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.

Cleopatra’s Eye: The Significance of Kohl in Ancient Egypt

By Hazel Lunn

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in 1963 production of Cleopatra, portraying malachite and galena kohls used in Egyptian makeup. Courtesy of http://flavorwire.com/535384/the-fashions-of-cleopatra-in-cinema

Kohl has been a popular cosmetic in civilisations across the world since prehistoric times, but its association with ancient Egypt is most well-known. We are all familiar with the Egyptians legendary eye-makeup. With Cleopatra as its ‘poster girl’, most famously depicted by Elizabeth Taylor in 1963, the queens signature eye-paint still inspires costumes and makeup looks today. Though the Greeks and Romans also used kohl as an eye-liner, its use in Egypt was much more than simply cosmetic. Used by both men and women of all social classes, the Egyptians believed kohl also had important medicinal, magical and religious qualities.

Cosmetic Use

In the eyes of the Greeks and Romans, excessive adornment belonged only to the prostitutes and favoured more naturalistic makeup, using kohl to finely line the eyes and extend the brow. The Egyptians however shared a different view and smeared kohl over their eyes daily. Wearing both green malachite and black galena in bold designs, kohl exaggerated their eyes to enhance their beauty (Tyldesley 1994, 159). Although she was not Egyptian herself, Cleopatra likely followed ancient traditions wearing beautifully elaborate eye looks, perhaps similar to our modern recreations.

To create these eye paints, kohl was ground in a pestle and mortar and mixed with oils or animal fats on palettes to; then the kohl paint was applied to the eyes using a small stick. Galena, replacing malachite, gradually became the predominant ingredient in kohl cosmetics and its use continued through until the Coptic period; the Fayum mummy portraits display less complicated, everyday use of kohl by both men and women during the Roman period, perhaps influenced more by the styles of Roman women which became popular after the first century AD. As well enhancing beauty, the cosmetic use of kohl could also indicate social rank and achievement, perhaps with more complicated designs worn regularly by the elite (Pak 2009, 108).

Religious Importance

So important was its use in ancient Egypt that containers of kohl, along with various instruments for its preparation and application, were buried alongside the dead. This clearly shows just how essential kohl was in daily life but also in the afterlife, which indicated that it had important religious functions. Kohl was associated with the deities Horus, Ra and Hathor and was regularly used in ritual. Egyptians also exaggerated their eyes with bold liner in veneration of the gods, as they believed it possessed magical properties in providing protection from diseases and warded off the Evil Eye (Tapsoba et al. 2010, 457; Illes n.d., 2).

Medicinal Benefits

Though these magical benefits of kohl may seem irrational to us today, these protective qualities are fully supported by recent studies of the various ingredients found in kohl. Egyptians faced many health issues that effected the eyes; from dust from the desert, to insects and bacteria from the flooding of the Nile, diseases such as conjunctivitis, cataract, trachoma and trichiasis played the population. The proscription of kohl to treat and prevent these illnesses can be found extremely early on in the Ebers papyrus, but were ancient physicians correct to think kohl could heal them?

Kohl contained multiple ingredients that not only added to the beautiful shine of galena, but are also known for their medicinal benefits. Zinc oxide is a powerful natural sunblock, neem has astringent and antibacterial properties and also possesses anti-viral activity like silver-leaf, while fennel and saffron were often used to fight many eye diseases. Other ingredients, such as chaksu and precious gems, were also believed to improve sight (Pak 2009, 110). It has also been discovered that Egyptians synthesised lead compounds (laurionite and phosgenite) to add into their cosmetics, which Dioscorides explains “appear to be good medicine to be put in the eyes” (Dioscorides 5,102).

Although the addition of lead to cosmetics may seem absurd due to its known toxicity, with some pitying the “devastation” kohl must have cause in ancient Egypt, these compounds were not harmful and did actually provide beneficial medicinal roles (Hallmann 2009, 71-2). A biomedical study, which made the news in 2010, ended controversy over the harmful effects of kohl. By analysing various samples found in Egyptian tombs and recreating ancient recipes, reported by Greco-Roman authors, scientists were able to test the effects of these led compounds on skin cells. Amazingly instead of causing lead poisoning, these lead compounds instead triggered an overproduction of nitrogen monoxide (NOo), which stimulates nonspecific immunological defences. This data suggests that the daily wearing of kohl made Egyptian eyes almost immediately resistant to bacterial infections due to the spontaneous response of immune cells. Although concerns about the toxicity of lead, overshadowed its benefits, this study proves that the lead compounds found in kohl did in fact serve a significant medicinal function. Tapsoba therefore argues that these compounds were deliberately manufactured and used in cosmetics to prevent and treat eye diseases (Tapsoba et al. 2010, 457-60). Galena and these other lead sulphides also provide protection from Egypt’s harsh sun by providing a shield from its glare and harmful UV rays (Pak 2009, 109). The addition of these various ingredients to kohl supports the magical protective beliefs of Egyptians and shows an understanding of ancient physicians of the many benefits this cosmetic possessed.

Although kohl was used by the Egyptians to beautifully decorate their eyes, its daily use for religious and medicinal purposes were extremely important. Though the general population may have attributed kohl’s magical healing powers to the gods, physicians and perhaps even Cleopatra herself, understood that the ingredients they added to their cosmetics were effective medicines. Its use, in various forms, has been important to many cultures throughout history and it remains a popular cosmetic across the world today.


Hallmann. A. (2009), ‘Was Ancient Egyptian Kohl a Poison?’ in J. Popielska-Grzybowska, O. Białostocka & J. Iwaszczuk (eds.), Proceedings of the Third Central European Conference of Young Egyptologists. Egypt 2004: Perspectives of Research. Warsaw 12-14 May 2004. 69-72. Pułtusk: The Pułtusk Academy of Humanities.

Illes. J., n.d. Ancient Egyptian Eye Makeup

Pak. J. (2009), ‘Review Kohl (Surma): Retrospect and Prospect’, Pharmaeutical Sciences 22, 107-122.

Tapsoba. I., Arbault. S., Walter. P., and Amatore. C. (2010). ‘Finding Out Egyptian Gods’ Secret Using Analytical Chemistry: Biomedical Properties of Egyptian Makeup Revealed by Amperometry and Single Cells,’ Letters to Analytical Chemistry 82, 457-460.

Tyldesley. J. (1994), Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt. London: Penguin Books.


My name is Hazel Lunn, I am 21, and I have recently graduated from Cardiff University with a degree in Ancient History. I am a food lover interested in gender studies and environmental issues. My degree has sparked my interest in writing and my previous love of makeup inspired my blog on the significance of khol in ancient Egypt. I hope you enjoy reading my findings.

Food and Embodied Identities in the Early Modern and Modern World, c. 1500 – c. 2000: conference report

By Rachel Rich

Katrina Mosley and Eleanor Barnett, who run the Cambridge Body and Food Histories Group, hosted a conference on ‘Food and Embodied Identities in the Early Modern and Modern World, c. 1500 – c. 2000’ on June 29th, 2018. These kinds of conferences, where everyone is in the same room so that conversations can build and grow as we move through the sessions, are my favourite, and this was no exception.

The day was organized around big ideas—Ethnicity, Gender, Class and Religion—an acknowledgement, in large part, of Barnett and Mosley’s own research interests—but food history being what it is, in each panel issues came up with spoke directly to the themes in other panels. For instance, I was excited when both speakers on the ethnicity panel spoke about how white women in American were assumed by food marketers to see cooking as drudgery, since in my own paper, which contrasted Georgiana Hill’s publications with those of Mrs Beeton, I was exploring the idea that some Victorian housewives in England may have enjoyed food and eating, in spite of their cookbooks telling them food preparation was a chore to be endured for the benefit of others.

Interdisciplinarity was high on the agenda here, with speakers coming from history, sociology, literature, and anthropology, as well as one contribution on a forthcoming exhibition at the V&A, by May Rosenthal Sloan, whose talk allowed us to think about the important ways in which artists understanding of the place of food products in our history have played on, and helped to shape, our attitudes towards race, class, and gender.

Andrew Warnes’s talk on supermarkets and race in mid-twentieth century America started with an image by US photographer Thomas O’Halloran, whose series ‘Shopping in Supermarkets’ from 1957 captured some of the hidden labour carried out by suburban housewives pushing shopping trolleys along laden aisles of pre-packaged food. Warnes argued that this image, which captured a housewife stooping to pick a box of cereal off a shelf, ably illustrated the concept of prosumption. Aunt Jemima’s face beaming from rows of packages on the same shelf could remind us of how spokeservants were useful for constructing ‘leisured’ white housewives and subservient of black ‘servants’.

In the gender panel, this elision of women with food was pursued by Julie Parsons, who has collected narratives from women and men about their food memories. Parsons chose ‘epicurean’ as the word to characterize men’s relationship to food, contrasting this to the way women positioned themselves as the providers of food for others. Though she and I had not planned it, this male/female divide unified our panel, as I was discussing the way that Georgiana Hill (on whom I have posted before) disguised her gender in her first publication by using the pseudonym ‘Old Epicure’, a masculine sounding epithet to her Victorian readers.

Images of Judensau like this were part of German anti-semitic pig imagery discussed in Christopher Krissane’s paper. (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wittenberg_Judensau_Grafik.jpg)

These kinds of stereotypes were also part of the way the speakers on the Religion panel organized their analysis. For Beat Kümin, for example, there was the idea of holding your drink as a necessary signifier of masculine honour in early modern communities, or the image of genteel women sipping tea to denote civilization, which Kümin contrasted with clear evidence of continued widespread excess. Pigs featured in all three of the Religion talks; as a particularly vile way for Christians to stereotype of Jews in Early Modern Europe, according to Christopher Kissane, as Martin Luther’s animal of choice to illustrate the dangers of excess according to Kümin, and as a taboo shared by Chinese Muslims and fellow practitioners of their religion in all sorts of different cultural contexts.

The final panel of the day considered food and class inequalities. Here, again, the speakers were quick to point out that class is not studied in isolation, but together with other markers, such as gender and ethnicity. So in Ben Highmore’s talk on Terence Conran and the important ways that the Habitat chain captured the appetite for Medditeranean diet in 1964, Highmore also talked about Len Deighton, and the new masculinity that allowed him to build to branch out from spy thrillers to writing books of ‘manly’ recipes. The day ended with Alan Ward talking about his research on dining out habits in England. A new survey, replicating the original findings of his 1995 survey of eating habits in England, published as Eating Out: Social Differentiation, Consumption and Pleasure is looking at how things changed—or more interestingly did not change—in the intervening two decades. There are so many questions raised by the study that shows how people think about their relationship with food, and like Parsons earlier in the day, Ward shared some of his evidence of the way people speak about food and reveal some of the important ways in which they link their identities not only to what they eat, but to where they eat it, how much it costs, and what they feel this shows about their own position in relation to concepts such as adventurousness or caution.

The title of Len Deighton’s Action Cookbook illustrated some of Ben Highmore’s points about the ways in which new ideas about class and gender were coming together to created a new lifestyle in the mid 1960s. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Len_Deighton%27s_Action_Cook_Book#/media/File:Len_Deighton%27s_Action_Cook_Book.jpg)

Fragrant Protection: Saffron in Medieval China

By Yan Liu

In 647, an emissary from Gapi, a kingdom in northern India, presented a plant called “yu gold aromatic” (yu jin xiang) to the court of Tang (618-907). The foreign herb flowered in the ninth month of the year, with the shape of a lotus. The color of the flowers was purplish blue, and their fragrance could be smelled over tens of paces.

This account comes from a tenth-century institutional history of Tang (Tang huiyao), in a section that reviews a list of plants and animals submitted by the foreign countries to the Tang. The event took place at a time when the Tang was ascending to a powerful and cosmopolitan empire, expanding its territory into Central Asia. As a result, the period witnessed a vibrant material exchange between China and India, Tibet, Persia (and from the mid-seventh century on, the Arabic empire), and even as far as Europe (see Edward Schafer’s classic work on this topic, also see an earlier post). Saliently, a wide array of foreign aromatics entered China, such as aloeswood and camphor from Southeast Asia, frankincense from India, and myrrh from Persia, which greatly enriched Chinese pharmacy.

What then is “yu gold aromatic”? Most likely, the name refers to saffron in medieval Chinese sources. “Gold” (jin) probably specifies the color of the flower, and “aromatic” (xiang) naturally points to its characteristic smell. Intriguingly, the word “yu” conjures up a fragrant herb in ancient China, which was used to scent ritual wine. Therefore, medieval Chinese writers took a familiar word from the past to name a foreign plant thereby readily integrating it into their own cultural terrain.

Not surprisingly, the earliest account of saffron in Chinese sources identifies the herb as a wine-scenting agent. According to a third-century text on natural history (Nanzhou yiwu zhi), saffron grew in Kashmir—still a major site of saffron production today—where local people offered its fresh flowers to Buddha whilst collecting the withered flowers to make fragrant wine. In the following centuries, saffron entered China either as a diplomatic gift (shown in the opening story) or as a commodity of trade. It was an expensive substance due to the intense labor involved in harvesting the three red stigmas of each flower. To obtain one pound of saffron, based on one estimation, seventy thousand flowers must be manually collected. This “circumstantial rarity,” to use Paul Freedman’s term, has made saffron one of the most costly spices in the world.

How was saffron used in medieval China? Noticeably, it became a powerful antidote. According to the eighth-century pharmacological work Supplement to Materia Medica (Bencao shiyi), saffron can dispel all types of noxious odors. Often mixed with other aromatics, it can eliminate malignant qi and demonic possession in the body. Later medical texts (Fig. 1) make it explicit that the fragrant plant can counter all poisons, highlighting its antidotal value.

Figure 1: Illustration of saffron in an early 16th-century pharmacological text (Bencao pinhui jingyao, 1505). Image from Zhonghua dadian, ed. Zheng Jinsheng, 2008

In addition, saffron appeared in Buddhist healing rituals. In a seventh-century scripture titled “Sutra of Golden Light,” we encounter a recipe of thirty-two aromatics (saffron included) that promises to cure all disorders and ward off adverse influences (Fig. 2). In particular, the recipe recommends that the aromatic mixture be employed to cleanse the body, with the following instruction: on the eighth day of the month, take an equal amount of each aromatic, pound and sift them, and collect the powder. Next, cast a spell on the powder for one hundred and eight times before adding it into water to wash the body. Situating drugs in a proper ritual—in this case an incantatory performance—was vital for their efficacy.

Figure 2: A recipe of thirty-two aromatics in the 7th-century Buddhist text Sutra of Golden Light. The purple box highlights saffron, written in both Chinese and Sanskrit names. Dunhuang manuscript S. 6107. Image courtesy of the International Dunhuang Project (British Library).

 

Given its strong scent, saffron was also used as a perfume in medieval China. The seventh-century medical work Essential Emergency Recipes Worth a Thousand in Gold (Beiji qianjin yaofang) by Sun Simiao, for example, offers a number of recipes to perfume clothes. One utilizes eighteen aromatics including frankincense, clove, aloeswood, musk, and saffron. Upon pounding into powder, they are mixed with boiled honey and jujube, and made into pills. Burning these pills creates vapor to scent clothes. Due to the high price of saffron at the time, it is conceivable that only the wealthy elites could afford such a perfume. Consistent with this, several Tang poems associate saffron with the sumptuous clothes of elite women. The scent of the exotic flower became a sign for patrician beauty.

Finally, I must say a few words about saffron as a spice in China. This is the primary function of the herb today, especially in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. It also constituted the chief use of the herb in medieval Europe, for enhancing the flavor and color of food. Yet the culinary use of saffron was minimal in medieval China; we have to wait until the 14th century, when China was under Mongol rule, to see the use of saffron as a spice, especially for preparing meat dishes. This practice, though, remained marginal in the following centuries. Today in China, saffron, curiously called “Tibetan Red Flower” (zang hong hua), is harnessed primarily as a medicine, not as a spice. Why? This is a fascinating puzzle that awaits further research, which invites us to ponder the untold journeys from smell to taste, from medicine to food, from the exotic to the familiar.