Snails in medicine – past and present

By Claire Burridge 

A treatment for teary eyes (Ad lacrimas oculorum):

Grind together frankincense, mastic, and snails with their shells. Apply to the forehead in laurel leaves in two parts. It is tried and tested.

(Tus et mastice et cocleas cum testas sua simul teris et in folio lauri in duabus partibus fronte impone probatum est)

Figure 1: A group of recipes for teary eyes (Ad lacrimas oculorum) in St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 44 (p. 359), an early medieval composite manuscript (this section was written in northern Italy in the ninth century) – the snail recipe is the last entry of the group (found on the final two lines). The transcription and translation are my own. A digitised facsimile can be accessed here; full reference below.

Medieval medicine is often assumed to be full of ‘hocus pocus’: irrational magical and religious cures, bizarre potions and lotions. Although the work of many scholars has countered this common perception, the negative stereotypes surrounding medieval medicine remain firmly embedded in the popular imagination. And I must admit that, as a historian of medieval medicine, I can understand how such stereotypes have persisted – despite, of course, disagreeing! At first glance, the treatment for teary eyes listed above – which recommends making a poultice from snails, frankincense, and mastic and applying it to the forehead – may sound more like a potion brewed by the witches of Macbeth than a useful medical prescription. Surely snails are better suited to escargot than medicine, right?

Yet our slimy garden neighbours actually have long been included as ingredients in medical recipes, from classical antiquity to the present day. In fact, a number of other RP posts have already touched on pre-modern snail-based prescriptions, such as Laura Mitchell’s post on amusing charms, Lisa Smith’s post on Mary Napier’s ‘Snaile Milke’, and Jennifer Sherman Roberts’ post on snail waters. While several examples have highlighted the use of snails in cosmetic preparations, including Katherine Allen’s post on animal ingredients in the eighteenth century, in my research on early medieval recipes I have come across snails as ingredients in treatments for all sorts of ailments, from headaches and nosebleeds to diarrhoea, spleen pain, and incontinence. Who knew snails were seen to be such a wonderful panacea?!

I have been particularly struck by the use of snails in a number of different treatments for cuts and open wounds. A recipe in BAV pal. lat. 1088, a ninth-century manuscript written around Lyon, suggests the following to heal ‘cut tendons’ (Ad neruos incisos) on f. 45r:

Burn and pound together live snails with their shells, add an equal amount of frankincense, apply. It heals cut tendons.

(Cocleas uiuas cum testa sua combustas et tonsas adiecto libano paripondere inponis praecisos neruos sanat)

Two other ninth-century manuscripts in the Stiftsbibliothek St Gallen, Cod. Sang. 751 and Cod. Sang. 759, contain nearly identical prescriptions, though the former recommends either slugs (limacis) or snails and the latter specifies that the cut was caused by iron (Ad neruus ferro precisus). Similar recipes can also be found in earlier sources, such as Pliny’s Natural History and its late antique descendent, the Medicina Plinii, as well as Dioscorides’ De materia medica.

Why did this tradition of the wound-healing power of snails catch my eye?

Figure 2: Materia medica on the move (slowly) – photograph by author.

As keen RP readers will know, the use of snails in cosmetics was not limited to pre-modern medicine but is, in fact, growing in popularity today (and you can read more on this in another piece from Katherine Allen). Snail slime, the mucus secreted by snails, has been widely marketed as a great addition to skincare products. You can find it in anti-aging serums, moisturisers, and other restorative cosmeceuticals. Given these uses, could snail slime also have applications in medicine? Indeed, snail slime is a hot topic in modern medical research, with recent work highlighting its many benefits, from helping to treat burns to its antimicrobial properties. With respect to wound healing, there are several significant features to note: first, snail mucus is well known to have agglutinant, adhesive properties. More recently, however, research has shown that it also protects against apoptosis (programmed cell death) and promotes cell migration and proliferation – processes essential to wound repair at the cellular level. The combination of snail mucus’ adhesive qualities, promotion of healing processes, and antimicrobial properties is immensely exciting, especially in the fight against antibiotic resistance.

While premodern medical practitioners and authors would not have been thinking about snails and their slime on the cellular level or as antimicrobial agents, their repeated use of snails and slugs, especially with respect to skin-related conditions (wound healing, cosmetics, etc.) suggests that they may have recognised that snail mucus had some medical benefits. So, the next time you encounter someone ridiculing the unusual or unpleasant ingredients in a medieval recipe, you can share with them the long history of snails in medicine – from medieval recipes and their ancient antecedents to current, cutting-edge research.

Full reference for manuscript image

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 44: parchment, 368 pp., 30 x 21 cm; Part I: Bible, consisting of Ezekiel, minor prophets, Daniel, with Prologues and Capitula – given to St. Gall around 780; Part II: collection of medical texts – written in northern Italy in the ninth century.

Brief Academic Biography

Claire Burridge is currently a Residential Research Fellow at the British School at Rome. She completed her PhD at the University of Cambridge in 2019 and will begin a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship at the University of Sheffield in May 2021. Broadly, Claire works on early medieval health and medicine and is particularly interested in exploring questions of medical practice and the transmission of medical knowledge during the Carolingian period. Her research draws on a range of disciplines, bringing together textual, archaeological, and biocodicological evidence.

Around the Table: Celebrating Our Contributors

By Sarah Peters Kernan

As the new academic year begins, the Recipes Project would like to celebrate the accomplishments of our contributors from this most unusual past year. Our community has been busy completing PhDs, publishing, securing new fellowships, enjoying promotions, and more. We heartily congratulate all of you for your successes! We also wish to congratulate and encourage the many contributors who are teaching, researching, and writing in extraordinary circumstances, often at home while negotiating the schedules and needs of several others in the household. This, too, is noble work worthy of much acknowledgement and praise. We invite contributors to share your news anytime with the Recipes Project community on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

Agnese Benzonelli completed a PhD in Archaeological science at the UCL Institute of Archaeology in February 2020. Her thesis, “Technological traditions and trajectories in the production of black bronze alloys,” was competed under the supervision of Ian Freestone and Marcos Martinón-Torres. Agnese continues to work at the same institution as Technician in Archaeomaterials Preparation and Analysis, a position she has held since 2015.

Clare Gordon Bettencourt has served as Editorial Assistant for the Journal of Asian Studies since summer 2019 while continuing her role as a Social Media Editor for the Recipes Project. She co-authored an article with Yong Chen on the effects of COVID-19 on dining in the U.S. and China (forthcoming in the Journal of Asian Studies). Clare also recently completed drafts of all her dissertation chapters.

Claire Burridge recently completed her PhD, “An interdisciplinary investigation into Carolingian medical knowledge and practice,” at the University of Cambridge. She began a postdoctoral fellowship at the British School at Rome (BSR) in 2019 on the project “The Movement of Early Medieval Medical Knowledge: Exchange in the Italian Peninsula.” Although the fellowship has been temporarily paused due to the pandemic, Claire will be returning to the BSR this fall to complete it. She was also recently awarded a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship for my project “Crossroads: The Evolution of Early Medieval Medicine in Global & Local Contexts” at the University of Sheffield. She will begin in spring 2021 after completing her time in Rome. Finally, Claire published her first article this year: “Incense in medicine: An early medieval perspective,” Early Medieval Europe 28, no. 2 (May 2020): 219–255.

Nadja Durbach published a book, Many Mouths: The Politics of Food in Britain From the Workhouse to the Welfare State (Cambridge University Press, 2020). She also published several articles: “Keeping Kosher in the Camp: Feeding Interned British Jews During the First World War,” Immigrants & Minorities, (published online August 2020); “Dead or Alive?: Stillbirth Registration, Premature Babies, and the Definition of Life in England and Wales, 1836-1960,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 94(1) 2020; “Atypical Bodies: The Cultural Work of the Victorian Freak Show,” in Joyce Huff and Martha Stoddard Holmes (eds.), A Cultural History of Disability in the Long Nineteenth Century (Bloomsbury Press, 2020); “Comforts, Clubs, and the Casino: Food and the Perpetuation of the British Class System in First World War Civilian Internment Camps,” Journal of Social History, 52(3) (2019).

Sietske Fransen started a research group at the Bibliotheca Hertziana-Max Planck Institute for Art History in Rome in 2019. The group is on “Visualizing Science in Media Revolutions.”

Thijs Hagendijk successfully defended his dissertation in 2020. “Reworking Recipes. Reading and Writing Practical Texts in the Early Modern Arts” is about reading and writing practices in the early modern arts, with a specific focus on text usage in historical glassmaking, painting, and metalworking. He also co-authored an article with Márcia Vilarigues and Sven Dupré: “Materials, Furnaces, and Texts. How to Write about Making Glass Colours in the Seventeenth Century,” Ambix 67 (forthcoming fall 2020). Thijs is a lecturer at Utrecht University and member of the ERC-funded ARTECHNE project “Technique in the Arts: Concepts, Practices, Expertise, 1500–1950.”

Sarah Peters Kernan is a 2020–2021 Scholar-in-Residence at the Newberry Library. She wrote “Recent Trends in Food History Research in the United States: 2017–2020,” Food & History 18:1–2 (forthcoming 2020). Sarah has also been co-organizing a virtual conference on Food and the Book: 1300–1800 with David Goldstein and Allen Grieco to take place in October 2020. The conference is co-sponsored by the Center for Renaissance Studies at the Newberry Library and the Folger Institute’s collaborative research project, Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Diana Luft published Medieval Welsh Medical Texts Volume 1: The Recipes (University of Wales Press, 2020). The book is an edition and translation of the Welsh-language medical recipe collections in four late fourteenth-century manuscripts, the earliest medical texts to appear in the language. The research work for the book was funded by a Wellcome Trust Research Fellowship which Diana held from 2015–2019. The book is available in an open access format, funded by the Wellcome Trust, and can also be purchased.

Eveline Szarka received her PhD in July 2020 from the University of Zurich. In her dissertation, she analyzed the impact of the Swiss Protestant Reformation on the belief in ghosts and spirits from 1570–1730. In 2020, she was granted a scholarship from the Swiss National Science Foundation to visit Harvard University and University College London from 2021–2022 as a postdoctoral fellow. Her current project focuses on handbooks about magic tricks and life hacks as related to the history of knowledge and science (1650–1850).

If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.

Revisiting Christopher Heaney’s How to Make an Inca Mummy

In this last “revisiting” post in our August 2020 series, we return to a piece by Christopher Heaney in 2016 to learn about sixteenth-century Europeans and their use of the dead in medical recipes. Practitioners believed that preserved bodies were powerful ingredients — but as Heaney shows, whether these bodies originated in Egypt or in Peru, what it meant for these bodies to be non-white, and whether they could or should retain a sense of gender, was a matter of debate. 
Thank you for joining us this month as we explored the intersections of race, medicine, sexuality, and gender in recipes! –AH

Christopher Heaney

As any National Geographic reader will tell you, the Incas and their predecessors in the Andes made mummies, that category of deceased being whose selfhood is artificially or environmentally preserved. In the sixteenth century, however, learned Europeans weren’t sure of anything of the sort, given that ‘mummy,’ or momía, mostly referred to dried flesh of the ancient Egyptian dead that had been ground up to become a materia medica. Admitting the Incas to the Egyptians’ company meant an expansion of medical prowess, and civilization, well beyond the allowances of the day. In Les vrais pourtraits et vies des homes illustres grecz, latins et payens (1584), the French cosmographer André Thevet challenged Claude Guichard—a cataloguer of funerary customs who had claimed that the Andes yielded “mummy”

to ask merchants who deal at the Lyon merchant-fairs to enquire whether any of these good Mummies are found by these drug peddlers in these parts [Peru] and in that case (otherwise I presume that, had he known, he would never have dared publish such a lie) he will learn that there is no trace, any more than there is in his Lagnieu [Guichard’s hometown].

For Thevet, mummies came only from Egypt.

The burial of Huayna Capac Inka in Cuzco (379-380)
The body of Huayna Capac Inka, being carried from Quito to Cuzco. Felipe Guaman Poma, Nueva corónica y buen gobierno (1615). Credit: Det Kongeliege Bibliotek

In other words, before we recover the sacred and medical indigenous recipe of how “ancient Peruvians” made mummies, we must understand how Europeans made mummies Peruvian. That latterly recipe, centuries in the crafting, had two key ingredients: the sixteenth century study by Spanish chroniclers and natural historians of the means by which skilled Inca made embalmed bodies—embalsamados—of their emperors; and the Atlantic celebration of that recipe by half-Inca chroniclers, English translators, and French encyclopedistes, who made embalsamados into mummies.[1]

That the Incas and other Andean peoples preserved their elite dead to make sacred and still-living ancestors, illapa, or mallqui, is well-established, having intrigued the earliest Spaniards to the Andes. In 1533, when the first two Spaniards to Cusco found the breathless bodies of Huayna Capac, the last undisputed emperor of the Incas, and a second person—likely his principal wife, Coya Cusirimay—they described them as “two Indians in the manner of embalmed dead.” By the late 1550s, the chronicler Juan de Betanzos had learned—possibly from his wife, Angelina Cuxirumay Ocllo, formerly betrothed to Atahualpa—that Huayna Capac’s lords “had him opened, and all his flesh removed, adorning him”— aderezándole, which implies the use of a substance—

“so that no damage would be done to him, without breaking a single bone; they adorned and seasoned him in the sun and the air, and after he was dried and seasoned, they dressed him in expensive clothes and placed him on a litter.”[2]

Subsequent Spaniards declared that this was embalming, a distinction that credited the Incas’ medical expertise—and possibly advertised the New World balsam that to this day bears the name “balsam of Peru”—but also limited speculation that their preservation resembled the grace of Europe’s saintly dead. To further control their meaning, the Spanish in 1559 confiscated the illapa and displayed the best-preserved among them in Lima’s most sophisticated center of European healing and botanical knowledge—the Hospital of San Andrés. Once there, the Jesuit natural historian José de Acosta studied them, deciding (1590) that their “astonishing” preservation owed to the use of a certain resin or bitumen: literally, betún, a word redolent of associations with the Egyptian dead.

November, month of carrying the dead (258-259)
The eleventh month, November; Aya Marq’ay Killa, month of carrying the dead. Felipe Guaman Poma, Nueva corónica y buen gobierno (1615). Credit: Det Kongeliege Bibliotek

The Incas’ embalsamados only became mummies, however, through the process of celebration by their half-Inca heirs, and their interpreation by the English and French. In 1609, “El Inca” Garcilaso de la Vega remembered touching the finger of his great-uncle, Huayna Capac, which “seemed like that of a wooden statue, it was so hard and stiff.” Responding to Acosta, Garcilaso suggested that it was a combination of betún and the dry Andean environment, which the Incas had harnessed to “leave the bodies as whole as if they were still alive and in good health, lacking only the power of speech, as the saying goes.” The translator of Garcilaso into English in 1688 took the embalsamados to still greater heights, claiming that “these Bodies were more entire than the Mummies”—that is, the Egyptian dead. And in 1749, the French naturalist Jean-Marie Daubenton simply included the Inca dead as mummies, alongside those of the Egyptians.

Daubenton’s contemporaries had to take it on faith, however; the Inca illapa had long since disappeared, likely having deteriorated in Lima’s damp climate and been buried somewhere in the hospital. Hope remains that their bones might be someday be found, but until the means of their owners’ preservation is recovered via new archaeological studies of their contemporaries, our recipe for their making is as colonial and Atlantic as it is indigenous.

 

[1] This post draws from my recent dissertation, Christopher Heaney, “The Pre-Columbian Exchange: The Circulation of the Ancient Peruvian Dead in the Americas and Atlantic World” (Ph.D. Diss, University of Texas at Austin, 2016), Chapter Four.

[2] Juan de Betanzos, Suma y Narración de los Incas, Ed. María del Carmen Martín Rubio (Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, 2010 [Cuzco: 1557]), 235 [1557: Pt. I, Ch. 48].

Revisiting Carla Cevasco’s “Look’d Like Milk”: Breastmilk Substitutes in New England’s Borderlands

Welcome to the August 2020 Edition of the Recipes Project, which examines the intersections of race, medicine, sexuality, and gender in recipes. Today we re-join Carla Cevasco’s 2015 post on the (sometimes shared) breastfeeding practices of Indigenous North American women and British women colonizers. Dr. Cevasco’s work on the ways that breastmilk, race, and sexuality intertwined continues: follow her via her super website https://carlacevasco.com –AH

By Carla Cevasco 

Captured by the Abenaki in 1724, the English colonist Elizabeth Hanson fretted as “my daily Travel and hard Living made my Milk dry almost quite up.” As Hanson recorded in her captivity narrative, God’s Mercy Surmounting Man’s Cruelty (1728), she watched her baby become “very poor and weak,” so thin that she could “perceive all its Joynts from one End of the Babe’s Back to the other.” Among English women taken captive by Native Americans in colonial New England, food shortage and the rigor of travel, as well as perhaps the psychological anxiety of captivity, caused many women’s milk to fail, or exacerbated other breastfeeding difficulties. Early modern medical authorities recognized the urgency of infant feeding and the difficulty of nursing: while breastfeeding was physically demanding for mothers, infants who were separated from their mothers often perished.[1]

At home, English women likely would have had access to remedies to help them with breastfeeding problems. Gervase Markham’s The English House-Wife (first published in 1615) offered two concoctions “To increase a womans milke.” One required the woman to consume “good store of Colworts,” a cabbage-like plant, that had been boiled “in strong posset-ale,” a drink of curdled dairy and beer. Another remedy consisted of “the buds and tender crops of Briony,” a common wild vine, in “broth or pottage.” Other nursing women also suckled the children of women who could not nurse themselves.[2] But women in captivity were usually isolated from the social support networks that would have provided them with alternate sources of breastmilk or treatments to increase their milk.

Instead, like other early moderns, women in captivity relied on substitutes to nourish their children. For much of her journey, Hanson used “Broth of the Beaver, or other Guts,” to feed her child “as well as I could.” When those foods were not available, Hanson drank “cold Water” and then “let it fall on my Breast” for the baby to suck “with what it could get from the Breast.”

Porcelain figure of a woman breastfeeding, 18th century. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Porcelain figure of a woman breastfeeding, 18th century. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Captives like Hanson found alternative support networks, who offered substitute foods and fulfilled the roles that other women or physicians would have played in helping mothers at home. When Hanson’s baby became emaciated and barely able to eat with a “weak Appetite,” an Abenaki woman noticed Hanson’s “uneasiness” at the child’s frailty and offered to help. She instructed Hanson “to take the Kernels of Walnuts, and clean them, and beat them with a little Water.” The resulting mixture “look’d like Milk,” Hanson noted. Next, the woman told Hanson to add “a little of the finest of the Indian Corn Meal, and boyl it a little together.”

The resulting mixture, to Hanson’s relief (and the child’s), was “nourishing to the Babe.” The woman explained to Hanson that “with this kind of Diet the Indians did often nurse their Infants.” Like Hanson, Abenaki women would have experienced periods of food shortage or had trouble breastfeeding for other reasons, and the combination of water, walnuts, and corn provided invaluable hydration, protein, and carbohydrates to nursing children. English women who were in the process of weaning their children often would have fed them similar paps or gruels.[3]

 

[1] Marylynn Salmon, “The Cultural Significance of Breastfeeding and Infant Care in Early Modern England and America,” Journal of Social History 28, no. 2 (Winter, 1994), 260-262, 250.

[2] Ibid, 257, 259, 262.

[3] Ibid, 256.