Category Archives: Minerals

Bright Red, Dark Red: Coral’s Color-Coded Virtues

By Jennifer Park

I have long wanted to explore the fascination with coral as an ingredient in the history of science and medicine. Laurence Totelin wonderfully began her post on the use of coral in an ancient amulet by placing coral “centre stage,” noting its curious and complex categorization as animal, plant, or stone, and bringing attention to the other posts in which the red ingredient has cropped up. In tandem with these fascinating mentions of coral, I have been struck for years by a remarkable image in the medieval French Livre des simples médecines which depicts coral on an apothecary’s shelf in a beautiful, vibrant red.

Livre des simples médecines, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS n.a. fr. 6593, fol. 12322.

In this post, I’d like to focus on coral’s red color, a key indicator of the ingredient’s effectiveness, and its naturally occurring virtues as explained in early modern texts. In his medical treatise, translated into English as Paracelsus his Dispensatory and Chirurgery (London,1656), the physician Paracelsus provides an entire treatise on “the Vertues and Preparations of CORALS.” From the start, Paracelsus’s examination focuses on the color of red coral, determining two main kinds: a “dark red colour, or toward a purple colour,” and “a bright, shining red colour” (39). It is the quality of the redness of coral, Paracelsus insists, that indicates its virtue and effectiveness.

Coral that has the “clear, bright, shining red colour”—and additionally which is “full of boughs, and no where broken”—is “full of power and vertue” (40). This virtue is lessened if the coral has “clefts” or is missing parts. Paracelsus uses this to begin his analysis of color differences in coral, and how those color differences indicate the use value of the coral in a number of different remedies.

Paracelsus’s starting premise is that the corals that have the bright red color are “pleasant and delectable,” while the “dark red” or purple are “not pleasant to the eye” (40). Correspondingly, Paracelsus advises that if you carry coral with you, one should “chuse and love the bright Coral,” but “beware…the dull, dark Coral” (40). This leads to Paracelsus’s emphasis of the role of color in distinct affective differences in coral. “As joy differs from sorrow, and laughing from weeping” he outlines, “so these two sorts of Corals differ the one from the other” (40). Therefore, a “sick or weak man, who would have his heart merry and joyfull” would “increase his disease and sadnesse of heart” were he to carry with him the darker colored coral (40-41).

In addition to the affective differences in brightly or darkly colored red coral, the redness of the coral, according to Paracelsus, serves to address one’s susceptibility to various mental, psychosomatic, and spiritual concerns. For example, bright red coral is “good to quicken Phansie, or imaginative faculty” (41), which helps to aid the “studie of Secrets, of Arts and Sciences, and new Inventions” without tiring the mind (41). This is because bright red coral prevents the mind from being infected by “the Divel,” or with “impurity, wickedness or vanity” (41); the dark red coral, however, “doth the contrary” (41).

Bright red coral also protects against “Phantasms, or nocturnal spirits” as well as “vain visions, or vain sights, call’d Spectra” (41). Phantasms and nocturnal spirits were believed to be both good and bad, related to nightmares. Though not of much use to humans, these phantasms were cumbersome in that they could trouble one’s thoughts. Bright red coral provides a remedy, as these phantasms “fly from these bright Corals as a dog from a staff,” although one must beware of the darker colored corals which, in contrast, attract these nocturnal spirits (42). Spectra, on the other hand, are ghosts, or as Paracelsus describes, the “Starry bodies of dead men” (42). These ghosts “cannot endure to be where the bright Coral is,” and thus bright red coral can be used as protection from them. In contrast, however, “dark coloured Coral allures” the ghosts (42).

It is perhaps due to the influence of bright red and dark red coral on both psychosomatic and supernatural afflictions, the spirits and ghosts that can plague early modern minds, that it also gains the reputation of aiding with melancholy. Melancholy, according to Paracelsus, is “a disease which makes a man sad whether he will or not; that he grows weary of every thing, and becoms dull: and by his diverse thoughts and speculations makes him grieve and weep” (43). Bright red coral is able to drive melancholy away, whereas the dark red coral increases melancholy.

Indeed, the early modern description of these virtues of a coral’s redness fits with the ways in which we ascribe affective significance to colors. The vibrancy of red coral thus contributes to its use in recipes that draw upon its redness, not only for its affective influence but also for its sympathetic properties, like the blood staunching remedies of antiquity that Laurence Totelin brings to light and the eighteenth-century bloodstone that Marieke Hendrikksen examines. As Paracelsus himself exclaims, “the mysteries and secrets of Corals are wonderfull” (51)!

Searching for Syphilis in Recipe Books

By Olivia Weisser

I have been on the search for syphilis – or venereal disease as it was known in England in the 1600s and 1700s. In that era, there was one broad disease category, “venereal disease,” for what we know now to be different STDs. Personal writing about venereal disease can be challenging to find because the disease was stigmatizing and disfiguring. Few individuals admitted to having venereal disorders in letters to healers and even fewer wrote about their experiences in personal writing. And yet the disease was rampant by the early decades of the 1700s. I set out for the archives with the hope that recipe books might provide rare glimpses into the private side of the disease. Of course, recipe books are by no means private forms of writing. In many instances, they were cherished objects bequeathed to friends or passed down through families. Yet the stigma of the disease created a market for treatment at home. Recipes, I hoped, could offer insights into that domestic practice.

I found a large number of recipes aimed at particular ailments, such as the falling sickness, but only a rare few targeted venereal disorders. One of these entries is from a 1680 book owned by Johanna St John. She recorded a remedy for treating heat and inflammation in venereal sores.

Johanna St. John, Recipe Book, Wellcome Library, London, MS.4338/127
Johanna St. John, Recipe Book, Wellcome Library, London, MS.4338/127

Recipes like this one are few and far between—but why? Perhaps venereal treatments were mostly cure-alls that are difficult to trace to one particular set of ailments. Peter Temple‘s “Balsome for wounds” treated 42 different disorders, for instance. Or perhaps authors chose not to label venereal cures as such in order to protect their reputations. Temple was openly interested in remedies for venereal disease, but he did not always categorize them as anti-venereals in his recipe book. He titled one entry “A drinke to heale any wound old greefe or sore,” which does not indicate a venereal cure. But at the bottom of the entry he added: “I believe this more proper for a wound given by one of venus fayr nimph.”

The ingredients in Temple’s wound drink are also telling. Several were believed to work as anti-venereals, including sarsaparilla and guaiacum. Instead of searching for a particular set of ailments, I started combing recipe books for ingredients associated with venereal cures. The most popular of these was mercury. Mercurial remedies took the form of pills, drinks, ointments, and even smoke that patients inhaled, and they were comprised of mercury in all of its forms: calomel, sublimate, liquid quicksilver, and cinnabar (mercury mixed with sulfur). Ingesting mercury causes excessive salivation, a reaction that today we associate with mercury poisoning. But within the humoral framework of health–in which abundant, imbalanced, or clogged fluids were thought to cause illness–prolific salivation was evidence of a potentially curative bodily transformation.

Caption: Albarello drug jar for Sublimate of Mercury, Italy, 1501-180, Wellcome Library, London
Albarello drug jar for Sublimate of Mercury, Italy, 1501-180, Wellcome Library, London

I found several recipes for mercurial ointments and waters. They were said to be good for treating itch, inflammation, ulcers, fistulas, or “old soares” – all common symptoms of venereal disorders. There were, it seems, recipes for venereal disease after all. They were just a bit tricky to find.

One recipe for mercury water was said to cure “all manner of Ulcers, Cancers, Fistulaes, the wolfe, and such other like infirmities & diseases.” Others targeted the physical effects of mercurials themselves. Here’s a recipe for curing bad breath caused by consuming mercury — one of the drug’s many conspicuous side effects.

A Book of Phisick, Wellcome Library, London, MS.1320/13
A Book of Phisick, Wellcome Library, London, MS.1320/13

This recipe calls for holding a piece of gold in the mouth, not the most accessible ingredient.

A recipe from Mary Birkhead’s book treated the bodily effects of consuming mercury:

Take the roots of marsh mallows gathered in the beginning of nouember and dried and kept till you haue ocation to use them take of the powder of the said roots halfe a spoonful and giue it to the patient in warme milke a good draught this euery 2 or 3 howers for 3 or 4 times but first giue the partey a vomit of a quarter of a pinte of salet oyle with bloud warme water.

My search for venereal disease in recipe books suggests that some authors were ashamed enough to veil or downplay the anti-venereal dimensions of their remedies. More broadly, my search points to an important lesson of historical research: the inability to find what we are looking for in the archive can be, itself, something worth knowing.

From bloodstone to fish soup: iron recipes

By Marieke Hendrikksen

In my research on the use of metals in eighteenth-century medical chemistry, iron has a special place. Unlike other metals, which were increasingly regarded as dangerous, iron remained a safe bet in blood-related diseases. However, up until the early nineteenth century, this understanding was not so much based on a chemical understanding of iron, but on the ancient principle of sympathetic medicine, in which a cure is associated – often materially – with the body part or disease it treats. An excellent example of this is bloodstone.

From antiquity onwards, the terms ‘lapis haematites’ and ‘bloodstone’ were used to refer to minerals or precious stones spotted or streaked with red, or red in colour, used as pigments by artisans and medicinally in the treatment of hemorrhage, or as a charm against injury or bleeding. Most descriptions seem to refer either to what is now known as heliotrope, a form of chalcedony, or more commonly to hematite, an iron oxide. Whereas in hermetic alchemical texts ‘blood’ often refers to the transforming arcanum, now commonly believed to be a form of mercury, bloodstone occurs predominantly in pharmacopeia and is clearly linked to blood because of its blood-like pigments. A quick test in my back yard shows how easy it is to yield ‘blood’ from bloodstone:

Grinding some chips of bloodstone gives a rusty red powder...
Grinding some chips of bloodstone gives a rusty red powder…
Result after adding some water.
Result after adding some water.

By the early eighteenth century, bloodstone was routinely listed in city pharmacopeia as a mineral that had to be stocked in the apothecary shop. Its association with and supposed influence on the blood was implied by its use in recipes for styptics, without reference to its iron-like nature. This does appear in more detailed sources in Latin though. The Amsterdam physician Stephen Blankaart for example described it in his 1701 Opera medica, theoretica, practica et chirurgica (Volume 1) as ‘dark red stone, like the name perhaps suggests coagulates the blood. It appears in long streaks, like wood, and can be split into sharp needles. It is found in the veins of iron mines and can be consumed by rust.’ 

Recipe for 'cookies' to cure excessive periods and bleeding hemorrhoids, consisting mainly of red ingredients. From Wouter van Lis's Pharmacopoea.
Recipe for ‘cookies’ to cure excessive periods and bleeding hemorrhoids, consisting mainly of red ingredients. From Wouter van Lis’s Pharmacopoea.

A clear example of how bloodstone was understood and applied by early modern apothecaries can be found in Wouter van Lis’s bilingual 1747 Pharmacopoea Galeno-Chemico-Medica, which gives information in both Latin and Dutch on the same page.[1] Van Lis gained a doctorate in medicine from Utrecht University in 1745 and probably authored this book to capitalize on his previous experience as an apothecary while he set up a practice as physician in another city.

Van Lis lists Bloodstone as a semi-metal, but he also refers to the origins of its name: ‘Bloodstone has a Rock- Earth- and Metal-like nature. Because of its paint that resembles blood, or because it is a styptic, it is called Bloodstone.’ In the chapter ‘Medicinal biscuits and stones,’ two recipes are listed for cookies containing bloodstone: they are said to cure heavy menses and bleeding haemorrhoids, as well as bloody stool. These two recipes are clearly based on sympathetic rather than chemical principals; they contain predominantly red ingredients, like coral and red flowers.

Ironically, anaemia caused by iron deficiency is still the most common nutritional health problem in the world today. I was fascinated to learn that health researchers are battling anaemia in rural Cambodia with reusable ‘lucky iron fish’ that are added to boiling soup or rice. The small amounts of iron released during cooking ensure the sufficient intake of iron. A vital part of the success of the ‘fish’ is its shape: fish is both a staple in the local diet, and a symbol of luck in Cambodian culture. Not exactly sympathetic medicine in the early modern sense, but this shows how important cultural understandings of materiality still can be in ensuring the correct use of medicinal substances and dietary supplements.

Just one final note–although iron, especially in small amounts, is essential and one of the more harmless metals for humans, an overdose can be poisonous. Like always, the dose makes the poison.

[1] Van Lis, Wouter, Gualtheri van Lis Pharmacopoea Galeno-Chemico-Medica… = Meng- Schei- … / Wouter van Lis Meng- Schei- En Geneeskonstige Artseny-Winkel (Amsterdam: Jan Morterre, 1747).

Harvesting Earth: Where Sustainability and Recipes Meet

By Jennifer Munroe


Dirt. Soil. These terms seem synonymous, but as a 2008 exhibit at the Smithsonian attests, they are far from the same thing. In fact, some would say (and I am one of them) that the vocabulary we use to describe the growing medium, the material beneath our feet, expresses our orientation to it. To call that thing “dirt” is to denigrate it, at least implicitly, as illustrated by the way we so often respond when a piece of food falls on the ground–“It’s dirty,” we say, unfit for consumption, and then we discard it. To call that thing “soil” gives it a purpose, assigns it value in the general context of using it–to grow food and other plants–which also values that particular relationship between humans and nonhumans.

And so, in the context of thinking about how vocabulary matters, I come to a recipe from the Lady Frances Catchmay book with an eye toward soil. Or rather, “earth.” It is “A good Receypte to make metheglin,” about a third of the way through the book. In it, the person preparing the drink, “gather[s] around Michelmas or Lammas” an assortment of herbs: fumitory, fennel, rosemary, hyssop, chamomile, thyme, marigolds, ribwort, parsley, selfheal, and others. And then we get the following instruction: “When you haue gathered thes hearbs and roots, make them very cleane that no earth be lefte vpon them” (f.28r). To use the term “earth” begs a different way of thinking about the relationship between human and nonhuman things here. This recipe expresses an intimacy between the woman who gathers, slices, boils the plants–articulated, for instance, in the reminder to “haue care to slitt the ffenell roots and take out the harts stringe which groweth in the middest”–in water, over fire whose temperature she aims to regulate during the process. But what does it mean that she would remove the earth from the herbs, clean them so that “no earth be left vpon them”? Is this a disavowal of the unity of plant and earth, between the material growing and material grown? Or does the touching of earth by water and human hands, even if to remove it, simply express a different aspect of this intimacy?

This recipe, like so many others, articulates points of contact between human and nonhuman that are key to thinking about sustainability. If we understand this contact only insofar as it allows for separation–the slicing to sever leaf from stem of herb, the cleaning to remove earth–then perhaps we are simply reproducing the same distinction of dirt and soil with which I began this post. That is, to see dirt as that thing that is necessarily not part of “us,” of that which is separate from the human world; it would presume that nonhuman things are inherently not “human.” Removing earth from plant might seem to evoke this to be sure. But to have “no earth left vpon them” is only possible by way of the tactile contact between human and nonhuman; and perhaps it suggests that “earth” is not gone but rather just part of another (or multiple) thing/s and that it is intrinsically linked with the human? If the cleaning process uses water, then the “earth” is mingled with water; or if the cleaning amounts to brushing the earth from plant with the hand, then hand and earth mix, earth falls perhaps back to, well, earth. What if, that is, the process of cleaning and removing earth, as described here, details not a distancing of human and nonhuman thing but rather an ever-intimate reciprocal relationship that is bound by circular comings and goings and not teleological notions of here and gone? After all, that same earth will be the medium from which the woman harvests new herbs in the future, the surface upon which she walks to locate the herbs and do said gathering, as she repeats this and other recipes in the course of her domestic labor. And so, to understand “earth” in this recipe as we do “dirt” today seems at odds with the task the early modern woman would have undertaken. Rather, it seems that this recipe, its evocation of “earth,” suggests instead a process of something more akin to what we would think of as a sustainable and perpetual return of material to material, of intimate connections between human and nonhuman, whether that nonhuman thing is plant, element (fire, water), or “earth.”

Note: Transcription credit for this recipe goes to Kailan Sindelar.