Sickness Personified: Clandestine Remedies from Colonial Yucatán

By R.A. Kashanipour

I curse you, little seizures! Whose erupting pox are you? Eruptions on the head and body, open eruptions, internal eruptions, fiery eruptions…” [1] So begins a highly ritualized remedy for fever, eruptions, and seizures from late colonial Yucatán. As I noted in my last post, sickness and disease were endemic throughout colonial Latin America and brought together distinct traditions of healing. As this remedy and the dozens of others from the manuscript known as Ritual of the Bacabs show, eighteenth-century Mayas of the Yucatán were not silent victims of disease. Instead, they understood sickness and infirmity as extensions of the natural and human world. They incorporated ancient traditions and firmly rooted healing in colonial context. And, as I would like to note in this post, healers personified and naturalized diseases to bolster their own therapeutic powers.

Before returning to this remedy, I want to touch on the manuscript source and then briefly make note of ancient traditions of Maya healing. Ritual of the Bacabs is a collection of healing incantations, prayers, and remedies written in Yucatec Maya sometime in the eighteenth century. This unique work, which today is held at Princeton University, addresses afflictions common to the colonial world, including pox (kak), difficulty breathing (coc), and difficulty walking (chibal oc). The devastating affects of disease are often noted as seizures (tancas). Several cures associate these outbursts with their origins, such as walking seizures (ah oc tancas), while others ascribe direct ties to the natural world as their sources, including macaw-jaguar seizures (mo balam tancas) and tarantula seizures (chiuoh tancas). The culturally bound ailment often described as madness (coil) regularly appears associated with extreme cases of the pox and seizures.

On the whole, the remedies of the text illustrate the ongoing revision of long-standing Maya traditions in the face of colonial institutions. In particular, in the pre-Hispanic period, infirmity and remediation were associated with the supernatural world and directly tied to the deities Ix Chel and Itzamná. In 1571, Diego de Landa, the second Bishop of Yucatán and infamous crusader against pagan practices, noted Ix Chel’s centrality to healing.

“The physicians and the sorcerers assembled in one of their houses with their wives… they opened bundles of their medicine, in which they kept many little things… little idols of the goddess of medicine, whom they called Ix Chel .”

Diego de Landa, ca. 1570

The two deities, the goddess of the moon and lord of the sun, were bound as husband and wife and mirroring elements of health and sickness.

Ix Chel and Itzamna This rollout image from a classic period pot depicts the goddess Ix Chel (center) caring for an ailing Itzamná (right) and a female healer (left) performing a healing ritual.  The leaves surround the infirmed and bedridden Itzamná most likely represent the purgatives used to induce the deer to vomit. A vulture appears underneath the old god’s bed, just to make clear that his condition is dire.  © Justin Kerr, K2794,
Ix Chel and Itzamna
This rollout image from a classic period pot depicts the goddess Ix Chel (center) caring for an ailing Itzamná (right) and a female healer (left) performing a healing ritual. The leaves surround the infirmed and bedridden Itzamná most likely represent the purgatives used to induce the deer to vomit. A vulture appears underneath the old god’s bed, just to make clear that his condition is dire. © Justin Kerr, K2794,

During the colonial period, local Church authorities attempted to root out any expressed association with ancient religions. In healing, however, it is clear they were unsuccessful. These deities, who were central to the creation mythology of the Classical Maya, were represented as powerful animistic forces in the healing text. In a remedy for a breathing affliction in Ritual of the Bacabs, both Itzamna and Ix Chel are invoked to harness the use of the powerful cardinal directions. The enchanter is to “for four days, shake the face of the red Ix Chel, the white Ix Chel, the yellow Ix Chel; four days he shakes the face of the red Itzamna.” [3] These supernatural forces figure prominently in the background of numerous remedies. They serve to root the cures in line with ancient traditions, which endured well into the colonial period.

File:Goddess O Ixchel.jpg
Ix Chel with her Rabbit
In this image from a Classic period earthenware polychome vase, a seated Ix Chel appears with her rabbit, which is often identified as one of her animal spirit companions. She appears as a young woman, dressed in the regalia of a noble, complete with headdress. The original object is housed at Museum of Fine Arts Boston and available digitally here.

The remedies of Ritual of the Bacabs represent a clandestine system of ritualized healing that directly built on past Maya practices, such as the invocation of Ix Chel. As a text designed for alienating and eliminating sickness, the curanderos that penned the work most likely identified themselves as a special Maya class of healers known as mak ik or benevolent shamans that controlled healing winds. In this way, they stood in line with ancient traditions, but were fully immersed in colonial experience.

[1] Ritual of the Bacabs, Princeton University Library, Garrett-Gates Collection, Mesoamerican Manuscript No. 1, folio 100.

[2] Diego de Landa and Alfred M. Tozzer, Landa’s Relación De Las Cosas De Yucatan: A Translation. (New York: Kraus, 1966), 154.

[3] Ritual of the Bacabs, folio 65.

From the Archives: Springtime in Recipe Books

As spring is on the horizon in the northern hemisphere, this post from our archives presents a wonderful reminder of the ways that seasonality figured into early modern remedies and recipes. This piece originally appeared on March 17, 2016. Just as spring was thought to be an industrious time in 18th century England, let us all hope for vernal productivity in 2022! – R.A. Kashanipour

By: Katherine Allen

Spring has sprung and I can’t help but ponder the significance of spring for recipe collectors in the late 17th and 18th century. Citations of spring in recipes highlight the importance of changing seasons and new growth, in terms of both health and productivity in the household. As Melissa Schultheis recently explored, temporality was closely connected to understanding the body. Here I consider two aspects of springtime: the prominence of spring and changes in climate for humoral-based regimens, and spring as the season for gathering (or purchasing) medical ingredients.

In recipe collections, we often find information on what time of year and for how long a person should take a remedy, and the two seasons most often cited are spring and fall. In 18th-century recipe books, remedies for the king’s evil, scurvy, rickets, dropsy, and gout were often recommended with this temporal remit. Springtime regimens were used to treat and prevent ailments arising from shifts in temperature and climate, changes in activities, and diet modifications with seasonal food availability (and potentially allergens).

Vegetable Syrup advertisement from the Whitehall Evening Post in Anna Maria Reeve’s collection (MS.2363, f. 64: Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London).
Vegetable Syrup advertisement from the Whitehall Evening Post in Anna Maria Reeve’s collection (MS.2363, f. 64. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London).

Galenic medicine, and with it the concept of balancing the four humors, remained fundamental in medical practice into the 18th century. Spring was a warm and moist time of year, meaning that its favoured constitutions were more sanguine and less melancholic. It was a time of rejuvenation, longer daylight, and individuals were encouraged to avoid napping and to exercise in the morning. Bleeding and purging in spring were also believed to be preventative measures for avoiding ailments like fevers.

Sister Arscott’s ‘Collick Drops’ remedy was said to cure the ‘Morbus Galicus’ (syphilis), among other ailments, when taking in two ounce doses three days a week in spring and fall.[1] Sometimes recipes indicate specific months. The Trumbull family’s collection has a remedy for a rupture approved by an Aunt Barker, which included wearing a plaster and a truss while anointing it with amber oil twice a day, ‘especially [in] ye monthes of February March & April’.[2]

Even commercial medicines specified spring as an ideal time to purchase and take a remedy. For treating scurvy, the well-known patent cure ‘Vegetable Syrup’ advertisement noted that a T. Huckings felt it was necessary to take ‘a quantity every spring and autumn’. Huckings claimed that he intended to begin a course ‘on the first of March next’.[3] This testimony served as a marketing technique for promoting the remedy’s repeated use.

Spring was also an important season for making medicine. Previous posts on gathering ingredients have discussed the significance of gathering herbal ingredients in spring or early summer when they are available, and also while they are young and have stronger medicinal properties.

Pilewort. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Pilewort. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Elizabeth Jenner’s recipe ‘to make Green oyntment’ for conditions like burns used pilewort which, ‘in A forward Spring’ you can ‘get it ye end of April wn ye Green leafe is Something like A Scurvy Grass leaf & bares A yallow flower like A Crasie’.[4] The Tyrrell family’s collection similarly has a wound drink listing 23 herbs to be ‘gathered in May to keep all the year’. The herbs were ‘not good after they are a yeare old, & after two yeares stark nought’.[5] One eye remedy even went as far as specifying that the ‘briony [bryony] must be taken up ye 10th of march’.[6]

Animals too were collected in spring. This is likely because animals were more active in spring, and juveniles (with their stronger medicinal properties) were also available. To make worm powder for treating colic and convulsions 14-15 worms were to be collected, and April and May were ‘the best time for making this’.[7] Another remedy for convulsions was a powder made of moles, ‘to be made only in March & September’.[8] Indicating that ‘a dead Mole is good for nothing, you must cut the throat alive’, suggests that this remedy was best prepared in the months when the moles were most active and also medicinally efficacious.

Mole Powder for Convulsion Fits in an anonymous collection (D-LO/6/17/112, f. 2. Image Credit: Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies).
Mole Powder for Convulsion Fits in an anonymous collection (D-LO/6/17/112, f. 2. Image Credit: Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies).

Spring was an industrious time in 18th century English households. It was a time to be pro-active in preventing illness through regimens of medicine, exercise and diet, particularly as the social and agricultural seasons approached. The environment’s influence on the body was a feature of 18th century healthcare, and remedies both made and purchased were tied to the centrality of self-management in changing seasons. Forward planning was also clearly necessary to source plant and animal-based ingredients and to create medicines. Recipe books hence usefully document spring as a productive time for household and health management.

[1] MS.981, f. 138. Wellcome Library, London.
[2] Add.72619, f. 114. British Library.
[3] MS.2363, f. 64. Wellcome Library, London.
[4] MS.3029, f. 50. Wellcome Library, London.
[5] MS.7822, f. 11r.-11v. Wellcome Library, London.
[6] MS.27466, f. 85. British Library.
[7] Add.72619, f. 115v. British Library.
[8] D-LO/6/17/112, f. 2. Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies.

A Tale of Chiles, a Servant, and a Travelling Medical Scholar in Early Modern China

By Brian Dott

Fig. 1. A few of the many varieties of chiles available at a market in Kunming, Yunnan, China. (Image Credit: Dott, 2017)


Fascinated by early modern Chinese cultural history, I research popular religion, especially pilgrimage, and the culinary and medical uses of chile peppers.  Eating Sichuan food, I wondered “how did the Chinese begin to consume such a spicy, introduced plant?”  All the myriad varieties of the chile pepper originated in the Americas.  They probably reached China in the 1570s.  The earliest known Chinese source dates to 1591 (Gao Lian, Zunsheng bajian [Eight discourses on nurturing life]).  While past and present Chinese use chiles most for culinary flavoring, Chinese adoption and adaption of this American pod did not take off until the chile was classified medically and some of its empirical effects within the human body observed. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), there is no clear distinction between things taken into the body as sustenance and as medicine – everything taken in affects health.  Indeed, one medical text talking about chiles informs the reader: “To make medicine, chop finely, mix with pork fat and fry to make a dish” (Xu Wenbi, Xinbian shoushi chuanzhen [New compilation of the transmitted truths on longevity], 1771).  Furthermore, the earliest text to explicitly mention using chiles to flavor food is best described as a medical text (Shiwu bencao [Pharmacopeia of edible items], 1621).

As Carla Nappi has explored in her series of posts, Translating Recipes, some recipes read as stories or conversations.  Sharing medical recipes allows modern readers to listen in on narratives from the past.  A key author for my exploration is Zhao Xuemin (1719-1805).  Zhao was a medical practitioner and author who worked to update Chinese medical knowledge by including newly introduced ingredients (such as the chile pepper) and knowledge from less well-known practitioners.  He traveled extensively to consult with local experts, and incorporated materials from their manuscripts into his own work.  Indeed, less than a hundred years after his most famous work was completed, more than half of the works he cited were no longer extant (Bencao gangmu shiyi [Correction of omissions in the Systematic pharmacopeia]).

Chiles as Treatment for Malaria

Chiles were used as both a treatment for people who had contracted malaria and as a prophylactic to prevent infection.  A local history from Guangdong stated that “All [varieties of chiles] can remove water-borne malaria and disperse rheumatism.  . . .  In Guangxi malaria is even more prevalent.  One cannot go a single day without [them]” (Enping county gazetteer, 1766).  Zhao Xuemin recounts the following story about chiles and malaria:

Because [the chile’s] property is hot [it can act as a] dispersant by entering the heart and spleen meridians.  It can also disperse water damp.  In guihai (1743), I was in Lin’an [near Hangzhou], in the 6th month a young servant drank cold water and slept on the cold, damp ground, by autumn they had developed malaria.  [They took] myriad medicines without result.  In early winter, by chance [they] ate some chile paste.  They found this very palatable, and needed it with every meal.  In addition they also used [chiles] in a medicinal broth with meals.  Before long the malaria was cured. (Zhao Xuemin, Bencao gangmu shiyi, j. 8, 73b)

Zhao gives a scene setting – place and time.  He introduces the patient, including an emphasis on class, which indirectly provides an explanation for the poor choice of sleeping place.  Zhao also provides us with his explanation for how the infection occurred – conditions involving cold and water.  The heating and damp expelling characteristics of the chile are the traits Zhao sees as important for effecting this cure.  That the servant ate chile paste by chance means that it was probably commonly used, even in a region where the elite culinary traditions rejected strong flavors.  Here, we may be seeing class differences, as the lower classes in China tended to adopt the chile long before the elites.  Chiles could be homegrown, did not have to be purchased in a market, and helped make a starch-based diet tastier. 

The fact that the servant found the chile paste to be “palatable” reflects an understanding in TCM that an individual’s body can instill a craving for things it needs.  Furthermore, while that need and craving exist, strong or even unpleasant tastes and smells become bland or “palatable.”  Zhao is refreshingly candid that older cures (presumably including some of his own) had no effect.  We can also see the importance he placed on empirical knowledge – not just relying on systems and traditional classifications.  It appears that once he noticed an improvement in the patient’s condition, after the chance introduction of chile paste into their diet, Zhao introduced another form of chiles—medicinal broth – into the treatment regimen.  To modern readers, Zhao is frustratingly vague about the recipes for these treatments.  At one level, such details were probably not necessary for his intended audience – exact ingredients in the paste probably did not matter, as long as chiles were present, and everyone knew how to brew a medicinal broth.  More importantly, the anecdotal aspect of the description created an informal tone that may have made this treatment more believable to past readers than any mere list of ingredients.


For further reading (and recipes), see  Brian Dott, The Chile Pepper in China: A Cultural Biography, Columbia University Press, 2020.

“Very good are the words of the wise”: Plagues and Remedies of the Colonial Maya

By R.A. Kashanipour

Early Spanish settlers, administrators, and chroniclers frequently lamented how Old World diseases ravaged native communities in the New World. The famed Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas described the ferocity of the first epidemics: “Then came a terrible plague, and almost everyone died, and very few remained.”[1] We know much about the devastation, but less about the everyday responses of the victims of disease, especially in the Americas where death and destruction accompanied conquest and colonialism.

In colonial Mexico, native scribes and healers recorded local remedies and cures as they treated populations ravaged by endemic and epidemic sicknesses. During the eighteenth century, a series of anonymous Maya curanderos (folk healers) recorded local ideas of science and medicine in a manuscript titled Tratado de las siete planetas y otro de medicinarium (Treatise on the Seven Planets and another on Medicine). Commonly known as the Chilam Balam de Kaua, this work circulated beliefs and practices about the natural world as it passed among healers. The work synthesized European accounts of astrology with Maya understandings of the ritual calendar.

Title Page of the manuscript known as the Chilam Balam de Kaua. The work derives its name from a sixteenth century Maya shaman known as the Chilam Balam (Jaguar Priest) and the community in which the manuscript was written, Kaua. This image is of a Photostat from 1920 housed at the Library of Congress. The original manuscript is lost.]
Title Page of the manuscript known as the Chilam Balam de Kaua. The work derives its name from a sixteenth century Maya shaman known as the Chilam Balam (Jaguar Priest) and the community in which the manuscript was written, Kaua. This image is of a Photostat from 1920 housed at the Library of Congress. The original manuscript is lost.]

Healers recorded remedies for common afflictions and ailments that reflected the intertwined relationships of the colonizers and colonized. An early passage of the work admonished readers to hold the knowledge with respect and care. “Very good are the words of the wise. [These are] recipes in the Maya language for those Indians that want to understand this medicine. Arte, it is called for those who are sick, also for those that are strong and well. Very good are the words of the wise.” [2]

The healers of the Chilam Balam de Kaua recorded remedies in indigenous terms that often reflected European categories of disease. Cures addressed common illnesses, such as cough (en), cold (sis), fever (chakuil), and periodic epidemic diseases like smallpox (nohoch kak), yellow fever (vómito de sangre), or measles (sarampión). There were remedies for everyday afflictions: headache (chibal pol) and earache (chibal xicin). Others were punctuated with magical intervention, including sorcery (pulbil yaah) and evil flowers (mal floral). Treatments attempted to reduce the aches that welcomed life–childbearing (alancil) and painful swollen breast (ya umil chup)–and the pains that greeted death–bleeding (kik) and cancer (caanzeel). There were remedies to treat the difficulties of manual labor: wounds (cinpahal), swellings (chuchup), and broken bones (sayal bac). In total, the Chilam Balam de Kaua contains over three hundred and thirty remedies.

One of the numerous cures for fevers captures the interaction between Mayan and Spanish knowledge systems.

A remedy for fever (tzacal chacuil) by the ancient people, here is the consumption tree (nech bac che), its other name is fever tree. This is boiled in water to wash people who have a fever. [The affliction] is called weakness (nach bahal) in their language and this is ético in the language of the Spaniards. Then leaves of the plant should be taken with the leaves of the night herb (akab xiu), whose leaves are pleasant smelling. The same amount of leaves are mixed together and boiled until soft. They may be taken [this way]. When the water is half finished, the affirmed may be bathed with the hot water, as hot as can be allowed. Four or five times, this is done… When covered and cool, they may arise to chocolate (cacau) leaves and the night herb… The consumption tree is to be twisted with the chocolate plant.[3]

Fevers were undoubtedly common in colonial Yucatán. As with most Yucatec remedies, the application appeared straightforward and matched symptoms with treatment. The heat of the fever was to be broken with a simmering herbal bath, followed by a concoction of herbs with chocolate.

The record keeper, however, also noted that remedy’s pre-Hispanic origins, establishing a connection to the past. In diagnosing the affliction, however, ancient Maya knowledge linked with contemporary Spanish perspectives. These fevers were called nach bahal or ético and, as such, the remedy could apply to Mayas and Spaniards alike.

The materials for the remedy were exclusively comprised of wild herbs, tying the uncontrolled disease with the unconquered frontier. While most healers may have sourced domesticated plants from herb vendors (yerbateros), this remedy required plants of the forest. The cure required knowledge of Mayan biological landscapes; to produce this remedy, the healer needed access to the untamed frontiers of the province.

This remedy, like so many of colonial Yucatán, showed that “the words of the wise” involved the convergence of distinct traditions in the everyday practices of curing. The Chilam Balam de Kaua and other medicinal manuscripts from colonial Latin America illustrate the localized processes in the production and circulation of medical knowledge in the early modern world.

[1] Bartolomé de Las Casas, Historia de las Indias (México: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1951) 3: 270.

[2] Chilam Balam de Kaua (photostat reproductions), f. 7, Container 25,Ac. 4056, Indian Languages Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

[3] Chilam Balam de Kaua, f. 175.