Magical Charms, Love Potions, and Surreal Tricks

A compact fifteenth-century paper book, MS Sloane 1315 (British Library, London), stands as a manuscript witness to many of the works of popular Middle English instruction.

The book might be said to be a miscellany or multi-text manuscript that is home to vernacular works of the kind that were widely-read and much copied in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Among its many texts is

  • a copy of the courtesy text The Boke of Nurture, purported to have been compiled by John Russell in the service of Duke Humphrey of Gloucester;
  • a treatise on lucky and unlucky days;
  • a leechbook;
  • a verse lunary called “The Thirty Days of the Moon” (extant in several manuscripts of this kind);
  • an abridged version of the widely-circulated Wise Book of Philosophy and Astronomy;
  • a copy of the popular herbal known as the Agnus Castus;
  • a medical regimen with the title “A Generall Rewle for to yeue Medycyns”.
‘The Zodiac Man’, or homo signorum, is a diagram of a human body and astrological symbols. This example is taken from a 15th-century Welsh manuscript. Credit: National Library of Wales.

But why stop there? Sloane 1315 also preserves a dietary, and is well-illustrated with useful diagrams, charts, and curative aids in the form of calendars and astrological tables. There is even a homo signorum at ff. 68–69.

The manuscript, originating in the south-east of England, is likely to have served a individual practising astrological and herbal medicine, collating a series of texts and tables that would have been useful to that individual.

The layout and page placements in the manuscript suggests regular consultation. For example, there are clear headings supplied throughout. Although the manuscript is in many ways unremarkable, it is clear and accessible, written in a legible cursive hand.

BL MS Sloane 1315, f 28r. Courtesy of the British Library Board.

The book is, however, remarkable in one aspect. In the midst of the many works is a curious collection of short medical recipes, interspersed with a series of short texts that might be described as recipes and charms. Some of these recipes are magical or fantastic, or contain properties associated with illusion or trickery. Laura Mitchell has previously written at The Recipes Project about ludic and lascivious medieval charms.

The ones in Sloane 1315 are strangely at odds with the rest of the texts, sitting rather uncomfortably with the diagnostic and curative theme of the volume as a whole. They are extremely varied, to the point of almost being random: some of the more extreme examples with spell-like qualities include charms to “make a flodde of water to com into a howse”, to “make a lofe of brede to dawnce in an oven or on a tabull” (which calls for the use of quicksilver), and “to make a howse seeme full of snakys.”[1]

There is a method as well to “make a lampe to bren wythowte fyre”, which seems to involve soaking a wick in oil, and one to “make a whyte spotte on a blacke horsse”, which involves anointing a horse with water which has been steeped in a special herb. One that caught my eye (and too late for Valentine’s Day 2019!) is a short instruction “How to Make a Woman to love the”, which I transcribe here (with light edits):

Take the harte of coluere and bren hit on a ty3le ine to powder, and yeve here thereof in mete or dryncke; and sche schall love the

The text calls for the “harte of a coluere” – the heart of a snake – to be burned and ground into powder, then sprinkled into the food or drink of a woman. It reads like something that students at Hogwarts might create using snake fangs or skins in their Potions lessons, and indeed this section of the book has a fictive quality to it: we cannot imagine that any of these instructions could possibly work by delivering what their titles promise.

However magical and impossible they might be, moreover, they are framed as recipes, manifesting many of the same features as the recipe text-type while also bearing some relation to charms. The “take and make” formula that is so familiar to us–and common to premodern recipes–is interrupted only slightly by the strangeness of the ingredients and the apparent simplicity in achieving what seems to be rather a difficult effect.

All things considered, these recipes do seem to fit their context. Sloane 1315 is clearly a manual for giving care, containing works that will be familiar to any student of medieval astrological and herbal medicine. The strange recipes are not textually distinguished from other works in the volume; rather, they are normalised, and look as if they are intended to fit in with the book’s other contents. Their regular appearance masks their unusual qualities, and though the love-recipe might seem at first fairly innocuous, the fact that it and its co-texts are disguised to dovetail with the other works in the book may give us pause. In short, the fantastic nature of these texts may not sit well with the pretty practical bent of the book as a whole.

They cause me to pause because they recast the way in which I think about the rest of the book. On the one hand, they may have been used in unscrupulous ways. If, as literary scholar Douglas Gray observes, this is the kind of manuscript that would have been used by “leeches, ‘wise women’, and ‘cunning men'”, then these people would have occupied positions of trust in a community (35). Can we countenance, then, the possibility that the individual who owned this book may have been involved in a lucrative side-line, peddling recipes that didn’t work and perhaps selling the ingredients as well: quicksilver, snake’s hearts and skins? The recipes seem ripe for facile dissemination, being short enough to have been memorised or quickly copied, and they may have been used to bolster the credibility of the owner of the manuscript, showcasing his knowledge of strange or exotic methods or ingredients.

Or perhaps their function is altogether different. Could they have been intended to introduce humour to the healing context? Perhaps they functioned like the modern-day prank box, a kind of textual cabinet of curiosities, intended to entertain clients who were not feeling well, or appealing to younger audiences? As Gray writes, one can “sympathize with the curious owner or reader eager to discover” the varied arts described therein, and the owner of the book may have just wanted to spread some joy and mischief (35). What we read here may be an entirely personal impulse to collect (or create) fun from a pretty standard, recognisable textual tradition and format. Or perhaps the book provides further evidence of the close relationship between medicine and magic in this period (that persisted in some contexts in later centuries; see Lisa Smith’s post on an eighteenth-century magical manuscript), giving expression to a particular understanding of popular medicine as, in some respects, fanciful? Whatever the scenario, Sloane 1315 is a fascinating volume, hiding amongst its popular medical works a collection of weird and wonderful textual gems and raising all sorts of questions about the varied role of the folk practitioner in this period.

With thanks to Mary Wellesley.


[1] See Douglas Gray, Simple Forms: Essays on Medieval English Popular Literature (Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 35.

 

 


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How to correct Plato, alchemically?

By Bojidar Dimitrov, AlchemEast Project

Jabir Ibn Hayyan is a figure of key importance for the development of alchemy and chemistry. A vast body of literature virtually covering the entire spectrum of ancient science has been attributed to the Islamic polymath, and yet much of the little we know about him remains shrouded in mystery. The very historicity of Jabir’s person and the authenticity of his works have been the subject of rigorous scholarly debate. This is largely due to the fact that the majority of the texts which belong to the Jabirian corpus have not been edited and published.

The scant biographical data provided by mediaeval Islamic sources and Jabir’s own works suggests that his lifetime spanned the period between ca. 721/725 and 812/815 AD. The so-called Jabir Problem mainly revolves around different aspects of this alleged historical context. The ambiguous relationship between the Arabic Jabirian corpus and the nascent alchemical tradition of the Latin West is the other major side of the conundrum. 

Paul Kraus’ ground-breaking studies on Jabir[1] proposed that the Jabirian corpus was probably compiled over a longer period of time by a school of alchemists who circulated their works under Jabir’s name. Similar doubts were already expressed by mediaeval Islamic scholars, and Kraus’ detailed analysis of the language and the content of seminal texts argues that the scientific terminology, doctrines and references to Greek authorities found in them point to a later stage of Islamic intellectual history, which began in the ninth century. Kraus’ conclusions have been debated by scholars since their publication in the 1940s, but the scope and depth of his research remain unmatched to this day.

One of the current objectives of the AlchemEast Project is to make available a collection of alchemical recipes belonging to a sub-genre of Jabir’s corpus. Plato’s Rectifications is the only surviving collection of a cycle of pseudepigraphical ‘rectifications’ associated with ancient authorities. The work is presented as a commentary on alchemical doctrines ascribed to Plato that the Greek sage is said to reveal to his disciple, Timaeus. The ninety recipes involve alchemical procedures with mercury which are intended to illustrate the application of Plato’s theories.

Socrates discussing philosophy with his disciples (from a thirteenth-century Arabic manuscript).

Jabir’s attribution of alchemical material to Plato is pertinent to the reception of Platonic influences in Islamic alchemy and the wider context of Islamic thought. While Jabir’s system incorporates key Neoplatonic traits of Greek philosophical alchemy, its experimental and arithmological developments are highly original and do not seem to derive from extant Greek texts. Furthermore, no alchemical texts are attributed to Plato (or Socrates) in the Greek tradition.[2] There are, however, Syriac recipes attributed to Plato, and he is generally accorded a prominent place in Arabic occult literature. Such facts may indicate that Jabir could have been influenced by late antique Neoplatonic traditions of a distinctly Near Eastern flavour.

An excerpt from Rectification Nr. 14 presents a recipe which involves the heating and cooling of mercury:

Then he said: take ten measures of spirit (i.e. mercury), put it in the middle gourd (i.e. glass vessel), and tighten upon it the alembic which has no aperture (i.e. valve). Heat it over gentle fire for ten days, then cool it off on the eleventh. Repeat the operation and gather the first water. The gourd containing mercury will be heated, or joined to the other gourd until it (i.e. mercury) dissolves in one of the two gourds. Take the thickened [residue], put it in the second gourd, and heat it until it melts, becomes liquid and turns red. Then heat the water until it boils and [the condensate] starts dripping all over the residue, [so that] it swells, absorbs some of the water and is incerated by it, and yields. It will become like wax, just as we described initially, and [even] better. If the procedure starts by heating the water until [the condensate] drips over the residue, it will be dissolved, and both will be dissolved, coagulated and incerated together, [and thus the procedure] is also complete. Peace.

Image 2: Depiction of alchemical apparatus with an alembic (MS, BNF Arabe 6915)

Depiction of alchemical apparatus with an alembic (MS BNF Arabe 6915).

The text exemplifies the fluidity of content that alchemical recipes often exhibit. The procedures it describes are relatively simple, but the textual variants in the manuscripts allow different possibilities. The translation above is not conclusive, since the relationship of the alembic and the two vessels is somewhat ambiguous. According to certain readings, for instance, the second vessel and the alembic must be alternated during the process of dissolution. The examination of further textual variants and manuscripts can expand our understanding of Jabir’s technical methodology. Ultimately, the intertextuality of Platonic pseudepigrapha found in Jabir and other traditions calls for an overarching discussion of Plato’s role in alchemical discourse. Whether this role was itself rectified by practitioners over the centuries, or the fluctuations we encounter in manuscripts are of a purely textual nature, are the main questions AlchemEast aims to address.


[1] Paul Kraus, Jābir ibn Ḥayyān. Contribution à l’histoire des idées scientifiques dans l’Islam, Vol. II. Jābir et la science grecque (Cairo: Mémoires de l’Institut d’Égypte 45.1, 1942).

[2] Ibid., p. 58.

Around the Table: Library Chat

Welcome to the latest Around the Table and return to the Recipes Project Library Chat! Today we travel to the Osler Library of the History of Medicine at McGill University in Montreal. I am delighted to speak with Dr. Mary Yearl, Head Librarian at Osler Library. Please note that you will soon find a version of this post on the McGill University Library News Blog, Library Matters.

1. The McGill Library has many items of interest to our readership, particularly in the Osler Library of the History of Medicine and the Cookbook and Menu Collection housed in Rare Books and Special Collections. Could you provide a brief overview of the library’s holdings and research strengths?

The Osler Library was designed by Percy Nobbs to house Sir William Osler’s books and his remains. Here one sees the library in the Strathcona Medical Building, where it opened in 1929. This room was reassembled in its current location in the McIntyre Medical Building in the mid-1960s.

The nucleus of the Osler Library of the History of Medicine is the collection of nearly 8,000 titles left to the McGill Medical Faculty by Sir William Osler when he died in December 1919. The holdings are mainly, but not exclusively, medical. The library is also home to editions of foundational works in the history of science and to a number of literary and theological books collected by Osler. The majority of our items are printed, but we also have sizeable collections of archival materials, artifacts, and some pieces of artwork.

B.O. 53, Assyrian Medical Tablet. Containing such advice as, “‘the emerald plant’ in best beer thou shalt give him to drink,” This Assyrian medical tablet from ca. 700 BCE provides recipes to treat an unnamed eye disease.

Osler’s own collecting with respect to recipes favoured works from England written or published in the 16th and 17th centuries. That said, there are also works in French, German, and Latin, and the earliest item is an 8th-century BCE Assyrian tablet on various treatments for an unspecified eye disease. Of the items that have been added more recently, the 19th and 20th centuries are well represented.

The real wealth of recipe-related items at McGill can be found outside of the Osler, within the Library’s division of Rare Books and Special Collections. The Cookbook and Menu Collection was established in the late 1960s and consists of over 3,800 titles. It is composed primarily of Canadian, American and British material. The bulk of the collection is from the twentieth century, though there are significant nineteenth-century holdings including a long run of editions and revisions of Mrs. Beaton’s Book of Household Management. In addition, there are some eighteenth-century books.

The collection includes a considerable number of ephemeral items containing recipes and produced by flourmills, sugar refiners and other food manufacturers. Cookbooks created by church organizations, women’s clubs, and other community groups form another significant part of the collection. In addition, there are a number of books devoted to home economics. Also within the Rare Books and Special Collections division is the recently-acquired Doncaster Recipes Collection, consisting of culinary and medicinal recipes mainly from the late-eighteenth through the first half of the nineteenth century.

2. Can you highlight a few of your favorite recipes-related items?

François II de Rohan. Medical Recipes and Health Regimens Including Receptes De Plusieurs Expers Medecins Consernantes Diverse Malladies and Other Texts. ca. 1515. Several of the recipes in this manuscript refer to a “Master Bernard,” whose identity is but one of many questions we hope to answer through scholarly research. Note the combination of fine artistic detail and practical medical information.

Without hesitation, our current favourite item is manuscript of medicinal recipes from ca. 1515, recently acquired with an eye towards honouring Sir William Osler as we commemorate the centenary of his death. We are in the early stages of planning a scholarly edition and are truly enthusiastic about the many directions we can go with this work. The work is marvellous aesthetically: it is a deluxe presentation copy with a velvet cover and fine illuminations, given by the Archbishop of Lyons François II de Rohan to his brother, Charles de Rohan-Gié. The manuscript bears clear signs of having been read, with marginal “nota” and the occasional “nota secretum” indicating that this work was not merely admired for its beauty, but was also appreciated for its contents.

Another interesting one is B.O. (Bibliotheca Osleriana) 7591, which in many ways is a standard late medieval recipe manuscript, a copy of John of Burgundy’s Practica phisicalia. This in itself is not remarkable, but in a blog post that appeared in the Osler Library’s former platform, De re medica, Patrick Outhwaite observed that B.O. 7591 had in common with Wellcome MS. 406 the removal of information about male sexuality.

Another local favourite is manuscript B.O. 7586, best known to us as “The Book of the Head,” which is the subject matter of the text bound with Nicholas of Lyra’s Postilla super librum Job. This 15th-century manuscript is part of a larger work that would have offered treatments for all sections of the body, but a deliberate choice was made in this case to include only recipes to treat ailments of the head.

Margaret Parnell, Manuscript commonplace book, rough account book and notebook in pencil and ink, including five pages of home abortion and contraception recipes. Ontario [various places], ca. 1908–1913. The abortifacient and contraceptive recipes recorded in this commonplace book from Ontario, ca. 1908–1913 contain many ingredients that were either identified as poisons (ergot) or which are known as such (sugar of lead), and also includes the curious, “gun powder + whiskey + take freely.”

Many of the less explored recipes come from daybooks, journals, and other sources of vernacular medicine. I was recently reminded of a short section on recipes that appears in a notebook kept by a woman from Ontario in the early years of the 20th century, which we recently acquired but have not yet catalogued. “How to get rid of kids” is the start of a few pages of recipes on abortion and contraception. Fertility recipes are an important part of the history of medicinal recipes, and to see such a stark title is a somewhat ironic reminder of the utter humanity behind the pen. Despite the shock of the initial title, however, the recipes themselves are practical, if poisonous (e.g., a contraceptive douche that contains sugar of lead). Beyond these few pages, the commonplace book is as mundane (and interesting for this) as might be expected, also including household accounts, a list of books, and an inventory that includes a breast pump.

Other items we appreciate because they reflect our attempts to tell the history of medicine as practised locally. Some of our recipes come from patient notes. For instance, in a record book kept by Theodule Nepveu, who practised in a variety of towns around Quebec in the first half of the twentieth century, we find a “regime alimentaire” outlining permitted and prohibited foods for those with colitis. Nepveu’s record book is not spectacular in the way that the François II de Rohan illuminated gift is, but the information it contains is no less important. To start, one might examine a doctor’s comments about diet to draw conclusions about what foods were available, and which his patients were likely to have access to. Or, as with the commonplace book of the woman from Ontario, it is the ordinary practicality that makes the contents extraordinary.

3. What tips can you offer to help users find collection items with recipes via your catalogue or finding aids?

This is not intended to be a trick question, but at the moment it rather feels like one. At McGill, we have had two catalogues for quite some time. The “classic” catalogue is heavily used by those of us who work with rare materials, but it is going away on 1 May 2019 so we are all in the midst of a steep learning curve even as we are still waiting for some advanced features to be made available in the new WorldCat Discovery catalogue. For those who wish to search the original Osler catalogue, the Bibliotheca Osleriana is easily found online. For archival sources, there is now an integrated archival catalogue, through which one can search all archival holdings at McGill. Another place to find recipe-related items is in the McGill Library’s collections within the Internet Archive, discussed below. With regard to searching those resources, though, it is a good idea to click “search text contents” rather than only searching the metadata.

Even though most of our material is catalogued, we would advise anyone with questions to reach out to us (osler_[dot]_library_[at]_mcgill_[dot]_ca) to see if there might be more.

4. Does the McGill Library offer any digital resources to off-site researchers?

MS 251, Practicall Physick of Roger Lickbarrow, mid-18th century, contains medicinal remedies for a wide range of complaints. The contents are ordered by type of ailment. The page shown refers to “diseases of the belly” and has “French pox” as well as “nocturnal pollution” near the end. Other sections are devoted to “womens diseases” and “childrens diseases”.

We have a small number of items that have been digitized, but enough that we have created an Osler Library collection within the Internet Archive.

We are making an effort to increase the digital resources available to off-site researchers. In addition to highlighting items to prioritize for digitization, we are figuring out the best workflow for digitizing items straight from cataloguing where feasible. Finally, we do digitize materials on demand. There will be some delay depending upon the queue in the digitization lab, but we regard user requests as one way of making our materials available to a wider audience.

5. Does McGill offer any fellowships or travel grants for researchers who want to go to Montreal to use your materials?

The Osler Library offers three research grants and one artist residency. For those seeking to use materials within Rare Books and Special Collections, there are three available grants.

Thanks, Mary, for chatting with me! If you’d like to see your library or archive collection featured on the Around the Table Library Chat, please email Sarah Kernan.

Tales from the Archives: ‘Infallible’ Missionary Cures

Everything seems to be unseasonably in bloom in England at the moment–blossom, daffodils, snowdrops, crocus… It is beautiful, to be sure, but horrible for us hayfever sufferers who are walking around with blossoming noses and eyes.

The Recipes Project now has over 700 posts in our archives. (Thank you to our wonderful contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes!) But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be overlooked. So the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers, making old material new once again.

Unsurprisingly, this month I was inspired to look for various flowers in our archives. What inspired me most was the sole entry on crocus–which, in this case, does not even refer to a flower! I’m going back to Tara Albert’s post from 2014.


Two ‘Infallible’ Missionary Cures in Seventeenth-Century Southeast Asia

by Tara Albert

The life of a seventeenth-century Catholic missionary in Asia could be arduous. Many newly arrived missionaries documented their difficulties with the local climate, food, water, and troublesome insects. Above all they fretted about the unfamiliar illnesses that plagued them, and which could bring their endeavours to a premature end. Their letters are peppered with references to concerns about health, and with requests for and advice about available remedies. Preserved in the archives of the Société des Missions Étrangères in Paris is a copy of such a letter, sent in 1692 by missionaries in the Society’s seminary in Siam (Thailand) to their confrères working in Tonkin (Vietnam) (AMEP vol. 850, pp. 152-64). The letter is typical of its genre, containing news, requests for information, pious sentiments, and advice. It also contains intriguing and unusual paragraph – described as a ‘recette’ in the archive’s descriptive catalogue – concerning the use of two curative substances. Breaking off from some unrelated news, the authors suddenly decide to advise their colleagues that:

Crocus metallorum is made from prepared antimony, and if it is infused in grape wine it makes emetic wine, so this crocus is taken solely for purging and evacuating from above and below; it is used for almost every sort of illness, as long as the patient still has enough strength. The dose is from 18 to 30 grains, which is given to the strongest. It is neither heated nor boiled, nor mixed with anything else, it is simply swallowed in wine, or in water, or with sugar, or with a fig – indeed it doesn’t matter with what as long as it is swallowed. Cinchona is a bark from a tree which comes from the New World: an excellent and near infallible remedy to cure all sorts of fevers which are not accompanied by oppressions or inflammations of the chest: it was an English doctor who recently brought these barks to France. We think we sent you the method to use this in the last year, but just in case we’re sending it again this year. (p. 160).

The inclusion of this paragraph raises a number of questions about missionary medicine. In my previous work, which explored conversion to Catholicism in Southeast Asia, I discussed how missionaries often presented themselves as healers in order to convince people of their spiritual powers. This ‘recipe’, however, points to another set of issues which merits further investigation, relating to missionary engagement with medical developments and controversies in Europe, and about missionaries’ interests in using relatively ‘new’ techniques and materia medica on their mission fields.

The first cure – crocus metallorum – is a preparation of a substance which has been discussed before on this blog: antimony. The discussion of its use in this letter is almost an anti-recipe: the remarkable effectiveness of this remedy was such that the composition of the delivery mechanism was unimportant. Indeed the initial illness of the patient hardly mattered – this was a true cure-all. The use of antimonial cures had been extremely controversial throughout most of the seventeenth century. Following a décret of the Sorbonne’s faculty of medicine, and an arrêt of the Parlement of Paris in 1666 permitting their use, they became increasingly sought after.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London La calcination Solaire de L'antimoine. From Nicholas Le Fevre, Traicte de la Chymie (Paris, 1660), opp. p. 899.  Wellcome Library, London
Credit: 
La calcination Solaire de L’antimoine. From Nicholas Le Fevre, Traicte de la Chymie (Paris, 1660), opp. p. 899.
Wellcome Library, London

The second remedy is also a miracle cure of sorts: the ‘near-infallible’ bark of the Cinchona tree, a source of quinine, effective against malarial fevers. No mention is made of the rival missionaries who were associated with this remedy in Europe: the Jesuits, who played an important role in its dissemination. We know from other letters that French Jesuits had supplied some of this bark to Missions Étrangères priests in Siam in the 1680s.  But this letter – which had earlier mentioned the tensions between the two societies – only mentions the ‘English doctor’ credited with introducing the substance to France. This is most probably a reference to Robert Talbor, whose secret recipe for a fever cure based on Cinchona had been revealed in a book published in 1682, shortly after his death. The letter promises that a fuller account of the means of preparing this bark will be sent to Vietnam. I have yet to find this account, but it would be interesting to compare the method to the Talbor recipe, and to Jesuit recipes of the same period.

Both substances held great promise:  they seemed to be extremely efficacious and had become famous, even fashionable in France in the last decades of the century. The use of both medicines by royalty had undoubtedly added to their appeal, and encouraged their acceptance by the medical establishment. Louis XIV had been successfully treated with antimonial wine; Talbor’s cinchona remedies were also credited with saving the life of the king’s son. Yet both remedies were also controversial. Naysayers continued to raise doubts about their efficacy and safety, and about the probity of those who would prescribe them. In many ways they represented new approaches to medicine, championed by those who sought to isolate universal remedies and infallible cure-alls. It seems that members of the Société des Missions Étrangères embraced these approaches, and helped to introduce these ideas to their mission fields.