Category Archives: Laurence Totelin

Healing words: Quintus Serenus’ pharmacological poem

Perhaps one of the most puzzling aspects of ancient science to modern readers is its predilection for verse. The ancient Greek and Romans could express the most complex scientific and medical notions in poetic form. Thus, many pharmacological recipes in Greek and Latin were cast in verse. These poetic recipes can be divided – very roughly – into two categories: those that are filled with metaphors and riddles that readers must decode; and those that use verse to assist memory through the means of rhythm and uncomplicated poetic imagery.

The verse recipes of Quintus Serenus (or Quintus Serenus Sammonicus: very little is known of this author, who lived at the end of the second – beginning of the third century CE) fall somewhere between these two categories. These remedies, collected in the Liber Medicinalis (Medical Book), include numerous learned references, but do not require advanced riddle-solving skills from their readers. Serenus borrowed most of his recipes from older pharmacological authorities, such as Pliny the Elder (first century CE), but added other some material, in particular magical recipes.

Serenus’ best known recipe is undoubtedly the ‘abracadabra’ recipe, which include the first known occurrence of that magical word. It recommends writing the word on a piece of parchment, which is then used as an amulet in the treatment of a particular type of fever:

One possible representation of the 'Abracadabra' amulet. Source: Wikipedia
One possible representation of the ‘Abracadabra’ amulet. Source: Wikipedia

Much more fatal [than other fevers] is that which is called ‘hemitritaios’
In Greek words; this in our language
Nobody could express, I believe, and neither did parents wish for it.
Write upon a piece of papyrus the word ABRACADABRA
And repeat it more times underneath, but take away the last letter
So that more and more individual elements will be missing from the figure,
Those which you constantly remove, while you retain the others,
Until a single letter remains at the end of a narrow cone.
Tie this to the neck with a linen thread; remember that!
[Quintus Serenus, Liber Medicinalis 54.1-9; for more information on this poem, see Peter Kruschwitz’s great blog]

Serenus used inscribed parchment as a healing ingredient in at least another recipe. This is a recipe to treat insomnia in people suffering from fevers:

Not only does the most loathsome fever consume wretched patients,
It further deprives them of longed-for sleep,
Lest they should benefit of the heavenly gift of peaceful sleep.
Therefore inscribe a piece of parchment with random words,
Burn it, then drink the ashes in hot water.
[Quintus Serenus, Liber Medicinalis 54.1-5]

With such recipes, it not surprising that historians of magic have paid more attention to Serenus than medical historians. It is very easy to dismiss such practices as hocus pocus. I would argue, however, that one should not take Serenus’ recipes at face value. Certainly, these are real recipes which Serenus collected from various sources, but did Serenus intend his readers actually to prepare them? It is always difficult to gage an author’s intention (and reader’s response), but it is still worth noting that in the first lines of his work, Serenus wrote:

Phoebus [Apollo], protect this health-giving song, which I composed
And let this manifest favour be an attendant to the art you discovered [medicine].
[Quintus Serenus, Liber Medicinalis, preface 1-2]

Serenus, then, calls his poem a ‘salutiferum carmen’, a ‘health-giving song’. This poem is healing because it contains healing recipes, but it is also healing in itself, as a piece of poetry. The idea that poetry could heal – or at least alleviate pain, or sweeten harsh treatments – was a common one in Roman culture. In particular, the Epicurean poet Lucretius had compared the role of poetry in philosophy to that of honey as a sweetener to a bitter medicinal preparation (De Rerum Natura 1.936-942).

I would suggest that for Quintus Serenus poetry in itself is healing: listening to mellifluous words can heal, especially when they pertain to pharmacology. In this context, recipes that have words as their main ingredient, as in the case of the ABRACADABRA recipe or the recipe against insomnia, become particularly significant. Not only can a poem heal; it can be dissected into its basic components – random words and letters – and still retain much of its power.

 

 

 

Wormy beer and wet nursing in the Roman Empire

Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, on a Attic black-figure amphora, sixth century BCE. Source: Wikipedia
Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, on a Attic black-figure amphora, sixth century BCE. Source: Wikipedia

As pointed out by Elaine Leong in a recent post, beer is a favourite topic at The Recipes Project. As a Belgian, I felt I should perhaps add something to the subject. As a classicist, however, I rarely encounter beer. Famously, the Greeks and Romans were wine drinkers, and considered beer a Barbarian beverage. Still, ancient medical texts do give us some information on beer. The pharmacologist Dioscorides (first century CE) describes two types of beer:

Beer (zuthos) it is prepared with barley. It is diuretic and has an effect on the kidneys and tendons. It is particularly harmful for the membranes [of the brain?]. It causes flatulence and produces bad humours, and it causes elephantiasis. Horn becomes easy to work when soaked in this drink.

The so-called kourmi is also prepared with barley; it is often drunk instead of wine. It causes headaches, is unwholesome and harmful to the nerves/sinews. In Western Spain and Britain, such drinks are also made with wheat. [Dioscorides, Materia Medica 2.87 and 88]

Clearly, Dioscorides is not selling these drinks to us. They cause all sort of troubles to those who consume them, some of which sound particularly unpleasant. While Dioscorides’ elephantiasis is most certainly not full-blown Proteus syndrome, its symptoms must have included painful swellings. In fact, the only positive property of beer according to the pharmacologist is to make horn malleable, which I guess is useful if you specialise in deer-antler carving. Interestingly, Dioscorides describes beer as a Celtic drink, omitting the fact that the Egyptians too were beer-drinkers.

Ancient Greek and Roman regimens and recipes rarely mention beer, which is no surprise when we consider Dioscorides’ view of the beverage. There is, however, one significant exception: the diet of the wet-nurse recommended by Antyllus, a second-century physician, whose precepts are preserved in the writings of Oribasius (fourth century CE). In the ancient world, arrangements between family members and neighbours to breastfeed each other’s children may have been common, but they have gone unrecorded. Paid wet-nurses, by contrast, may have been relatively exceptional, but they are well documented in written records. Hiring a wet-nurse was an expensive and difficult endeavour. Fortunately (or not, depending on one’s interpretation of the evidence), ‘experts’ were on hand to ditch out advice. Antyllus was one such expert. Here are his recommendations to deal with a wet-nurse’s insufficient milk supply:

[Recipe] to make the milk come abundantly in the breast: crush 5 or 6 worms that are found in the mud of the river, those that are called ‘the guts of the earth’; add dates, wine dregs, and rub together. Give it to the woman to drink in beer, telling her to wash herself and to fast beforehand. Give for 10 days and wonder at how abundant and good the milk is. [Oribasius, Libri incerti 34.6]

The Egyptian Nile on a Roman mosaic, Rome Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. Photo: Laurence Totelin
The Egyptian Nile on a Roman mosaic, Rome Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. Photo: Laurence Totelin

‘Yum-yum’ I hear you say. Interestingly, beer and dates remain used as galactagogues to this day, preferably without added worms. Antyllus’ recipe is almost certainly Egyptian. As already mentioned, the Greeks and Romans did not drink beer, but the Egyptians did. Date palms did not bear their fruits to maturity in Greece and Italy, but they did in Egypt. The muddy river mentioned by Antyllus must be the Nile.

At the time of Antyllus, Egypt was under Roman rule, and Alexandria in the Delta of the Nile was a famous centre of medical knowledge, perhaps one where Antyllus himself studied. As it happens, wet-nurse contracts from Roman Egypt have survived (see here for an example), although they remain silent on the nurse’s diet and never mention worms.

First Monday Library Chat: The Boots Archive

The Recipes Project heads to Notthingham, UK this month, to learn about the collections of Boots, UK Archive. We spoke with Sophie Clapp, Corporate Archivist, and Amy Gardener Archive and Record Assistant.

Could you give us an overview of the Boots Archive? What types of artefacts and documents does it contain? How was it put together?

Boots archive material was first collated by the business in the 1950s by the librarian in the research department. Based on the main Boots site in Nottingham, we welcomed our first professional archivist in 1995 and the team has grown over the years to three full time archivists.

The collection has been formed though a variety of methods, including acquisitions and deposits from within the business and from a few external sources. Since 2000, there has been a more systematic approach to growing the collection though tight links with the Records Management team. The museum collection was primarily formed through a large donation from a Boots employee.

The contents of the collection are varied and contain a mixture of business, social and medical items.

The archive consists mainly of the business records of the company and includes minutes, plans, ledgers, accounts and sales information made up of portfolios, photographs, architectural plans, advertisements and product samples. We also hold items relating to the Boot family and their employees through the years, including salary details, welfare and social activities, photographs and staff magazines.

From a medical point of view, the collection contains recipes, formulations and research documents for Boots products over the years, including early medical and herbal products, the development of ibuprofen, No7 cosmetics and skincare. Pharmaceutical journals, marketing and record books make up other items in the collection. As well as medicine and pharmacy, we have an optometry collection, formally the Dollond & Aitchison archive dating from c1750 onwards.

We also hold a wide variety of medical and surgical ephemera, dating from the late 1600’s to the present day.

Can you give us a few highlights from your collection? 

We have so many items in the collections which could be considered highlights depending on your area of interest. Every member of the team has different favourites.

CAIS 1214 (2)
Cosmetics, Boots UK

For me with my interest in cosmetics and beauty, the collection of items from the original 1935 No7 collection in their art deco style packaging are particular favourites along with a double ‘Punkt’ roller from the 1930’s which was marketed as an instant slimming aid.

CAIS 6361 (2)
Herbal Almanack for 1876. Boots UK

We have a beautiful collection of delftware apothecary jars dating from c.1680-1900, several lovely apothecary chests and a Herbal Almanac from 1876, which has an advert for Boots on the cover, which I am particularly fond of.

Which of your documents or artefacts would appeal most to the recipe-fans who read the Recipes Project? 

We have many items dating back to the early days of the business, and a selection of objects from further back in the history of medicine.

These include early copies of pharmacy journals, formulation books, dispensing notebooks and reference books dating from the early 1800’s to the present day, such as a Tincture Reference Book from 1898 and a Formula Book dated from 1898 -1919.

Within the museum collection we have a number of medicine chests, including an engraved late 17th Century Dutch casket, depicting William of Orange on the inside.

We also have pressed herbs and artefacts which held and were used to manufacture medicines, such as scales, pestles and mortars, pill rollers and suppository makers. We also have a collection of surgical instruments, pharmacy equipment, medical aids and display items such as carboys and species jars.

Historians of medicine and pharmacy are all familiar with academic libraries and archives, but perhaps less with those of private companies. Do you have any tips on how they can make the most of the resources you have? How can they discover what is in the Boots archive?

Presently, the best way to discover the collection is though one of our archivists. All someone needs to do is contact one of the team with details of their research and we will guide them on the relevant documents within the collection. We have a reading room which researchers can come to use the collection by appointment and an archivist is always on hand to assist with access and research.

At the moment, the primary user of the archive is the business, but we are always ready to welcome researchers and academics to the records centre. Currently researchers are looking into topics as varied as welfare, antiseptics and antibiotics and corporate identity.

As we are a corporate archive, there are some items in the collection which are closed for 30 years or longer due to Data Protection and some which are closed permanently due to corporate sensitivity, but aside from these, the team are very happy to advise on any relevant items.

The variation in items often means that a document that may not seem relevant to someone’s research may actually be of great use – we’re found that this works both ways; some documents we might think of as irrelevant to a particular researcher have turned out to be just what they are looking for!

We are in the early stages of a project funded by the Wellcome Trust which aims to make the archive more accessible. In future, we will have the entire catalogue searchable online which will transform the collection into an internationally available academic resource.

Finally, for those of us who living afar, could you tell us a little about we might be able to consult your rich holdings?

For people farther afield, again, the route into the collection will be through the archivists at the moment.

In the future we hope to have many items digitised and accessible online, including images, documents and artworks that are of regular interest. The team are happy to copy and digitise items of particular interest and send them on to anywhere in the world.

To contact the Boots Archive, please contact:

Sophie Clapp, Corporate Archivist

Sophie.Clapp@boots.co.uk

0115 959 4414

How to grow your beard, Roman style

Septimius Severus, one of the bearded Roman emperors (193-211). Source: Wikipedia
Septimius Severus, one of the bearded Roman emperors (193-211). Source: Wikipedia

For those who have missed it: male facial hair is currently in fashion. While almost none of my students sported a beard five years ago, it now looks as if they all do (the real proportion is probably 25%, but this is not the point of this post). Beards go in and out of vogue, and have done so for centuries. Thus, the first Roman Emperors, and those who emulated them, were clean shaven or had short beards, but from the middle of the second-century CE, wearing a beard became all the rage.

Ancient medical texts offer us some useful advice on how to care for precious facial hair. Thus Galen (second century CE) and Aetius (sixth century CE) transmit recipes to ‘blacken’ (that is, dye darker) the beard. These involve metallic ingredients that have been calcinated. But perhaps the most interesting series of recipes for the beard come from a treatise attributed to Galen, but not actually by Galen: The Remedies Easily Procured (De Remediis Parabilibus):

Preparations to grow locks of hair and the beard, if hair is falling out: mix beet with myrtle oil and maidenhair (polytrichion) and anoint the hair. Or crush equal amounts of maidenhair (adianton) and gum-ladanum with grape-seed oil, myrtle oil or mastic oil and anoint. Another: gum-ladanum with Aminaean wine and myrtle oil, crush together until it has the consistency of honey and anoint the head in the bath. It is best to use maidenhair (adianton), which some call ‘polytrichion’ (literally, many-hairs), mix a seventh part with gum-ladanum and anoint. (Pseudo-Galen, Remedies Easily Procured 3, 14.502 and 580 Kühn)

Maidenhair. Source: Wikipedia
Maidenhair. Source: Wikipedia

As the author explains, the plant that works best in promoting beard growth is that called adianton by most people in ancient Greek. Other people, however, called it polytrichion, that is, the ‘many-hair plant’. That plant is a fern known as ‘maidenhair’ in English and Adiantum capillus-veneris L. in botanical Latin. That is, the name in all three languages refers to the alleged effect this plant has on hair growth.

The other interesting ingredient in these pseudo-Galenic recipes is ladanum/ledanum, which is the gum produced by Cistus shrubs. The historian Herodotus (fifth century BCE) is the first to tell us the tale of how this gum was gathered in Arabia, the land of perfumes:

But ledanum, which the Arabians call ‘ladanon’, occurs in manner which is even more amazing [than cinnamon]. For the best smelling thing comes from the most stinky one. For it is found in the beards of he-goats, where it occurs in the same way as gum from a tree. It is used in many perfumes, but the Arabians mostly use it as incense. (Herodotus, Histories 3.112)

Herodotus makes it sound as if ladanum grows in the beards of he-goats. The pharmacological writer Dioscorides, several centuries later, gave a much more plausible account: the gum is so greasy that it sticks to the beards of goats, male or female – Dioscorides is not sexist towards goats! – when they graze on the tree that produces ladanum. Dioscorides also tells us that ladanum prevents hair from falling off, but does not single out beard hair. It is probably the story that ladanum ‘comes from’ the beards of goats that gave rise to the belief that it is somehow good for human beards.

Gents, next time you groom your beard, do give a thought for those Arabian goats growing gum in their goatees!