Category Archives: Bodies

Tales from the archives: Green sickness, red plants

In September, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 470 posts in our archives and over 117 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.

This month, I want to share a post by Helen King on the green sickness. In this post, Helen asks why red plants feature so prominently in treatments for the green sickness. She suggests that the redness of the plants was meant to restore a proper menstrual flow. I have chosen this post not only because of my interest in ancient gynaecology, but also because it features a photo of a copy of William Langham’s ‘Garden of Health’ (1597) held in my own institution, Cardiff University. Time for a little trip to  the Special Collections and Archives I should think.

I hope you enjoy it! And if you have any favourites you want us to revisit, please send in your nominations

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By Helen King

I’ve been interested for a long time in green sickness, a condition affecting girls at puberty that involved menstrual suppression, often along with some sort of dietary ‘blockage’. The remedies for it, over the 400 or so years that it was recognised as a disease, raise all sorts of problems. For example, in the 19th century it was seen as a form of anaemia, so iron was prescribed. In the 17th century, before that level of knowledge of blood existed, ‘steel filings’ were often part of the remedy, and iron is a constituent of steel. So, how did they know to use steel? Or was this nothing to do with the iron content, but instead about steel being imagined as ‘cutting through’ the blockages?

Langham’s text. From http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/insrv/libraries/scolar/digital/healthyreading.html . Copyright: Cardiff University, used with permission.

William Langham wrote ‘The Garden of Health’ in 1597. It was based on earlier recipe collections, and I came upon it when I was thinking about using recipes to tease out what exactly was supposed to be causing the symptoms – so, if the recipe involved plants that were clearly evacuative, then this could suggest that the cause of the disease was seen as a blockage. Langham arranged plants in simple alphabetical order, rather than arranging the material under the names of diseases; but, as part of his accessibility, he also gave a list of conditions with references to the different plant entries where the reader could find out more.

Langham gives a range of recipes for green sickness. One is packed full of ‘red’ plants –

‘seethe powder of the Keyes [i.e. the ash tree] with Betonie, red Sage, red Mynts, and Magerom [marjoram] in running water from a pottell [= 2 quarts] to a quart, and drink thereof a good draught with sugar warme morning and evening’

Elaine Hobby pointed out to me that this recipe also appears in 1677 in ‘The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight’ by ‘T.P.’ (possibly Hannah Woolley), but with ‘red Fennel’ instead of ‘red Mynts’. There was a second edition of Langham in 1633, and maybe the author used this.
So what’s all this red about? Betony, sage and marjoram often appear together in later collections as a gentle sternutatory. Red sage and betony are used against bilious attacks. Ash keys feature today on ‘wild food’ sites with the warning that they are very bitter and need to be boiled several times before eating, but what was used here was the ripe seed, dried and then reduced to powder. The ash-powder is used elsewhere for the stone (by provoking urination), jaundice and dropsy.

So maybe there’s something here about getting rid of obstructions. But to me, all this redness suggests the colour of blood, and the use of running water also makes me think that this is aimed at restoring or establishing a normal menstrual flow. How do we balance the known effects of the plants chosen, with the symbolic power of red? Comments please!

Helen King is Professor of Classical Studies at the Open University, UK. Her book on green sickness is  The Disease of Virgins.

You can find more of Helen’s thoughts on the green disease in this recent The Conversation article  also available in the Guardian

The Bog Body Shop: a prehistory of personal grooming

By Jacqui Mulville

How did ancient people alter the basic human form?  Without written records we rely on representations of humans in early art and on the remains of fleshed bodies, rather than dry bones, for information.  In NW Europe the earliest examples of soft tissue preservation include a single Bronze Age ‘ice mummy’ (Utzi) who died 5000 years ago, with more extensive information available from over one thousand remains of Iron Age people preserved in peat bogs.

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One of the bog bodies: the Tolland Man, found in Denmark and dating to approximately 375-210 BCE. Source: Wikimedia.

These bog bodies or bog mummies have been recovered from the peatlands of Ireland, Britain, Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, normally during the exploitation of peat for fuel or compost. The majority of individuals lived about 2000 years ago (Early Iron Age) but many have been mistaken for murder victims –  their hair, nails and skin so well preserved that they appear to belong to the recent dead.

Men, women and children have all be found, some of whom appear to have been deliberately killed and placed in the bogs rather than representing accidental deaths.  If sacrificed then their appearance may not represent the norm, but bog bodies can still provide information on Iron Age trends in hair styles, nail care and skin decoration.  Individual in the following text are identified by their location.

Hair

The Suebian knot on the Osterby Man, found in Denmark. Source: Wikimedia.
The Suebian knot on the Osterby Man, found in Denmark. Source: Wikimedia.

All types of hair have been found preserved on bog bodies: head, facial, body and pubic.  Surviving hair is often reddish as a result of changes within the bog, but analysis has revealed a range of hair colours and styles. Male hair was worn both long and short. Long hair was tied up – with examples of the Suebian knot, a form of twisted ‘sweep-over’ man bun (described by the Roman author Tacitus) worn by individuals at Datgen (age 30) and Osterby (age 55-60) or in an updo in Clonycaven (age 22).  The later had a band of short hair surrounding his lice-infested quiff, which was secured by pine resin scented hair ‘gel’, from trees in South West Europe and a hair tie.  There is one example of loose long hair, found in a 16-year-old boy, Windeby I, his shoulder length hair had been half shaved off. Short hair provides evidence of cutting tools, including the use of cross blades in the form of shears (scissors as we know them were invented later), with a range of simple single hair styles present.

Reconstruction of hairstyle of the bogbody Elling Woman, found in Denmark. Photo by Chris Wenzel, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Source: Wikimedia.
Reconstruction of hairstyle of the bogbody Elling Woman, found in Denmark. Photo by Chris Wenzel, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Source: Wikimedia.

Females of all ages generally have long hair, and some is extremely long (over 1.0m in the example at Elling, age 25). Many women have, often highly elaborate, plaits still in place but for a few the hair appears to be loose, cut, or  shaved (e.g. Yde, age 14), and found alongside the body.  There are also a series of severed loose plaits recovered from bogs in Denmark, interpreted as hair removal during a rite of passage (such as marriage), and some appear to be conglomerations of the hair of more than one individual.

Little is known about hair-care; evidence for shampoos is sparse and combs would have been used both to order and clean the hair. Preserved combs of this period are generally wide-toothed and made of bone or wood; it is not until the middle ages close-toothed lice combs were produced.

Shaving

Many male bog bodies are clean shaven, employing stone or metal tools, whilst others have trimmed beards and sideburns.  Few longer beards have been preserved and moustaches are scarce.  Finely wrought and decorated metal razors are relatively common in Scandinavia and Ireland at this time, but in Britain they are relatively rare and it is unclear if men shaved regularly or for special occasions only. Hair removal may have had a ritual significance, for example underneath an upturned pot at a burial tomb in Wiltshire was a razor. This was found with a small pile of eyebrow hair, from many individuals, and has been linked to mourning. There is very little evidence for the management of body or pubic hair, although lice would have been an issue.

Nails

Like hair, nails are also preserved. There are a number of bog bodies with manicured nails typical of those not employed in regular hard labour.

Skin

The skin of the bog mummies is marked by the wear and tear of human life, with callouses clearly visible, but there is no evidence for skin care, marking or covering except in one case. During analysis a male British bog body, Lindow II, was found to be covered in a clay based copper compound which may have given his skin a blue/green hue. Bog mummies provide no evidence for the other historically described body art such as woad painting (as a battle body paint with styptic qualities) or for pricked, cut or branded images of animals and symbols.  The earliest tattoos in Europe are preserved on Utzi, and these probably medicinal tattoos are a series of dots and lines placed on what today are described as acupressure points.

Although numerous bog bodies have been found, there are only about 40 examples left in the world. The preservation and recovery as yet undiscovered bog bodies is also under threat. Peat is now mechanically harvested and bogs are drying out due to human management and climate change. The insight these individuals can provide to life in North West Europe is unprecedented and offers a rare closeup and personal glimpse into our common past.

Further Reading
Miranda Alderhouse-Green. 2001. ‘Dying for the Gods: Human Sacrifice in Iron Age and Roman Europe’, in M. Alderhouse-Green (ed.), Suffocation: Drowing, Strangling and Burial Alive. Stroud: Tempus, pp. 111-135.
Miranda Alderhouse-Green. 2015. Bog Bodies Uncovered. London: Thames and Hudson.
A. Chamberlain and M. Pearson. 2001 ‘Bog Bodies’, in A. Chamberlain and M. Pearson (eds.), Earthly Remains: The History and Science of Preserved Human Bodies. London: British Museum, pp. 44-82.
E.P. Kelly. 2006. ‘Secrets of the Bog Bodies: The Enigma of the Iron Age Explained’, Archaeology Ireland 20(1), pp. 26-30.
Karin Saunders. 2009. Bodies in the Bod and the Archaeological Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Website
National Geographic

Where to see Bog Bodies
Lindow Man – British Museum
Kingship and Sacrifice – National Museum of Ireland
Tollundman – National Museum of Denmark
Woman from Huldremose – National Museum of Denmark

Jacqui is a bioarchaeologist who takes archaeology to new audiences at music and arts festivals. She invented Guerilla Archaeology, a collective of archaeologists, artists, scientists and students who create and deliver events to thousands of people each year. Over the past five years GA have tackled evolution and domestication, the archaeologies of the sun, moon and stars, shamans, death, deer and most recently music – getting people involved in exploring the complexity and commonality of past and present human lives.
Jacqui has published widely on animal/human relationships and insular archaeologies of Britain and beyond.

 

General George Washington, Hairdresser

By Zara Anishanslin 

General George Washington, stationed with the Continental Army in Newburgh, New York, was concerned about his troops. More specifically, he was bothered by their looks. It was August of 1782, and the men had recently followed his orders to spruce up their clothing and hats. But Washington still felt there was still something lacking in their appearance.

The remaining problem, in Washington’s opinion, was the men’s hair. To present the proper “martial and uniform appearance,” the soldiers needed to wear their “hair cut or tied in the same manner.” Doing so, as he put it, “would add much to the beauty” of the army.

To beautify his army, Washington wrote a recipe:

two pounds of flour and one-half pound of rendered tallow per hundred men may be drawn from the contractors for dressing the hair.[1]

By flour, of course, Washington meant the light-colored, edible powder made by grinding a grain like wheat and then used for making dough or bread. Throughout the war, flour was an omnipresent necessity on the Continental Army’s ration lists. Along with flour, beef was also a ubiquitous ration item. Rendered tallow’s base ingredient was beef fat, or suet. Rendered tallow could be used for a variety of purposes, from frying food to making candles and soap.

In this case, the tallow would smooth back the soldiers’ hair, providing a sticky base to hold the flour that would then be shaken or puffed onto it. Once stuck to the men’s hair, the flour’s dry powder would lighten it into a more uniform color while keeping it stiffly in place.

Washington’s recipe for beautifying the Continental Army, in other words, was pulverized grain and congealed animal fat.

Portrait of George Washington [in Continental Army uniform] by John Trumbull (1780), oil on canvas. Bequest of Charles Allen Munn, 1924, acc. no. 24.109.88, Image Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Portrait of George Washington [in Continental Army uniform] by John Trumbull (1780), oil on canvas. Bequest of Charles Allen Munn, 1924, acc. no. 24.109.88, Image Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In ordering supplies for the men to smooth and powder their hair, Washington was also dictating that they mimic his own grooming habits. Unlike some other officers in the British, French, and American armies, Washington did not wear a wig. Instead, as his portraits record, his habit was to wear his own hair tied back and powdered.

Washington, however, did not do his own hair. His enslaved valet William “Billy” Lee (also pictured in the Trumbull portrait), or the servant of one of Washington’s aide-de-camp’s dressed it for him.  After brushing it, applying a pomade, and tying it back, Washington’s hair was powdered, using a tool like this puff.

High quality pomades like that used by Washington were made of rendered tallow and—to counteract smells as it went rancid over time—perfumed with fragrances like bergamot, bay leaf, rosewood, or rosewater. Powder, too, although made of ingredients like flour and dried white clay that were less likely to spoil, was also commonly perfumed, with scents like nutmeg, ambergris, rose, or lavender. Perfume and quality aside, the recipe Washington ordered for dressing his army’s hair was not that different from what he used himself.

Still, there is evidence that not all the troops shared their commander’s enthusiasm for powdered hair. Earlier in the war, Continental Army officer Anthony Wayne

observ’d with a good deal of Pain that some of the Regiments have sent their men to the Parade with unpowder’d Hair, long Beards, dirty shirts, and rusty Arms.

“Fantastic Hairdress with Fruit and Vegetable Motif,“ Anonymous, French, 18th century, Watercolor on canvas laid down on board. Bequest of Rosina H. Hoppin, 1965, acc.no. 65.692.8. Image Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“Fantastic Hairdress with Fruit and Vegetable Motif,“ Anonymous, French, 18th century, Watercolor on canvas laid down on board. Bequest of Rosina H. Hoppin, 1965, acc.no. 65.692.8. Image Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Wayne issued soap and even excused troops from duty so they could appear “fresh shav’d, clean, and well powder’d at troop beating.” For his concern over the troops’  grooming, and his fastidiousness about his own hygiene and hair, Wayne earned the disparaging nickname of “Dandy Wayne.” [2] Painstakingly groomed hair for both men and women was an easy satirical target in the late eighteenth century. Military men like Wayne were not exempt from such attacks.

Satirical humor aside, the variety of pragmatic possibilities flour and tallow held beyond hairdressing may explain why some troops might have been inclined to use these rations for things other than their coiffures. A few months after his general orders for powdering the troops’ hair, Washington wrote of his officers’ “Mortification” at not being able to “invite a French Officer” to “a better Repast than stinkg Whiskey (& not always that) & a bit of Beef without Vegitable.”

FrTroops
“Count de Rochambeau, French General of the Land Forces in America Reviewing the French Troops,” Anonymous, British, 18th century, published by E. Hedges (London, 1781), Engraving. Gift of William H. Huntington, 1883, acc. no. 83.2.1039. Image Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

These visiting French officers likely would have worn wigs or powdered their hair to attend such meals, no matter how poor the fare.  American officers like Washington wished to keep up appearances of all sorts when they entertained the French. At the same time, American enlisted men might well have preferred putting edible hairdressing ingredients in their bellies rather than on their heads. Washington was wise to this potential; officers were required to keep a tally of who used these rations, and to vouch on a “certificate of use” that they were, in fact, used to groom hair.

Footnotes

[1] General Order of General George Washington, August 12, 1782, Head Quarters at Newburgh, New York, in General Orders of Geo. Washington Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the Revolution Issued at Newburgh on the Hudson 1782-1783 (Newburgh, NY: News Company, 1909), 35.

[2] Kathleen M. Brown, Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America (Yale University Press, 2009), 178, 168.

 

All in the mind? Competing models of hysteria in John Ward’s Diaries

By Alanna Skuse

French female figure modelled in wax, parts removed to show heart and uterus, c. 1760. By Anara Morandi Mazzolini of Bologna. Image Credit: Wellcome Trust Images Collection.
French female figure modelled in wax, parts removed to show heart and uterus, c. 1760. By Anara Morandi Mazzolini of Bologna. Image Credit: Wellcome Trust Images Collection.

In my previous post, I introduced the diaries of Reverend John Ward, the seventeenth-century vicar of Stratford-on-Avon and sometime medical practitioner. Among Ward’s vast collection of notes on medical and scientific topics were many on sexual behaviour and biology. In this post, I will show how Ward applied his curiosity to the problem of hysteria, aka ‘fits of the mother’ or ‘suffocation of the matrix’.

This topic loomed large in the notebooks, both because Ward sought to better treat the condition in his parishioners, and because he was intellectually interested in the causes of the disease.

Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was commonly believed that hysteria was caused by the womb ‘wandering’ within the body, impinging on the liver, diaphragm, and other organs. This movement indicated that the womb was quasi-independent of the body; as Jean Riolan put it, ‘a furious Live-wight in a Live-wight’.(1)

Proponents of this theory also believed that the womb could be manipulated back into the proper place using sweet or foul smells. At points, Ward must also have credited this idea, since he recorded (vol. 12, f.107r/v) in the late 1660s that

There is nothing better for a married woman in case of suffocation of the matrix t[ha]n for her husband to anoint the topp of his yard with a litle oil of Cloves-gylliflours and Sweet Almonds together and so ly with her, for this will assuredly bring down the Matrix againe.

Interestingly, however, Ward’s understanding of hysteria and the properties of the womb was not static. Only a few years earlier, he had been impressed by arguments which declared that hysteria arose not from any intrinsic property of the womb but rather from air entering that organ:

I have heard one yt denied utterly yt in hysterical fits ye womb rise at all, only attributed all to wind (vol. 8, f.136r).

In his 1663-5 notebook, he advanced the idea again, this time speculating that wind was one of a number of possible causes of hysteria–which also included ‘ye suffering of ye matrix, either by emptying of a great Burden as after child bearing, or by doing it wrong in wounding itt in bringing forth ye child’ (ibid).

A representation of the nervous system from Carolus Stephanus, De dissectione partium corporis humani (Paris, 1545), p.59. Image Credit: Wellcome Trust Images Collection.
A representation of the nervous system from Carolus Stephanus, De dissectione partium corporis humani (Paris, 1545), p.59. Image Credit: Wellcome Trust Images Collection.

Ward chopped and changed between theories, and his ideas do not show a clear evolution. Interestingly, however, in both the 1664-6 and 1666-9 diaries, Ward wrote with interest about a neurocentric theory of hysteria, which located the cause of the disease in the brain rather than the womb. ‘Dr. Elyot’, wrote Ward, ‘hath this Conception that hysterical fits have their rise from the Brains; and hee illustrates itt thus, pull a Cord, you shall discerne the first straining and breaking at the other end’ (vol. 12, f.95v).

Crucially, this theory implied that hysteria was largely psychological in origin. Indeed, given the right pressures, hysteria could even occur in men (vol. 7, f. 26v):

Some Drs especialy in Oxford now are of opinion that histerical fits are caused by the disposition of the Braine most in Oxford as Mr. Francis said are of this opinion: and that men have the same thing, which some women have, and that Dr Elyot had a patient that had it: and was cured by antihisterical things though hee was a man.

The impact of the neurocentric model on treatments for hysteria is striking. Where the wandering womb was to be lured into place, and the windy womb cured with pills and potions, neurocentric hysteria called for different methods. Ward recalled how one patient patient had her lower legs tied ‘hard with her Garter’ before being made to sneeze (vol. 7, f.47r).

In another case (vol. 9, f. 3v),

Dr Trig cured a woman yt was troubled with hysterical fits thus: hee laid her uppon ye ground with her face downwards yn took up her Coats and gave her 3 or 4 good Claps on ye Arse and thus cured her but I was informed yt hee did this before much Companie wch I scarcly believe.

Did the neurocentric model help women with hysteria, or harm them? On one hand, this approach made hysteria a potentially unisex complaint rather than a symptom of women’s defective bodies. On the other, the treatments inspired by neurocentric theories show a distinct lack of sympathy for, and even humiliation of, the hysteric, who was now treated as psychologically rather than physically ill.

Ward’s diaries provide frustratingly little detail about how Dr. Trig’s patient may have felt about her unorthodox treatment. They do show, however, how an apparently more ‘enlightened’ understanding of hysteria might be made to work against vulnerable patients.

(1) Jean Riolan, trans. Nicholas Culpeper, A sure guide, or, The best and nearest way to physick and chirurgery (1657), p. 85.