early modern periods. His book Plague, Print, and the Reformation: The German Reform of Healing, 1473-1573 will be published by Routledge this November.


[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).

Al the Britons doe dye themselues wyth woade: experimenting with woad and its history

Jodi Reeves Eyre, PhD, RPA

Image Credit: By Johann Georg Sturm (Painter: Jacob Sturm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Image Credit: By Johann Georg Sturm (Painter: Jacob Sturm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
We are, apparently, living during a ‘post-truth’ time when alternative facts have just as much impact on some people’s decisions and beliefs as, well, fact facts. The concept of the “alternative fact,” which refers to promoting emotional or biased assertions over facts, has historic precedent. Julius Caesar, when documenting his campaigns in Gaul, noted that:

Al the Britons doe dye themselues wyth woade, which setteth a blewish color vppon them: and it maketh the more terryble to beholde in battell.[1]

Surely if woad were so widely available, there would be decent archaeological evidence for its application. There is one early find at the Iron Age site of Dragonby. The site revealed woad remains, in the form of seeds and pods, as part of a waterlogged assemblage from a late Iron Age pit. The exact purpose of the pit has not been identified.[2] The seeds and pods can be considered circumstantial evidence when it comes to claiming that the plant was introduced for its dye because the material needed for dyeing, the leaves, may not survive nearly as well. The difficulty of finding woad leaves archaeologically means that we can only rely on the indirect evidence of the plant as a possible dye from Dragonby.

As a conqueror displaying his military strength and emphasizing the legitimacy of his triumph, Caesar may have called on Romans’ traditional concepts of fierce barbarians. Blue had negative connotations within Greco-Roman culture, being associated with ghosts, death, and, perhaps worst of all, barbarians.[3] By including such a charged description of ‘blue’ Britons, Caesar set down more than an ethnographic account. He used existing preconceptions for his political advantage. It is doubtful, however, that Caesar conceptualized the lasting legacy his charged description would have on social memory and identity. Even today, it is common to see depictions of ancient Britons painted blue, despite limited botanical-archaeological evidence and possible evidence to the contrary. The image of bluely decorated warriors can be found everywhere from the early 20th century, one example being the National Anthem of the Ancient Britons and another the anachronic depiction in the movie, BraveHeart.[4]

But, why?

Because it’s tradition, apparently. The 1565 translation of Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, above, translates the word vitrum as woade (woad, Isatis tinctoria). This translation, by Arthur Goulding, is the earliest I’ve identified. Gillian Carr and several others give other possible translations as being “dye themselves with glazes” or “infect themselves with glass.”[5] So why is vitrum so often translated as woad in this context?

Woad was an important crop for some English abbeys during the medieval period, and a key crop in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[6] What better way to form a defense against an encroaching foreign material than to highlight the cultural importance of its proud, “indigenous” counterpart?

Enter vitrum as woad. Caesar may not have a historical monopoly on shaping a narrative to support a cause. In fact, he may not even have a monopoly on shaping his own narrative to support a cause. Still, just as there is limited evidence regarding the use of woad in ancient Britain, there is limited evidence supporting the reasons behind the historical trend in translating vitrum as woad.

Despite the potential mistranslations and lack of archaeological, textual, and iconographic evidence, people are still interested in the question, “does it work?” Without a recipe or replicable evidence, experimentation depends primarily on how other pigments are made ethnographically or in the past under other conditions and contexts. We know woad is a dye, and we know that it can color the skin and that it can be added to a binder to make a pigment. Some experiments reveal that woad, when compared to our perceptions of its color and use, is a poor choice for corporal decoration in terms of dyeing, tattooing, or staining the body. Want to replicate the results of these studies or develop your own? Carr describes her experiments in her article, and a link to my initial methodology and experimental recipes can be found in the footnotes below. Find out for yourself whether it works by using woad and other pigments and dyes to paint or dye your skin blue.[7]

Sharing research and experimental results is one remedy to the promotion of potentially alternative facts (such as blue Britons) through critical engagement of evidence. The lack of recipes or physical remains is a challenge, but it is also an opportunity to encourage the exploration of other materials, methods. The confusing, and possibly sordid, history of woad in Britain also provides an opportunity to explore not only the history of translations of Caesar’s works and how identity and social memory reflect our relationship with plants, but it is also an interesting context in which to explore the use (or misuse) of woad.

[1] Caesar, Julius. The Eyght Bookes of Caius Iulius Cæsar Conteyning His Martiall Exploytes in the Realme of Gallia and the Countries Bordering Vppon the Same Translated Oute of Latin into English by Arthur Goldinge G. (London: Willyam Seres, 1565),, Book V.

[2] Veen, M. Van Der, Hall, A.R. and May, J.  ‘Woad and the Britons painted blue,’ Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 12 (1993), 367-71.

[3] Pastoureau, Michel. Blue: The History of a Color (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[4] Gibson, Mel. Braveheart (Warner Bros., 1995).

[5] Lewis, Charlton T.  and Charles Short. “Vī^trum,” A Latin Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1879,; Carr, Gillian. “Woad, Tattooing and Identity in Later Iron Age and Early Roman Britain,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 24, no. 3 ( 2005): 273–92, doi:10.1111/j.1468-0092.2005.00236.x).

[6] Carr, “Woad, Tattooing and Identity”; Pyatt,F.B., et al. “Non Isatis Sed Vitrum Or, the Colour of Lindow Man,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 10, no. 1 (1991): 61–73, doi:10.1111/j.1468-0092.1991.tb00006.x; Thirsk, Joan. “The Agricultural Landscape: Fads and Fashions,” in 1. S. R. J. Woodell, ed., The English Landscape: Past, Present, and Future, Wolfson College Lectures 1983. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

[7]  Carr. “Woad, Tattooing and Identity”; Fish, Pat. Woad and it’s mis-association with Pictish BodyArt, available at:; Reeves Flores, Jodi. Woad is me: Woad as a corporal decoration in Iron Age Britain, (master’s thesis, University of Exeter, 2008), 31-53.


Jodi Reeves Eyre has a PhD in Archaeology from the University of Exeter and served as a CLIR/DLF Fellow on Data Curation in the Sciences and Social Sciences at Arizona State University (2013-2015). She is a member of the Secretariat for the group EXARC, an ICOM affiliated organisation representing archaeological open-air museums, experimental archaeology, ancient technology, and interpretation. Jodi is also a co-founder of Eyre & Israel, LLC, which provides research, editing, and digital curation consulting. Her work promotes the preservation of cultural heritage and explores perceptions about the past and social memory. She has conducted ethnographic research among other archaeologists, woven on models of ancient Greek looms, and painted people blue.

Twitter: @thejodireeves

Theodorus Priscianus’ recipes for breast engorgement

By Louise Cilliers

We know very little about Theodorus Priscianus, only that he was a student of the famous Carthaginian physician, Vindicianus (late 4th century CE), and was thus also a native of North Africa. We can also deduce that he was a professional doctor. The work for which Theodorus is known, is the Euporiston (a book of easily obtainable remedies), which consists of four books of medical recipes, of which the fourth, the Gynaecia, contains treatments for women’s diseases. Due to its practical applicability, the Gynaecia was very popular in the later Middle Ages; it was excerpted on numerous occasions.

A carving showing a Roman midwife, Wellcome Collection. Credit: Wellcome Library.

The Gynaecia is dedicated to a midwife, a certain Victoria. In his preface, Theodorus states that he wants to “support her with his knowledge”, and he requests her to “faithfully, diligently and carefully… carry into effect the remedies for female ailments” as set out in his treatise. This knowledge was then to be disseminated among midwives and other women to help them in treating ailing women.

Theodorus’ Gynaecia comprises recipes for ten female ailments which he discusses. They are: engorgement of the breasts after parturition, swelling or contraction of the uterus, the mole, atresia, sterility, abortion, haemorrhage of the uterus, injuries to the uterus, the flux, and gonorrhoea. I will focus on engorgement of the breasts after parturition.

This is a very common problem that women experience after having given birth, and various procedures, such as poultices laid on the breasts, were followed in ancient times. Medicaments, made from vegetables and herbs used in the kitchen, were also given. Theodorus clearly has empathy with women whose breasts are taut, swollen or painful after birth. In not too serious cases, he recommends that a soft sponge soaked in a mild astringent, such as vinegar, be applied to the breast, and held in place by a light bandage. Alternatively soothing poultices, for instance, bread soaked in water-mead and oil or fresh pork fat can be laid on the breasts.

If the problem of engorgement has been resolved but the mother still wants to feed the baby, the breasts should be smeared with rush, egg and saffron, or crushed raisins mixed with the flour of beans, or pounded sesame seed mixed with vinegar and honey, or a mixture of pounded leaves of ivy and figs, or (even more directly from the kitchen) fresh pounded cheese with vinegar-honey – if these substances be made into a poultice, they would apparently have increased the fecundity of the milk.

If the patient cannot bear the weight of the poultice, the breasts must be steamed, and an even softer sponge soaked in an extract of marsh mallow, linseed and fenugreek plants be applied.

Purslane, one of the plants used in ancient breast poultices. Credit: Wellcome Library,

But if milk production should be stopped completely, alum or the seed of fleawort or coriander of purslane must be added to the aforementioned poultice, or the powder of a pounded millstone mixed with a wax salve should be applied. But if the breast has produced pus, it must be opened with appropriate aid, so that with one voiding they can be healed completely.

Throughout Theodorus warns that medicaments should be mild, and that all poultices should be applied with moderation, with consideration for the tender breasts.

Further reading:
You can find the text of Theodorus Priscianus’ Euporiston (in Latin) here.