Category Archives: Education

The Early Modern Matter of Fecal Medicines

Whilst perusing some seventeenth century recipes for medicines I stumbled across a few curious ingredients. Granted, many of the ingredients found in Johanna St. John’s recipe book – aside from now common herbs and spices like cinnamon or saffron – might look odd to the modern eye. Some of the ingredients that struck me were spermaceti (sperm whale fat); the sole of an old but clean shoe, burnt to ashes; a crab’s eyes, and the black tips of its claws.

As I read I couldn’t help but assume that the addition of spices, or the use of wine, sugar, and brandy might have best served to make some of the recipes more palatable. But then something caught my eye that all the cinnamon, saffron, and distillation could not possibly conceal. To put it lightly, it was, well, poo. Precisely, for smallpox, “a sheep’s dung, cleane picked”. Clearly you would want to make sure you were getting pure, uncontaminated crap. The recipe goes on to instruct the user to mix a handful of the stuff into a pint of white wine, “mash it well” and after leaving it to stand a full night, to serve a spoonful or two at a time. But wait, there’s more! A note tucked into the margin recommends this smelly recipe for gout and jaundice. Fecal wine, if you will: good for what ails you.

Manure. Credit: Petr Kratochvil

In the mid-seventeenth century Nicholas Culpeper’s Pharmacopoeia Londinensis (1652) heavily criticized the Royal College of Physician’s required inventory for Culpeper and his fellow apothecaries. In his work, which translated the tome on medicine to English from Latin for the first time during the English Interregnum, Culpeper wrote this of a section featuring “living creatures” and “their excrements”: “alack! alack! the king is dead, and the College of Physicians want power to impose the turds upon men” (Culpeper, 52). Culpeper was right, it seemed many were holding onto ideas about fecal medicine. However, while most insisted that ordure altered by the art that was physick was medicinal, some practitioners had more radical ideas about the uses of feces and medicine.

Culpeper’s Pharmarcopoeia, Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Paracelsus was an enthusiastic alchemist, whose writings from the mid sixteenth century blasted Galenic based humoral models that were then commonly taught at European universities. Historian Philip Ball explains that Paracelsus’ particular alchemy “was concerned not with gold making, but with medicines” (Ball, 164). The Swiss magus claimed that regular doctors forced “worthless, bookish remedies” on the sick  “by following ancient methods” strictly for gain (Ball, 165). Paracelsus claimed to have found an alternative to the medicines of the ancients by experimentation, which left him with the conclusion that alchemical processes could render the virtues of nature by separation: “a parting of the detritus and waste of mundane reality from the vital healing forces of nature” (Ball, 165).

Line engraving of Paracelsus, Wellcome Library no.7594i. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

And he just loved manure, as you may have guessed by now. Paracelsus was convinced by his alchemical experimentation that “‘decay is the beginning of all birth’ – and of all health, for ‘that which prevents putrefaction also will prevent health'” (Ball, 205). This is how Sir Robert Boyle, eminent scientist of the Royal Society would come to recommend human excrement, dried into powder, and blown into the eyes as a treatment for cataracts (Sugg, 152).*

During the period of the English Civil War, the writings of Paracelsus polarized the medical community, and Ball argues that as civil war approached, Paracelsians formed line with Parliamentarians while Galenic minded scholars went with the Royals (Ball, 358). Historian Richard Sugg explains,  “Paracelsianism flourished during the Civil War and Interregnum, congenial to many of those who – like Culpeper – practised iconoclasm at various levels” (Sugg, 39). Despite congeniality in iconoclasm, Culpeper wasn’t having the dung. Unfortunately for him, however, the divergent views of medicine both found their respective reasons to prescribe crappy remedies, with Paracelsians and Galenics promoting poop for years to come (Sugg, 163-168).

*Boyle’s manuscript reads: “Take Paracelsus’s Zebethum Occidentale (viz. Human Dung)”. Boyle explains that his recipes are classed by letter: “whereof A, is the Mark of a Remedy of the highest classes of these”. The recipe for cataracts was marked with an ‘A’.

Works Cited:

Ball, Philip. The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

Boyle, Robert. Medicinal Experiments 5th edition. 1712. Gale DocNumber: CW10708275

Culpeper, Nicholas. Pharmarcopoeia Londinensis, or The London Dispensatory. 1652.

Sugg, Richard. Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians. London: Routledge, 2011.

‘Crost by mistake’: Scribbling in early modern recipe books

By Elaine Leong

As anyone familiar with early modern recipe collections well knows, recipe compilers liked to cross things out.  One compiler, Lady Anne Fanshawe, particularly springs to mind.  Her notebook is filled with pages of recipes which she has crossed out with a large ‘X’.  Take a look at the following page from her notebook.

Wellcome Library, Western Manuscript MS 71113, p. 10.

Here, it seems out of the four recipes laboriously copied by her scribe Joseph Avery, only one survived the attack of Anne’s pen. Anne Fanshawe was, of course, not the only recipe compiler who had this habit of <ahem> defacing recipe books.  Other contemporary recipe book owners also happily crossed away.  Elizabeth Okeover, for example, also indulged in the practice.  Take a look at this page from her book…

Wellcome Library, Western MS 3712, Recipe Book associated with Elizabeth Okeover, fol. 6v.

Interestingly, while Anne gives us few hints of why she so brutally crossed out all those recipes in her book, Elizabeth was kind enough to let us know why she crosses out recipes.  At the bottom of a crossed-out recipe on page 4, Elizabeth writes ‘Right ritt and an approved & good Salve but crost by mistake’.

So, for Elizabeth, the crossing-out of recipes was reserved for information, which was erroneously transcribed, and/or know-how which did not meet her approval.  These were not the only reasons that led Elizabeth to scribble out information, she also crossed out duplicate recipes as she explains in this little tidbit on a loose bit of paper: ‘Some Reseits in this Book by mistakes was writ twice over; So one of each is crost But this harder yellow Salve Should not have bine Crost’. With no rubber/erasers, Tipp-Ex/whiteout or delete buttons to hand, crossing-out, for early modern recipe users, was a way of information management.

For many of you, my mention of Tipp-Ex may bring back school-day memories and that other helpful tool the ink eradicator.  I, for one, have not used either deletion/correction tool for at least a decade which brings me to the point of how we as 21st century recipe collectors/users now manage our stores of household information.  My mother-in-law, an avid home-cook, manages her cookbooks with a system of external indices (lists of selected recipes awaiting trial), post-its and meticulous annotations.  Flipping through her archive of Gourmet or Bon Appetit, one finds little penciled notes in her neat cursive hand next to tried and tested recipes.  A diligent and conscientious note-taker, she records not only the date and occasion the dish was served but also whether it garnered the approval of her dinner guests.  Disappointing dishes are marked as such or with more descriptive criticisms such as ‘too bland’ or ‘too sweet’.  In none of her 30-year run of the main American cooking magazines or her shelves full of cookbooks can one find a completely crossed-out recipe.  As a modern reader, trained by public libraries on the evils of book defacement, she simply couldn’t bring herself to reject recipes with the same flourish as Anne Fanshawe and Elizabeth Okeover did hundreds of years ago. How we read and use recipe books is not only intrinsically tied to how we value books as material objects but also to how we were trained to read.

My mother-in-law, if she will forgive me for disclosing this, came of age in the 50s when printed cookbooks, magazines and newspapers served as the main way of circulating recipes publicly.  For our generation, dare I say it, paper is slowly giving way to digital media.  We now search for, learn about and discuss recipes on blogs, social networking sites and twitter.  There is no longer a need to cross-out unwanted information or to wait for the Tipp-Ex to dry, we merely have to press the delete button.  It is all so simple for us but if Anne Fanshawe and Elizabeth Okeover left historians a trail of crossings-out to reconstruct their narratives, what are we leaving future historians?