Category Archives: Premodern

Paper as Commodity in Medieval Magical and Medical Practices

By Orietta Da Rold

‘He then looked and saw an amulet sewn into the tarboosh, which he took and opened’

(The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights)

The tale of Nur al-Din and his son Hasan is a well-known tale from the Arabian Nights. It tells the story of Nur al-Din’s self-imposed exile in Basra and of the return to Egypt of his son Hasan. The involvement of magic, the disguise and the subsequent recognition of Hasan as the son of Nur al-Din are all essential elements of the story. But the amulet represents the tangible proof of Hasan’s true identity. The talisman is made with a scroll of paper, folded and stitched in a fold of material then placed in Hasan’s turban. It was given to Hasan by his father just before he died. A token of recognition which unlocks a knotted mystery; a powerful meaningful object which represents the climax of the narrative, because it enables the identification of the male protagonist and the continuation of the story to a happy conclusion.[1] In the Arabian Nights, the writing of words on paper regularly carries symbolic, almost sacred connotations, announcing in a loud and clear voice that paper as a commodity is an integral part of understanding social and cultural custom in fiction and perhaps in real life too.

It is now accepted that Arabian Nights, first mentioned in a ninth-century manuscript fragment, is a compilation of stories which has evolved and extended over the centuries;[2] it is tantalising to suggest that this process of augmentation also absorbed local practices and technologies. Paper arrived in the Arab world well before its introduction to the West and started to be used as a commodity from the eighth century.[3] The amulet on paper is a witness to knowledge and healing in a society fully accustomed to paper. This use in popular lore is indicative of the adoption, acceptance and full participation of a new technology in society (see also the ‘One Million Pagoda’ in Japan). Similar evidence can be traced in the use of paper in charms, amulets, medical or culinary recipes in Western literature and culture from the late medieval period. This evidence, however, is seldom studied or indeed catalogued, although more work has been undertaken on post medieval medical practices.

One fascinating example is Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Misc. MS 553. The volume is a fifteenth-century collection of medical recipes and texts including one charm which claimed to cure all manner of fevers. In this instance, the maker is instructed to write this phrase: ‘for to destruye alle maner of feueres wryt þes ix wordes in pauper’ on a piece of paper.[4] Here, the very act of inscribing these 9 words on paper activate their magical and healing power.

The practice of using paper in medical knowledge and treatments is also seen in another medical treatise translated into English in the fourteenth century. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ashmole MS 1396 and London, British Library, Additional MS 12056 contain a version  of Lanfrank’s Science of Cirurgie. Paper is here used in a number of different ways. In a recipe to whiten teeth, paper was folded and used as a plaster to apply a mixture of flour, sal ana and honey.[5] In another recipe, burnt paper ashes was used, alongside borax, to staunch blood after phlebotomy.[6]

Cambridge, Trinity College, MS O. 1.13, fol. 194v, to be published with the following credits: ‘By permission of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge’. Photo taken by author.
Cambridge, Trinity College, MS O. 1.13, fol. 194v. By permission of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge. Photo taken by author.

In a final example in Cambridge, Trinity College, MS O. 1.13 (fol. 194v), a recipe dating to the late fifteenth-century uses brown paper as a kind of bandage to heal the wound of the head.[7] In all these examples the different proprieties of paper are put to use in different ways for esthetical and healing purposes.

In contrast to Mediterranean countries, England only experienced the importation of paper at the beginning of the fourteenth century. However, as soon as it became available it was adopted in diverse ways. As we recover the significance of the paper revolution in the West and in different geographical locales, in this case England, we often focus on the impact that it had on book production, record keeping and manuscript transmission. We frequently forget that the great success that paper enjoys as technology and craft is in direct proportion to its multiple uses to fulfill different needs and, as such, demands more attention.

The examples I have included above explain that paper started to be employed in traditional medical practices as an alternative to textiles to attend to injuries. This is what I call the ‘textile’ economy in medical customs, which largely employed linen cloth and wool to medicate and wrap wounds, but also to make potions.

Cambridge St John’s College, MS B. 15, fol. 11v. By permission of the Master and Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge.
Cambridge St John’s College, MS B. 15, fol. 11v. By permission of the Master and Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge.

Cambridge, St John’s College, MS B.15 is another collection of medical recipes, in which a recipe advises to cure pain and the inflation of nerves with black wool (fol. 11v). The recipes says ‘Tak blak wolle as it growth between þe schepe legges’ and carries on advising how to wash it in in warm water to make a concoction derived from the water to cure nerves.

This phenomenon should not be surprising because in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England, grocers, spice dealers and haberdashers sold paper to meet a wide range of practical needs outside the book trade. For example, in the 1360s the household of King John II of France purchased paper from a certain Berthëlemi Mine, a spice dealer in London to wrap up jam (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS FR 11205).

It should not, therefore, be surprising that paper as a technological innovation contributed to both literary as well as medical texts. Both served specific purposed in society and both contributed to popular lore with the determination of improving life; in the case of the Arabian Nights, actually prolonging life itself.


Orietta Da Rold is a University Lecture in The Faculty of English and a Fellow of St John’s College at the University of Cambridge. She has worked for many years on the impact of paper in late medieval England. Da Rold is the Director of the Mapping Paper project and is currently working on a monograph seeking to explore the impact that paper had in the pre-printing world by considering how paper enabled the mobility of knowledge and dissemination of learning by enriching literary, cultural and technological practices.

[1] On this practice, see Don C. Skemer, Binding Words: Textual Amulets in the Middle Ages, Magic in History (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006)

[2] R. Irwin, The Arabian Nights: A Companion (London: Penguin, 1995)

[3] J. Bloom, Paper before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).

[4] S. J. Ogilvie-Thomson, Index of Middle English Prose, Handlist XVI, Manuscripts in the Laudian Collection Bodleian Library, Oxford (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2000), p. 69, item 41. I should like to thank Lea T. Olsan for drawing my attention to this reference.

[5] ‘If a mannes teeþ ben blac, in þis maner þou schalt make hem whit / farinam ordei, sal ana, & leie hem in hony, & make þerof past & folde it in paper or in lynnen clooþ’; Robert von Fleischhacker, ed., Lanfrank’s “Science of Cirurgie“, E.E.T.S., O.S. (London, 1894), p. 265.

[6] ‘þan sette þervpon a ventuse for to drawe þerto blood. & þan anoynte þe same place wiþ blood, & þan sette þervpon þe watir leche. & whanne he is ful & þou wolt do him awei, blowe vpon þe place baurac, ouþer askis maad of paper’; Robert von Fleischhacker, ed., Lanfrank’s “Science of Cirurgie“, E.E.T.S., O.S. (London, 1894), p. 305.

[7] ‘ffor the sowndinge in the hedd: take ij sheetes of browne paper’. Cambridge, Trinity College, MS O. 1.13, fol. 194v.

Human Milk as Medicine in Imperial China: Practice or Fantasy?

By He Bian

What does milk have in common with blood? According to Kou Zongshi (fl. 1110-1117), author of Bencao yanyi (Extended Interpretations on Materia Medica), they are basically the same vital fluid produced by the female body at two critical moments in a woman’s life. While the first menstrual period signifies the maturation of reproductive power, motherhood is the consummation of that power–miraculously causing the vital fluid to flow upward as milk. After nursing ends, the flow of milk again reverses back to blood, as evident from the return of the menses.

“Human milk.” Anon. Buyi Leigong paozhi bianlan (n.p, 1591), Book 8.
“Human milk.” Anon. Buyi Leigong paozhi bianlan (n.p, 1591), Book 8.

For centuries, Kou’s comment was repeatedly quoted as the dominant theory over lactation in the realm of learned medicine. It also coincides with parallel attempts to speculate on the metaphysical foundation of sex differences in women, and the consolidation of women’s medicine (fuke) and pediatrics (erke) as medical specialties.[1]

However, Kou’s original aim was to make sense of medical recipes. In particular, he was trying to figure out why do so many recipes for eye medicine use human milk to mix up powdered mineral drugs: a practice that has parallels in different cultural contexts. Since blood is essential for the five senses to function and human milk is essentially blood, Kou reasoned, this makes it an excellent medicine for eye diseases. Another recipe that may have been on his mind is the recommendation to drink “three portions of human milk” to help with obstructed menses. It makes sense if they were considered of the same origin. Like cures like.

Let’s pause here to consider what this means. Working with Chinese materia medica texts often means untangling different strands of thought, modes of compilation and miscellaneous quotations. The entry on each substance (e.g. human milk, renru or ruzhi) often begins with a learned survey of previous literature, including passages from classical literature and histories, and ends with a large (and often unwieldy) body of recipes. The problem is that the prescribed uses of the substances in the first part do not always sit well with the recipes, which are messy, opaque, and often outright strange.

In fact, Kou Zongshi’s work could be understood as a scholar-physician’s attempt to impose order and coherence on the unruly recipes, which were becoming increasingly available in print. [2] The incongruities and tension between theory and recipes, however, allows us to follow the intricate dance between empiricism and rationalism in such texts: when did authors equate recipes with real-life experiences, and when did they treat them as exemplars of theory and formulaic principles? When did book culture begin to shape the ways in which medicines were prepared, consumed, and invented?

Back to Kou Zongshi’s ingenious, if somewhat contrived, speculation over the nature of lactation. It did not seem to have caught much attention immediately. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries witnessed a growing suspicion among medical experts to discipline and curb wet nurses’ sway over childcare, and pediatric treatises abound with warnings against drunken, naughty wet nurses whose milk turns unwholesome to the infant.[3] Again, the female body’s power to nourish but also intoxicate with her transformed milk resonates with similar discourses discussed elsewhere on this blog; notably, alcoholic drinks were seen to be a bad thing that excites her passions, in contrast to ancient Roman recommendations.

In addition, the conquest of Mongols brought about increased consumption of cow and goat’s milk.[4] A leading physician active in the fourteenth century advised consuming those over human milk, which is easily “tainted with poisonous passions.” It looks like the arrival of more abundant dairy products would transform the existing pharmacopeia once and for all.

But not so simple. By the sixteenth century in China, human milk had become a “super food” of sorts, especially among elite families. Kou Zongshi’s dusty theory became a dominant trope, fanning the imagination of the female body as a machine of alchemical wonders, and her milk a sort of elixir that revitalizes the frail and depleted bodies. In the sixteenth-century encyclopedia Systematic Materia Medica (Bencao gangmu), Li Shizhen, the erudite naturalist and capable physician, criticized the excessive fetishizing of human milk. The prudent Li nevertheless included twelve “new recipes” that involve human milk as medicine. Li’s encyclopedia was first printed in 1596; soon after the turn of the century, dietary manuals began to teach people how to prepare dried milk powder at home, after collecting fresh milk from “strong women who just gave birth to boys”. Presumably, women sold their milk not as wet nurses, but directly to pharmacists (as depicted in the picture above).

So did people in imperial China consume human milk as medicine? Quite likely. But was it ubiquitous? Probably not. Recipes can be practical and fantastic, and theorists can explain and inspire. What matters is that human milk as medicine gradually came to be taken out of the context of nursing and acquired a more abstract quality as commodity.

[1] Charlotte Furth, A Flourishing Yin: Gender in China’s Medical History: 960–1665 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999).

[2] Asaf Goldschmidt, The Evolution of Chinese Medicine: Song Dynasty, 960-1200 (London ; New York: Routledge, 2009).

[3] Ping-Chen Hsiung, “To Nurse the Young: Breastfeeding and Infant Feeding in Late Imperial China,” Journal of Family History, 20, 3 (1995), pp. 217-38.

[4] Paul D. Buell, E.N. Anderson, and Charles Perry, A Soup for the Qan : Chinese Dietary Medicine of the Mongol Era as Seen in Hu Sihui’s Yinshan Zhengyao, 2nd Rev. and Expanded ed. (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010).

Three Croatian Glagolitic Recipes Against Toothache

By Marija-Ana Dürrigl and Stella Fatović-Ferenčić,

Historians working on recipes often use sources that, from the outside, do not look like recipe books. One of the most common places for recipes to be found in pre-modern manuscripts is in liturgical books, and other works for priests. A recipe from a sixteenth-century Croatian liturgical manuscript reads:

Help for the teeth: On Holy Saturday when the church bells sound Gloria in Excelsis Deo … say three Pater Nosters and three Ave Marias in honor of God and Mary and Saint Apolonia.

Za zubi pomoć: na Velu sobotu kada se počne zvoniti k Slava va višnih Bogu on trat… rci 3 Očenaši i tri Zdrave Marie v čast Bogu i svetoi Marie i v čast sveti Polonii

This recipe is in the Croatian redaction of Church Slavonic language. Church Slavonic was the common language of liturgy and learning among Slavs in the Middle Ages. It is written in the Glagolitic alphabet; its angular variant was used primarily in the Croatian context. This particular recipe is then readable only by a select few. But its topic – toothache – and its location – in a religious (moral-didactic) book – is much more familiar. Marginal recipes are extremely widespread, as previously discussed on The Recipes Project. This post will take us into the world of marginal recipes by and for Catholic Slavs.

Kingdom of Croatia from Wiki Commons
Kingdom of Croatia
from Wiki Commons

In rural parts of medieval Croatia, a kingdom hugging the Adriatic sea, and a meeting point between the Mediterranean and Central Europe, priests also acted as medical practitioners. Recipes and therapeutic instructions are valuable sources, shedding light on outbreaks of epidemics, on ways of treating diseases, as well as on old terminology. The term “medical” has to be taken in its broadest sense, i.e. it pertains to the basic knowledge the priests possessed.



Medical texts in the Žgombić Miscellany (Croatian Glagolitic manuscripts, early 16th c.) by Marija-Ana Duerigl
Medical texts in the Žgombić Miscellany (Croatian Glagolitic manuscripts, early 16th c.)
by Marija-Ana Dürrigl

Texts in Croatian Glagolitic recipe collections do not follow a strict order (which organs are afflicted; which complaints are present; which kind of procedure is to be applied; which quantity of ingredient is to be used), but seem to have been copied randomly from various sources.

Extant recipes against diseases can be grouped into two broad categories. Concrete texts are instructions for curing ailments that invlolve administering various medications (based on experience and on older written sources). Such “concrete” recipes are applied to treat renal stones, sick eyes, gastrointestinal disorders, and other ailments. Prescribed medications are based primarily on local, Mediterranean, medicinal plants. In Glagolitic sources concrete healing instructions are interwoven with what we term abstract texts, i.e. incantations, prayers and amulets, for example against headaches, insomnia, and sore throats. Religious approaches to disease and healing share space on the pages of Croatian medieval recipe collections with empirical instructions, and both co-existed throughout many centuries. One did not exclude the other, and this kind of promiscuitas may seem a curiosity to the modern reader. However, a strict delineation between the different spheres of knowledge and belief did not happen for another few centuries.

A page from Žgombić Miscellany (Croatian Glagolitic manuscript, early 16th c.) by Marija-Ana Dürrigl
A page from Žgombić Miscellany (Croatian Glagolitic manuscript, early 16th c.)
by Marija-Ana Dürrigl

Here we present three small medical texts from a “marginal” source. The book called the Žgombić Miscellany (today in the Archive of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts in Zagreb) contains moral-didactic texts and religious prose (legends, visions, contrasts). On the last folios there are three recipes for treatment of toothache, one of which is quoted above.

The second reads:

Za zubi pomoć: kuša v belom vini kuhai tere zvanu stavi ča naiteple moreš ako bude Bog otil oćeš imat pomoć

Help for the teeth: Cook sage /Salvia officinalis/ in white wine and use it as a very warm compress – God willing you will have help

Recipe in the Glagolitic Alphabet by Marija-Ana Dürrigl
Recipe in the Glagolitic Alphabet
by Marija-Ana Dürrigl





Sage is often mentioned in Croatian Glagolitic recipe collections; one is reminded of the Latin saying „Cur morietur homo quia salvia crescit in horto?“ ‒ Why should man die, when salvation lies in the Garden? The use of sage in this case can be rationally explained, for it contains aetheric oils and can have antibacterial effect. It is still used modern stomatology for disinfection of the mouth.

The third recipe reads:

Za zubi pomoć: ružmarina i smažera od smreki … i beloga vina skup kuhai ako li pol zvre onem maži zubi imaš lek z Božiju volu

Help for the teeth: prepare an ointment by cooking rosemary /Rosmarinus officinalis/ and resin of the juniper tree /Picea albis/ in white wine and smear on the teeth – you will have help with God’s will.

This instruction, as well as the ingredients, suggests that it was more likely used to those suffering with gingivitis or similar problems, rather than against toothache. The resin of the juniper is rich in vitamin C which is important in healing of the gums. Both empirical recipes suggest white wine, which may have been of help in alleviating pain. Both also end with a smilar phrase reflecting a religious view of healing – if it is God’s will, you will be helped.

This sketch from the Croatian Glagolitic heritage shows the significance of “marginal” sources in tracing medical texts. Although not large in number, Croatian Glagolitic medical texts reflect the intersection of (medieval) Christianity and empirical healing. They should be included into a study of the wide framework of healing practices in medieval Europe.

Marija-Ana Dürrigl, Ph.D., is a senior research associate at the Old Church Slavonic Institute, Scientific Centre of Excellence for Croatian Glagolitism Zagreb, Croatia.

Stella Fatović-Ferenčić, Ph.D, is a Professor at the Department for the History of Medicine, Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Zagreb, Croatia.


1 Dürrigl MA, Fatović-Ferenčić S, „Marginalia miscellanea medica“ in Croatian Glagolitic monuments – a model for interdisciplinary investigations, Viator 30, 1999: 383-396

2 Fatović-Ferenčić S, Dürrigl MA, Za zubi pomoć ‒ odontološki tekstovi u hrvatskoglagoljskim rukopisima, Acta Stomatologica Croatica 1997, 31: 229-236 (Help for teeth – odontological texts in Croatian Glagolitic manuscripts)

Re-Centering Europe

By Clare Griffin

St Mary Basilica, Cracow From Wiki Commons
St Mary’s Basilica, Cracow
From Wiki Commons

Think about the histories of Europe, European medicine, European science or European magic and witchcraft you have on your desk. Think about the European cookbooks, or travel guides, or novels you have heard about. How many of them cover events, characters, places, cultures, or cuisines further east than Berlin? Of those that do, how many jump from Berlin to Moscow, bypassing the cities in between? Central, Eastern, and South-Eastern Europe tend to be treated by English-speakers as a world apart.

In academia, expertise on those countries is corralled into regional studies departments, rather than dealt with as European history. In part, this is a relic of the twentieth century, reflecting and replicating Churchill’s idea of an Iron Curtain that cut Europe in two. As The Recipes Project often demonstrates, regions and recipes go hand in hand. There is our sister series on Russian recipes. Similar series deal with the early modern Netherlands, China, and Ancient Greece and Rome. After all, anyone reading the ‘country of origin’ labels in their local supermarket knows that recipes link together ingredients and places. This month, we will use recipes to tear down the academic Iron Curtain, reclaiming this region not only as Central Europe, but as a central part of Europe.

from Wiki Commons
Map of Modern Central and Eastern Europe            from Wiki Commons

Focusing on place and space is important – where is Central and Eastern Europe? What does it look like? What is its political geography? South-Eastern Europe is perhaps more familiar in its fictionalized guise on Game of Thrones. In that series, Croatia’s Dubrovnik stands in as both King’s Landing and Qarth. Similarly, Prague and other Czech towns have been the location for numerous fictional intrigues: Karlovy Vary stood in for Montenegro in Casino Royale

A view of the old city of Dubrovnik. from Wiki Commons
A view of the old city of Dubrovnik.
from Wiki Commons









In real life, medieval and early modern Central and Eastern Europe saw power struggles and battles no less dramatic than those of Tyrion Lannister and James Bond. At various periods, Dubrovnik was under the protection of the Byzantine Empire, the Venetian Empire, the Kingdom of Hungary, and the Habsburg Empire.  These waxing and waning dynastic and imperial powers commonly intersected with religious divisions. In the Byzantine-controlled and Russian-influenced lands, Eastern Orthodoxy was the majority religion.

The Ottoman Empire in 1683 From Wiki Commons
The Ottoman Empire in 1683
From Wiki Commons

The Ottomans were the major Muslim power of the region, building mosques across South Eastern Europe that stand today. The Habsburgs and the Jagellonians were both traditionally Catholic dynasties, tying themselves and their empires to Rome, despite the Reformation making converts among many of their subjects. There were also substantial Jewish populations in many cities throughout the region. Each of these religions made their mark upon the landscape, with mosques, synagogues and churches, graveyards, and crosses of various kinds crowding the skylines.

In the shadow of these landmarks, Europeans wrote and followed recipes.

Medieval Serbian Mosque From Wiki Commons
Medieval Serbian Mosque
From Wiki Commons

As Marija-Ana Dürrigl and Stella Fatović-Ferenčić’s post highlights, men of the cloth jotted down medical recipes in their liturgy books. This was a Europe-wide phenomenon: from Porto to Moscow, the clergy wrote recipes, preserving them in religious manuscripts. Lay Europeans were often concerned with their stomachs. The post by Christopher Nicholson deals with recipes to husband fish. Originating in Bohemia, the text was translated and read as far away as England. Bohemians were not alone in wanting a nice fish dinner. For unhappy European households, food could lead to poisoning or bewitchment. Magic, for good or for ill, was used across Europe. Adelina Angusheva-Tihanov and Margaret Dimitrova’s post presents us with some examples of Slavic magic. A more specialized pursuit of pre-modern Europeans was alchemy. Alchemists, like those in Agnieszka Rec’s post, created networks across Europe. They circulated books, and themselves travelled from place to place. To read European recipes is to see how Europe is connected.

The Holy Roman Empire in 1648 from Wiki Commons
The Holy Roman Empire in 1648
from Wiki Commons

In order to read recipes, you need to know the language, and the alphabet, in which they are written. This is where people often see Central and Eastern Europe as divided from Western Europe. Don’t people from those places use different languages? Not always. Agnieszka Rec’s alchemists found recipes in Poland-Lithuania, but wrote in German. Christopher Nicholson’s Bohemian fish were described in Latin and English. Sometimes, the recipes are in different languages, and in different alphabets.  For example, Adelina Angusheva-Tihanov and Margaret Dimitrova’s recipes are in the Church Slavonic language and the Cyrillic alphabet. Marija-Ana Dürrigl and Stella Fatović-Ferenčićs texts are also in Church Slavonic. But they would not be comprehensible everyone who reads Church Slavonic (including me). These texts use the Glagolitic alphabet. Recipes show us connections, but they also show us the uniqueness of their authors, dividing as well as uniting.

Codex Zographensis from Wiki Commons
Codex Zographensis in Glagolitic
from Wiki Commons


 For the next four Thursdays, The Recipes Project will be returning to this region. We hope you will join us as our contributors take us further into Central, Eastern and South Eastern European recipes, to see how those texts bring Europe together.