Category Archives: Religion

The Reformation and a Recipe Book

By Lara Artemis

Oak panels of manuscript showing stitching binding. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

It is rare to find a manuscript from the early 15th century that combines folk remedies with religious iconography and a royal heritage to boot – even more rare is to find one that has been heavily defaced.

Such a manuscript exists in the Archives and Manuscripts collection at the Wellcome Library – MS.5262. Lara Artemis, former conservator here at the library, uncovered the manuscript as part of her MA in Medieval History. In the process, she unpeeled the layers of what turned out to be a fascinating and possibly unique insight, not only into medieval medicine, but of religious symbolism at a time of particular spiritual turmoil – the Reformation.

Inscription of Andrewe Wylkynson. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Although the dating remains speculative, it is believed to be from around the early 15th century partly because of the dedications within. There is proof of its 16th century ownership in the form of ‘Andrewe Wylkynson Surgeon’.

More intriguing is the fact that it belonged to Henry Dyngley of Worcestershire who died in 1589 and came from a line of staunch Catholics and rural famers working as doctors. Dyngley married Mary Neville, the daughter of Knight Sir Edward Neville who not only held a long list of prestigious roles within the court of Henry VIII, but who descended from Edward II and Queen Isabel of England in the 13th century. Isabel was a keen patron of medicine and was famously paranoid about her health. It is no suprise then to find the health regimen, a sweet wine tonic, is dedicated to her at the end of the manuscript.

Equally fascinating is the manuscript’s association with oak. Not only is it bound in oak but the religious images feature oak trees and acorns in all but one. Traditionally a pagan symbol, the oak was re-interpreted by Christians to represent Christ, a symbol of endurance and strength in the face of adversity. Given the possible date of the manuscript, and the significant damage to the religious images only, suggests this manuscript is a rare survivor of Henry VIII’s iconoclastic reformation when vast quantities of religious materials were destroyed in a Protestant bid to rid the country of any visible signs of Catholicism.

Why did the iconoclast stop at the religious images only? The explanation seems to be clear: this was too useful a manuscript full of day to day ‘quick health fixes’ that would have been invaluable to a well-to-do family like the Dyngley’s. This was an era where university educated medical practitioners were in short supply, particularly in rural areas and folk remedies proved invaluable.

The practical recipes include how to reduce the swelling of the scrotum: “Who so hap ache or swellynge In his balloke” – the solution, a poultice from pounded barley and cumin mixed with honey applied to the offensive area. Another common but potentially harmful ailment was a skin disorder which is described ‘Who so hap pe wilde fire…”, in other words, ergotism, also known as St Anthony’s fire. This was a reaction to ergot fungus in barley meal, a common source of food in the medieval period, which famously caused bewitchment. The suggested cure involved applying cooked and strained leeks to the face in addition to white wine, rye meal, and eysel. Ergot contained a chemical that made sufferers go beserk, largely because it caused gangrene and eventual loss of hands, feet and fingers. If not treated, and it rarely was in the Middle Ages, the poisoning led to the sensation of being burned at the stake. St Anthony’s association with the ailment comes from the monks of the Order of St Anthony who achieved relative success at treating victims. To fund their charitable work, the same monks reared swine which partly explains the presence of the pigs in the image of St Anthony within the manuscript.

Saint Anthony. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Saint Anthony is the first to appear in the front of the manuscript. While the oak trees, acorns (traditional fodder for pigs and many other birds and animals), and a deer (another sign of conception, growth and thereby health) are clearly visible, the rest of the saint is clearly scrubbed out. If it were not for the red liturgical colour (for martyrdom) of his robe and the presence of the pig (a common attribute), his identity would remain a mystery. Although further investigation is necessary to establish any underlying drawing that may have been obscured, as well as dating evidence, it is clear that this, and the other religious images, have been destroyed quite deliberately.

Saint James. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

He is followed by St James who chops down an oak tree with his bare hand (presumably to reveal the medicinal properties of the bark), St John the Baptist, also with an oak tree and, this time, rabbits (possibly to suggest the Christians and the persecuted church, or at least Christians fleeing temptation), and lastly, a Bishop.

While St John is left off lightly by the iconoclast, mysteriously, the Bishop gets the worst treatment leaving only the 2 candles either side visible, symbols of Christ’s divine and human natures.

Saint John the Baptist. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Bishop. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The manuscript also includes catchword illustrations, possibly charms that were copied and cut into a piece of bark (no doubt oak) of apple peel and placed on the wound as a health-inducing charm.

A cockerill illustrating a recipe for staunching blood. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The manuscript offers a fascinating glimpse of medieval medical practice in English history. From ailment to treatment, it provides a practical medical resource to the practitioner, through both its scholastic and its ‘folk’ medical content. Further research is clearly needed to establish just how unique this manuscript is, more evidence of why it was partially destroyed and, if others exist like it.

This was originally posted by Helen Wakely for Lara Artemis on the wonderful Wellcome Library Blog as “Item of the Month, February 2010: A rare surviving devotional recipe manuscript from the early 15th century”. Thank you to Helen Wakely and the Wellcome Library for agreeing to cross-post this! Lara Artemis who carried out this research is now Collection Care Manager for the Houses of Parliament.

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).

Magic or Medicine? Healing Charms in Fifteenth-Century English Recipe Collections

By Laura Mitchell

Charms can be found in all manner of medieval manuscripts, scrawled in the margins or added (seemingly at random) on blank pages and in the flyleaves. Usually they were simply stuck in some place convenient by someone who thought they would be useful or interesting to have on hand. However, charms also appear in medieval recipe collections, mixed in with recipes for nosebleeds or toothaches or different coloured inks. In these contexts, where does one separate the charm from the recipe?  Should they even be separated?

Let’s back up a minute and think about exactly what I mean by a charm in fifteenth-century England. In medieval Europe, the forms of charms and recipes are generally the same. Both are formulas, whether spoken, written, or chanted. Both have an oral and a written component. And both used words and phrases from the Bible, liturgy, and other religious texts familiar to the average medieval person.[1] For example, the Flum Jordan charm to staunch blood is based on the Biblical story of Jesus’s baptism in the river Jordan. Just as the river stopped flowing when Jesus entered the water, so the blood will stop flowing once the charm is recited. Additionally, prayers could take on apotropaic properties – the recitation of Paternosters and Ave Marias for protection or healing was encouraged in orthodox worship and these two prayers frequently appear in charm texts.

For the ordinary lay person there could be much confusion concerning what was a charm (and therefore bad) and what was a prayer (and therefore good). The cause of this confusion can be explained by looking at the proliferation of sacramentals, which were an important part of popular belief in late medieval Christianity. Sacramentals were objects: things like candles, salt, and water, that had been blessed by the parish priest and distributed to all the households. The candles were lit during thunderstorms to drive away the demons thought to be active during storms, while the water was sprinkled on the hearth to drive away evil or sprinkled in the fields to promote fertility. Water and salt could be given to sick animals.

It’s easy to see how this Church-sanctioned practice could lead to similar practices with objects that had not been blessed, but which were thought to have special God-given properties. It was difficult for the average person to distinguish between the two types of objects, since both could be used and manipulated. Users of charms and folk magic were not concerned with the finer points of theology but with the fact that both sacramental and charms had a power that presumably came from God. There was a very fine line indeed between magic and orthodox religion. Magic in the fifteenth century was firmly established within a Christian framework and fit into people’s belief systems in a natural, rational manner.[2]

Countries and regions might favour one type or one motif over another, though. Wind, for example, was more common in Russia, with charms of ill-purpose said to be “sent on the wind”.[3] Romanian charms, at least in modern times, involve the use of both gestures and formulas. The evil eye, while fairly common in countries like Hungary, is unknown in the medieval English corpus of surviving charms. The one commonality across medieval cultures and countries is the dominance of healing charms, which survive far more than any other charm type.

Unsurprisingly, medical charms are often found in collections of medical recipes. Health and wellbeing was a serious concern in the Middle Ages and, if a cure was questionably orthodox, well, that was alright as long as it worked. In these collections, we find charms for bleeding, toothaches, fevers, blurred vision, insomnia, wounds, childbirth, worms in the ear, and falling sickness (epilepsy)–but not for such things as back pain or swollen feet. Scholars don’t really know why medical charms are restricted to a small number of ailments, but some scholars like Lea Olsan believe it’s because there are no Biblical stories nor religious imagery that can be associated with other ailments.

Charms appear in all diverse medical recipe collections, from the household collection of the Haldenby family in Cambridge (Trinity College MS O.1.57) to the collection of the physician Thomas Fayreford (British Library, Harley MS 2558). This suggests that they were regarded with little or no distinction from the non-magical recipes with which they are grouped. Charms and recipes are presented as equally valid and proper texts to read and/or use, but what distinguished them was merely the source of their curative powers. Medical recipes broadly relied on natural means and associations, whereas charms derived their power from the divine, the supernatural. But even that distinction can be too simplistic! For now, I hope it is clear that the distinction between magic and medicine was more blurred than we often think. Most medieval people considered charms to be no more harmful or unorthodox than any other recipe they might encounter in their daily lives.

[1] Lea Olsan, “Charms in Medieval Memory,” in Charms and Charming in Europe, ed. Jonathan Roper (Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 60.

[2] On the rationality of medieval magic see Richard Kieckhefer, “The Specific Rationality of Medieval Magic” American Historical Review 99:3 (1994): 813-836.

[3] W.F. Ryan, “Eclecticism in the Russian Charm Tradition,” in Charms and Charming in Europe, 117.