Revisiting Chelsea Clark’s The Wonders of Unicorn Horns: Preventions and Cures for Poisoning

Editor’s note: Today, we revisit a wonderful post from Chelsea Clark in 2012 on the intersection of magic and medicine from Early Modern England. Drawing on the seventeenth century  manuscript ascribed to the herbalist Johanna St. John, Clark examines the symbolic power remedies to unwind magical forces.  In this case, the remedy for the malicious magic of poison rests on unicorn, bezoar stones, and the bones of stag hearts.  Magical ailments, after all, would necessitate magical cures.  R.A. Kashanipour


By Chelsea Clark

Johanna St John’s Book, Credit: Wellcome Library, London

In Johanna St. John’s recipe book, the mysterious “Banister’s Powder by Dr Bates” lay nestled between the equally intriguing “Mrs Archers way of makeing My Lady Kents Powder” and the beginning of the letter “R” section of St. John’s efficiently organized recipe book. There is no indication what type of recipe this “Banister’s Powder” was, besides a powder, or what it’s intended use was. Following several pages of recipes for “pox” and “pills” this “Powder” is the tail end of St. John’s letter “P” section, however, even knowing this context offers little information. An analysis of the “Banister’s Powder” ingredients suggests a link between St. John’s early modern medicinal recipes and the presence of magical beliefs associated with medicine in the early modern period.

The first three ingredients required to make the “Banister’s Powder” are: powdered Unicorn horn, east bezoars, and the “bones” of a stag’s heart. Each of these ingredients had longstanding associations with the belief they were capable of preventing or countering the effects of poisoning. To a modern eye, these appear strange items to reside alongside many complicated recipes which rely on an expansive knowledge of medicinal, rather than magical, properties. These ingredients indicate that magical beliefs remained acceptable practices among home practitioners in the early modern period. This is possibly because the science to disprove them was not advanced and medical practitioners were only beginning to be skeptical and move away from such unreliable remedies.

The prevention and cure of poisoning was a genuine concern before and throughout the early modern period. It was quite common to be bitten or stung, to consume poisonous berries, roots, or herbs, or to believe a spell had been cast by a witch (Jackson, 96). It was also common for physicians to diagnose poison as the cause when they could not determine the source of an ailment (Auble, 17). This led to the necessity for remedies to detect, prevent and cure poisoning.

Rhinoceros Horn Vessel, Credit: Wellcome Library, London

 

Pharmacy sign, Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Unicorn horns were actually believed to come from the mythical creature and possess its symbolic purity and strength, though they were most often a narwhal tooth or powdered rhinoceros horn. The horns were commonly powdered and used in poison antidotes or as vessels to drink from before or after ingesting poison (Jackson, 97). Unicorn horns were also believed to have properties which allowed them to detect poison (Knight, 245). In addition to being thought to detect, prevent or cure the effects of poison, the horns were also thought to strengthen your heart, relieve headaches, resist the plague and pestilence, expel measles and small pox, and cure “falling sickness” in children (Brockbank, 3) all of which were reoccurring ailments in the early modern period.

 

Bezoar stones were solid masses from the intestines of goats, sheep or deer that were primarily believed to detect poisons but also, in some cases thought to provide a cure if small amounts of the stone were consumed. “Oriental” or “East” Bezoars, as St. John called for, were the most valuable type which came from a Persian wild goat (Jackson, 97). It was occasionally consumed, but more commonly mounted on a chain and dipped in to drinks to nullify the effects of poison if there was any (Jackson, 97). Queen Elizabeth I reportedly kept one “sett in golde hanging at a little Bracelett … The most parte of this stone being spent” indicating the Queen mounted and consumed her stone (Auble, 18).

Mounted Bezoar Stone, Credit: Wolfgang Sauber

The belief in the magical powers of the “bones” from a stag’s heart originates from a folk tale. The tale is that stags ate poisonous snakes by sniffing them out of holes and then after which they rushed to drink water. The “bones” in their heart were believed to be what protected the stags from being poisoned. The “bones” were actually caused by the degeneration of arteries into flat, oblong bone like objects. Powdering and consuming this “bone” was seen as a preventative measure to protect against the effects of poisoning (Jackson, 97).

Unicorn horn, bezoars and “bones” from a stag’s heart, were the key ingredients to the “Banisters Powder” in St. John’s recipe book. Because of the longstanding beliefs about these ingredients and their associations with poisoning detection, prevention and cures, this recipe was perhaps intended to cure or prevent poisoning. One can imagine the remedy would have been thought to be fool-proof against poison because it combined the powers of each of these ingredients. Although there was a movement away from magical remedies and cure-alls among physicians in the Early Modern period, belief in the curing power of magical objects was still present in the lives of home practitioners such as Johanna St. John. What we would consider scientifically impossible, they were only beginning to discover.

A strong belief in unexplainable phenomenon was common practice and popular beliefs are difficult to dispel, especially when they hold significant symbolic value. Just the other day the North Korean state media associated the discovery of a Unicorn Lair with their new young leader. It is hoped this association would strengthen the nation’s confidence in their young leader because of the symbolic meaning of the Unicorn and its ties to the state’s history. This example illustrates that a belief in the symbolic power of an object, like a Unicorn or its horn, bezoars, or “bones” from a stag’s heart can transcend both time and logic, persisting even when its truth is questionable.

Works Cited:

Auble, Cassandra. “The Cultural Significance of Precious Stones in Early Modern England.” Dissertations, Thesis, & Student Research, Department of History, University of Nebraska Paper 39 (2011).

Brockbank, William. “Sovereign Remedies: A Critical Depreciation of the 17th-Century London Pharmacopoeia.” Medical History 8.01 (1964): 1-14.

Jackson, William A. “Antidotes” Trends in Pharmacological Sciences 23.2 (2002): 96-98.

Knight, Katherine. “A Precious Medicine: Tradition and Magic in Some Seventeenth-Century Household Remedies” Folklore 113.2 (2002): 237-247.

Around the Table: Events

By Sarah Peters Kernan

Two weeks ago the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC) hosted their fifth annual Transcribathon. I want to share my Transcribathon experience at the site hosted by the Newberry Library in Chicago, as I learned this event can be a successful community-building exercise in addition to a valuable day for teaching and learning about early modern recipes, manuscript culture, paleography, and digital humanities.

Participants listening to a presentation. Photo by Katie Dyson.

Despite being an avid reader of the EMROC blog and regular transcriber and researcher of recipe books, I had not participated in the Transcribathon prior to this year. Something always seemed to come up on the day, and I was admittedly nervous about using the transcription platform, Dromio (which, as I soon realized, was ridiculous! Dromio is quite user-friendly and intuitive, so don’t be afraid to try it!). This year, however, I was determined to participate in some way.

I figured that tying the Transcribathon into a course was a good first step to get involved, so I incorporated it into a class I was teaching on early modern English cookbooks in the Newberry’s Seminars Program. I also approached the Newberry to propose that they host a site. The Newberry was thrilled to host the Transcribathon, and staff from several centers and departments quickly coalesced to help organize the event including Public Engagement, Digital Initiatives, and the Center for Renaissance Studies.

The Newberry was open as a transcription site for four hours. Approximately sixty participants transcribed and many more people at the library wandered in and out throughout that time. Some participants worked for only thirty minutes, many more for one to two hours, and still others transcribed for over three hours! The library hosted a few speakers: I spoke about early modern English recipe books, Megan Heffernan provided a primer on early modern English manuscript culture and paleography, Jen Wolfe (a former Library Chat guest) highlighted the Newberry’s digital humanities initiatives, and Lia Markey talked about the new Italian Paleography site, a digital project of the Center for Renaissance Studies.

Transcribing and monitoring the Twitter feeds. Photo by Katie Dyson.

I am still overwhelmed by the incredible response to the Newberry’s Transcribathon. The participants had a wide range of backgrounds and interests. Instructors brought their classes, including one from Arrupe College. Several DePaul University undergraduates were also present, per their instructor’s suggestion. Many Chicago residents simply interested in recipes decided to try their hands at transcribing. I loved answering questions from many of these individuals; they wanted to know everything about paleography, ingredients, and coding! Scholars and graduate students were also on hand; they made exciting observations in the recipes, like shifting from English to French when describing reproductive unmentionables and a panoply of odd ingredients. In many instances, participants with diverse backgrounds shared tables while working, and I couldn’t help but notice a lot of conversation about their transcription experiences.

Participants and visitors seemed particularly conversational about one aspect of the event: the refreshments table. To celebrate English culinary recipes from the period, I baked seven different cake and biscuit recipes prepared from early modern recipes.

Early modern recipes prepared by Sarah Kernan. Photo by Megan Heffernan.

Most people who sampled the food wanted to talk about it, either with me or one another. The flavors (like rosewater, orange, and caraway) seemed to make early modern England a little more interesting for the students in attendance, while other participants were far more interested in the recipe sources. Suzanne Karr Schmidt, the George Amos Poole III Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Newberry, even made a surprising connection between the Italian Crusts and a seventeenth-century sonnet series, Enigmes Joyeuses pour les Bons Esprits. It turns out that historic foods can sustain transcribers, create conversation, and forge some curious ties.

After experiencing such a great event and intellectual exercise, I want to encourage other readers to try organizing similar Transcribathon sites at your local libraries and schools in the future. I can’t emphasize enough how exciting it was to meet others who wanted to engage with early modern recipes and begin building that community in Chicago. Additionally, the event was clearly a useful teaching tool for instructors in several disciplines. On the institutional side, I am hopeful the Transcribathon inspired some participants to get involved in other initiatives (digital and otherwise) at the Newberry; several people were eager to learn more about projects specific to the library.

So, readers, I hope to see you at next year’s Transcribathon, whether you are participating from the comfort of your own home or organizing a site for your local recipes community!

Thanks to everyone at the Newberry Library who was a part of the Transcribathon planning, especially Katie Dyson, Lia Markey, Karen Christianson, Alex Teller, Jen Wolfe, Rebecca Fall, Christopher Fletcher, and Elisa Jones! You can follow the Newberry on Twitter @NewberryLibrary and Facebook @NewberryLibrary. If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.

Remember, remember the fifth of November

The Early Modern Recipes Online Collective transcribathon for 2019 is coming soon… November 5! Flex those fingers, boot up your computer, and get ready to join in, because this is no ordinary transcribathon.

Please join EMROC for our fifth annual international transcribathon as we transcribe an anonymous early modern medical recipe book (which includes recipes for whiskey and novel uses for oatmeal). It’s a super source, which Rebecca Laroche describes here. We will have transcription groups working in at least a dozen locations around the world, on three continents, with people coming and going virtually throughout the day.

The goal? To complete a transcription of a recipe book, making it easier for users to search than a digitised manuscript. This will eventually be available through the Folger Shakespeare’s Library catalogue alongside page images. Our other goal is to have fun with a community of people interested in transcribing and recipes, whatever their skill level.

We have lots of exciting activities planned to accompany our transcribing delights, which will run from 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. GMT.

There will be:

  • subject hashtags on Twitter: #EMROCtranscribes, #feministOED, #materialhealthtech, #animalproducts, and more. (Details on the EMROC blog.)
  • a Zoom link (https://essex-university.zoom.us/j/706439992) all day to connect participants from around the globe.
  • and speakers!

Joining Zoom

Zoom is an easy-to-use platform that enables participants to ask the EMROC team questions throughout the day and to chat with other transcribers. You don’t need any special tools, either. Just click on our Zoom link, download the exe (if you don’t already have Zoom), and you’ll be in. There are details here on how to join, participate, and leave. We are hoping that the chat and Q&A functions on Zoom will make it easier for novice transcribers to get help quickly, as well as to bring the transcriber community together.

Speakers

The Department of History at the University of Essex is also hosting an EMROC panel on ‘Recipes in the Making’, which focuses on the manuscript we’re transcribing. Speakers include Heather Wolfe (Folger Shakespeare Library), Sara Pennell (Greenwich), and Anne Stobart (Exeter).

The panel will be recorded, though it won’t be up immediately…

Survey?

We would love it if you filled in our pre-transcribathon survey, which will take no more than five minutes of your time. The survey will help us to learn more about our participants’ interests and backgrounds.

https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/7T9HKR5

If you want to join in or have other questions, please do let me know on Twitter (@historybeagle) or by email (lisa.smith@essex.ac.uk).

Thank you so much for your interest in our transcribathon and for filling in the survey. We would be so excited to transcribe with you on November 5.

An earlier version of this post appeared first at emroc.hypotheses.org.

Observing Textures in Recipes

By Elaine Leong

I have held a long fascination with how textures are represented in recipes. As we all know, then as now, producing medicines and food often involves a multi-step process, and careful observation of changes in textures is often the key to success.

Classic White Sauce

Take, for example, the classic white sauce. It all seems simple enough – we mix and heat together butter and flour and then add milk (hot or cold, depending on where you stand on this issue), simmer and whisk away and, voilà, we should have a silky-smooth sauce, ready for some posh mac and cheese, or baked endive, and much more. Now readers, I know what you’re thinking. It sounds so easy on paper but, if we were honest, we all have stories of failed batches of béchamel. The sauce can taste raw (classic mistake of not cooking the flour enough) or be lumpy (the blender trick never works for me) or end up too thin or thick.

Mixing Flour and Butter

A few years ago, I finally found the perfect recipe for me from Annie Bell’s In my Kitchen. However, though Annie provides the perfect ingredient proportions for my family’s taste of white sauce, for the crucial step – cooking the butter and flour together – I rely on Martha Schulman’s description. The mixture needs to be heat for around 5 minutes until it looks like ‘wet sand.’ The monitoring and observing of textures, particularly any changes, is key to making the perfect white sauce and many other dishes besides.

The early modern recipe archive is also filled with similar sets of instructions where changes in texture were used as markers for the completion of a particular step in production. In my recent book Recipes and Everyday Knowledge, I discuss some of these examples in a chapter on “Recipes Trials.” Due to the generosity of friends and colleagues and the enthusiasm of groups such as the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC) and Before Farm to Table, new examples emerge all the time. Today, I wanted to share a particularly intriguing recipe, which came to light at the EMROC transcribathon last fall.

Dawson’s Recipe for Lemon Wafers

The recipe is for making lemon wafers and is part of the recipe collection of a seventeenth-century English gentlewoman named Jane Dawson. The instructions are brief but detailed. We are told to dry, sift and beat double-refined sugar and mix with the juice of a lemon until it becomes the consistency of honey.[1] Then, scooping some of the mixture in a spoon, we should heat the spoon over a chafing dish of hot coals until the surface of the mixture touching the spoon is “crisp” – that is (according to the OED) rippling, folding or wrinkling. Taking care that the mixture does not boil, we should then spread the melted mixture onto a square piece of paper, pinning the two corners of the paper together in order to curl or bend the wafer and let it dry in this configuration. When we are ready to eat or serve the lemon wafer, we should wet the “wrong” side of the paper with water to release the candy.

As with making béchamel, key to this recipe are the practices of observing and interpreting changes in texture. Two points are of particular importance here – ensuring that the sugar and lemon juice mix achieves the ‘consistency of honey’ and that the mixture heats until it crisps or ripples on the hot spoon.

After the transcribathon, some EMROC members were so intrigued by this recipe that they tried their hands at re-creating it. Lisa Smith, Maggie Simon, and their various assistants spent afternoons mixing and tasting lemony sugar syrup and heating it using a variety of methods from plate warmers to electric hobs. I’ll leave you to read about their adventures here and here, but it is telling that both ended their posts with a reflection about the assumed knowledge required for this recipe. One particular texture was picked up for comment – the consistency of honey. Both Lisa and Maggie were stymied by the instructions to mix fine sugar and lemon juice to the “right” consistency of honey. After all, as a natural product, honey can come in many guises. Our intrepid makers tried to reproduce the thickness of raw honey, runny honey, and crystalized honey and each resulted in a different product with varying degrees of success.

Maggie’s Sugar and Lemon Juice Mixture (Photo taken by Maggie Simon)

Observing textures or changes in textures is clearly a key part of following recipes. Yet, it turns out that it is hard to convey hands-on experiential knowledge on paper, particularly across time and space. Often times, descriptions of textures are made using analogies (e.g. consistency of honey) or metaphors (e.g. wet sand) requiring the recipe writer and reader to work within a similar frame of reference. Further focus on reading or interpreting representations of “textures” in past and present thus seems a fruitful way to shed light on histories of observation, sensorial and experiential knowledge.


[1] Folger v.b. 14, p. 47.