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Because she is worth it

By Laurence Totelin

Recently, I started experimenting with Greek, Roman and Byzantine recipes for pharmacological and cosmetic concoctions. My most adventurous attempt so far was recreating the ‘soap used by the Patrician Pelagia’, a recipe preserved in the writings of Aetius of Amida (sixth century CE):

Soap the Patrician [i.e. noble] Pelagia used to make her face shine: Gallic soap, 6 ounces; starch, 1½ ounce; white lead, 1½ ounce; mastic, ½ ounce; deer marrow, 1 ounce; white native sodium carbonate, 4 pastilles; white wax, 3 ounces. Soak the soap beforehand in water in a small jar for five days, changing the rain water every day and filtering the soap. After that, on the sixth day, put the soap in a new cooking pot with the rain water; place on coals, on a low heat, until the soap has melted. Then sprinkle with the wax and the marrow, and when they are dissolved, take the frying pan and stir well with a spittle and sprinkle the mastic and the starch, ground beforehand. Then add the white lead (ground beforehand in some water) in a small dish and beat up with the hand vigorously. Then place in a new jar and use generously. [Aetius 8.6]

My re-creation of Pelagia's soap. Note the snow-whiteness
My re-creation of Pelagia’s soap. Note the snow-whiteness

I have recounted my experiments with this foundation face-cream on my blog ‘concocting history. Here I would like to focus on the attribution to the Patrician Pelagia. Ancient medical authors often claimed someone famous had used their preparations, and in the case of gynaecological remedies and cosmetics, they sometimes called upon the authority of women. Among these women, one can mention Cleopatra (the name of the most famous queen of antiquity) and Thais (the name of a famous courtesan). Of course it is possible that Queen Cleopatra and the courtesan Thais endorsed cosmetic products, but I think it is more likely their names were chosen for their connotations: sexual appeal, luxury, pleasure…

So what about our Patrician Pelagia? Was Aetius referring to a historical character, a noble Pelagia, or was he calling upon the connotations attached to that name. And what might those connotations have been? ‘Pelagia’ was the name of various Saints, the most famous of which was undoubtedly the – perhaps fictional – Pelagia the Harlot, who started her life as a famous ‘actress’ from Antioch, and converted to Christianity under the influence of the bishop Nonnus. The story of her life, written in the fifth century, became extremely popular. (See here for a translation).

Now, beauty, ornaments and smell play an important role in that story.[1] When Nonnus first encountered the prostitute Pelagia, she was going through the streets of Antioch, sat on a donkey, covered in pearls and gold (but nothing else), and ‘as she went past, the air was filled with the sweet scent of musk and other perfumes.’ The sight and scent of the harlot led the poor Nonnus into temptation, for which he repented through prayer. The night of the following Sunday, Nonnus had a dream in which a dove covered in filth passed by the altar during Mass, its ‘stink so strong as to be difficult to bear’. After Mass, the dream went on, Nonnus plunged the dove in a pool in front of the church. It came out ‘as white as snow’. That dream spurred Nonnus to give the most inspiring sermon in Church that day and, as it happened, Pelagia the harlot was in attendance. Awed by the power of the bishop’s words, she converted–and went on to lead a life of repentance, disguised as the eunuch Pelagius.

Saint Pelagia surrounded by her admirers; Nonnus prays. 14th century French Manuscript Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Français 185, Fol. 264v
Saint Pelagia surrounded by her admirers; Nonnus prays. 14th century French Manuscript: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Français 185, Fol. 264v

Thus Pelagia goes from a journey from  over-sexualised, artificial beauty redolent of perfumes masking the stink of filth to resplendent, gender-neutral, god-inspired beauty. Interestingly, one striking feature of Pelagia’s soap is its snow-whiteness, which may perhaps have recalled Nonnus’ white dove. It also has no added scent: its odour is that of tallow soap, which may appear unpleasant to the unaccustomed modern nose, but is by no means overpowering. Finally, this concoction contains none of the luxurious, exotic ingredients that so commonly feature in ancient recipes. This simple, bland-smelling, snow-white preparation may perhaps have brought to mind the tale of the repentant courtesan.

It may seem odd to use the name of Saint to advertise a cosmetic product, but the name ‘Pelagia’ would have lent the recipe the right balance of ‘naughtiness’ and ‘sanctity’. A product whose name evoked a repentant harlot would have been a ‘safe’ choice for an honourable, Christian woman who still wanted to look her best. After all, she was worth it!

[1] I wish to thank my former student, Caroline Musgrove, for drawing my attention to this fact.

A Recipe for Trouble, or Criminal Chemistry

By Lisa Smith

It’s the tenth anniversary of The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913, a wonderful online resource that I frequently use for teaching and research. As one might expect, there is lots of medical history to be found in the court records. The expertise of physicians, surgeons, midwives and apothecaries was increasingly drawn on to describe injuries and deaths over this period. What may be more surprising is that recipes occasionally play a starring role in London’s criminal underworld. Previously at The Recipes Project, we’ve blogged about recipes being used for social or cultural currency, but today, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you an intriguing tale of a recipe for economic gain.

On 4 May 1698, F.P. of St. Giles-in-the-Fields stood trial for “washing and diminishing” two guineas (gold pieces worth approximately twenty shillings) “with a sort of poisonous Liquor” in order to commit fraud. The first witness recounted meeting the prisoner at a Pall Mall coffee-house where “they had some Discourse relating to the Mathematicks”. Naturally, the conversation turned to recipes and the witness told F.P. that “he had an excellent Receipt to make good Vineger”, which he would sell to F.P. for his servant. F.P. declined to purchase the recipe, but invited the witness to visit him, which he did.

During the visit, F.P. told the witness that “he knew of an excellent Liquor that would diminish Guineas 15 or 20 d. each, without defacing the Characters”. The problem was getting the guineas in the first place. Perhaps, F.P. suggested, “if they had a Banker to furnish them with Guineas” then they could wash up to five hundred pieces in a day.

William and Mary Guinea. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
William and Mary Guinea. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The witness visited the Duke of Schomberg, a military man, who advised the witness to find a willing banker. A banker found, the first witness set up a meeting with F.P. in St. James’s Park. The banker provided F.P. with two guineas “to make an Experiment”, which took place at a room on Dean Steet. The process entailed first weighing the coins, then putting them into water over the fire and stirring them “a pretty while” along with unidentified “Druggs”. The chemicals must have been rather expensive, as F.P. insisted that the banker would need to provide four-hundred guineas per day, or “it would not be worth his while”. The coins were weighed again afterwards to show the difference. The banker at this point complained that the coins have been too diminished (about four shillings each), but “the Prisoner condescended they should only be diminished to the value of 18 d. each, for the more easy covering the Cheat”.  F.P. further noted that only one of the coins might go undetected. Indeed, the coins were weighed at trial and there was a weight difference, with one coin “4 s. too light, and the other 3 s. 6.”

At this point, F.P. may have realised that trouble was not far behind.  The first witness reported that F.P. “designed suddenly to go to France, when he would leave ’em the Secret for their pains, they allowing him 30 l. per Month, which they were to remit thither; but in the mean time all the Profit while he staid here should be his own”. The witnesses did not take him up on his offer, but instead “delivered” the diminished coins to the Duke who in turn showed them to the King. The King sent the guineas to the Secretary of State, William Vernon, who ordered the prisoner’s arrest.  The stakes were high, with—as the banker put it—F.P.’s “Secret being enough to ruin the Nation”.

The prisoner did try defend himself, claiming that it was one of the witnesses who had tried the experiment. Although he called several character witnesses, it seemed he had few friends, as some of them “said he had been guilty of endeavouring to suborn Witnesses to swear falsly against one Camelle” on one occasion. In any case, there was clear evidence that the whole idea had been his in the first place: “the Names of the Druggs to be used being writ in one of the Evidences Pocket books by the Prisoner’s own Hand, which he owned in Court”. F.P. was found guilty of High Treason, punishable by death.

A curious story overall, and one very much of its time. Two men talking at a coffee-house about mathematics and recipes? How very urban Enlightenment. Secrets to be shared, for a cost? Typical of the early modern tension between public and private secret knowledge. A desire to use chemicals to make gold? Well, it’s not quite the Philosopher’s Stone that seventeenth-century alchemists continued to seek, but certainly much more practical. Condemned by a written recipe? Should have left it in the oral realm instead of trying to organise his knowledge…

The case of F.P. does show, however, the importance of recipes. He was in possession of one that worked and threatened to undermine no less than royal authority. But all that knowledge came to nothing. In the end, it was just a recipe for trouble.

Distilling the Essence of Heaven: How Alcohol Could Defeat the Antichrist

by Tillmann Taape

In my last post, I introduced Hieronymus Brunschwig’s Small book of distillation and considered how it presented medical knowledge. Here, I explore how Brunschwig’s reading of alchemical ideas shaped his concept of distilled remedies.

Like anyone living in medieval or early modern times, Brunschwig knew that the world was strictly divided into two separate realms: heaven and earth. While the celestial spheres were perfect and unchanging, revolving in harmonious circles with clockwork precision, the sublunar world was rather different.  All earthly matter was made up of the four elements: fire, air, earth, and water. Unless their qualities were perfectly balanced, they were volatile, prone to haphazard permutations. This was why everything in nature was thought to be constantly changing or decomposing, posing a major health threat to the human body which was also made of earthly matter. In fact, it was governed by bodily humours which corresponded to the four elements, and were just as difficult to balance.

Seeking to keep physical corruption at bay, it is not surprising that Brunschwig turned to alchemy, especially distillation. As he wrote in his Small book, this was a powerful way of transforming and purifying matter (see, for example, Jonathan Cey’s post on alchemy and fecal matter). While Brunschwig did not get much more specific in this particular work, we can look to the Large book of distillation which he published in 1512 for more detailed insights into his alchemical worldview. Numerous references and quotations suggest that the fourteenth-century alchemical writings of the Franciscan John of Rupescissa had a particularly important influence on his concept of distillation.

Haunted by apocalyptic visions, Rupescissa was convinced that the coming of Antichrist was near. In order to prevail in the final battle, evangelical men needed to search for the panacea, a universal medicine which cures all illnesses by adjusting any imbalance of the four humours. According to Rupescissa, the only substance fitting the bill was “quintessence of wine”– alcohol distilled many times over, the stronger the better.

This marvellous liquid was not, like all other earthly things, imbued with the qualities of the four sublunar elements and thus doomed to decay. Instead, it was perfectly balanced, much like the fifth element which made up the heavenly spheres, and therefore incorruptible. Rupescissa also called it “man’s heaven”, indicating that while it did not actually amount to a swig of celestial matter, it could confer the incorruptibility of the heavenly spheres to the human body to keep it healthy. This miraculous substance was hard-won through demanding alchemical processes. Multiple distillation at different carefully-regulated temperatures was followed by “circulation” of the substance in specially made glass vessels to remove any remaining traces of the corruptible elemental qualities. Distillation thus emerges as a process capable of profoundly changing physical matter.

From the many quotations in Brunschwig’s Large book, we can see that Rupescissa’s ideas about distillation and quintessence were central to Brunschwig’s medicine-making. Bearing this in mind, the distilled remedies in the Small book appear in a new light. Like Rupescissa, Brunschwig thought of distillation as a process with some cosmological significance which made sublunary matter “incorruptible” and more “like a heavenly thing” [1].

It is important to note though, that he never referred to the remedies described in the Small book as “quintessences”, and the techniques for their production were mostly quite straightforward. They certainly didn’t appear to be geared towards anything as complex and esoteric as Rupescissa’s celestial panacea. They did not remove all elemental qualities from Brunschwig’s distilled waters, although they did separate the plant’s healing virtues from its material dross, and thus produced more standardised remedies with a predictable effect on the human body and its humours.

Far from Rupescissa’s ideal of incorruptibility, the shelf life of Brunschwig’s waters was clearly limited, and most of them went off after three years. Even before their use-by date, the power of distilled remedies declined over time. This, however, occurred at a highly predictable rate: some, like water of mandrake or water lily, were initially so powerful that they should only be applied externally, but after one year their power was tempered sufficiently to be taken internally. This suggests that, although Brunschwig’s Small book aimed considerably lower than “man’s heaven”, Rupescissa’s concept of distillation was at work here. It did not go all the way to yield the perfect balance and incorruptibility of heaven, but it channelled some of heaven’s clockwork regularity and thus made Brunschwig’s remedies more reliable. The remedies would have a well-defined effect on the patient’s humoural balance, and even though their power would decay over time, it did so at a predictable rate, allowing the practitioner to keep track of its current state.

[1] “unzerstörlichen” and “gleich dem hymelischen”. Hieronymus Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus (Strasbourg: Johann Grüninger, 1509).

Exploring CPP 10a214: The Compiler and the Countess

By Hillary Nunn with Rebecca Laroche

Last month, Rebecca Laroche (12/03/2013) examined the first recipe in a manuscript owned by Anne Layfielde and dated 1640, housed at the Medical Historical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.  The section of the manuscript compiled by one “Cal: Downing” contains a remarkable number of attributions, many to Elizabeth Downing – a woman who, Rebecca suggested, could be the “Mistress Downing” whose recipes appear in the printed Natura Exenterata: Or Nature Unbowelled (1655).

I’d like to consider another woman whose name appears repeatedly in the Layfielde manuscript as well as in printed medical manuals: the Countess of Exeter.  Seven references to the Countess of Exeter appear in CPP 10a214.  While the manuscript never says so specifically, this is most likely Frances Cecil (1580-1663), who married Thomas Cecil, Earl of Exeter in 1610.[1]  The Countess’s reputation in matters of health proved weighty enough that she is named in the dedications to a number of early modern printed books, though, curiously, her recipes are not part of those books (and male physicians’ are). Thomas Bonham dedicates The Chyrurgians Closet to the Countess because he finds “amongst men (to me known) none so much affecting this noble Science as I could wish.”[2] Her reputation as a model household manager led Gervase Markham to dedicate the 1623 edition of Country Contentments, or The English Huswife to her; his assertion that the Countess’s endorsement could make his “weak and disable[d]” book “strong in the world” underscores her long-standing reputation as a practitioner of household medicine.[3]  Thus, even though the Countess’s recipes themselves are not included, or at least not credited, in these books, their authors rely on her popular reputation as a medical practitioner to situate their writings.

Downing’s manuscript section calls on the Countess’s authority as well, naming her as a source for recipes for ailments ranging from “looseness of the body” to sudden swellings.  And even more interestingly, the manuscript labels four recipes as “probatum per Countess of Exeter.”  A recipe for “the Ulcer or stone in the bladder” goes so far as to specify that the medicine was “made by Mr Whatton apothecary of Stamford, probatum per Countess Exeter.” This endorsement carries a personal ring, suggesting that the compiler’s contact with the Countess is more immediate than with the apothecary.  The manuscript, as a result, conjures images of the compiler and the Countess in personal conversation about their medical work.

While written testimonials could certainly follow along with well-travelled recipes, the Layfielde manuscript’s many references to the Countess raise tantalizing questions about the compiler’s medical connections.  How closely did the compiler know the Countess?  Did they exchange recipes in person?  If not, how did her recipes end up in the CPP manuscript?  The answers to these tantalizing questions could offer us a greater understanding not just of how recipes travel, but of how manuscript and print worked together to lend practitioners like the Countess a reputation for medical prowess.

[1] Alastair Bellany, ‘Cecil , Frances, countess of Exeter (1580–1663)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2006 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/70625, accessed 23 March 2013]

[2]  Thomas Bonhman, The Chyrurgians Closet (London, 1630).

[3]  Gervase Markham, Country Contentments, or The English Huswife (London, 1623).

This is the third in a series of monthly posts on this topic.