Sickness Personified: Clandestine Remedies from Colonial Yucatán (Part 1)

By R.A. Kashanipour

“I curse you, little seizures! Whose erupting pox are you? Eruptions on the head and body, open eruptions, internal eruptions, fiery eruptions…” [1] So begins a highly ritualized remedy for fever, eruptions, and seizures from late colonial Yucatán. As I noted in my last post, sickness and disease were endemic throughout colonial Latin America and brought together distinct traditions of healing. As this remedy and the dozens of others from the manuscript known as Ritual of the Bacabs show, eighteenth-century Mayas of the Yucatán were not silent victims of disease. Instead, they understood sickness and infirmity as extensions of the natural and human world. They incorporated ancient traditions and firmly rooted healing in colonial context. And, as I would like to note in this post, healers personified and naturalized diseases to bolster their own therapeutic powers.

Before returning to this remedy, I want to touch on the manuscript source and then briefly make note of ancient traditions of Maya healing. Ritual of the Bacabs is a collection of healing incantations, prayers, and remedies written in Yucatec Maya sometime in the eighteenth century. This unique work, which today is held at Princeton University, addresses afflictions common to the colonial world, including pox (kak), difficulty breathing (coc), and difficulty walking (chibal oc). The devastating affects of disease are often noted as seizures (tancas). Several cures associate these outbursts with their origins, such as walking seizures (ah oc tancas), while others ascribe direct ties to the natural world as their sources, including macaw-jaguar seizures (mo balam tancas) and tarantula seizures (chiuoh tancas). The culturally bound ailment often described as madness (coil) regularly appears associated with extreme cases of the pox and seizures.

On the whole, the remedies of the text illustrate the ongoing revision of long-standing Maya traditions in the face of colonial institutions. In particular, in the pre-Hispanic period, infirmity and remediation were associated with the supernatural world and directly tied to the deities Ix Chel and Itzamná. In 1571, Diego de Landa, the second Bishop of Yucatán and infamous crusader against pagan practices, noted Ix Chel’s centrality to healing. “The physicians and the sorcerers assembled in one of their houses with their wives … they opened the bundles of their medicine, in which they kept many little trifles and … little idols of the goddess of medicine, whom they called Ix Chel.” [2] The two deities, the goddess of the moon and lord of the sun, were bound as husband and wife and mirroring elements of health and sickness.

Ix Chel and Itzamna This rollout image from a classic period pot depicts the goddess Ix Chel (center) caring for an ailing Itzamná (right) and a female healer (left) performing a healing ritual.  The leaves surround the infirmed and bedridden Itzamná most likely represent the purgatives used to induce the deer to vomit. A vulture appears underneath the old god’s bed, just to make clear that his condition is dire.  © Justin Kerr, K2794,
Ix Chel and Itzamna
This rollout image from a classic period pot depicts the goddess Ix Chel (center) caring for an ailing Itzamná (right) and a female healer (left) performing a healing ritual. The leaves surround the infirmed and bedridden Itzamná most likely represent the purgatives used to induce the deer to vomit. A vulture appears underneath the old god’s bed, just to make clear that his condition is dire. © Justin Kerr, K2794,

During the colonial period, local Church authorities attempted to root out any expressed association with ancient religions. In healing, however, it is clear they were unsuccessful. These deities, who were central to the creation mythology of the Classical Maya, were represented as powerful animistic forces in the healing text. In a remedy for a breathing affliction in Ritual of the Bacabs, both Itzamna and Ix Chel are invoked to harness the use of the powerful cardinal directions. The enchanter is to “for four days, shake the face of the red Ix Chel, the white Ix Chel, the yellow Ix Chel; four days he shakes the face of the red Itzamna.” [3] These supernatural forces figure prominently in the background of numerous remedies. They serve to root the cures in line with ancient traditions, which endured well into the colonial period.

The remedies of Ritual of the Bacabs represent a clandestine system of ritualized healing that directly built on past Maya practices. As a text designed for alienating and eliminating sickness, the curanderos that penned the work most likely identified themselves as a special Maya class of healers known as mak ik or benevolent shamans that controlled healing winds. In this way, they stood in line with ancient traditions, but were fully immersed in colonial experience.

In my next post, we will return to the issue of the personification of sickness as a means to frame healing. In particular, we will look how the curanderos of Ritual of the Bacabs animated diseases in order to position them in the natural and social colonial landscape of the Yucatán.

[1] Ritual of the Bacabs, Princeton University Library, Garrett-Gates Collection, Mesoamerican Manuscript No. 1, folio 100.

[2] Diego de Landa and Alfred M. Tozzer, Landa’s Relación De Las Cosas De Yucatan: A Translation. (New York: Kraus, 1966), 154.

[3] Ritual of the Bacabs, folio 65.

Early Modern Comfort Foods

By Amanda E. Herbert

Today we associate “comfort foods” with tradition, indulgence, and familiarity.  These humble but beloved foods have received a lot of recent attention from cooks and culinary specialists – the Guardian food blog even produced a full-page spread of its favourites last month.  But what were the early modern equivalents of comfort foods?  And how did early modern people feel about incorporating new or exotic foods into their diets?

A recipe collection at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts helps to reveal culinary adaptations made by early modern Britons: this is the Charles Brigham Account Book.[1]  Like many early modern manuscript recipe collections, the Brigham book had multiple author-compilers, and was maintained over a long period of time, for nearly one hundred years (c. 1650-1730).  Although little is known about the provenance of the book, at one point it was “given to Sarah [by her mother] when she moved to Grafton amonst the Indians [in] 1731…so that she could do her own Cooking & [doctoring] as there was no Dr in the county.”  This was probably Sarah Prentice (1716-1792), whose ownership mark appears in the book, and who was married to the Rev. Solomon Prentice (1705-1773), the first minister of Grafton, Massachusetts.

But the Brigham Account Book did not originate in Massachusetts.  Early entries in the book suggest that it was instead created in Britain.  It was first compiled by “Anna Cromwell,” who labeled the text “my booke of receipts December the 23 1650.”  Cromwell included a recipe for “fitts of the mother,” which encouraged readers to purchase ingredients from “Mr. Seamer an appothicary over against Aldermanberry Church [London].”  Another one of Cromwell’s recipes taught how “to make a Lestershiere plover.”  As later author-compilers made their own contributions to the book (it contains six different ownership marks), each added their own familiar, go-to recipes.  Some of these “comfort foods” had Scots influences, such as one “to make Skinke” (soup made from beef shin, traditionally from Scotland), and another “to make a haggesse pudding.”[2]  One or more of the compilers also had access to an extensive library of British gardening, cooking, and natural history texts.  The manuscript contains recipes copied from Digbys Closset and Verulams Nat Hist–and specifically fruit wine and cider recipes from Wordlidge Vinet Brit.[3]  There’s even a recipe for “Damson wine with Raysons, Woolley” which matches, ingredient for ingredient, a recipe in Hannah Woolley’s Queen-Like Closet (London, 1670).

But towards the end of the book, the recipes begin to reflect the influence of trans-Atlantic commerce, travel, and trade.  The recipe “to sauce a turkie like stargion [sturgeon]” suggests that one of authors learned how to cook “new world” breeds of animals, like turkeys, by preparing them in the same familiar, comforting way as fish eaten regularly in Britain.  Later recipes in the book celebrate the new plants and foods that were at colonists’ disposals; one recipe “to cleanse a skurffy skin” instructed practitioners to “bath the place where the scurff is with spirit of nicotiane,” a reference to Nicotiana tabacum, or tobacco.  Another recipe provided directions for making “jockaleta biskits,” or chocolate biscuits.[4]  Lists of accounts at the back of the book note the sums paid by the one of the book’s owners for “2 gallons of Rum of River Town,” as well as “2 galons molasses,” and “5 pnd of tobacco,” all popular colonial commodities.  Marginalia, too, reflect a change in geographical perspective, with authors centering themselves in British America rather than in Britain.  The author of a recipe for “incomparable cosmetick of pearl,” noted that “this is one of the most exelent beautifiers in the world this oil if weel prepared is richly worth seven pound an ounce in England.”

The increasing prevalence of “new world” recipes, as well as these subtle geographical and rhetorical shifts, suggest that the Brigham Account Book made a trans-Atlantic voyage sometime in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, presumably carried by one of its owners as they journeyed to a new life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  As people struggled to adapt to colonial environments, familiar recipes and remedies from home could have provided comfort to colonial British Americans. Manuscript recipe books, handed down between family members and friends over generations, surely provided important and lasting senses of connection with loved ones who had been left behind. The Brigham book also reveals the adaptability of these early colonists, and demonstrates how recipe authors used their books to learn about and use the plants, animals, and foodstuffs available to them in their new home.

Thanks to Molly Warsh and James Roberts for their help with this post!

[1] Charles Brigham Account Book, MMS Dept., Folio Vols. “B,” American Antiquarian Society.  Charles Brigham was another early resident of Grafton, MA, and his ownership mark also appears in the book.

[2] For more on haggis recipes and their possible origins, see Chris Hilton’s Recipes Project post on Robert Burns Day here.

[3] Probably references to Kenelm Digby, The closet of the eminently learned Sir Kenelme Digbie (London, 1669); Francis Bacon, Sylva Sylvarum: or A Naturall Historie (London, 1627); John Worlidge, Vinetum Britannicum, or, A treatise of cider (London, 1678).

[3] In the late seventeenth century, “jacolatta” or “jockelatte” were common terms for chocolate.  For example, Samuel Pepys called the cacao-based drink “Jocolatte” when consuming it at a London coffee-house on 24 November 1664.  For more on early modern chocolate, see Amy Tigner’s Recipes Project posts here.

Chocolate in Seventeenth-Century England, Part II

In The Queen-Like Closet (1670), Hannah Woolley publishes a second recipe, “To make Chaculato,” that is radically different from her earlier one for chocolate in The Ladies Directory (1662) and from those coming from Spain and the New World.[1] The reconfiguration, I think, indicates the development of English trade systems and colonial ventures in America. This second recipe, much more fully than her first one, amalgamates the local with the global, the English with the Continental, and the European with the New World. It thus modifies the entire recipe for the changing English tastes:

To make Chaculato

Take half a pint of Clarret Wine, boil it a little, then scrape some Chaculato very fine and put into it, and the Yokes of two Eggs, stir them well together over a slow Fire till it be thick, and sweeten it with Sugar according in your taste. (QLC 104)

For this adapted New World drink, Woolley’s recipe begins with French claret wine, into which she grates the American chocolate, adds local English egg yolks, and then sweetens the mixture with Caribbean sugar. Beginning in the sixteenth century, England imported a particular red wine from Bordeaux that the English called claret. In the seventeenth century, however, a new tax law against the importation of French wine had made claret more rarified and expensive, and therefore more desirable.[2] Woolley’s use of this wine in particular indicates that her imagined readership would have the financial means to purchase this preferred beverage, especially as they would also be purchasing the rare ingredient of chocolate.

As in her first recipe, Woolley’s directions call for grating the chocolate, indicating she likely used a hardened chocolate paste already processed in Jamaica. The process consisted of fermenting cacao seeds, roasting and crushing the shells and beans with a roller, and finally winnowing them for separation.[3] The cacao beans or nibs were then ground in a mill and made into a paste, and, according to Willliam Hughes’s The American Phystian (1672), shaped into “Lumps, Rowls, Cakes, Balls, Lozanges, &c.” This form of preservation was important for it allowed the chocolate to be kept for upwards of a year, thus facilitating easy shipment to England.[4] Furthermore, as with the increased availability of sugar through the colonial practices of the British navy, chocolate also became more readily attainable in England after Cromwell’s forces had defeated the Spanish in 1655 in Jamaica and took over the cacao plantations, where the chocolate was processed.[5]

If in her first recipe the addition of eggs to the Spanish recipe makes chocolate more appealing for the English sensibility, Woolley’s second recipe fully naturalizes chocolate into a specifically English context, essentially making it an ingredient of an already established English drink. Using wine rather than water or milk as the base liquid for her “chaculato” marks the difference in Woolley’s recipe. In essence, Woolley is taking a familiar English recipe for a posset (a hot curdled wine or ale drink) and modifying it with the addition of the foreign ingredient, chocolate. Perhaps Woolley’s choice to put the chocolate into a posset is due to the fact that, as Kate Colquhoun explains: “Hot drinks, apart from possets, were a whole new experience.”[6] Her recipe does fit into the category of hot drinks, as Woolley includes in the following pages three traditional recipes for hot possets, each primarily consisting of the same basic ingredients as her one for chocolate: eggs, sugar, and wine (QLC 106–07). Hence, Woolley’s “To make Chaculato” reveals a chemical process of fusing exotic products into domestic ingredients to make an English drink, and, by application, the cultural assimilation of American substances into the native English body.

Though English recipes had for centuries been incorporating and naturalizing foreign commodities (cinnamon, nutmeg, and saffron, for example), the process and significance of Woolley’s chocolate recipe breaks markedly with this culinary history, specifically because of the rising English colonial engagement with the New World. The fundamental difference is that the English in this context are a colonizing body politic, already engaged in the practice of absorbing some foreign other into the self. The drinking of chocolate mixed into an English posset is the physical, domestic manifestation of colonization that was occurring across the ocean. Further, as the English were expanding imperial dominion over both the environments and bodies that produced chocolate (and sugar) in the seventeenth century, recipes like Woolley’s served not just to incorporate but also to “preserve” English bodies with American materials and ingredients; both health and taste were increasingly modified through colonial activities enacted in the home by women.

[1] This post is an excerpt from Amy L. Tigner, “Preserving Nature in Hannah Woolley’s The Queen-Like Closet; or Rich Cabinet” ” in Ecofeminist Approaches to Early Modernity, edited by Jennifer Munroe and Rebecca Laroche (Palgrave, 2011), p. 129-49. Hannah Woolley, The Queen-Like Closet; or Rich Cabinet (London: R. Lowndes, 1670); ———, The Ladies Directory  (London: T. M. for Peter Dring, 1662).

[2] Thomas Pellechia, The 8,000 Year-Old Story of the Wine Trade  (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006), 70, 119-20.

[3] Penelope Jephson’s manuscript cookbook dated from 1671, (V.a. 396) at the Folger library, contains the recipe, “To make chocolato” that unlike Woolley’s recipe uses cacao nuts in their raw form and gives instructions as to how to process it into a useable paste form.

[4] John A. West, “A Brief History and Botany of Cacao,” in Chocolate: Food of the Gods, ed. Ales Szogyi (Burnham: Greenwood Press, 1997), 109. William Hughes, The American physitian  (London: J.C. for William Crook, 1672), 116-7.

[5] Sophie and Michael Coe Coe, The True History of Chocolate  (London: Thames and Hudson, 1996), 167.

[6] Kate Colquhoun, Taste: the Story of Britain Through Its cooking  (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007), 146.

Chocolate in Seventeenth-century England, Part I

By Amy Tigner

From the 1640s, recipes for chocolate drinks had been printed in English language books about chocolate; however, Hannah Woolley’s “To make Spanish Chaculata” in The Ladies Directory (1662) is, as far as I have been able to discern, the first in a printed cookbook in England. [1] The fact that Woolley identifies this recipe specifically as “Spanish” is significant because she is clearly indicating its foreign provenance and attendant associations; yet, the recipe already shows signs of its acclimation to English taste.

To make Spanish Chaculata

Boile some water in an earthen Pipkin a quarter of an hour; then sweeten it with   Sugar; then scrape your Chaculata very fine, and put it in, boil it half an hour; then put in the Yolks of Eggs well beaten, and stir it over a slow fire till it be thick. (TLD 60)

The call for water as the liquid component most closely associates Woolley’s recipe with those coming directly from Spain. Henry Stubbe, who published the chocolate tome, The Indian nectar, or, A discourse concerning chocolata, in 1662, explains the difference between Spanish and English Chocolate recipes: “Here in England we are not content with the plain Spanish way of mixing Chocolata with water.”[2] Stubbe then relates that the English use milk and sometimes eggs or egg yolks to thicken the mixture. This instance in the Stubbe’s text (and borne out in Woolley’s recipe) reveals the necessity for each culture to naturalize the new commodity of chocolate to its own particular appetite and mode of assimilation. Many Spanish recipes also included spices, such as cloves, cinnamon, and long pepper (chili peppers), that would make the chocolate piquante, which would likely be too spicy for the English tongue.[3] As Woolley adds egg yolks to the chocolate drink but excises any peppery spices, we can see how her recipe is altered for the English palate.

No other recipe for chocolate appears to be published in any receipt book in English until Woolley’s prints her second one in the 1670 The Queen-Like Closet. Anne Fanshawe’s cookbook manuscript, however, does contain a recipe titled, “To dresse Chocolatte,” with an annotation identifying the time and place as Madrid, 10 Aug. 1665.[4]

Page from Lady Ann Fanshawe’s recipe book, including a picture of a chocolate pot
Western Manuscript 7113,page 332.  Image courtesy of The Wellcome Library, London

Most interestingly Fanshawe also includes a sewn-in drawing of an Indian chocolate pot and whisk or molinillo; on the drawing is written, “This is the same chocelary pottes that are mayd in the Indies.” As Anne was married to Richard Fanshawe, the English Ambassador to Spain, it is not surprising that she would have had access to a chocolate recipe and to the “Indian” utensils. The recipe, however, is scribbled out with a circular scrawl, making the recipe impossible to read.[5] At the end of the recipe is a sentence that is not scratched out: “The Best Chocolate but that of ye Indies is in Sivill [Seville] Spane,” perhaps indicating that Fanshawe had gone to Seville and tasted what she thought of as superlative chocolate. Unfortunately, the recipe’s illegibility makes it impossible to know the ingredients or particular processes. Nevertheless, even with its large lacuna, we can surmise from the peripheral clues that Fanshawe was actively involved in discovering new tastes and recipes from America; indeed she may have been the Englishwomen closest to the direct source of importation of exotic Indian kitchenware and comestibles into Europe. The lamentable scribbling, however, bars a comparison of Fanshawe’s and Woolley’s recipes, a comparison that might show the progression of English dissemination and/or adaptation of foreign recipes and exotic ingredients.


[1] This post is an excerpt from Amy L. Tigner, “Preserving Nature in Hannah Woolley’s The Queen-Like Closet; or Rich Cabinet” ” in Ecofeminist Approaches to Early Modernity, edited by Jennifer Munroe and Rebecca Laroche (Palgrave, 2011), p. 129-49. Hannah Woolley, The Ladies Directory in Choice Experiments and Curiosities (London: T.M. for Peter Dring, 1662).

[2] Henry Stubbe, The Indian Nectar: Or a Discourse Concerning Chocolata (London: J. C. for Andrew Crook, 1662), 109.

[3] Antonio Colmenero, A Curious Treatise of the Nature and Quality of Chocolate, trans. Diego de Vades-forte (London: J. Okes, 1640), 8.

[4] I would like to thank David Goldstein for pointing out Fanshawe’s receipt. Ann Fanshawe, “Mrs. Fanshawes Booke of Receipts of Physickes, Salves, Waters, Cordialls, Preserves and Cookery,” MS7113 in Recipe Books Project (Wellcome Library, 1651), 332.

[5] Curiously, no other recipe in Fanshawe’s book has been so thoroughly obliterated; most others are simply crossed out with a big X over the whole recipe or a line is drawn through the words.