Snails in medicine – past and present

By Claire Burridge 

A treatment for teary eyes (Ad lacrimas oculorum):

Grind together frankincense, mastic, and snails with their shells. Apply to the forehead in laurel leaves in two parts. It is tried and tested.

(Tus et mastice et cocleas cum testas sua simul teris et in folio lauri in duabus partibus fronte impone probatum est)

Figure 1: A group of recipes for teary eyes (Ad lacrimas oculorum) in St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 44 (p. 359), an early medieval composite manuscript (this section was written in northern Italy in the ninth century) – the snail recipe is the last entry of the group (found on the final two lines). The transcription and translation are my own. A digitised facsimile can be accessed here; full reference below.

Medieval medicine is often assumed to be full of ‘hocus pocus’: irrational magical and religious cures, bizarre potions and lotions. Although the work of many scholars has countered this common perception, the negative stereotypes surrounding medieval medicine remain firmly embedded in the popular imagination. And I must admit that, as a historian of medieval medicine, I can understand how such stereotypes have persisted – despite, of course, disagreeing! At first glance, the treatment for teary eyes listed above – which recommends making a poultice from snails, frankincense, and mastic and applying it to the forehead – may sound more like a potion brewed by the witches of Macbeth than a useful medical prescription. Surely snails are better suited to escargot than medicine, right?

Yet our slimy garden neighbours actually have long been included as ingredients in medical recipes, from classical antiquity to the present day. In fact, a number of other RP posts have already touched on pre-modern snail-based prescriptions, such as Laura Mitchell’s post on amusing charms, Lisa Smith’s post on Mary Napier’s ‘Snaile Milke’, and Jennifer Sherman Roberts’ post on snail waters. While several examples have highlighted the use of snails in cosmetic preparations, including Katherine Allen’s post on animal ingredients in the eighteenth century, in my research on early medieval recipes I have come across snails as ingredients in treatments for all sorts of ailments, from headaches and nosebleeds to diarrhoea, spleen pain, and incontinence. Who knew snails were seen to be such a wonderful panacea?!

I have been particularly struck by the use of snails in a number of different treatments for cuts and open wounds. A recipe in BAV pal. lat. 1088, a ninth-century manuscript written around Lyon, suggests the following to heal ‘cut tendons’ (Ad neruos incisos) on f. 45r:

Burn and pound together live snails with their shells, add an equal amount of frankincense, apply. It heals cut tendons.

(Cocleas uiuas cum testa sua combustas et tonsas adiecto libano paripondere inponis praecisos neruos sanat)

Two other ninth-century manuscripts in the Stiftsbibliothek St Gallen, Cod. Sang. 751 and Cod. Sang. 759, contain nearly identical prescriptions, though the former recommends either slugs (limacis) or snails and the latter specifies that the cut was caused by iron (Ad neruus ferro precisus). Similar recipes can also be found in earlier sources, such as Pliny’s Natural History and its late antique descendent, the Medicina Plinii, as well as Dioscorides’ De materia medica.

Why did this tradition of the wound-healing power of snails catch my eye?

Figure 2: Materia medica on the move (slowly) – photograph by author.

As keen RP readers will know, the use of snails in cosmetics was not limited to pre-modern medicine but is, in fact, growing in popularity today (and you can read more on this in another piece from Katherine Allen). Snail slime, the mucus secreted by snails, has been widely marketed as a great addition to skincare products. You can find it in anti-aging serums, moisturisers, and other restorative cosmeceuticals. Given these uses, could snail slime also have applications in medicine? Indeed, snail slime is a hot topic in modern medical research, with recent work highlighting its many benefits, from helping to treat burns to its antimicrobial properties. With respect to wound healing, there are several significant features to note: first, snail mucus is well known to have agglutinant, adhesive properties. More recently, however, research has shown that it also protects against apoptosis (programmed cell death) and promotes cell migration and proliferation – processes essential to wound repair at the cellular level. The combination of snail mucus’ adhesive qualities, promotion of healing processes, and antimicrobial properties is immensely exciting, especially in the fight against antibiotic resistance.

While premodern medical practitioners and authors would not have been thinking about snails and their slime on the cellular level or as antimicrobial agents, their repeated use of snails and slugs, especially with respect to skin-related conditions (wound healing, cosmetics, etc.) suggests that they may have recognised that snail mucus had some medical benefits. So, the next time you encounter someone ridiculing the unusual or unpleasant ingredients in a medieval recipe, you can share with them the long history of snails in medicine – from medieval recipes and their ancient antecedents to current, cutting-edge research.

Full reference for manuscript image

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 44: parchment, 368 pp., 30 x 21 cm; Part I: Bible, consisting of Ezekiel, minor prophets, Daniel, with Prologues and Capitula – given to St. Gall around 780; Part II: collection of medical texts – written in northern Italy in the ninth century.

Brief Academic Biography

Claire Burridge is currently a Residential Research Fellow at the British School at Rome. She completed her PhD at the University of Cambridge in 2019 and will begin a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship at the University of Sheffield in May 2021. Broadly, Claire works on early medieval health and medicine and is particularly interested in exploring questions of medical practice and the transmission of medical knowledge during the Carolingian period. Her research draws on a range of disciplines, bringing together textual, archaeological, and biocodicological evidence.

Revisiting Diana Luft’s Treating the Stone in Sixteenth-Century Wales

Today we revisit a post originally published in 2017 by Diana Luft on a sixteenth-century recipe against the stone ascribed to a certain Vicar of Gwenddwr, Wales. The recipe is in Welsh, but includes names of some ingredients in English, perhaps indicating an English original. I hope you will enjoy rediscovering this post about a beautiful part of Wales. Laurence Totelin


By Diana Luft

Image of the village of Gwenddwr. Permission granted by the owner of the website Radnorshire Images (John Crellin).
Image of the village of Gwenddwr. Permission granted by the owner of the website Radnorshire Images (John Crellin).

National Library of Wales MS. Peniarth 182 is a miscellany in the hand of Huw Pennant, a poet who lived and worked in Gwynedd and then Carmarthenshire at the turn of the sixteenth century.[1] The manuscript has the look of a personal collection, and it was written over a period of five years, from 1509 until the scribe’s death in 1514. It contains pedigrees, chronicles, religious texts, and texts of a medical nature, including a list of the dangerous days of the year, a short herbal based on Macer Floridus, and two collections of medical recipes. These collections are united by their subject: they all treat the condition tostedd or bladder stone. The first collection has been gleaned from a medieval source; its five recipes can be traced to the four earliest medical manuscripts in Welsh. The second is a mix of recipes that can be traced to fourteenth- and fifteenth-century sources, with the addition of a unique remedy ascribed to an unnamed Vicar of Gwenddwr in Breconshire.

Writing in 1801, Theophilus Jones described the village of Gwenddwr as ‘a vile assortment of huts’, adding that, ‘the best fabric in it is the alehouse’.[2] It may be that the village had fallen on hard times by the nineteenth century, as it seems that its sixteenth-century vicar was recommending a rather complicated, and expensive, course of treatment for bladder stones. Here is the recipe in full:

Rhag y tostedd, medd Bickar Gwenddwr

Kymer ddyrnaid o saets, a’r gymaint arall o’r persli gwraidd ag oll, a’r gymaint arall o’r alisander, a’r gymaint arall o’r ‘selver’ (yr hwn a elwir kynga’r koed), a’r gymaint arall o’r ‘mors off maed lik’ (hynny ydyw, barfav kennin o’r rai ni fflannwyd yn y blaen), a xxxiii o rawn yr eiddaw, a dyrnaid o’r ‘betoni’ (yr rain a elwir kribe sanffred). Golch yn lan hwynt a phwnia mewn mortar kyn vaned a’r grinsaws. Yn ol hyny, bwrw hwynt mewn llestyr glan olchiad, a bwrw arnvn yno dri chwart o hengwrw kadarn, a thri chwart eraill o Rwmnai da. Kymered wraig a dwylaw glan olchiad, a gwasged hwynt hyd pan el ffrwyth y llysiav yn y ddiod. Oddyno kymrud lliain glan a’i hidlo ef yn dda, oddyno bwrw ymaith y soeg, oddyno brew y ddiod hyd pan el chwart o’r chwech chwart dan y brew. Oddyno yskimma ef yn lan, ag oddyno tyn y ddiod oddiar y tan, a bwrw ar y ddiod geinhiagwerth o’r graynys, a dimewerth o’r coleandur,  keinhiagwerth o bowdwr syngir, dimewerth o bowdwr galingall, gwerth tair keinioc o saffrwm, dimewerth o bowdwr licorys. Dod y ddiod ar y tan a gad i verwi ias vechan i gymryd ffrwyth y llysiav. Oddyno tyn i’r llawr, a phan oero ef ddigon, dyro dy ddiod mewn llestyr pridd. Ystopia ef yn dda a lliain glan, a gad yno i sefyll dridiav a theirnos. Yn ol hynny, hidler y ddiod drwy liain glan a rodder i’r glaf y’w yfed yn oer y bore a’r nos, yngwres y gwaed. Arvered o hyn, a iach vydd drwy nerth Duw. Poed gwir Amen

For the stone, says the Vicar of Gwenddwr

Take a handful of sage and the same amount again of parsley, roots and all, and the same amount again of alexanders and the same amount again of ‘cleavers’ (which are called wood burdock), and the same amount again of ‘moss of leek cuttings’ (that is, the beards of leeks which have not been planted before),[1] and thirty-three ivy seeds, and a handful of ‘betony’ (which are called St. Brigid’s combs). Wash them clean and pound them in a mortar as fine as green sauce. After that, put them into a newly-washed vessel and add three quarts of strong old beer, and three more quarts of good Rumney wine. Let a woman with newly-washed hands be brought, and let her press them until the essence of the herbs goes into the liquid. Take a clean linen cloth and strain it well, and throw away the residue, then boil the liquid until one of the six quarts boils away. Skim it clean, remove the liquid from the heat, and add a penny’s-worth of grains of paradise, a halfpenny’s-worth of coriander, a penny’s-worth of ginger powder, a halfpenny’s-worth of galangal powder, three penny’s-worth of saffron, and a halfpenny’s-worth of liquorice powder. Put the liquid on the heat and let it boil for a little while to take the essence of the herbs. Then put it aside, and when it cools enough, put the liquid into an earthenware vessel. Stop it up well with a clean linen cloth and leave it to stand three days and three nights. After that, let the liquid be strained through a clean linen cloth and let it be given to the sick person to drink cold in the morning and at body temperature at night. Let him use this and he will be healed through the strength of God, Amen.

While Pennant’s text is in Welsh, the vicar’s original recipe was likely in English. Most of the ingredients are given in Welsh, but three are in English with Welsh explanations (cleavers, leek grass, and betony). It is not uncommon for Welsh recipes to use English borrowings, especially for foreign or exotic ingredients. The medieval recipe collections contain ingredients such as alym (alum), arment (arnament), atrwm (atrament), brwnston (sulphur), cod (cobbler’s wax), kopros (copperas), and opium. But the English words in this recipe do not refer to foreign or exotic ingredients, rather they indicate the common native herbs. The names of the imported ingredients are borrowings, but they are very old borrowings which have already been incorporated into Welsh. For example, the form coleandur (coriander) appears in Welsh in the earliest herbal glossary, while saffrwm (saffron), licorys (liquorice), and syngir (ginger) are found in the fourteenth-century recipe collections. Thus, while the imported ingredients in this recipe are borrowings, it is the explanations of the common herbs which indicate an English source.

Urine wheel from a fifteenth-century Welsh medical manuscript, NLW 3026 (Mostyn 88), a medical miscellany in the hand of the prolific scribe and poet Gutun Owain. Permission granted by National Library of Wales.
Urine wheel from a fifteenth-century Welsh medical manuscript, NLW 3026 (Mostyn 88), a medical miscellany in the hand of the prolific scribe and poet Gutun Owain. Permission granted by National Library of Wales.

Pennant does not say how he has come by this recipe, whether he has copied it from a book, received it from a friend or neighbour, or perhaps been in correspondence with the vicar himself.  This is the last remedy in this manuscript, all of which treat a common and very painful condition. The collections of remedies in this manuscript, written over a period of years, all treating the same condition, beginning with old remedies taken from manuscripts and ending with what may be the result of correspondence with a contemporary, seems to tell a tale of increasing desperation in the face of an intractable illness. It is impossible to say whether Huw Pennant suffered from bladder stones himself, but the medical texts he chose to include in his collection would seem to suggest that he did. They would also seem to suggest that his interest in these remedies was not academic, but rather practical, that is, that he intended to use them, and may have done so. The cause of Pennant’s death is not recorded. I can only hope that, whatever it was, he received some relief from the ailment that seems to have plagued him for so long.


[1]      This seems to be a reference to the propagation of leeks by removing the seed from the seed head and allowing the head to develop small clones of the parent plant upon it (leek grass), which can then be planted out. I have interpreted mors as representing English ‘moss’, in the sense of a plant resembling moss (OED ‘moss, n.1’ II.4) or perhaps ‘hairiness’ (MED ‘mos’ 1(a)), and maed as representing English ‘math’ that is, a cutting or a mowing, from Anglo-Saxon mæð (OED ‘math, n.1’) and thus mos off maed lik as a cutting of leek, which results in the production of leek grass which is hairy or moss-like in appearance.

[1]      On Huw Pennant see Cartwright, J. 2016. The Middle Welsh Life of St. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins. In Cartwright, J. ed. The Cult of St. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins. Cardiff: UWP, pp. 163–86.

[2]      Jones, T. 1809. The History of the County of Brecknock. Vol. 2 of 2. Brecknock: George North, p. 296. You can judge for yourself, from the photograph of the village taken by John Crellin in 2011 for his Radnor Images website (www.radnorimages.co.uk) and used with his kind permission here, whether Jones’s opinion holds true today!

 

Tales from the Archives: Community Conversations

The theme for this month is community, inspired by the UK university strikes in February and March.  Community is at the heart of the dispute: what do we want universities to look like? The wonderful sense of community that emerges on picket lines (whether in-person or virtual) during strikes can be a positive force for changing our university culture. 

This month, we have our monthly Around the Table (with a bonus one, too!), as well as an update on a survey about food scholarship networks, some post-Brexit food reflections, and an announcement about a new food studies journal.  There is also a piece of quite wonderful  bit of news about one of our regular RP contributors, Jennifer Sherman  Roberts… She just celebrated the end of her cancer treatment last week! 

Postcard, made in Germany (1910). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

 

With ‘community’ in mind, I wanted to revisit one of the projects that has intrigued me since I first read about it. ‘Stone Soup’, led by Jennifer Sherman Roberts in 2016-7, aimed to foster local community through talking about recipes. 

“Stone Soup”: Reflections on Community Conversations

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

Recipes form communities.

Readers of The Recipes Project know this to be true. Scholars from diverse backgrounds meet in this forum to exchange ideas, thoughts, insights, experiments, and discoveries, brought together by a shared fascination with this amorphous form of record-keeping, receipt-making, and instruction.

Contributing to The Recipes Project has provided me with a rare chance to explore connections between historical recipes, to chart and analyze—and frequently delight in—what to modern eyes might seem bizarre and outlandish (pigeon blood eye wash, anyone?).

But the examination of the recipe’s central role in our lives and histories can also be expanded and enriched beyond the academic through public history and storytelling. There’s a special magic in talking about recipes, a visceral emotional reaction and an almost immediate connection to the past, to personal heritage and individual history.

It’s that sort of alchemy that I wanted to explore further when I applied to be a conversation project facilitator with Oregon Humanities, proposing a topic called “Stone Soup: How Recipes Can Preserve History and Nurture Community.” 

miltonfreewaterrecipes
Recipes gathered for the Oregon Humanities conversation project “Stone Soup” at the Frazier Farmstead Museum in Milton-Freewater, Oregon (author’s photo)

Since the fall of 2016, I have facilitated conversations all over the state, in venues ranging from quiet libraries to bustling restaurants, from coastal towns to urban centers. And while the people and the recipes and the insights are always different (intriguingly and marvelously so), there are a few consistent threads.

Heritage

Before the event, participants are invited to bring recipes from their past—from a beloved family member, friend, or neighbor—and a story to accompany them. (My favorite: the woman in Grants Pass who brought a recipe for the cake her mother had burnt to a crisp–her husband had written “I love you” in the soot left on the walls.)

Often, the recipe is on a tattered index card, spattered and stained by years of use. Sometimes it’s in a small binder or book held together with rubber bands. Always it’s presented with memories.

(There’s a look people get when they talk about these recipes and stories, a faraway gleam, a small smile.

I love those moments.)

Often these recipes will spark conversation between participants as one memory is ignited by another, one culture compared with another, one history explained by another.

“What is a recipe?”

To begin the conversation, I ask participants to spend a minute or two thinking of the words they associate with recipes. Evocative words like “memories,” “grandma,” and “holidays” often make an appearance. We consider the figurative language surrounding recipes, a genre so unique the word itself has become a central metaphor (“recipe for disaster,” for example).

I then ask the participants to partner with one or two others to discuss the genre of the recipe: how is it different from a shopping list, or a narrative, or even a poem? We talk about ingredients and measurements, instructions and oven temperatures. We think about ways a recipe is like a chemical experiment–scientific and reproducible.

I’ll often use that distinction as a springboard to talk about some historical recipes and ways the form changes or stays the same. We look at a copy of Lady Ann Fanshawe’s recipe “Against the biting of a Mad Dogge taught by Sir Kenelm Digby.”

fanshawe
Lady Ann Fanshawe, 1625-1680, Wellcome Library, MS 7113

People often notice that recipe books from the 16th and 17th centuries are visually compact and uniform, and that the basic elements of the recipe—ingredients, instructions, measurements—are familiar. One difference we have made note of, however, is the occasional focus on seasons in the harvesting of ingredients, as can be seen in Lady Fanshawe’s direction that crabapple flowers should be picked in June or July.  For those of us used to ingredients available at all times (even if shrunk-wrapped or frozen), this can be a revelation.

This discussion also led to one of my favorite stories from these conversations, shared by a woman in Beaverton who said her grandfather always knew to plant his corn “when the leaves of the white oak tree were the size of a grey squirrel’s ears.”

Recipes and community

We then, together, read aloud a short version of the folk tale that serves as the springboard for the project, “Stone Soup,” and talk about the story itself as a kind of recipe and about the metaphorical underpinning of community. We focus on the end of the story, where in some versions the villagers not only share the soup but dance and sing together, opening their homes and offering their beds with the strangers in their midst.

At this point, I introduce the participants to three examples of people who used recipes to create community and preserve history: Freda DeKnightMina Pachter, and (closer to home for Oregonians) Ing “Doc” Hay.

This particular version of public history, these conversations that evoke memories and elicit stories, have been a wonderful way for me to explore the more human, face-to-face side of recipe exchange that can sometimes get lost in manuscripts and archives.

20171116_140530
“Stone Soup” participants at conversation project sponsored by Washington County Museum (author’s photo)

 

 

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.