Category Archives: Laurence Totelin

Eating of curds and whey: rennet in ancient medicine

Last month, I examined the issue of ‘curdled milk in the breast’ in Greek and Roman medicine. The texts I quoted all used the words ‘cheesy’ (turōdēs) or ‘to make cheesy’ (turoō) – they did not refer to rennet (putia), the curdling agent in cheese making. This month, I look into the role of rennet in ancient medicine, and particularly in ancient embryology and gynaecology. Rennet is a liquid found in the stomach of young mammals; it helps sucklings digest their mother’s milk. Used in cheese making, it causes milk to separate into curds (solid element) and whey (liquid element). In a well-known passage, Aristotle (fourth century BCE) compared the action of semen in generation to that of rennet in cheese making:

The action of the semen of the male in ‘setting’ the female’s secretion in the uterus is similar to that of rennet upon milk. Rennet is milk which contains vital heat, as semen does, and this integrates the homogeneous substance and makes it ‘set’. As the nature of milk and the menstrual fluid is one and the same, the action of the semen upon the substance of the menstrual fluid is the same as that of rennet upon milk (Generation of Animals 739b21-27. Translation: A.L. Peck).

Scholars have found similar analogies between generation and cheese-making in various cultures: semen is like rennet; women’s blood is like milk; children are like cheese.[1] In this context, it is interesting to note that actual rennet was used in ancient medicine either to help or to hinder conception, as well as for various other purposes. The pharmacological writer Dioscorides (first century CE) writes:

A weight of three oboloi of hare’s rennet taken with wine is suitable for those bitten by wild animals, for dysenterics, for women who suffer from discharges, for blood clots, and for coughing up blood from the chest; applied to the cervix with butter after menstruation, it aids conception, but if drunk after menstruation, it causes barrenees… (Dioscorides, De materia medica 2.75. Translation: L. Beck)

The reader can be forgiven for not immediately seeing the linking factor between these conditions. After several paragraphs, Dioscorides provides the key: rennet, he says ‘congeals substances that have been dissolved and dissolves substances that have been congealed’. Rennet dissolved clots of blood; in the case of bloody sputa and female discharge, it must have either liquefied that blood, enabling its elimination, or ‘curdled’ it; applied in a pessary, it facilitated the role of semen in ‘curdling’ the menstrual blood; but drunk after menstruation, it probably ‘dissolved’ any ‘curdled’ blood in the womb, that is, it caused what we would an early abortion; in dysentery it may have ‘curdled’ faeces in the intestine. What about the role of rennet in the treatment of bites? Bites were thought to cause blood clotting, hence the recommendation to use rennet.

After discussing hare’s rennet, Dioscorides turns to seal’s rennet, explaining that it is particularly good in cases of epilepsy and uterine suffocation, that is, the feeling of suffocation that accompanies movements of the womb. Both ailments were conceived as forms of ‘suffocation’ (pigmos). The rationale for the use of rennet might have gone something like this: suffocation is caused by a ‘choking’ agent; rennet can dissolve what is congealed; rennet will dissolve the choking agent in uterine and epileptic suffocation. Interestingly, seal’s rennet is the only rennet mentioned in the Hippocratic Corpus (a series of texts written in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE), where the following recipe is recommended for the treatment of uterine suffocation:

If the womb leans and lies against the groin: the skin of seal’s rennet, sponge and bryon (possibly a sea-weed); chope them fine; mix together with seal oil; and fumigate. (Hippocratic Corpus, Diseases of Women 2.203).

Theophrastus, in his Enquiry into Plants (late fourth century BCE), informs us that the all-heal of Heracles, mixed with seal rennet, helps in epilepsy (9.11.3).

Why seal’s rennet? Surely it would have been simpler to get the rennet from a hare or a calf? Well, seals were seen as liminal animals in the ancient world: they breast-fed their cubs, yet looked like fish; they lived both on land and in water. Their rennet – and Dioscorides says that one must use the rennet of a cub who cannot yet swim – must therefore have been thought valuable in the treatment of diseases that themselves involved ‘liminal’ states: the ‘near-death’ condition that characterizes epileptic seizures and other forms of suffocation.


[1] See in particular Ott, Sandra. “Aristotle among the Basques: the’cheese analogy’of conception.” Man (1979): 699-711.


Curdled Milk in the Breast: Take II

I was so intrigued by Jennifer Park’s post on curdled milk and Shakespeare that I decided to look whether there were Greek and Roman precedents. As I read Jennifer’s post, I could not recall any references to curdling of breast-milk in ancient texts. However, quick searches with the help of the Digital Library of Greek Literature (the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae), sure enough, led me to passages on ‘cheesy’ breast-milk that blocks ducts. The physician Soranus (turn of the first and second centuries AD), in his description of women’s milk, writes that one must look out for the following characteristics:

Colour; smell; composition; consistence; and with regards to its taste, whether it changes with time… Consistence and thickness: it should be moderately thick. For fluid, thin and watery milk is not nutritious and may disturb the bowels; while thick and cheesy milk is hard to digest and, in the same way as food that has been partially chewed, it blocks up the pores (i.e. ducts) and, as it occupies the main passages of the body, it is a danger to life. [Soranus, Gynaecology 2.22].

The word I translate as ‘cheesy’ is turōdēs, from the verb turoō, make into cheese curdle. Note that ‘cheesy’ in relation to breast-milk has nothing to do with taste and smell: it is all about consistence. Curdling of milk in a woman is an extremely dangerous condition. Soranus compares it to choking, when half-chewed food gets stuck in airways. It can lead to death. Other ancient medical writers concur with Soranus: cheesy breast-milk is unhealthy for the woman and a sign that she is sick.

But what exactly constitutes cheesy breast-milk? Conveniently, Soranus gives two easy ways to find out. First, one should drop a small amount of milk onto a smooth surface such as a nail or a bay leaf. If the milk ‘congeals like honey and remains motionless then it is thick’. The second test involves dropping milk dropping milk into twice the amount of water: one will know whether the milk is thick if:

the milk does not disperse and sink down after a while, so that, when the water is poured out, one finds around the bottom [of the jar] a substance that is cheesy, thick and hard to digest.

I must say that it was very difficult for me not to make a retrospective diagnosis here. Surely, Soranus was simply describing mastitis or blocked ducts. Yet something was not quite right. There was no description of the raging fever that accompanies mastitis. Then Soranus was not only referring to curdling of the milk within the breast – the constitution of little lumps which the modern reader could so easily interpret as signs of inflammation – he was also referring to curdling outside the breast. Woman’s milk should not curdle.

Pandora, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1878
Pandora, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1878

Interestingly, when they discuss other types of milk, the ancients do not consider ‘cheesy’ to be a bad characteristic – quite the contrary. Cow’s, goat’s, ewe’s milk should be made into cheese, of which Greeks and Romans were very fond. Now, Greeks and Roman regarded women as very close to beasts: Pandora, the first woman, had the mind of a bitch after all. They always feared that the wild, animal side of women would take over. What was seen as positive in female animals should be feared in women: woman’s milk should not turn into cheese.

To go further in this line of enquiry, I will need to look into metaphorical uses of the word ‘curdling’ in ancient texts. This is beyond the scope of this post. I would like, however, to point to one such metaphorical use. It is in a passage of the Bible text Job, which was translated into Greek in antiquity (as part of the famous Septuagint project). Job laments all the disasters that have befallen him and cries out to God:

Remember that you moulded me as clay and that you shall turn me again to earth. Did you not pour me out like milk, and curdled me like cheese? [Job 10:10]

As I am no Bible scholar, I consulted interpretations of this passage. According to some readings, Job is here referring to the process of procreation, when milk/semen curdles to form an embryo. Remember that in the ancient world, milk and semen were thought to be concocted blood. Curdling of blood/milk/semen is to be expected in the formation of an embryo but not when a woman is nursing. In this context, it would be wrong to read references to ‘curdling of woman’s milk’ merely as mastitis or milk that has gone sour. There is something much more serious at play, a subtle web of metaphors and connotations that leads us to Pandora/Eve and her similarity to wild beasts.

A recipe fit for a king

Attalus II or III. Altes Museum, Berlin. Credit: Marcus Cyron, licensed under Creative Commons.
Attalus II or III. Altes Museum, Berlin. Credit: Marcus Cyron, licensed under Creative Commons.

By Laurence Totelin

One of my favourite characters in the history of ancient pharmacology is Attalus III, king of Pergamum (ruled from 138 to 133 BCE). As a king, he is remembered for bequeathing his small kingdom to Rome at his death. Apart from that, we know very little about his rule. Instead of focusing on his political achievements, ancient historical sources dwell on his strange hobbies. According to the historians Plutarch (first-second century CE, wrote in Greek) Justin (second century CE, wrote in Latin), after having his mother and wife killed, the king lost all interest in his physical appearance and developed a passion for gardening.  He planted highly poisonous herbs such as henbane, hemlock and hellebore in his gardens. He then sent to his friends samples of these plants, mixing their sap to that of non-poisonous plants. Tired of this, he then moved on to wax-modeling and pouring and forging bronze.

Plutarch and Justin are very negative in their presentation of these silly pastimes. For a more positive view of Attalus, one has to turn to medical and agronomic texts. The Latin agronomical writers Varro (116–27 BCE), Columella (first century CE), and the encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) list the king as a source on animals, fruit trees, crops, drugs from animals, metals and gems. Celsus (first century CE), in his work on medicine, gives a recipe for an Attalic plaster (5.19.11), which contains relatively large amounts of copper.  He does not, however, say whether that plaster had been created by the king Attalus or by a namesake:

There is the Attalic plaster for wounds. It contains: copper scales, 16 sextulae; frankincense soot, 15 sextulae; ammoniac salt, same amount; liquid turpentine resin, 25 sextulae; bull suet, same amount; vinegar, three heminae; oil, 1 sextarius.[1]

Although interesting, these Latin sources do not add more to our knowledge of Attalus. For more information, one needs to turn to Galen. The famous physician too came from Pergamum and on several occasions refers to Attalus as ‘Attalus who was king among us’, that is, king among the people of Pergamum. Galen was active several centuries after the death of the king, but he may have had access to some lost Pergamene sources. He may also have consulted the king’s lost medical works. He casts a very different light on Attalus’ experiments with dangerous plants. In a passage on another king, Mithridates VI of Pontus, he writes that:

Mithridates himself, like Attalus among us, desired to have experience of almost all simple drugs that are given against deadly substances, testing their powers on evil men who were condemned to death.[2]

Galen presents the two kings as methodic researchers in the field of pharmacology. While their method of experimentation seems abhorrent to us, Galen approves of it, as it greatly advanced knowledge of poisons and their antidotes. Galen also devotes a great part of his treatise On the Composition of Medicines according to Types I to various Attalic plasters. There is no doubt in Galen’s mind that these were created by the last king of Pergamum:

White plaster made with pepper, according to Attalus… This remedy has already been prepared many years ago by Attalus, ruling over us people of Pergamum, a man who was most studious about all sorts of remedies.[3]

Again Galen presents his fellow countryman as a serious scholar, not as a mad hatter. Who is right? Galen or the historians Plutarch and Justin? Nobody will ever know, but Attalus’ story is an excellent exercise in source criticism!


[1] Celsus, De Medicina 5.19.11. A sextula is a sixth of an ounce. An hemina is a half of a sextarius. A sextarius is roughly the equivalent of a British pint.

[2] Galen, On Antidotes 1.1 (14.2 Kühn).

[3] Galen, On the Composition of Medicines according to Types 1.13 (13.414 Kühn).

Because she is worth it

By Laurence Totelin

Recently, I started experimenting with Greek, Roman and Byzantine recipes for pharmacological and cosmetic concoctions. My most adventurous attempt so far was recreating the ‘soap used by the Patrician Pelagia’, a recipe preserved in the writings of Aetius of Amida (sixth century CE):

Soap the Patrician [i.e. noble] Pelagia used to make her face shine: Gallic soap, 6 ounces; starch, 1½ ounce; white lead, 1½ ounce; mastic, ½ ounce; deer marrow, 1 ounce; white native sodium carbonate, 4 pastilles; white wax, 3 ounces. Soak the soap beforehand in water in a small jar for five days, changing the rain water every day and filtering the soap. After that, on the sixth day, put the soap in a new cooking pot with the rain water; place on coals, on a low heat, until the soap has melted. Then sprinkle with the wax and the marrow, and when they are dissolved, take the frying pan and stir well with a spittle and sprinkle the mastic and the starch, ground beforehand. Then add the white lead (ground beforehand in some water) in a small dish and beat up with the hand vigorously. Then place in a new jar and use generously. [Aetius 8.6]

My re-creation of Pelagia's soap. Note the snow-whiteness
My re-creation of Pelagia’s soap. Note the snow-whiteness

I have recounted my experiments with this foundation face-cream on my blog ‘concocting history. Here I would like to focus on the attribution to the Patrician Pelagia. Ancient medical authors often claimed someone famous had used their preparations, and in the case of gynaecological remedies and cosmetics, they sometimes called upon the authority of women. Among these women, one can mention Cleopatra (the name of the most famous queen of antiquity) and Thais (the name of a famous courtesan). Of course it is possible that Queen Cleopatra and the courtesan Thais endorsed cosmetic products, but I think it is more likely their names were chosen for their connotations: sexual appeal, luxury, pleasure…

So what about our Patrician Pelagia? Was Aetius referring to a historical character, a noble Pelagia, or was he calling upon the connotations attached to that name. And what might those connotations have been? ‘Pelagia’ was the name of various Saints, the most famous of which was undoubtedly the – perhaps fictional – Pelagia the Harlot, who started her life as a famous ‘actress’ from Antioch, and converted to Christianity under the influence of the bishop Nonnus. The story of her life, written in the fifth century, became extremely popular. (See here for a translation).

Now, beauty, ornaments and smell play an important role in that story.[1] When Nonnus first encountered the prostitute Pelagia, she was going through the streets of Antioch, sat on a donkey, covered in pearls and gold (but nothing else), and ‘as she went past, the air was filled with the sweet scent of musk and other perfumes.’ The sight and scent of the harlot led the poor Nonnus into temptation, for which he repented through prayer. The night of the following Sunday, Nonnus had a dream in which a dove covered in filth passed by the altar during Mass, its ‘stink so strong as to be difficult to bear’. After Mass, the dream went on, Nonnus plunged the dove in a pool in front of the church. It came out ‘as white as snow’. That dream spurred Nonnus to give the most inspiring sermon in Church that day and, as it happened, Pelagia the harlot was in attendance. Awed by the power of the bishop’s words, she converted–and went on to lead a life of repentance, disguised as the eunuch Pelagius.

Saint Pelagia surrounded by her admirers; Nonnus prays. 14th century French Manuscript Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Français 185, Fol. 264v
Saint Pelagia surrounded by her admirers; Nonnus prays. 14th century French Manuscript: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Français 185, Fol. 264v

Thus Pelagia goes from a journey from  over-sexualised, artificial beauty redolent of perfumes masking the stink of filth to resplendent, gender-neutral, god-inspired beauty. Interestingly, one striking feature of Pelagia’s soap is its snow-whiteness, which may perhaps have recalled Nonnus’ white dove. It also has no added scent: its odour is that of tallow soap, which may appear unpleasant to the unaccustomed modern nose, but is by no means overpowering. Finally, this concoction contains none of the luxurious, exotic ingredients that so commonly feature in ancient recipes. This simple, bland-smelling, snow-white preparation may perhaps have brought to mind the tale of the repentant courtesan.

It may seem odd to use the name of Saint to advertise a cosmetic product, but the name ‘Pelagia’ would have lent the recipe the right balance of ‘naughtiness’ and ‘sanctity’. A product whose name evoked a repentant harlot would have been a ‘safe’ choice for an honourable, Christian woman who still wanted to look her best. After all, she was worth it!

[1] I wish to thank my former student, Caroline Musgrove, for drawing my attention to this fact.