The Power of Peony

By Ashley Buchanan

The Secret Ingredient

In 1735, a Viennese baroness wrote to the last Medici princess, Anna Maria Luisa de Medici (1669—1743), to thank her for sending a miraculous infant convulsion powder. Anna Maria Luisa’s recipe for infant convulsion powder contained a precipitation of a human skull (of “a man who died violently but was never buried”), a precipitation of “Oriental pearls,” a precipitation of red coral and white coral, as well as yellow amber and peony roots and seeds. While the more outrageous ingredients—the skull and Oriental pearls—stand out, it was actually the use of peony that made Anna Maria Luisa’s powder effective.

In her letter to Anna Maria Luisa, the baroness praised the powder’s effectiveness, stating that the children she treated with it had been so violently taken by convulsions that the attending physicians had “given up on them.” Not only had the “miraculous powder” cured the children, but they remained in perfect health several months later. Well known for her miraculous powder, Anna Maria Luisa strategically distributed it to influential individuals and courts across Europe. As a result, she created valuable socio-political alliances to protect The Grand Duchy of Tuscany as the end of the Medici dynasty neared.

Handwritten recipe in Italian.
Recipe for infant convulsion powder featuring peony. Image Credit: Archivio di Stato di Firenze (ASF), Miscellanea Medicea (MM) 1, ins. 2, fol. 186r. Photo by Ashley Buchanan.

The Popularity of Peonies

Peonies are not typically associated with medicine, since they have long been coveted for their beauty. In fact, peonies were first cultivated for their attractiveness and fragrance in China more than 1,400 years ago and became especially popular under the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE). In the Tang imperial gardens, tree (or moutan) peonies reigned as the “king of flowers” and symbolized happiness, wealth, and prosperity. We can see the association of peonies with wealth and class in a rare Tang scroll painting that depicts five ladies of the court and one maidservant. The rank and prestige of each lady is shown by their scale relative to one another as well as by the lavish peonies that adorn their hair. As the popularity of peonies grew in China, so too did their varieties, as horticulturalists selected, hybridized, bred, and eventually grafted peonies for their fragrance, petal color, petal number, and size.

The center of imperial peony cultivation was in Luoyang, where there were peony festivals and competitions, gardens devoted solely to peonies, and even a peony research center. This led to a plethora of ornamental peony cultivars as peony breeding became an artform. More than 200 peony cultivars were described during the Song Dynasty (960–1279 CE); today, China has more than 1,000 cultivars.

Botanical painting of peony
Ming herbal (painting): Chinese herbaceous peony. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection

While peonies have a long history of appreciation and cultivation as ornamental garden plants in Chinese as well as Islamic gardens, in western Europe they mainly were valued for their utility. Over the course of the sixteenth century that changed, when Ottoman floriculture introduced numerous ornamental flowers to the gardens of Europe, including hyacinths, narcissi, peonies, and most famously, tulips. It was not until the end of the eighteenth century that Europeans would begin intensively breeding ornamental peonies.

In 1789, famed British naturalist Sir Joseph Banks acquired a “moutan peony tree” (Paeonia lactiflora) from Canton, China, through his connections with the British East India Company. Surviving the arduous journey to Britain, it was planted in the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew. Other peonies from China soon followed, ushering in something of a peony craze in Europe as, thanks to centuries of cultivation, Chinese peonies were larger, fuller, and more fragrant than native European varieties. Peonies became increasingly popular as French, English, and American horticulturists began developing ornamental varieties of their own from these exotic imported peony cultivars.

As a Chinese botanical export, eastern ornamental peonies, as well as the new herbaceous and tree hybrids created from them in Europe, carried connotations of the “exotic Orient” and became a popular subject in nineteenth-century art. The depiction of peonies in nineteenth-century French paintings, however, does more than simply signify the exotic or differentiate Occident and Orient. For example, in Frédéric Bazille’s Young Woman with Peonies (see below), the foreign provenance of ornamental peonies is emphasized by the Black model who arranges the blooms in an “Oriental” vase. Notably, Bazille pairs the peonies with irises, France’s national flower. Once new and exotic, ornamental peony cultivars had become a product of cultural hybridity, simultaneously signaling the plant’s eastern origin as well as the new varieties that were being developed in France.

Painting of young woman holding peonies, surrounding by other flowers
Frédéric Bazille, Young Woman with Peonies, 1870, NGA 61356. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Today, peonies remain one of the most sought-after ornamental flowers in the world. Thanks to their abundant delicate petals, peonies often adorn gardens and homes, and are popular for wedding bouquets and floral arrangements. While peonies have long been, and continue to be, a coveted ornamental plant, what may surprise you is that they also have an equally long history—over two millennia—as a powerful medicinal therapeutic.

Cacao: Indigenous Network to Global Commodity

By Rebecca Friedel

A Coveted Tree 

Theobroma cacao is a coveted tree known as the source of the globally celebrated chocolate, initially known as xocolatl in Nahuatl. The fruits of cacao are a variety of berry known as drupes. Drupes grow from pollinated flowers on the tree’s trunks and lower branches, each containing between 20 and 40 pulp-covered seeds, colloquially known as beans. The beans were considered a valuable resource and commodity in precolonial times and hold a similar status today.

Originally domesticated in the tropical lowlands of South America, cacao quickly spread to Mesoamerica where it gained salient cultural status as far back as the Formative Period. This world-renowned plant also tells a story of shifting strategies of interaction and knowledge production during the early modern period. This era of imperial expansion saw a variety of European entities seeking to benefit from the economic goods and networks native to the Americas. Cacao was one of the most important of these networks, specifically the production, distribution, and consumption of its seeds.

The cacao tree is a delicate plant that needs specific conditions to grow and ultimately fruit. Knowledge of these conditions forms a body of deep cultural understanding of cacao’s cultivation, reflected in Indigenous ideologies and practices. European expansionism not only led to the distribution of cacao across the globe but also to the appropriation of the knowledge of Indigenous people. Primary sources from the early modern period document such dynamics between Native human and wild-grown plant populations of the Americas and the colonizers who sought to control them.

Early Recipes

Initial imperial strategies in the so-called New World allowed for the documentation of Native perspectives by Native individuals. The earliest representations of cacao from the early modern period come from a Mexica herbal known as the Badianus manuscript, a collection of elaborately watercolor-painted plants with their associated names in Nahuatl and recipes for treating various ailments written in Latin. This herbal was completed in the 1550s by at least two Nahua men, Martín de la Cruz, an Indigenous nobleman and physician, and Juan Badiano, an instructor of Latin, at the Franciscan school of the Colegio Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco. Now held by the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City, the manuscript has been reproduced in a number of ways since its original creation. Through its original and reproductions, the historically deep and broader Indigenous ideologies surrounding Theobroma cacao are captured.

Colorful herbal drawing of trees
Image of cacao and other plants from the Badianus Manuscript. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The herbal’s watercolors illustrate anatomically accurate plant structures situated within particular stages of the reproductive life cycle of cacao. These details indicate that the Mexica had an intimate understanding of cacao’s biology, a level of knowledge not found in contemporaneous herbals authored by non-Natives. Consequently, the knowledge of cacao within the Badianus has a broader spatio-temporal history, developing across Mesoamerica well before the arrival of Europeans and the formation of the school in which de la Cruz and Badiano created the herbal.

Ancient Ideologies

The association of cacao with curing particular ailments in Mexica recipes echoes what was known about the plant by Mesoamericans for thousands of years. In their cosmologies, the cacao plant is connected to maize, a staple crop throughout and beyond Mesoamerica that was highly mythologized. This connection of maize and cacao, typically conceptualized as a life cycle, is also exemplified by a broader ideology regarding a cycle of subsistence. The cycle includes a sequence of alternating a forest garden, where cacao is grown, with milpa, where maize is grown. This milpa/forest garden cycle is a subsistence strategy that was, and still is, central to providing sustenance to millions of neotropical inhabitants.

Etched Maya Bowl
Bowl with Anthropomorphic Cacao Trees from Early Classic Maya Period, 400-500. Image Courtesy: Dumbarton Oaks

Introduction to the Plant Humanities

By Julia Fine

Recipes, as the tagline of this project suggests, feature in many facets of daily life, from food to science, magic to medicine. At the basis of many (if not most) of these recipes are plants: we’ve learned here how chiles were used to treat malaria in early modern China, that cucumber juice contributed to a 17th-century Russian hangover remedy, and why coffee was understood as a potential cure for the Plague in Turkey.

Bright watercolor drawing of various plants, most likely from Malaysia or Sumatra.
Plate from [Album of Chinese Watercolors of Asian fruits], held by Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Library. The album was most likely produced by a Chinese artist located in Malaysia or Sumatra between 1798 and 1810. Image Credit: Dumbarton Oaks

Much of history focuses on decidedly human stories, where plants are relegated to the background. As historian Londa Schiebinger writes, “Plants seldom figure in the grand narratives of war, peace, or even everyday life in proportion to their importance to humans.”

We at Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington DC have spent the past four years working to rectify this by placing plants at the center of human stories as part of our Mellon-funded Plant Humanities Initiative. By bringing history together with botany, archaeology, art history, and other disciplines, we aim to highlight how plants have shaped the course of human history, and how humans have shaped plants in turn. The fruit of our exploration has been a digital humanities lab that puts narrative history side-by-side with primary sources, mapping tools, herbal specimens, and more in order to demonstrate the complexity of plants, as well as their importance in the current climate crisis.

Herbal specimen. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Our lab now features over 15 original narratives on plants, with more coming in the near future. These plant-centered narratives are written by historians of science, art historians, paleoethnobotanists, geographers, and comparative literary scholars (among others). One narrative highlights how early modern women used herbs like dittany as a means to exert agency over their own health and fertility— a particularly critical topic given the vociferous debates about abortion occurring in the United States and elsewhere today. Another narrative on turmeric demonstrated how plants were not simply drivers of imperial expansion, but also tools through which understandings of the British Empire were spread.

Over the next month, we will be publishing excerpts from some narratives on The Recipes Project site. We will see how European conquistadors drew on Indigenous Mesoamerican recipes when transporting cacao to Europe. We will learn how peony, often imagined today as an ornamental flower, was used as a medicinal herb in both Chinese and Western medical traditions, where it was used to treat epilepsy, sciatica, and convulsions. And we will see how our modern-day fascination with cassava, frequently lauded as a “climate survivor crop,” would not be possible if not for the knowledge, expertise, and processing techniques developed by Mesoamerican and South American women, which allowed for poisonous cassava to be made edible.

Botanical drawing of a cacao vine
Botanical drawing of a cacao by Maria Sibylla Merian in her work Dissertatio de generatione et metamorphosibus insectorum Surinamensium , 2019. Image credit: Dumbarton Oaks

Together, these stories highlight the primacy of plants in the history—and future— of human society. We hope you enjoy your trip around the world through these narratives, and stay tuned for opportunities to get involved with our initiative.

My Charming Ancestor: Lost Spells and Sick Cattle

By Catherine Flood

My 6x great grandfather, Timothy Butt, was a charmer. I discovered this recently when I came across a copy of a manuscript he wrote in a box of family papers.[i] Mostly a day book of accounts for his farm in Tillington, Sussex, it also contains a collection of thirty veterinary recipes, dated 1768.[ii] Amongst these, are two verbal charms, one for restoring a bullock that is ‘sprung’ (meaning poisoned in Sussex dialect) and the other for a bullock bitten by an adder.

Searching for some local context to this find brought me to an account of charmers and charming in the village of Fittleworth – just five miles from where Timothy Butt farmed – published by the folklorist Charlotte Latham in 1878. This includes a description of “an ancient dame” who had inherited a verbal charm for snakebite and another for curing giddiness in cattle from her mother, but had lost them both in later years when she moved houses (presumably they were written down). “Much did she grieve,” we are told, “over the loss of her viper charm; it had done such a power of good.”[iii]

Charm ‘For a Bullock that is Stung with an Adder’ in Timothy Butt’s book, 1768. Reproduced with permission of West Sussex Record Office.

It is not impossible that this lost charm was one and the same as my ancestor’s spell for snakebite, or a version of it. If this ancient dame was born around 1800, her mother could easily have known him.[iv] More pertinently, the old woman’s regret at losing it demonstrates that charms were important possessions. While they were commonly practiced for the benefit of the community as a whole, only a few knew and performed the words and restrictions applied to how they were transmitted.[v] It also demonstrates the ease with which such folk texts, carried in the memory or written on ephemeral materials, could disappear. According to Jonathan Roper, Timothy Butt’s book is one of only five known examples of a charmer’s book in English to survive, making it a significant document for the study of English verbal charms.[vi]

The snakebite charm itself appears to be a highly abbreviated, perhaps corrupted, example of a narrative charm that relates a micro-story (or ‘historiola’) in which a powerful protagonist confronts a snake that has bitten his servant and obtains a cure.[vii] The flesh and blood patient is healed by implication. While there is no space in this post to analyse the texts in detail, I reproduce them here in full since neither charm has been published in the last hundred years.[viii] I recommend muttering them aloud to appreciate their ‘incantatory force’ achieved through alliteration and repetition (especially the sibilant s’s used for addressing the snake).[ix]

For a Bulluck that is Sprung say these Words
Our Blesed Saviour for his Sons Sake Pray Down the Bladder
Blow that he may break In the name of the Father and of the
Son and of the Blessed Trinetey Saved may this Black
Bulluck be— or let the Coller be what it will, Name it
Then say the Lords Prayer and so Say it three times

For a Bullock that is Stung with an Adder
take Salt and fresh Grees & anoint the Beast from the heart
then say these Words — Simon Joan Hunt Why Wouldest
Thou thy Sarvant thou Stungest thou my man. I wish it
was thy man. Take Salt and Smare and lay to the Speer
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the
Holy Gost. Amen

As well as being a rare example of a charmer’s book, Timothy Butt’s manuscript is also notable for its veterinary focus.[x] Only one recipe for ‘eye water’ is noted as being adaptable for ‘a Christian.’ The charms are interspersed with the physical remedies and, on the basis of the collection as a whole, we should probably consider Timothy Butt as much a cow doctor as charmer; one whose medical arsenal evidently included powerful words together with kitchen physic, exotic spices, and strong chemicals.

The charm for a ‘sprung’ bullock is probably intended for curing ‘the blain,’ an often fatal cattle disease in which small black blisters or ‘bladders’ appeared at the root of the animal’s tongue. Early modern veterinary books are ambivalent about the cause of this disorder, but it was generally thought to be the result of ingesting ‘some poisonous thing.’[xi] The remedy they recommend is to ‘break’ the bladders between finger and thumb, or lance them with a sharp knife. This was a risky operation and the charm offered a less invasive method of ‘praying down’ the dangerous blisters.

Two of the recipes are attributed to neighbours, which suggests the others probably derived from family tradition. Timothy Butt hailed from a long line of yeoman farmers. Born in 1743, he was 25 years old and establishing a family of his own at the time he wrote down the recipes (he and his wife Jane went on to have at least 19 children). It seems likely that the creation of this collection represents a passing on of knowledge from one generation of animal caretakers to the next.

Inula Helenium, Elecampane, paper collage by Mary Delany, 1778. Elecampane, also known as horse-heal, was a herb widely grown in Sussex gardens for medicinal and veterinary purposes. Following the logic that like cures like, it appears in one of Timothy Butt’s recipes for the ‘yellows’ (jaundice) along with other yellow flowers and spices (celandine, turmeric, and saffron).
British Museum (https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1897-0505-466). Copyright The Trustees of the British Museum.

Furthermore, the recipes are concerned entirely with the larger and more valuable farm animals: oxen (or ‘bullocks’), horses and occasionally pigs. This probably reflects a gendered division of labour whereby the farmer’s wife would have been responsible for the medical care of the family, the dairy cows and the smaller animals around the farmyard, while the farmer tended to the animals who worked alongside him in the fields and forests in plough teams and timber tugs.[xii] Oxen remained the most important source of draught power in Sussex in the late 18th century and are named in over half of Timothy Butt’s recipes. The fact that one third of the recipes are also for strains and injuries is suggestive of the physical toll this labour could exact.

Sussex Oxen, hand coloured etching, 1808. Oxen often worked in the same pair for life. A team of six to eight pairs was used to pull a plough in Sussex. 
Wellcome Collection (https://wellcomecollection.org/works/uztak924)

The animals themselves remain mute in these recipes. Only in one instruction to apply a plaster of pitch, tar, and clay ‘hot as the bullock can abide,’ do we get a hint of the animal as a responsive agent in the healing process. When it comes to charming, it can be even trickier to account for the animal, since the verbal nature of the medium tends to focus attention on the thought-world of the human participants. And yet the performance of a charm could involve sounds, substances, and touch, becoming an embodied experience for both charmer and non-human charmee. The snakebite charm, for instance, calls for ritually anointing the beast ‘from the heart’ with salt and fat. It is not impossible to imagine that intentional touch and the whispering of words may have comforted both the charmer and his beast during a medical crisis. Charming, indeed, could provide rich ground for the study of human-animal relations in the early modern period.


Notes:

[i] The original is held in West Sussex Record Office, Add Mss 1593.

[ii] Timothy Butt was the tenant farmer at Grittenham Farm, just over a mile to the west of Tillington village.

[iii] Charlotte Latham, ‘Some West Sussex Superstitions Lingering in 1868,’ Folk-Lore Record,1 1878: pp. 36-37.

[iv] Jonathan Roper notes that charms in the English cultural tradition sometimes show a greater continuity over the years than from place to place in the same period of time; Jonathan Roper, ‘Towards a Poetics, Rhetorics and Proxemics of Verbal Charms,’ Folkore, 24, 2003: pp. 27.

[v] See for example Owen Davies, ‘Charmers and Charming in England and Wales from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Century,’ Folklore, 109, 1998: pp. 42-43.

[vi] Jonathan Roper, English Verbal Charms, Helsinki, 2005: pp. 174.

[vii] I have found two other variations of this charm-type, both recorded in the nineteenth century, which shed more light on the narrative. See Henry George Nicholls, The Personalities of the Forest of Dean, 1863. The Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature, 17, 1885: pp. 121. The cryptic words ‘Simon Joan Hunt’ in Timothy Butt’s charm may represent an extreme abbreviation/corruption of the scenario of the historiola in which someone goes hunting/into the woods.

[viii] Timothy Butts charms were published in Sussex Archeological Collections, 52, 1908: pp. 187-9, and Notes and Queries, 1922 twelfth series, 11: pp. 147.

[ix] ‘Incantatory force’ is a phrase used by John Miles Foley in ‘Epic and Charm in Old English and Serbo-Croatian Oral Tradition,’ Comparative Criticism: A Yearbook 2. Cambridge: 1980: pp. 82.  

[x] In a study of seventy-five seventeenth and early eighteenth century recipe books in the Wellcome Collection, Louse Hill Curth found only 11 containing veterinary recipes. Louise Hill Curth A Plaine and Easie Waie to Remedie a Horse: Equine Medicine in Early Modern England, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2013, pp. 191.

[xi] Michael Harward, The Herdsman’s Mate, Dublin, 1673: pp. 33-4.

[xii] See for example Louise Hill Curth, The Care of Brute Beasts: A Social and Cultural Study of Veterinary Medicine in Early Modern England, Leiden, 2009, pp. 69.