Revisiting Erik Heinrichs’ The Live Chicken Treatment for Buboes: Trying a Plague Cure in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

Today we revisit a post originally published in 2017 by Erik Heinrichs on a seemingly odd treatment for plague buboes: the feathers from a chicken’s backside. Erik notes that there is a very long history of using chickens and chicken broths in medicine, partly because chickens are such commonly kept animals. I certainly remember being fed chicken broth when I was ill as a child, but I must say that I broke that tradition with my children. They still get ice cream though… Laurence Totelin

By Erik Heinrichs 

Titlepage of Philippus Culmacher’s plague treatise, Leipzig: circa 1495
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

While researching German plague treatises I became fascinated by one odd treatment for buboes that appeared again and again, despite sounding so far-fetched. One sixteenth-century version calls for plucking the feathers from around the single hole in a chicken’s backside, then placing it on a person’s bubo. The instructions say to hold the chicken on the bubo until it dies, when it must be replaced with a new chicken, similarly plucked. I soon dubbed this the “live chicken treatment for buboes” and after years of casual encounters I began to track the recipe more systematically. As strange as it sounds, versions of this “live chicken treatment” were fairly common in plague writing, beginning with the Black Death and lasting, amazingly, into the eighteenth century. Tracing the long history of this recipe led me to explore questions such as: Where might this come from? Why chickens? Why might healers think that this was a good idea? Did anyone actually try this or is this all theoretical? As a historian, I was also interested in change over time within the recipe. Here I found much to explore, as I followed the recipe’s twists and turns over a seven-hundred year period, roughly 1000 to 1700.

The “live chicken treatment” turns out to have a long history, indeed. Its origins seem to lie in Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine, although it may be older than that. Chickens and chicken broth were a common source of medicine in early times, probably because chickens were such ubiquitous and useful animals since antiquity. Not only did Avicenna praise chicken broth for its general benefits for the body, but he also recommended placing a cut chicken on a poisonous bite or sting in order to fight poisons. In later centuries European physicians turned to Avicenna’s advice when they faced the mysterious and devastating epidemics of the fourteenth century. As Europeans emphasized the poisonous nature of the plagues around them, older treatments for poisons drew new attention. The first mention of using a chicken rump to draw poisons out of a bubo appeared in the very first plague treatise of 1348, coming in response to the so-called Black Death. Here the Catalan author Jacme d’Agramont seems to have introduced a novel and lasting adaptation of Avicenna’s recipe, although the “cut chicken” version persisted in plague treatises for centuries to come.

Most interesting for the history of trying and testing cures are the many variations of the “cut chicken” and “chicken rump” versions of the treatment, as well as physicians’ comments about how effective they are. Especially after 1400, physicians seem to be thinking about this recipe quite often as they seek practical treatments for the plagues of the time. Physicians were preoccupied with altering the recipe in order to reason out the nature of the mysterious poisons underlying the plague. Some add substances to the process, such as salt placed on top of the chicken as it is placed on the bubo. During the fifteenth century, a number of German physicians began to explain the treatment’s workings in a strikingly physical way—that the chicken breathes through its backside and thus pulls the bubo’s poisons into itself. This change led to the suggestion to hold the chicken’s beak shut during the treatment in order to force the chicken to breathe from below. My article (accessible here) show how all aspects of the treatment changed over time as physicians engaged with the recipe, including the quantity of chickens used, the amount of time required, and even the type of animal in question. This work demonstrates the importance of the recipe itself as a platform for thought, experimentation, and communication among physicians.

Perhaps a surprise to modern readers, many physicians praised their version of the “live chicken treatment,” describing it as effective and desirable. Such comments multiply after the introduction of print, which encouraged the production of plague treatises, some fitted with fetching cover illustrations for the marketplace (see image below of Philippus Culmacher’s treatise of circa 1495). In German-speaking lands especially, sixteenth-century physicians used their printed plague treatises to promote their own services and expertise at a local level.[1] This brought about a change in the genre whereby physicians seem more eager to discuss their own experiences with effective recipes in order to appeal to the practical interests of a broad audience. Amidst this change comes evidence that some German physicians witnessed first-hand the successful use of the “live chicken treatment.” Another interesting change during the sixteenth century is the increased attention to the bodily warmth of the chicken as the treatment’s active healing force. These emergent views provide a tantalizing link to modern medicine, since moist heat remains one of the treatments for buboes today. For more information, please read my article.


[1] For a survey of German plague treatises from the first century of print, see: Erik A. Heinrichs, Plague, Print, and the Reformation: The German Reform of Healing, 1473-1573 (London: Routledge, 2017).

Revisiting Lisa Smith’s Coffee: A Remedy Against the Plague

Editor’s note: Today, we revisit a post by our editor Lisa Smith on the use of coffee as an eighteenth century cure-all against smallpox and the plague. The botanist Richard Bradley claimed that coffee would be effective in treating such diseases because it ‘lifted the spirit’. I certainly find that caffeine lifts my spirits, even if temporarily, but we know that high spirits are unfortunately no protection against COVID-19 and other viruses. Still, there is no harm in taking a break – caffeinated or not – and I hope that this post will give you good cheer. Laurence Totelin

By Lisa Smith

1721, London: The plague raging in Marseilles threatened London’s busy ports. The British government took action, asking a core group of physicians to devise a plan in case the plague reached London. Smallpox was already rampant and the King had ordered a series of inoculation experiments on prisoners. Troubled times.

Enter the impecunious botanist Richard Bradley. (I discussed his interesting life in a recent blog post.) When he wasn’t in debt to booksellers, he made a living from popular medical and scientific writings, such as The virtue and use of coffee, with regard to the plague, and other infectious distempers (London, 1721). He wrote: “At this time, when every Nation in Europe is under the melancholy Apprehension of an approaching Plague or Pestilence, I think it the Business of every Man to contribute, to the utmost of his Capacity, such Observations, as may tend to the Service of the Publick.”

And in the face of the plague and smallpox he offered… coffee. Remedies prescribed by other physicians, he insisted, “are little different from each other.” Coffee, however, “is of excellent Use in the time of Pestilence, and contributes greatly to prevent the spreading of Infection.” Who knew?

Apparently the Turks. Bradley explained: “in some Parts of Turkey, where the Plague is almost constant, it is seldom mortal in those Families, who are rich enough to enjoy the free Use of Coffee.” In his treatise, he discussed coffee’s efficacy and provided (most tantalizingly for the coffee-mad Brits) “an Account of the best Method of roasting the Berries, and preserving them after roasting.”

Coffee tree (Coffea arabica). Line engraving by H. Burgh, c.1726
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

I present to you Bradley’s instructions for preparing coffee. First, he recommended spreading out the ripe berries to dry and harden beneath the sun. The husks were then to be removed so that the berries could be toasted in an “airy place to clean them.” Finally, the berries were ready for the roaster, and this was an important step: the roasting process, Bradley claimed, would determine “the Goodness of the Liquor.” Never fear, though, Bradley had “taken some pains to experience the best Method of roasting it.” His conclusion was that the berries would be heated most equally by placing them in an iron vessel and turned on a spit over a clear or charcoal fire. His personal preference was “roasted in a middle way, not overburnt.” To modern readers, this seems like a lot of work, but Bradley reassured his readers that this process could easily be done at home, as apparently many “Persons of Distinction in Holland” did.

Making the beverage also required special equipment and techniques. To prepare the decoction, earthen or stone vessels were best, as metal spoiled the flavour. Boiling the coffee evaporated “too much of the fine Spirits”. Pouring boiling water over the powder of ground berries and infusing it for four or five minutes in front of the fire would be better and “much exceeds the common way of preparing it.” He provided an alternative, too: grinding the berries into powder, adding the powder and water into a stone or silver coffee pot and leaving the pot in front of the fire for a couple minutes. The liquid was always “thick and troubled” after brewing, but could be made “clear enough for drinking” by adding a spoonful or two of cold water to force the grounds to sink.

Coffee was worth the effort, being the ultimate cure-all. Bradley described its many virtues, which included treating head pains, vertigo, lethargy, coughs, moist and cold constitutions, consumptions, swooning fits, digestive problems, sleepiness, running humours, sores, scrofula, drunkenness, rheumatism, gout, intermitting fevers and infection. It could also purify the blood, provoke urination, stimulate the menses and deworm children. Indeed, it was particularly beneficial for menstruating women. According to Bradley, Arabian women drank coffee during their “periodical Visits, and find a good Effect”, such as contraction of the bowels and toned up genitals. Coffee was not for everyone though. Those suffering from melancholy vapours, hot brains, or paralysis should avoid it.

The reason that coffee would be so efficacious in treating infectious disease was that it lifted the spirits—and those “whose Spirits are the most overcome by Fear, are the most subject to receive Infections”. The correct use of coffee supported the drinker’s “vital Flame”, protecting the drinker from fear and despair. To gain coffee’s maximum benefits, Bradley recommended the following dosage: at least twice a day, first in the morning and at four in the afternoon.

Coffee breaks: good for your health!

Recipes for the Inner Chamber: Vernacular Manufacturing in Early 20th Century China

By Eugenia Lean

In the 1910s, a curious print culture phenomenon appeared in China’s urban areas.  Journals such as the Ladies’ Journal (Funü zazhi) and Women’s World (Nüzi shijie) began to run columns and articles that provided recipes for manufacturing soap, hair tonic, perfume, and rouge at home.[i] They often explained the chemistry behind the manufacturing process and promoted the use of modern lab equipment and glassware to produce the desired items. The pieces deemed their detailed technical manufacturing information as highly appropriate for genteel women to apply in their inner chambers.

The cover of the January 1915 issue of Women’s World features a respectable woman who was the ideal reader of recipes for manufacturing cosmetics at home. Source: Chinese Collection of the Harvard-Yenching Library, Cambridge, Mass.

A typical example of the gendered portrayal of domestic manufacturing in these publications can be found in the piece titled, “An Exquisite Method for Manufacturing Hair Oil,” that appeared in first run of the Women’s World (1914–1915) column, “The Warehouse for Cosmetic Production” (hereafter, “The Warehouse”), and its companion piece that appeared in the February issue. As the editor noted in the February entry, the first article had elicited much interest and a woman reader by the name of Mme. Xi Meng had already sent in a request for more tips (Tianxuwosheng 1915, 3). The February issue included a recipe for hair tonic, which listed its ingredients in both Chinese and Latin:[ii]

  • 純粹硫酸                                                      Acidum Sulphruicum [sic]
  • 檸檬油                                                          Oleum Limonis
  • 精製植物油即前節製原料法中自製之油
  • 玫瑰精                                                          Spiritus Rosae
  • 硼砂                                                              Borax
  • 橙花水                                                          Aqua Aurantii Florum
  • 酒精                                                              Spiritus
  • 洋紅細粉亦須自製
  • 丁香油                                                          Nelkeuöl [sic]
  • 肉桂油                                                          Oleum Cinnamomi
  • 橙皮油                                                          Oleum Aurantii Corticis
  • 屈里設林                                                      Glycerin
  • 白米澱粉即本節製法中自製之水磨粉
  • 白檀油                                                          Oleum Santali

(Chen Diexian 1915, vol. 2 [February], 4)

Many of the items could be purchased in Shanghai’s pharmacies, but since spiritus rosae was particularly expensive, the editor wanted to make its recipe readily available. The recipe instructed:

Extract the fragrance of fresh flowers, and attach it onto something solid, so that it lasts and does not disappear. There are many ways of doing this. One can use a method for suction; the method for squeezing, the method for steaming, the method for soaking. None of these are as ideal as the method for absorption. To make spiritus rosae, use the method for absorption (Tianxuwosheng 1915, 6).

What followed was a highly detailed and technical description of how to achieve this method at home. The tools, instruments, and materials needed include bottles, tubes, alcohol burners, hydraulic acid [sic], and no less than five pounds of marble.

China had a long history of manufacturing cosmetics at home. The knowledge behind this domestic production tended not to be written in recipes, but was embodied and passed down from generation to generation. Domestic producers would thus not have been likely consumers of these printed recipes.

As urban consumption of makeup and toiletry items grew in the 1910s, manufacturing such items at home would also seem less pressing. To understand why these pieces appeared when they did — and who was consuming them and why, it is worthwhile to consider what was unprecedented about them.

Appearing in China’s burgeoning mass media, new-style columns like “The Warehouse” made certain skills public, presented them in new terms for new purposes, and made them readily available for a far greater reading and practicing audience than ever before. The new epistemological frame within which the knowledge was presented (chemistry and physics) and the material accoutrement (lab equipment and modern glassware) stipulated as necessary also attracted readers.

The application of these recipes would have required considerable investment in resources and time. Chemistry knowledge was necessary and some called for considerable lab equipment. The instructions to manufacture the spiritus rosae ingredient for hair oil, for example, listed the following items as necessary:

Alcohol Burner—1; Alcohol—2 lbs; Glass tube of 2 centimeter diameter—½ stem; Long-necked glass funnel—1; Double-opening bottle—1; Washing ‘gas’ bottle—1; Wide-mouth bottle that holds 1 lb—1; Wide-mouth bottle that holds 5 lbs—1; Marble—5 lbs; Hydrochloric acid—1 lb (Tianxuwosheng 1915, 4).

Given the nascent state of China’s glassware industry, chemical apparatuses were often imports and available for purchase at a cost at exclusive scientific-appliance stores such as Shanghai’s China Educational Supply Association. Once producers procured the ingredients and equipment, they then had to follow detailed instructions.

To achieve the method of absorption, practitioners were instructed to drill holes into stoppers that were to plug the glass bottles; the holes had to be large enough for a glass tube and funnel to be inserted; the glass tube then had to be bent. Instructions on how exactly to use an alcohol burner to heat the glass and mold it to the appropriate shape were provided.

Visual of lab equipment needed for a recipe on how to manufacture spiritus rosae, an ingredient for hair oil, in “The Warehouse” column in the Women’s World. Source: Tianxuwosheng 1915, 5.

While genteel women were the supposed readers of these recipes (and those with the curiosity, means and knowledge to apply these recipes could have done so), participants in the reading community of these recipes included men. Male consumers of these pieces included connoisseurs of technology, dabblers in chemistry, young students and budding industrialists.

It was far from automatic for the well-educated, male or female, to turn toward production and manufacturing as the literati had long felt a severe distaste for hands-on engagement with things for subsistence or commercial purposes. Yet, by 1915, there was a growing sense that this was necessary. The persistence of internecine warfare and imperialist aggression dashed the initial hopes of the 1911 republican revolution. With the chaos of republican politics threatening national strength many of China’s lettered men and women started to explore new regimes of knowledge and experiment with new social and occupational roles, including those of the once taboo realms of industry, manufacturing and commerce.

It was in this context that these recipes helped cleanse the hands-on work in industry and manufacturing of its negative connotations. These “how-to” pieces became sites where experiential engagement with chemistry and manufacturing was promoted as crucial in strengthening China, as well as a sign of good taste and bearing. They became part of the arsenal of strategies available for readers navigating their new cosmopolitan identities in a post-civil-service-examination arena of urban playgrounds and industrial centres. By appreciating these pieces with a sense of refined curiosity or in a posture of playful leisure, readers could define their sense of exclusivity based on notions of production that were tasteful and authentic in terms of their scientific, domestic, and noncommercial nature.

The domestic realm as a site of production also served as a metaphor for the larger marketplace in treaty ports that existed beyond the reach of the state. There, scientific, commercial, and manufacturing knowledge increasingly displaced moral knowledge and statecraft as the preferred epistemological foundations for a competitive nation.

Just a few years later, a strong reaction rose against presenting chemical experimentation and manufacturing as a dilettantish endeavor appropriate for genteel women. With the May Fourth Movement in 1919, Sai Xiansheng, or “Mr. Science,” would emerge as part of the slogan “Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy,” and science was, along with democracy, promoted as the foundation of a powerful nation. The portrait of the genteel woman engaging in leisurely production of cosmetics at home became emblematic of a “traditional” culture that had long fettered China’s modernization.

These recipes have been long overlooked by historians as insignificant as a result. Yet, they deserve to be reconsidered. Though they vanished quickly from the pages of China’s urban periodicals, they were historically significant. They were indicative of a period before science and manufacturing had been formalized in China and when efforts to learn and do industrial production was “vernacular,” occurring in ad hoc, informal and curious places (Lean 2020).


[i] Articles in the Ladies’ Journal include Ling Ruizhu, “A brief explanation of the methods to make cosmetics,” Funü zazhi 1.1 (Jan 1915): 15-18; Hui Xia, “Method for Making Rouge,” Funü zazhi 1.3 (March 1915): 15-16; Shen Ruiqing, “Method for Manufacturing Cosmetics,” Funü zazhi 1.5 (May 1915): 18-25. In 1915, Women’s World featured a new column from January to May, “The Warehouse for Cosmetic Production” that ran recipes and instruction on manufacturing cosmetics every month.

[ii] These ingredients are better known as sulfuric acid, oil of lemon, the essence of roses (i.e., the scent of roses), borax or hydrated sodium borate, orange flower water, alcohol, oil of cloves, oil of cinnamon, oil of orange peel, and sugar alcohol, rice starch and oil of sandal wood. A couple of ingredients are not listed in Latin. Glycerin is English and Nelkeuöl, which is misspelled in the article, and should be spelled Nelkenöl, is the German word for oil of cloves. The first ingredient, sulfuric acid, is also glossed and spelled incorrectly as “Acidum Sulphruicum.” The foreign-language rendering of several of the ingredients helped establish that sense of cosmopolitanism. Yet, mistakes were present and speak to the complex nature of the translation process and the diverse linguistic circuits these recipes traversed.


Lean, Eugenia. Vernacular Industrialism in China: Local Innovation and Translated Technologies in the Making of a Cosmetics Empire, 1900-1940. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020.

Tianxuwosheng. “Huazhuangpin zhizao ku.” Nüzi shijie 2 (February 1915): 3.

Waste Not, Want Not: Kelp, Cans and MAP: Packaging as Food Preservation

By Anne Murcott

Starting work on a history of food packaging some years ago, rapidly led to the realisation that it is also a history of a very long list of other things, including food preservation.  But preparing a contribution for a conference called ‘Waste Not Want Not’ prompted looking at both the preservation and packaging of food from a slightly different angle.  The two are intimately linked in a way that other relevant histories – such as of transport or the cold chain, the invention of plastic films or the very idea of convenience – associated with the development of food packaging are less so.  For most food preservation techniques involve a wrapping, receptacle or package for storage – exceptions include meats or fruits that are dried solid, biltong or jerky, apple or pear.    

Here are three illustrations which all happen to exploit the significance of oxygen when preserving foodstuffs.  The first two involve drastically reducing atmospheric oxygen pretty much to create a vacuum.  The third entails changing the proportion of oxygen in relation to the other main gases in the air we all breathe, modifying the atmosphere in the package. 

The first example dates from prehistoric New Zealand.  It is a Māori technique for preserving tītī commonly known in English as mutton bird – a fish-eating sooty sheerwater found in Australasia.  A bag, pōhā, is made of split bull kelp which is then inflated then filled with cooked birds sealed with their own fat.  Bags are then placed in woven flax baskets and can be secured with strips of bark for safe handling and transport.

Nereocystis or ‘bull kelp’. A prehistoric algae used by The Māori to preserve tītī (mutton bird). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Next is the history of the ubiquitous tin can.  Nicolas Appert, a French confectioner (1749-1841) is often called the ‘father of canning’.  He published details of his invention – translated as a way ‘of conserving all kinds of food substances in containers’ in 1810.  Within a few months, an Englishman, Peter Durand, was granted a patent by George III that is virtually identical to Appert’s method.   Duran sold the patent to Bryan Donkin, an engineer who already owned the Dartford Iron Works near London and who in 1813 opened a ‘preservatory’ i.e. canning factory in Blue Anchor Road, Bermondsey, London.  The ‘great man’ solo inventor version of the history does not seem to be disturbed by the fact that only a few months separate Appert’s treatise being published in French in France and Durand’s being granted the patent published in English in England.  It is important to remember, this is a time when confectioners, merchants and engineers may not have spoken a second language and a period when both countries were politically extremely wary of one another, if not actually at war. 

 One interpretation depends on suggestions of industrial espionage – casting Donkin as a spy.  Not so well known, however, is a 1994 PhD by Norman Cowell, a retired food scientist who has worked through the archives of the Royal Society and the National Archives.  He has identified a second Frenchman, an inventor called Philippe de Girard, who came to London and used Durand as an agent to patent what was apparently his own idea.  Cowell finds strong circumstantial evidence that Appert and Girard were in contact.  Thus he is led to propose that Durand can no longer ‘be seen as a naked opportunist pirating Appert’s invention: instead he appears as a London agent facilitating the exploitation by Girard (and probably Appert) of their inventions in the more technologically advanced world of British industry.’

Portrait of Nicolas Appert, inventor of food canning in 1795, tiré de Les Artisans illustres de Foucaud, anonymous woodcut, circa 1841. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Where the first two examples involved eliminating oxygen, the third postpones the food’s spoiling, by altering the percentage of this gas relative to carbon dioxide and nitrogen surrounding the foodstuff in proportions that differ from the air everyone breathes. One history identifies a turning point in the spread of Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) technology when, in 1981 Marks and Spencer (in the UK) introduced a wide range of fresh meat products packaged under a modified atmosphere.  The use in the UK of MAP is labelled on the pack.  But the wording avoids the word modified, using ‘Packaged in a protective atmosphere’ instead. 

These three examples illustrate the following among other features.  While it is very well known that food preservation is found worldwide and is very old indeed, so too can be what nowadays is called packaging.  The second example illustrates how a history of an invention is not necessarily best written as solely springing from the efforts of a ‘great man’ and the socio-political context should not, of course, be ignored.  And the third once again demonstrates that there are some food preservation technologies that cannot work without a package.