Variable Matters (Basel, 20-22 September 2019), organized by Barbara Orland and Stefanie Gänger

By Stefanie Gänger

Hosted at Basel’s beautiful Pharmacy Museum, the conference “Variable Matters” was designed to bring together historians with an interest in the movement of medicinals and knowledge about them between and across societies in the world of the ‘long’ eighteenth century. Participants talked about very different kinds of substances – vanilla, calomel, bezoars – and studied them in rather diverse contexts – anything from the Swiss Alps to the Bolivian Andes – but everyone was reflecting, in one way or another, on the subjects of medicine trade, therapeutic exchange, and epistemic brokerage.

Several speakers engaged with one or another aspect of the communication of medical knowledge about foreign or unfamiliar ‘simples’ to other cultural imaginaries, medical localities, and therapeutic traditions. Quite a few papers dealt with the acquisition, transfer and codification of remedies associated with the ‘exotic’. Emma Spary, in a public keynote lecture, discussed the introduction of vanilla to France. Vanilla, originally from the Spanish Viceroyalty of New Spain, was becoming familiar in France from the late 1600s, and the talk focused on the various issues – of translation, transport, and taste – involved in moving the plant and knowledge about it across vast expanses of space. In another paper, we heard about the growing consumption of tea in the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Low Countries from Marieke Hendriksen, who was just starting a new project on the role of subjective experience and taste in the acquisition and communication of knowledge about ‘new’, exotic materia medica. Hjalmar Fors’ talk, in turn, discussed the constraints that Europeans operated under in their encounter with ‘exotic’ plants more broadly – what they deemed worth knowing, or valuable about them, on account of those constraints – and on the botanical and (al-)chemical practices that would reduce them to a semblance of – European – order.

The delegates of the conference

Other papers discussed the acquisition, transfer and codification of remedies associated with the ancient, or artisanal. Francesco Luzzini spoke of the Italian physician and naturalist Antonio Vallisneri’s interest in ‘popular’ therapeutics, including his inquiries into the mineral remedies in use among miners, and artisans. Laurence Totelin, in turn, talked about the reception and critique of ancient antidotes like mithridatium and theriac in the eighteenth century, through treatises like William Heberden’s 1745 Antitheriaca. Heberden also figured in other talks, especially in Chris Duffin’s, which explored the contents of eighteenth-century medical chests – including Heberden’s teaching cabinet – that encompassed anything from Mesoamerican cochineal to album graecum.

Other papers engaged with the relationship between homegrown, or ‘indigenous’, medicines and novel, unfamiliar substances. Silvia Flubacher, in a paper co-authored with Simona Boscani, talked about the eighteenth-century market in ‘German bezoars’ extracted from Swiss chamois, or goats, a medical commodity that emerged in reaction to overprized exotic bezoars, as part of a discursive revaluation of the ‘local’. Other speakers engaged with ‘their’ substances’ ontological instability, the many acts of adaptation, customizing and calibration a medical substance’s journeys might entail. Irina Podgorny’s talk in particular, focusing on the example of eagle stones – hollow geode stones worn as amulets with a longstanding reputation for protecting pregnant women, or comforting women grieving the loss of a child – discussed not only shifts in the stones’ nomenclature and therapeutic indications as they travelled from Europe to Spanish America; it also studied how the very name – ‘eagle stone’ – was transferred to various objects that were concomitantly attributed analogous properties: to American fossils, and pietists collections of prayers alike.

Other speakers focused on the formats used to convey medical knowledge. Clare Griffin presented a paper on the gradual incorporation of American herbal medicines into Russian recipes over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while Matthew J. Eddy delivered a paper on a series of medical consultation letters between the prominent Edinburgh physician William Cullen and a Quaker woman, and the ensuing give-and-take of their negotiations over the proper medicines. Sabrina Minuzzi’s paper, in turn, studied the correspondence and publications – cheap pamphlets, in the majority – of Johannes Behm (c. 1640–1731), or Giovanni Beni, a physician, plant collector and broker who moved knowledge about medicinals and therapeutic practices around, especially between northern and southern Europe, but also with the East Indies, owing to his contacts with merchants, plant traders and botanists alike.

The Basel Pharmacy Museum.

In-between papers, we had the privilege of a guided tour of the Pharmacy Museum by the organizer, Barbara Orland, and the museum’s acting director, Philippe Wanner, who did their very best guiding a bunch of excited specialists through the collection (what with everyone chatting excitedly, and constantly getting side-tracked, by charred monkey skulls, preserved seahorses, or actual eagle stones!).

Remember, remember the fifth of November

The Early Modern Recipes Online Collective transcribathon for 2019 is coming soon… November 5! Flex those fingers, boot up your computer, and get ready to join in, because this is no ordinary transcribathon.

Please join EMROC for our fifth annual international transcribathon as we transcribe an anonymous early modern medical recipe book (which includes recipes for whiskey and novel uses for oatmeal). It’s a super source, which Rebecca Laroche describes here. We will have transcription groups working in at least a dozen locations around the world, on three continents, with people coming and going virtually throughout the day.

The goal? To complete a transcription of a recipe book, making it easier for users to search than a digitised manuscript. This will eventually be available through the Folger Shakespeare’s Library catalogue alongside page images. Our other goal is to have fun with a community of people interested in transcribing and recipes, whatever their skill level.

We have lots of exciting activities planned to accompany our transcribing delights, which will run from 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. GMT.

There will be:

  • subject hashtags on Twitter: #EMROCtranscribes, #feministOED, #materialhealthtech, #animalproducts, and more. (Details on the EMROC blog.)
  • a Zoom link (https://essex-university.zoom.us/j/706439992) all day to connect participants from around the globe.
  • and speakers!

Joining Zoom

Zoom is an easy-to-use platform that enables participants to ask the EMROC team questions throughout the day and to chat with other transcribers. You don’t need any special tools, either. Just click on our Zoom link, download the exe (if you don’t already have Zoom), and you’ll be in. There are details here on how to join, participate, and leave. We are hoping that the chat and Q&A functions on Zoom will make it easier for novice transcribers to get help quickly, as well as to bring the transcriber community together.

Speakers

The Department of History at the University of Essex is also hosting an EMROC panel on ‘Recipes in the Making’, which focuses on the manuscript we’re transcribing. Speakers include Heather Wolfe (Folger Shakespeare Library), Sara Pennell (Greenwich), and Anne Stobart (Exeter).

The panel will be recorded, though it won’t be up immediately…

Survey?

We would love it if you filled in our pre-transcribathon survey, which will take no more than five minutes of your time. The survey will help us to learn more about our participants’ interests and backgrounds.

https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/7T9HKR5

If you want to join in or have other questions, please do let me know on Twitter (@historybeagle) or by email (lisa.smith@essex.ac.uk).

Thank you so much for your interest in our transcribathon and for filling in the survey. We would be so excited to transcribe with you on November 5.

An earlier version of this post appeared first at emroc.hypotheses.org.

Tales from the Archives — A Plant for the End of the World

As I sift through materials for my own research on manuals and strategies for famine prevention, I’ve had to spend a lot of time thinking about plants. The near-obsession with the healing properties of plants pervades premodern East Asia, not just in the pharmacological sense but in nourishing one’s moral character.

When recording a book of recipes to stave off starvation, at least in the Japanese case, authors resorted to ingredients at the edge of edibility: fibrous stalks and wild roots, pulped tree bark, the scum from the bottom of your neighbor’s used rice pot. Yet they were equally concerned with spiritual upkeep as they were with bodily preservation.

Why?

So, I went digging through our own archives here at The Recipes Project and, to my great delight, discovered Michael Stanley-Baker’s contribution on botanicals for sustenance and salvation in premodern China: “A Plant for the End of the World.” I hope it sates your appetite for pondering plants too, or at least whets it.


By Michael Stanley-Baker

Atractylodes chinensis (DC.) 蒼朮, from the Jiuhuang bencao 救荒本草 (Materia Medica for Surviving Famine) 1.101a
Atractylodes chinensis (DC.) 蒼朮, from the Jiuhuang bencao 救荒本草 (Materia Medica for Surviving Famine, pub. 1525) 1.101a

Located in his mountain retreat near the Floriate Sunlight Cavern on Mount Mao, China’s earliest recorded pharmacologist, Tao Hongjing, is deep in his studies. He is editing the earliest known recension of the Chinese Pharmacopoeia, the Divine Husbandman’s Pharmacopoeia (Shennong bencao jing 神農本草經). It is about the year 500, and Tao is also compiling a collection of manuscripts, sacred revelations to a local family, the Xus 許 of Jurong, revealed to them over 130 years earlier. Collectively titled the Declarations of the Perfected (Zhen’gao 真誥), they cover all manner of topics that interested the Xus, from personal salvation, bodily cure, the contours of the underworld, to the political careers of their friends who had died and passed over into the bureaucracies of the afterlife. One manuscript in this collection celebrates a plant native to the Mao mountains, the herb atractylodes, cangzhu 蒼朮.  It describes not only the medical properties of the plant but an entire array of health-related and salvific practices. It is revealed by the Goddess, the Lady of Purple Tenuity, Ziwei Wang furen 紫微王夫人, whose title refers to the canopy of heaven surrounding the pole star. This manuscript, copied in the hand of the younger of the two Xu brothers, Xu Hui 許翽, is titled Discourse on Eating Atractylodes (Fu zhu xu 服朮序).  It begins at the end of time, with the apocalypse that was predicted for the year 392. In succeeding layers, the Lady of Purple Tenuity describes different practices for dealing with the disease, warfare and famine to come.

Excerpt from reconstructed Mawangdui Daoyin tu, excavated from tomb dated to 168 BCE. Wellcome Images
Excerpt from reconstructed Mawangdui Daoyin tu, excavated from tomb dated to 168 BCE.
Wellcome Images

There are massage and breathing exercises which nourish vitality (yangsheng 養生) to ensure robust health while drawing meditative awareness to the interior of the body.  These circulate qi and activate divine beings in the body.1 Other similar repertoires from this period further included daoyin 導引 stretching like those pictured here, sexual cultivation, and diet.

Visualisation of the dipper stars descending into the adept's body, and returning, bringing the adept with them.
Visualisation of the dipper stars descending into the adept’s body, and returning, bringing the adept with them. 上 清金闕帝君五斗三一圖訣.

The Lady of Purple Tenuity goes on to describe the next phase of practice, in which the adept visualizes starry gods of the dipper and other asterisms as celestial bureaucrats, inviting them to take up residence in the body. These visualizations anthropomorphize the bodily awareness of earlier breathing meditations, and match the body with the movements of the stars, of the seasons, of the five phases.  Then come fantastic alchemicals, beyond material making or financial access, which stretch the imagination and aspiration:

Tiger spittle, phoenix brain, white cornelian, jade frost, lunar liquor of the Grand Bourne, thrice-cycled numinous steel.  If you offer up a knife-point’s worth, your divine feathery wings will spread wide. Opening up the supreme writs of the void-like cavern, you will blaze in glory in the chamber of the primordial beginning…2

Visualisation of Cranial Gods. 上清金書玉字上經
Visualisation of Cranial Gods. 上清金書玉字上經

Finally, Lady Wang lays out the highest levels of practice: oration of the Great Cavern Scripture (Dadong zhenjing 大洞真經), and the other supreme texts of the tradition. These install supreme deities throughout the body, grant immortality and ascension to the highest layers of heaven. They will cause the 5 organs to flourish and thrive and guard and close the mysterious portal [between the eyes]. Visualize the nine perfected [beings] within the brain and the three qi will transport fluids [through the body] and irrigate the elixir field.3

Only then, Lady Wang begins to discuss plants:

One can add [to one’s lifespan] with the five micas, water cassia, atractylodes root, polygonatum, Lyonia Ovalifolia, sunflower, eastern stone, malachite, oily pine nuts, sesame, poria. These are all tools for cultivating life; using them can lengthen your years. I have completely investigated the successes and failures of trees and herbs. There are those which quickly benefit to oneself, but none equal the many proofs of the power of Atractylodes.4

It is here where she reveals that atractylodes, alone among all others, can dispel ghost-borne diseases at the millennial climax. The plant among plants, it is the key to survival in the end times.

Eat this potent herb to care for your health, swallow the floriate springs of clear rivers; study the secret instructions concerning mysterious wonders, and intone hidden texts of the most high. If you do this nesting high in mountain caves, you’ll be able to talk of your years in the same terms as metal and stone.5

This is not just a recipe for making a drug, it is a recipe for life, for salvation. Three recipes using atractylodes appear elsewhere in the Declarations as separate documents. They each describe technical details of boiling, sieving and pulping the root, frying it with wine or mixing it with honey, jujubes or pine nuts.  Other passages in Tao’s collection show that the Xu family were taking atractylodes for different reasons: Xu Mi 許謐 the father, was taking it for his semi-paralysed arm. the youngest of his three sons, Xu Hui 許翽 was taking it to prepare his digestive system for austere ascetic diets where he would give up food entirely to live on herbs or just qi. But why articulate atractylodes into this larger program?  Giving it this special meaning bound up the Xus with the sacredness of the mountains on which it grew. During the cataclysm the Mao mountains were to be the site where the Lord of the Dao from on High would descend to save the worthy. The Xus chances of being saved depended on two kinds of merit.  Firstly, the merit gained from persevering in their spiritual practices and achieving bio-spiritual transformation .  However, their access to these practices was due to the merits of their ancestor, Xu Ah, who compassionately dispensed drugs and food in the region during epidemic and famine.  The salvific qualities of Atractylodes brought these two together, binding their elite heritage, and their spiritual practice, their past and their future, into a direct relationship with the land, the mountains and the local ecology of medicinal herbs. The very mountain where the Xus were destined to be saved was the same site Tao Hongjing had chosen for his own editorial efforts, both of the Declarations, and the Pharmacopoeia.  

What of the Lady of Purple Tenuity’s knowledge of actractyldoes travelled into Tao’s Pharmacopoeia, written for the emperor, and intended for exoteric transmission outside? The eschatology, the other practices, the Xus disappear in that work. The pharmacopoeic format is regular and predictable, each entry proceeding with the drug’s name, flavours, temperature, toxicity, major functions and so on. Atractylodes is reported useful here for blockage syndrome in the limbs, which was Xu Mi’s condition, and for digestive problems, which correlates to Xu Lian’s fasting. Furthermore, Tao’s annotations report that “Transcendent Scriptures say” that it can suppress epidemic poxes and disperse evil qi, codewords for ghostly diseases, echoing the claims of the Discourse. Do these separate collections indicate broader cultural distinctions between religion and medicine, between recipes and pharmacopoeias, between local and centralized, or esoteric and exoteric knowledge?

1 On Shangqing massage techniques and their relationship to self-divinization see Michael Stanley-Baker, “Palpable Access to the Divine: Daoist Medieval Massage, Visualisation and Internal Sensation” Asian Medicine 7 (2012): 101-127. On the broader project, see here.

2 虎沫鳳腦,雲琅玉霜,太極月醴,三環靈剛。若以刀圭奏矣,神羽翼張,乃披空同之上文,煒燁元始之室。Declarations of the Perfected (Zhen’gao 真誥), Tao Honging ed.,DZ DZ 1016,  6.2b.

3 使五藏生華,守閉元關內存九真,三氣運液,而灌溉丹田。 Ibid., 6.3a-b.

4 乃可加以五雲   、水桂,朮根,黄精,南燭,陽草,東石,空青,松柏,脂實,巨勝,茯苓。竝養生之具。將可以長年矣。吾   又倶察草木之勝負。有速益於己者,竝未及朮勢之多驗乎。 Ibid., 6.3b. 5 餌靈朮以頤生,漱華泉於清川;研玄妙之祕   訣,誦太上之隱篇。於是高栖于峯岫,竝金石   而論年耶。  Ibid., 6.5b.

Tales from the Archives: Nit Picking the Greek and Roman Way

Here in the UK, school has recently started. For parents of young children, this brings the annual scratch-fest of lice. I haven’t yet found any, but I’ve already had at least two nightmares involving lice.  The post I’ve chosen doesn’t really discuss children specifically, even though this month is our annual teaching edition. But I do offer a tale from the archives that discusses some ancient lice treatments that would have been used on children (and adults)…

Nit Picking the Greek and Roman Way

By Laurence Totelin

One of the ‘joys’ of parenthood is dealing with lice and nits. In the UK, the NHS helpfully states that ‘there’s nothing you can do to prevent head lice.’ You can only prevent them from spreading like wild fire. This school year, the problem has deepened in England and Wales, as general practitioners have been prevented from prescribing free treatments in an attempt to make savings. Treatments on sale in pharmacies and supermarkets are exorbitantly priced and don’t work particularly well. Cheaper treatments, basically covering the hair with hair conditioner and combing, are extremely time consuming but perhaps more effective in the long run.

Nineteenth-century lice comb, India. The Science Museum, London. Source: Wellcome Images

Fighting off lice infestations in our household this year has made me wonder whether the Greeks and the Romans also dealt with the issue, and if so, how. I discovered that the ancients distinguished between the adult insect, the louse (phtheir in Greek), and its egg (konis in Greek), thereby showing an understanding that one cannot get rid of the pest without removing all eggs. They also recognised that lice can live on the head, the body, and even the eyebrows. They appreciated that the easiest way to treat an infestation was to shave the hair, although perhaps not as assiduously as Egyptian priests, who according to the Greek historian Herodotus (Histories 2.37), shaved their entire body every other day to avoid lice. That method, however, was not available to those who had to wear their hair long for social or cultural reasons. Thus, Herodotus again noted of the Adyrmachidae, a tribe of Libyans, that:

Their women wear twisted bronze ornaments on both legs; their hair is long; each catches her own lice, then bites and throws them away. They are the only Libyans that do this (Herodotus 4.168, translation A.D. Godley).

This observation is meant to stress the oddness and otherness of the Adyrmachidae, whose women fight lice in a disgusting manner, without even relying on the social ritual of nit picking.

Delousing. Illustration to the Hortus Sanitatis, fifteenth century. Source: Wellcome Images

What about treatments? Ancient Greek and Roman medical authors offer some possible solutions. The first-century pharmacologist Dioscorides recorded several methods in his De Materia Medica, many of which are still in use today. Some consisted in spreading the hair with a sticky or oily substance, such as cedar oil (1.77.2) or boiled honey (2.82.2), which would presumably have asphyxiated the lice and facilitated a combing process. Others involved smearing the hair with a plant sap (sap of ivy, 2.179.3) or decoction (decoction of tamarisk leaves, 1.87.2), which might have acted as an insect repellent or poison. Dioscorides also recommended the use of alum (5.106.6) and sea water (5.11.1). Perhaps more surprising is his suggestion to give garlic, drunk with a decoction of oregano (2.152.2).

Other medical authors gave slightly more complex recipes for the treatment of lice infestation. Thus, the sixth century author Alexander of Tralles (1.459) recommended a mixture of sodium carbonate, alum, and wild grapes, each in the amount of an ounce, mixed with myrtle oil and smeared onto the head. The seventh century medical author Paul of Aegina for his part claimed that ‘I am always successful when I anoint the head with wild grapes crushed together with vinegar and oil’ (3.3.8).

In short, most of those remedies are highly sensible, if perhaps not entirely effective. But then again, what is ever effective in fighting lice? There were, however, some tall tales circulating in antiquity regarding nits and lice. Dioscorides tells us that authorities whose names were not worth recording ‘say that those who are given [viper flesh] grow lice, which is false. And some add that those who eat vipers become long-lived’ (2.16.1). The trade off for a long life, then it seems, is to eat viper flesh and become a growing field for lice. I’m not sure I would make that trade off!