Category Archives: Series: Charms

A forgotten chapter in natural history: the taxidermy of man

By Marieke Hendriksen

Having written a book on eighteenth-century anatomical collections, I know a thing or two about historical techniques for preserving (parts of) the human body. As I am interested in natural history collections more generally, I also did some research on the preservation of animal bodies, and even took a taxidermy course myself. However, recently I realised that the preservation of human and animal bodies were historically even closer connected than I had imagined. Yet ideas about which parts of the human body could and should be preserved, and how, diverged greatly, particularly when it comes to skin, or taxidermy. Taxidermy, from the Greek τάξις (taxis) and  δέρμα (derma – I am adding those for people who may not read Greek script), literally means ‘the arranging of skin’.

Fragment of an engraving of the anatomical theatre of Leiden University, early 17th century, showing visitors who appear to discuss a human skin. Contemporary engraving by Willem Swanenburgh; drawing by Jan van ‘t Woudt (Johannes Woudanus).

There are a few known cases of attempts to preserve human skins in their entirety before 1800 – for example, there was a human skin in the Leiden anatomical theatre in the seventeenth century – but that wasn’t stuffed, and such attempts appear to have been altogether unsuccessful. If human skin was preserved, it was mostly small pieces, which were used to study things like skin colour and structure, tattoos, or pathologies. By the end of the eighteenth century, the preservation of an entire human skin in a lifelike pose was of little interest to anatomists. Normal internal anatomy would be studied through dissection and the creation of preparations and skeletons, and pathologies of the skin could be preserved by making preparations of small sections of skin. As healthy skin can be studied perfectly easily in live subjects, there was little reason to pursue the taxidermy of man. This is reflected in anatomical handbooks like Thomas Pole’s 1790 Anatomical Instructor (reprinted in 1813), which gave detailed directions for numerous methods to preserve parts of the human and animal body, including entire heads and foetuses, but did not say anything about how to preserve only skin. On the contrary, Pole advised to remove the cuticle from a head that was to be preserved,  as this would give ‘a brightness to the complexion’.[1]

Jeremy Bentham’s ‘preserved’ head is not on display, but stored in an environmentally controlled safe. Copyright: UCL.

However, with the growing popularity of taxidermy – the mounting of animal skins in lifelike poses – and the rise of physical anthropology in the early nineteenth century, there were a number of experiments with human taxidermy, the most famous of which was probably Jeremy Bentham’s unsuccessful attempt to have his body made into an ‘auto-icon’ after this death. Then there was ‘el negro’ or ‘the negro of Banyoles’, whose faith was described by Dutch author Frank Westerman in his 2004 book El Negro en ik (‘El negro and I’). The remains of this young African San man were stuffed by two taxidermists, the French Verreaux brothers, in the 1830s, and remained on display in a local Museum in Banyoles, Spain, until 1997. Eventually his remains were send for burial in Botswana in 2000. Jules Pierre (1807-1837) and Jean Baptiste Édouard (1810-1868) Verreaux created taxidermy specimens of exotic animals for their father’s Parisian shop in natural historical objects, Maison Verreaux, and, as ‘el negro’ shows, used human bones for his models.

The head of the figure in ‘Arab Courier attacked by lions’ sits detached from the rest of the diorama during restoration work. Copyright: Nate Smallwood | Tribune – Review

For a long time, ‘el negro’ was the only known case of nineteenth-century human taxidermy. However, a recent discovery suggests that the Verreaux brothers used human remains more frequently. In 2016, a human skull was discovered in a mannequin that was part of an ensemble made by the Verreaux studio. Formerly known as “Arab Courier Attacked by Lions”, it was restored and returned to display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh under the title “Lion Attacking a Dromedary”. Although apparently no attempt was made to use human skin in the Pittsburgh diorama, these cases show that there was little reticence when it came to using human materials for taxidermy displays in the nineteenth century, particularly when the human in question was considered ‘exotic’. This is supported by the fact that a popular contemporary taxidermy manual, aimed specifically at museums and travelers, opened with a paragraph on the impossibility of applying taxidermy to man successfully. The book, written by the naturalist Sarah Bowdich (née Wallis, later Lee, 1791-1856) saw six editions – the first in 1820, the last in 1843.

After listing the necessary tools and giving a number of recipes for the cleansing and preservation fluids used in taxidermy, Bowdich opened the section on ‘the preparation of mammalia’ with a somewhat disappointed-sounding statement:

1. Of man 

All the efforts of man to restore the skin of his fellow creature to its natural form and beauty, have hitherto been fruitless: the trials which have been made have only produced mis-shapen, hideous objects, and so unlike nature, that they have never found a place in our collections.

Bowdich went on to discuss the life-like wet preparations made by Amsterdam anatomist Frederik Ruysch (1638  – 1731) as ‘without doubt (…) very useful to science’, before switching to a description of a more successful practice – the preservation of skeletons. Given the tragic history of ‘el negro’ and many other violently obtained human remains in museum collections, it is a cold comfort that the naturalists of the nineteenth century failed at the taxidermy of their ‘fellow creature’.

[1] Pole, Thomas. The Anatomical Instructor ; or an Illustration of the Modern and Most Approved Methods of Preparing and Preserving the Different Parts of the Human Body and of Quadrupeds by Injection, Corrosion, Maceration, Distention, Articulation, Modelling, &C. London: Couchman & Fry, 1790: p.84.

Re-Centering Europe

By Clare Griffin

St Mary Basilica, Cracow From Wiki Commons
St Mary’s Basilica, Cracow
From Wiki Commons

Think about the histories of Europe, European medicine, European science or European magic and witchcraft you have on your desk. Think about the European cookbooks, or travel guides, or novels you have heard about. How many of them cover events, characters, places, cultures, or cuisines further east than Berlin? Of those that do, how many jump from Berlin to Moscow, bypassing the cities in between? Central, Eastern, and South-Eastern Europe tend to be treated by English-speakers as a world apart.

In academia, expertise on those countries is corralled into regional studies departments, rather than dealt with as European history. In part, this is a relic of the twentieth century, reflecting and replicating Churchill’s idea of an Iron Curtain that cut Europe in two. As The Recipes Project often demonstrates, regions and recipes go hand in hand. There is our sister series on Russian recipes. Similar series deal with the early modern Netherlands, China, and Ancient Greece and Rome. After all, anyone reading the ‘country of origin’ labels in their local supermarket knows that recipes link together ingredients and places. This month, we will use recipes to tear down the academic Iron Curtain, reclaiming this region not only as Central Europe, but as a central part of Europe.

from Wiki Commons
Map of Modern Central and Eastern Europe            from Wiki Commons

Focusing on place and space is important – where is Central and Eastern Europe? What does it look like? What is its political geography? South-Eastern Europe is perhaps more familiar in its fictionalized guise on Game of Thrones. In that series, Croatia’s Dubrovnik stands in as both King’s Landing and Qarth. Similarly, Prague and other Czech towns have been the location for numerous fictional intrigues: Karlovy Vary stood in for Montenegro in Casino Royale

A view of the old city of Dubrovnik. from Wiki Commons
A view of the old city of Dubrovnik.
from Wiki Commons









In real life, medieval and early modern Central and Eastern Europe saw power struggles and battles no less dramatic than those of Tyrion Lannister and James Bond. At various periods, Dubrovnik was under the protection of the Byzantine Empire, the Venetian Empire, the Kingdom of Hungary, and the Habsburg Empire.  These waxing and waning dynastic and imperial powers commonly intersected with religious divisions. In the Byzantine-controlled and Russian-influenced lands, Eastern Orthodoxy was the majority religion.

The Ottoman Empire in 1683 From Wiki Commons
The Ottoman Empire in 1683
From Wiki Commons

The Ottomans were the major Muslim power of the region, building mosques across South Eastern Europe that stand today. The Habsburgs and the Jagellonians were both traditionally Catholic dynasties, tying themselves and their empires to Rome, despite the Reformation making converts among many of their subjects. There were also substantial Jewish populations in many cities throughout the region. Each of these religions made their mark upon the landscape, with mosques, synagogues and churches, graveyards, and crosses of various kinds crowding the skylines.

In the shadow of these landmarks, Europeans wrote and followed recipes.

Medieval Serbian Mosque From Wiki Commons
Medieval Serbian Mosque
From Wiki Commons

As Marija-Ana Dürrigl and Stella Fatović-Ferenčić’s post highlights, men of the cloth jotted down medical recipes in their liturgy books. This was a Europe-wide phenomenon: from Porto to Moscow, the clergy wrote recipes, preserving them in religious manuscripts. Lay Europeans were often concerned with their stomachs. The post by Christopher Nicholson deals with recipes to husband fish. Originating in Bohemia, the text was translated and read as far away as England. Bohemians were not alone in wanting a nice fish dinner. For unhappy European households, food could lead to poisoning or bewitchment. Magic, for good or for ill, was used across Europe. Adelina Angusheva-Tihanov and Margaret Dimitrova’s post presents us with some examples of Slavic magic. A more specialized pursuit of pre-modern Europeans was alchemy. Alchemists, like those in Agnieszka Rec’s post, created networks across Europe. They circulated books, and themselves travelled from place to place. To read European recipes is to see how Europe is connected.

The Holy Roman Empire in 1648 from Wiki Commons
The Holy Roman Empire in 1648
from Wiki Commons

In order to read recipes, you need to know the language, and the alphabet, in which they are written. This is where people often see Central and Eastern Europe as divided from Western Europe. Don’t people from those places use different languages? Not always. Agnieszka Rec’s alchemists found recipes in Poland-Lithuania, but wrote in German. Christopher Nicholson’s Bohemian fish were described in Latin and English. Sometimes, the recipes are in different languages, and in different alphabets.  For example, Adelina Angusheva-Tihanov and Margaret Dimitrova’s recipes are in the Church Slavonic language and the Cyrillic alphabet. Marija-Ana Dürrigl and Stella Fatović-Ferenčićs texts are also in Church Slavonic. But they would not be comprehensible everyone who reads Church Slavonic (including me). These texts use the Glagolitic alphabet. Recipes show us connections, but they also show us the uniqueness of their authors, dividing as well as uniting.

Codex Zographensis from Wiki Commons
Codex Zographensis in Glagolitic
from Wiki Commons


 For the next four Thursdays, The Recipes Project will be returning to this region. We hope you will join us as our contributors take us further into Central, Eastern and South Eastern European recipes, to see how those texts bring Europe together.

Recipes to Entertain in an Exeter Cathedral Library Manuscript

By Catherine Rider

Exeter Cathedral has several medieval medical manuscripts in its library, as well as a large collection of early modern printed medical books.[1] Recently I’ve been looking at the medieval manuscripts as part of a larger project on fertility and reproduction, but they contain material on numerous other topics, including many recipes. In this blog post I’ll be talking about one manuscript and highlighting the variety of recipes it contains and some of the questions it raises about recipes for tricks and illusions in particular.

MS 3521 is a miscellaneous manuscript, mainly dating from the fifteenth century, originally from the church of Ottery St Mary in Devon, UK.[2] It contains a few long works on logic and natural philosophy, but the bulk of the manuscript consists of recipes, in English and Latin. The size and format are fairly similar to this fifteenth-century recipe manuscript from the Wellcome Library in London:

L0049309 Medical Recipe Collection Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Collection of medical recipes [written in the area of Worcestershire, first quarter of the 15th century]. Coloured drawings serve as extravagant decoration for the catchwords. Medieval English oak board book binding. 15th century Medical Recipe Collection, England, 15th Century Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
Medical Recipe Collection, Wellcome Library, London. Image courtesy of Wellcome Images.

One of the interesting aspects of the manuscript for me is the variety of the contents. Many of the recipes are medical: there are recipes and charms to treat a flow of blood; to treat pains and  toothache; a charm for childbirth; and a recipe for a male complaint, ‘balloks sore and swollen’. There are also recipes for waters and oils, such as rose oil, and cosmetic recipes, for example to make hair blond. None of these are unusual in recipe collections, and as in many other medieval recipe manuscripts they are interspersed with notes on other medical topics, such as blood-letting and the virtues of herbs. Also connected to health and medicine are several recipes to keep animals healthy.

More surprising, however, is a series of recipes fairly early in the manuscript which are designed to achieve marvellous effects. On pp. 97-8 we find a series of these, in Latin: ‘To make thunder and lightning [literally, ‘flying fire’]’, a recipe which involves saltpetre, sulphur and coal; ‘If you want a flame to spring from a fish’s eyes’, ‘If you want to be invisible’, or ‘To make a candle that no one can extinguish’. These examples look as if they are designed to entertain others with spectacular tricks, but some of the recipes seem more like practical jokes which may not have been enjoyed by the person on the receiving end: ‘If you want a woman to raise her clothes’, or ‘So that a man looks leprous.’ Some of the recipes are attributed to ‘Albertus’: I have not yet had a chance to track this down but would guess that they come from a work such as the Book of Secrets or Marvels of the World attributed to the thirteenth-century theologian Albertus Magnus.

These recipes are not unique and have a place in secrets literature. Other scholars such as Bruno Roy have also noted the ways in which magic tricks – in the modern sense of an illusion designed to entertain – appear in recipe collections.[3] More recently Laura Mitchell has posted on this blog about similar light-hearted recipes in other manuscripts, including another recipe to make a woman lift her skirts  and a recipe for invisibility:  Initiatives like Mitchell’s catalogue of English manuscripts containing magic (introduced on the Recipes blog last year) may also help to identify these recipes. However, my impression is that they remain under-studied compared with medical recipes. How commonly were recipes for entertainment copied? Do they appear in some contexts more than others? Are there any clues as to how they were regarded by copyists or readers? In the Exeter manuscript, for example, they are interspersed with medical recipes without much overt distinction being drawn between recipes for different purposes, but how usual was this? Did readers ever express doubts about some of the more dubious tricks? How do they relate, if at all, to evidence of medieval stage magic, such as descriptions of tricks with cups and balls?

I hope to look at these questions in more detail at some point, but for the moment am simply keeping an eye out for other examples.

[1] On these see Peter Thomas, Medicine and Science in Exeter Cathedral Library (Exeter: Exeter Cathedral, 2003).

[2] For a detailed description of this and the other Exeter MSS see Neil Ker, Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries, vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969-2002).

[3] B. Roy, ‘The Household Encyclopaedia as Magic Kit: Medieval Popular Interest in Pranks and Illusions’, Journal of Popular Culture, 14 (1980): 60-69.

Animal Charms in the Later Middle Ages

By Laura Mitchell

For some reason animal charms in the medieval record are a rare breed. Secrets literature, magical experiments, and natural magic abound with animals as the subject (texts on virtues often focus on the special properties of animals like snakes or eagles) and sometimes as the ingredient (as in my previously discussed directions to become invisible). However, in my research on fifteenth-century English manuscripts I’ve only found fifteen manuscripts containing animal-centric charms so far (compared to over 100 manuscripts containing medical charms).

Detail of a marginal drawing of a horse. British Library, Harley 1585 f. 68v
Detail of a marginal drawing of a horse. British Library, Harley 1585 f. 68v

Most of the surviving charms for animals are veterinary charms for horses, usually to cure farcy, a form of glanders. Glanders is a debilitating disease that affects the lungs and respiratory tract of horses, mules, and donkeys. It usually results in death in weeks if not days and the bacteria responsible is also transmissible to humans. Given the double threat of loss of animal and human life, it’s no wonder that farcy dominates the animal charms.

For example, Cambridge, University Library MS Dd.iv.44 contains numerous recipes and charms for horses, including this one for farcy:

For þe farsine sey þis charme after þe sonne rest iij oures turne þe hors toward þe west he shal not be watered ne haue no provendre but hay and and seye iij pater notres with iij nomine patris + et filij + et spiritus sancti + amen + theos + agios + pater noster huinack + pater noster uieray + pater noster arunichemay + pater noster crux christi amen +

(For the farcy: Say this charm three hours after the sun sets. Turn the horse towards the west; he shall not be watered nor have any food but hay. And say three Our Fathers with three: “nomine patris + et filij + et spiritus sancti + amen + theos + agios + pater noster huinack + pater noster uieray + pater noster arunichemay + pater noster crux christi amen +”)

Other goals of animal charms include keeping rats and other pests away, catching rabbits, protecting livestock such as sheep and pigs, and curing or protecting against dog bite (sadly my favourite Old English charm for a swarm of bees does not seem to have a late medieval English counterpart as far as I know).

It seems clear to me that there was a division (unconscious? conscious?) in the roles that animals played in magic texts that is most easily shown in the following table:

Charms Natural magic/experiments
Healing (e.g., farcy, bleeding in horses, dog bite) Using animals for magical purposes (e.g., texts of virtues)
Protection: either protecting animals from harm, or protecting property from pests (rats, moles, etc.) Using magic to harm animals (e.g., to catch birds, fish, rabbits, etc.)

When animals appear in secrets literature or natural magic instructions they are more commonly being put to use in some way – either bits of them are being consumed or burned or spread somewhere for their inherent magical properties, or someone is trying to catch them (presumably to eat them). However, the animal charms, even with this small data-set, fall into the same general patterns that appear with charms for humans: curing or preventing diseases and protecting one’s property from outside forces.

Detail of a marginal image from the Gorleston Psalter of a fox seizing a duck. British Library, Add MS 49622, fol. 190v
Detail of a marginal image from the Gorleston Psalter of a fox seizing a duck. British Library, Add MS 49622, fol. 190v

Although only a small number of animal charms survive, they are important to note as examples of the diversity of charms that existed outside of the medical corpus and as a fascinating glimpse into the medieval mindset. At the end of the Middle Ages the farm was very much the backbone of the economy and it was vitally important to landowners to keep their properties in good condition. Horses in particular were expensive animals to buy and maintain so it makes sense that surviving charms would focus on their well-being. Hopefully as scholars study more manuscripts and discover more charms we will be able to increase this small but important corpus of charms.