Category Archives: Ingredients

Nosebleed: the many virtues and names of Yarrow

By Gabriella Zuccolin

Yarrow. From Dioscorides, De medicinali materia. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Yarrow. From Dioscorides, De medicinali materia.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Before starting my research on anomalous bleeding and vicarious menstruation in medieval and Renaissance medicine, I was already well aware that according to Hippocrates, Aphorism V.33, “in a woman when there is a stoppage the menses, a discharge of blood from the nose is good”. What I did not know then is that the absence or irregular flow of menstruation puzzled physicians and their patients until the beginning of the twentieth century.

Cases of compensatory bleeding – even in men suffering from hemorrhoids or nosebleeds — are so common in old medical literature that a comprehensive list would include endless instances. And the list does not end, as one might expect, when a clear link between menstruation and ovulation was finally drawn in the first half of the nineteenth century, that is to say when the ancient theory of menstruation as primarily having a cleansing and purifying function was finally dismissed in favour of a straightforward connection between menstrual flow and reproduction.

Only the identification of endometriosis, where endometrial tissue is found in abnormal situations outside the uterine cavity, nasal mucosa included, finally transformed the theory of vicarious menstruation into popular folklore in the 1930s.[1] Hence the idea of turning back to the past and trying to study gendered differences through the lens of the nosebleed, often seen as the supreme example of the compensatory bleeding theory. What were thought to be the causes of nosebleeds? Do the remedies used vary between men and women, or between menstrual and other bleeding? And in which cases did physicians provoke nosebleed as a therapy? What might this study tell us about gendered medical theories and practices in the Renaissance?

While looking for answers to my research questions in collections of recipes, which as far as I can see do not include any gendered difference in the omnipresent recipe “ad sanguinem de naribus sistendum/to staunche blode of thy nose”, and only rarely tackle the issue of provoking a nosebleed, I was especially fascinated by the recurrence of one herb with many names: Yarrow-Achillea millefolium. This also was known as Nosebleed, Sanguinary, Soldier’s woundwort, Military Herb, Knight’s Milfoil, Thousand-leaf, Thousand-seal, Thousand-weed, Bloodwort, Staunchweed, Venus’ eyebrow, Carpenter’s Weed, Seven Year’s Love, Snake’s Grass, Sneezewort, Devil’s nettle, Devil’s plaything, Bad Man’s plaything, Old man’s pepper… The herb is drying and binding, and renowned of old for quickly halting any bleeding when applied to external wounds.Homer recounts that the centaur Chiron taught Achilles to use yarrow on the Trojan battlefield when staunching wounds, hence the name of the genus, Achillea; its specific name, millefolium, is derived from the many segments of its foliage.

To provoke a nosebleed, one might inhale a pinch of powdered yarrow or push a rolled up yarrow leaf into the nostrils. A poultice of yarrow applied to the neck or temples could stop a nosebleed. As a wash, it was used to stop bleeding from piles, but as a drink it would help their pain. A cataplasm treated cold fits, sores and bruises. Yarrow was also used for toothache and internal bleeding (including excessive menstrual flow), either as a tea or by chewing the leaves.

Yarrow’s many uses were attested by an army of ancient and medieval medical authors, as well as by renowned early modern physicians and naturalists — Girolamo Fracastoro, Konrad Gesner and Leonardo Fioravanti. In his Considerations touching the Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy (1663), Robert Boyle discussed the different effects of substances “inwardly given or outwardly applied”:

And Mille-folium or Yarrow, besides the vertues it hath inwardly against diseases of quite other natures, being worn in a little bag upon the tip of the stomack, was the secret against agues of a great Lord, who was very curious of receipts and would sometimes purchase them at very great rates; and a very famous physitian of my acquaintance did since inform me that he had used it with strange success (p. 212).

Other evidence of yarrow’s medical success emerged in 2010, after the analysis of plant DNA in Greek-made pills from a 130 BC shipwreck revealed the presence of yarrow.[2] Recent pharmacological studies of medicinal plants mentioned in Anglo-Saxon medical works also confirmed that yarrow may well have been effective for treating wound and bacterial infections and as a febrifuge[3].

But the most detailed description of the virtues of this herb I have found so far is the one given by the botanist and surgeon John Gerard (1545-1612) in his Herball or Generall historie of plantes (1633). The Cambridge Library’s copy contains a funny anecdotal note on Cambridge student life:

The leaues of Yarrow doe close vp wounds, and keepe them from inflammation, or fiery swelling. It stancheth bloud in any part of the body, and it is likewise put into bathes for women to sit in. It stoppeth the laske, and being drunke it helpeth the bloudy fluxe. Most men say that the leaues chewed, and especially greene, are a remedy for the tooth-ache. The leaues being put into the nose do cause it to bleed, and ease the paine of the megrim. It cureth the inward excorations of the yard of a man, comming by reason of pollutions or extreme flowing of the seed (…) the juice be injected with a syringe, or the decoction. This hath been prooued by a certain friend of mine, sometimes a Fellow of Kings Colledge in Cambridge, who lightly brused the leaues of common Yarrow, with Hogs-grease, and applied it warme vnto the priuie parts, and thereby did diuers times helpe himselfe, and others of his fellowes, when he was a student and a single man liuing in Cambridge.

I am not sure how and if this advice could be of any use to today’s students. Browsing the many volumes of medical consilia, observationes and curationes of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, I still have not found examples of therapeutically induced nosebleeds in women. After all, cupping, bloodletting and leeching were considered more handy and controllable options of intervention to interfere with a missing or irregular menstrual flow.

But please do let me know if you spot one!

For some cases of vicarious menstruation, see these posts by Helen King (ear hemorrhage), Lisa Smith  (tongue ulcer) and Sarah Read (leg ulcer). For a case of a menstruating man, see Lisa Smith’s post on “Manly Menstruation?“.

[1] V.S. Skultans, Research Note. Vicarious Menstruation, Social Science and Medicine, 21.6 (1985), 713-14.

[3] F. Watkins et al., Anglo-Saxon pharmacopoeia revisited: a potential treasure in drug discovery, Drug Discovery Today, 16. 23–24 (2011), 1069-75.

Recipes against the plague – in pharmaceutical code?

By Tillmann Taape

Although the plague is best known for having wiped out about a third of Europe’s population in the fourteenth century, it continued to loom large as a threat to people’s health for hundreds of years, and medical writings on the Black Death or the ‘pestilence’ abounded (see e.g. Lisa Smith’s post on coffee as a cure for plague in eighteenth-century London). One of them, the Liber pestilentialis (1500) by the surgeon-apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig (introduced here), was the first of its kind to be published as a printed book. Written in German, it had the potential to instruct a wide readership, reflecting Brunschwig’s mission to disseminate medical knowledge among laypeople. It struck me as somewhat odd, therefore, that quite a few of the recipes for remedies against the plague were given in Latin. What use were these to the readers of a book which was specifically addressed to all social ranks, including ‘common people’ who were not part of the Latin-speaking learned élite? Fortunately, Brunschwig provided an answer only a few pages on: simply copy the recipe on a slip of paper, send it off to your local apothecary, and collect your anti-plague pills a few days later.

Since Brunschwig was himself an apothecary in Strasbourg where the Liber pestilentialis was first published, one might suspect that by including these recipes he was hoping to advertise his trade, and draw attention to the knowledge and skill required to turn such coded messages into remedies. By his own admission, though, this only worked for readers who lived a manageable distance from an apothecary and could afford his services and ingredients, some of which, like theriac or amber, could be very costly. But Brunschwig also catered for those readers who lived in remote villages or were less well off. Often on the same page as the Latin instructions, he included an alternative recipe in German, using cheap everyday ingredients and simple household techniques.

This commitment to his less privileged readers, present in much of Brunschwig’s work, suggests that he was not printing recipes ‘in code’ simply in order to improve apothecaries’ image or to turn a better profit, much less to monopolise medical knowledge. There was, in fact, another very good reason for the use of Latin, as he explains in an intriguing comment: “Many recipes and ingredients cannot be succinctly expressed in the German language […], so I have left them in Latin.”

Some things are best left to professionals: mixing medicines at the apothecary's shop (from Brunschwig's 'Buch der CIrurgia')
Some things are best left to professionals: mixing medicines at the apothecary’s shop (from Brunschwig’s ‘Buch der CIrurgia’). (c) Wellcome Images

This points to a major difficulty faced by all medical authors writing in their native tongue. They were not only up against the disdain of learned physicians who wanted to keep all medical knowledge within university walls, well away from the ignorant ‘common people’. They were also facing the daunting task of creating a scientific vernacular in which to express medical concepts: how the human body works, what happens when it becomes diseased, and what to do about it. Finding their feet on uncharted linguistic territory and creating medical terminologies was the work of generations of practitioners from the middle ages to the early modern era. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, this process had come a long way, as Brunschwig’s writing shows: in his books on surgery and distillation (see here and here), he articulates elaborate techniques and medical theories in a confident technical vernacular – albeit one peppered with terms borrowed from Latin. In the case of specialist pharmaceutical ingredients and preparations, however, Brunschwig clearly felt that no adequate vocabulary was available in German. Some ingredients were just too  specific or too exotic to be known to the layman. Perhaps even more problematic were shorthand instructions such as fiat pulvis (it shall be a powder) or formentur pillule communi quantitatis (pills of equal quantity shall be formed). One can imagine what these few words translated to in practice: complicated series of decoctions, infusions, drying, boiling, grinding and mixing, all defined and learned over the course of an apprenticeship.

With no alternative to certain elements of Latin pharmaceutical jargon, then, the recipes in Brunschwig’s Liber pestilentialis inevitably fell into two cateogories. On the one hand, his wealthier readers had the option of having ‘professional’ remedies made according to the Latin recipes, which allowed them to tap into the entire range of medicinal ingredients and preparation techniques available at the nearest apothecary’s shop. Poorer folks and country dwellers, on the other hand, were offered a different type of recipe which could be articulated in the vernacular, required cheaper ingredients and could be managed at home.


My great-grandmother’s hair loss remedy


photo 2

By Helen King

I was recently going through the family papers — a mysterious collection of apparently random, but presumably precious, items! — and was struck by one I’d overlooked before. It’s a printed envelope containing a hand-written remedy for hair loss. When I last looked at this — which was probably when I inherited this particular batch from great-aunt Emma in the early 1980s — I hadn’t read it properly, and I hadn’t noticed that it has a date.

The outside links it to Mrs King of 24 Denmark Road; that’s in SE London. Inside, on blue paper, is a handwritten prescription. It doesn’t say what it is for, but on the back of the envelope someone has written ‘Dr Barnes (?) Hair Prescription’. The prescription lists ammonia, sweet almond oil, rosemary oil and cantharidine. The person prescribing this has insisted ‘Cantharidine and no other preparation to be used’, which is still used in some hair oils today.

This seems to be a pretty typical remedy for hair loss. Liquor ammoniae fortis and aromatic spirit of ammonia and the cantharidine were irritants, intended to stimulate the circulation on the scalp, with the other ingredients added to make the product smell rather better. There is also ‘fl. lotis’, but this seems to have been added; the ink is a little less dark and it is not set flush with the other ingredients in the list.

The prescription was taken to be filled on at least three occasions; there are three pharmacists’ stamps, all from the London area. One is dated 11 November 1890, thus telling us when this prescription was used. Something has been cut off the top right-hand corner; I’ve no idea what, when, or why.

photo 2
photo 1








Of course, just because this prescription is in a Haden’s pharmacy envelope doesn’t mean it was issued there. And other factors lead me to conclude that it was simply kept in this envelope for convenience. Why? Because on the back of the envelope there is an advertisement for three ‘Products of Genatosan, Ltd’: the tonic Sanatogen, the throat tablet Formamint and the ‘safe brand of aspirin’, Genasprin. Genatosan Ltd was set up only during World War I. This later date fits with my great-grandmother’s address; the family is not registered at 24 Denmark Street in the 1891 census, but was there by 1901, and still there in 1911. In 1901, Mary Anna King, aged 39, from Brockford in Suffolk, was living there with her husband Arthur King, ten years older than her, with their four children, aged from newborn to 7. A visitor was also present at the census: Caroline Steggall, aged 36, from Broxford.

By 1911, things were very different. Now, Mary is listed as a widow, with her four children still there; two at school, one working as a dressmaker and another at a ‘jam and potted meat factory’. Caroline Steggall, needlewoman, lives permanently with them, and her identity is clearer; she is now listed as Mary’s sister. I also have a letter written by ‘your ever loving mother, M A King’ to Leonard, her youngest son and my grandfather, from 24 Denmark Road, dated February 21, 1920; so I know she was still there then. In it, Mary wishes him a happy birthday and exhorts him ‘not to leave God out of your life but in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your path’.

So the family starts to be fleshed out. But what about this recipe? Handwritten, but in an envelope advertising patent medicines, it sits between two traditions. Maybe, as the envelope does not match the recipe, it was not for my great-grandmother at all, but for a man of the family? In 1890, Mary King was only in her twenties. Was she suffering hair loss? Or was this prescription issued to Arthur, and she kept it after his death because it reminded her of him; perhaps, of his special rosemary and almond smell?

Exploring CPP 10a214: Who is “Me”?

By Hillary Nunn with Rebecca Laroche

In her last post about our work with College of Physicians manuscript 10a214, Rebecca Laroche reported her discovery that the handwriting in the text’s early pages did not match that of a letter at the British library attributed to Calybute Downing .(06/08/2013)[1] The mismatch at first led us to doubt whether the CPP manuscript note “probatum per me Cal. Downing” (24) could point to the mid-17th century divine Calybute Downing (1606–1644) as a compiler. The extreme clarity of the CPP manuscript’s italic hand, however, has raised for us the possibility that a scribe might have been involved in its production, thereby explaining the recipe book’s contrast with the British Library manuscript.

The situation, however, raises a larger question: How confident can we be in identifying who a manuscript’s “me” is? In the case of the CPP’s “probatum per me Cal. Downing,” there initially seemed no reason to doubt that “me” is indeed Downing. But does that mean that Downing had to write “me” on the manuscript page himself?

Other recipe books support the notion that a scribe may have put these words on the page for Downing, adopting his voice. Lady Anne Fanshawe’s book, for example, begins with this explicit note from a scribe: “Mrs: Fanshawes Booke of Receipts… written the eleventh day of December 1651. by Me Joseph Auerie”.[2] This note changes the way readers interpret the collection. When readers turn the page, they see the beginning of a recipe “For Melancholy and heavenes of spiretts,” in Avery’s hand, attributed to “My Mother”; underneath that marginal note appears a second name, “A Fanshawe,” in what seems to be different script (4r).[3]

Wellcome Western Manuscript 7113, fol. 4r.
© Wellcome Library

But whose mother? The phrasing suggests that Avery identifies the source from Anne Fanshawe’s viewpoint, or as she had written it down in a previous copy; the “my,” then, is likely Fanshawe’s even though her pen does not touch the paper. That raises the question, however, of who writes “A Fanshaw” as the second attribution. Luckily, page 2r offers an answer through another inscription (in a hand that matches the second attribution) which reads “K: Fanshawe. Given mee by my Mother March th 23. 1678.” In the volume’s opening, then, we have three instances or “me” or “my,” each pointing explicitly to a different person. Most importantly, these pages suggest a method of indicating explicitly who “me” and “my” refer to — within at least this portion of the manuscript.

Yet Fanshawe’s manuscript is not always so explicit. The profusion of unidentified hands certainly contributes to this confusion, but it seems a tendency toward exact copying may be to blame as well. See, for example, Fanshawe manuscript’s “An Oile for a Bruise in ye Eye, or for any other bruise proved by Me of a woman, that had lost her Eye by a bruise, and recovered it againe” (30v).[4]

Wellcome Western Manuscript 7113, fol. 30v
© Wellcome Library

The “me” here could certainly be Anne Fanshawe, and the “lady who her lost her eye by a bruise” could be Lady Butler, whose name appears in the margin as an attribution. Then, the note in Katherine Fanshawe’s writing could be indicating that she associates the recipe with her mother.

But it is worth noting that the Townshend family manuscript (Wellcome MS.774), dating between 1636-47, records a very similar recipe, with the same use of “me,” on 88v:[5]

Wellcome Western Manuscript MS 774, fol. 88v.
© Wellcome Library

There is no Lady Butler here, and neither Fanshawe appears either. So who is the “me” to whom the recipe is recommended?

The appearance of the same rhetoric in both appearances of the recipe – one certainly recorded by a scribe, and the other in a volume with multiple hands – makes determining this particular “me” a hazardous proposition. Conscientious copying of personal testimony, from a source that seems impossible to determine, thus obscures even more thoroughly the identity of the manuscript’s compiler, burying the “me” in multiple levels of vagary.

The “me” in “probatum per me Cal. Downing” need not involve so many people. Luckily, it is the only instance of pronoun in the opening section of CPP 10a214. The seeming lack of other potential compilers in this section keeps the pool of potential referents narrow, allowing us to continue our investigation into which Calybutes could be involved in the manuscript’s creation.

This is the seventh of a series of monthly posts on this topic.

[1] Other earlier blog entries on this topic appeared on 20/06/2013, 21/05/2013, 09/04/2013, 12/03/2013, 20/2/2013.

[2] Wellcome MS.7113

[3] Elaine Leong blogged about the manuscript’s different compilers, the scribe and Fanshawe among them, on 11/09/2012.


[5] Wellcome MS.774.