“Very good are the words of the wise”: Plagues and Remedies of the Colonial Maya

By R.A. Kashanipour

Early Spanish settlers, administrators, and chroniclers frequently lamented how Old World diseases ravaged native communities in the New World. The famed Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas described the ferocity of the first epidemics: “Then came a terrible plague, and almost everyone died, and very few remained.”[1] We know much about the devastation, but less about the everyday responses of the victims of disease, especially in the Americas where death and destruction accompanied conquest and colonialism.

In colonial Mexico, native scribes and healers recorded local remedies and cures as they treated populations ravaged by endemic and epidemic sicknesses. During the eighteenth century, a series of anonymous Maya curanderos (folk healers) recorded local ideas of science and medicine in a manuscript titled Tratado de las siete planetas y otro de medicinarium (Treatise on the Seven Planets and another on Medicine). Commonly known as the Chilam Balam de Kaua, this work circulated beliefs and practices about the natural world as it passed among healers. The work synthesized European accounts of astrology with Maya understandings of the ritual calendar.

Title Page of the manuscript known as the Chilam Balam de Kaua. The work derives its name from a sixteenth century Maya shaman known as the Chilam Balam (Jaguar Priest) and the community in which the manuscript was written, Kaua. This image is of a Photostat from 1920 housed at the Library of Congress. The original manuscript is lost.]
Title Page of the manuscript known as the Chilam Balam de Kaua. The work derives its name from a sixteenth century Maya shaman known as the Chilam Balam (Jaguar Priest) and the community in which the manuscript was written, Kaua. This image is of a Photostat from 1920 housed at the Library of Congress. The original manuscript is lost.]

Healers recorded remedies for common afflictions and ailments that reflected the intertwined relationships of the colonizers and colonized. An early passage of the work admonished readers to hold the knowledge with respect and care. “Very good are the words of the wise. [These are] recipes in the Maya language for those Indians that want to understand this medicine. Arte, it is called for those who are sick, also for those that are strong and well. Very good are the words of the wise.” [2]

The healers of the Chilam Balam de Kaua recorded remedies in indigenous terms that often reflected European categories of disease. Cures addressed common illnesses, such as cough (en), cold (sis), fever (chakuil), and periodic epidemic diseases like smallpox (nohoch kak), yellow fever (vómito de sangre), or measles (sarampión). There were remedies for everyday afflictions: headache (chibal pol) and earache (chibal xicin). Others were punctuated with magical intervention, including sorcery (pulbil yaah) and evil flowers (mal floral). Treatments attempted to reduce the aches that welcomed life–childbearing (alancil) and painful swollen breast (ya umil chup)–and the pains that greeted death–bleeding (kik) and cancer (caanzeel). There were remedies to treat the difficulties of manual labor: wounds (cinpahal), swellings (chuchup), and broken bones (sayal bac). In total, the Chilam Balam de Kaua contains over three hundred and thirty remedies.

One of the numerous cures for fevers captures the interaction between Mayan and Spanish knowledge systems.

A remedy for fever (tzacal chacuil) by the ancient people, here is the consumption tree (nech bac che), its other name is fever tree. This is boiled in water to wash people who have a fever. [The affliction] is called weakness (nach bahal) in their language and this is ético in the language of the Spaniards. Then leaves of the plant should be taken with the leaves of the night herb (akab xiu), whose leaves are pleasant smelling. The same amount of leaves are mixed together and boiled until soft. They may be taken [this way]. When the water is half finished, the affirmed may be bathed with the hot water, as hot as can be allowed. Four or five times, this is done… When covered and cool, they may arise to chocolate (cacau) leaves and the night herb… The consumption tree is to be twisted with the chocolate plant.[3]

Fevers were undoubtedly common in colonial Yucatán. As with most Yucatec remedies, the application appeared straightforward and matched symptoms with treatment. The heat of the fever was to be broken with a simmering herbal bath, followed by a concoction of herbs with chocolate.

The record keeper, however, also noted that remedy’s pre-Hispanic origins, establishing a connection to the past. In diagnosing the affliction, however, ancient Maya knowledge linked with contemporary Spanish perspectives. These fevers were called nach bahal or ético and, as such, the remedy could apply to Mayas and Spaniards alike.

The materials for the remedy were exclusively comprised of wild herbs, tying the uncontrolled disease with the unconquered frontier. While most healers may have sourced domesticated plants from herb vendors (yerbateros), this remedy required plants of the forest. The cure required knowledge of Mayan biological landscapes; to produce this remedy, the healer needed access to the untamed frontiers of the province.

This remedy, like so many of colonial Yucatán, showed that “the words of the wise” involved the convergence of distinct traditions in the everyday practices of curing. The Chilam Balam de Kaua and other medicinal manuscripts from colonial Latin America illustrate the localized processes in the production and circulation of medical knowledge in the early modern world.

[1] Bartolomé de Las Casas, Historia de las Indias (México: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1951) 3: 270.

[2] Chilam Balam de Kaua (photostat reproductions), f. 7, Container 25,Ac. 4056, Indian Languages Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

[3] Chilam Balam de Kaua, f. 175.

A Spider at the Pulse

By Yijie Huang

I received a gift from my supervisor this spring, a vial of “POSITIVITY Pulse Point Oil” from ESPA. As a historian of pulse diagnosis in early modern medicine, I am fascinated by it–not so much by the joyful fragrance, but by what “pulse” indicates in its label. It reminds me of the popular tip to wear perfume on one’s wrists, said to help the scent to spread over the whole body and to last longer. It also reminds me of a story about Robert Boyle (1627-91), a leading natural philosopher and one of the founders of the Royal Society. Among his many accomplishments, Boyle contributed significantly to the corpuscularian philosophy: that matter is made up of numerous invisible corpuscles whose quality determines its overall properties. He was particularly interested in explaining the efficacy of recipes at the corpuscularian level–which shaped his understanding of the pulse.

This is an image of the ESPA pulse point oil box.
ESPA Positivity Pulse Point Oil.

 

Boyle was immersed in a diagnostic tradition, extending from antiquity into the early modern period, in which people took assessed the pulse’s quality (magnitude, speed, strength, hardness) to assess the bodily state, especially the heart. In his Essays of Effluviums (1673), Boyle recounted a seemingly absurd anecdote from German physician Daniel Sennert (1572-1637). Some Nicolaus of Florence reported that a Lombard in the city had burned a big black spider upon a nearby flame, then soon after fell into a faint. Although the Lombard’s heart was severely affected, with his pulse scarcely perceivable overnight, he was eventually cured. In the Essays, Boyle discussed how objects release effluvia–that is, streams of minute constituent particles–to cause effects upon the human body. It was by the means of effluvia, he claimed, that ambrosial objects like ambers could perfume the body even one does not wear them next to the skin. Yet effluvia might also bring dreadful threats across distance. Contagious patients carrying them could infect others without physical contact. Poisonous effluvia could kill people in a scarcely noticeable manner. The poor Lombard’s weak pulse warned of such danger. According to Boyle, the vapour of the lit spider was inhaled into the Lombard’s body, resulting in a contactless poison.

While this spider interrupted the pulse indirectly, another spider might be placed exactly there as a cure. Boyle referred to the ancient Greek pharmacologist Dioscorides (c. 40-c. 90) and the Swiss alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541) who described individuals sealing a spider inside an empty nutshell and binding it to certain bodily parts. The amulet was to prevent ague, as spider–especially its oil–was believed remarkably efficacious in curing agues and quartans (Works, vol. 13, 248).

Nonetheless, Boyle doubted the validity of this type of spider remedy. He discussed a case in which a gentleman wore at his wrist a half of a walnut shell, within which was sealed a great, living spider. He was trying to prevent a coming fit of ague, but (ironically) died from it. Why did the spider kill the man despite being kept separate from his body by the walnut shell? Some physicians’ judgements echoed Boyle’s ideas about effluvia: the spider permeated its malignant steam into the veins near the pulse. Through the circulation of the blood, it finally reached and destroyed the heart.

Boyle paralleled this deadly spider at the wrist with many other noxious amulets, arguing that they probably influence the human body in a similar way. His argument gestures at the invisible fluidity of materials across the skin. Everything penetrates everything, thus toxics applied “outside” the body could have detrimental effects deeply “inside”. This made the pulse more than a site of diagnosis. With poisonous objects attached to it, the pulse could became a fatal portal into the body, potentially allowing the poison to flow to the heart at the centre.

Yet the portal of death may also be the portal of life: what if things put at the pulse were healthful, not toxic? Boyle was aware of this potential method of healing, which he put into practice by tying many herbal, mineral and animal ingredients to the wrist. He referred to them as pericarpia, wrist remedies (in Greek, peri means around, karpos means wrist). Recommending them as incredible cures to a range of diseases from agues to eye ailments, Boyle shared his own experience of a wrist remedy. Once he suffered from a violent quotidian fever, and no normal therapies had proved effective. Eventually, a physician applied to his wrists “a mixture of two handfuls of Bay-Salt, two handfuls of the freshest English Hops, and a quarter of a Pound of blew Currants very diligently beaten into a brittle Mass” and successfully cured him (Works, vol. 3, 420). This remedy should have been prescribed many times; Boyle reported that despite occasional failures, it showed “great Effects” on quotidian, tertian agues and continual fevers.

The underlying concept of the body has proven resilient. Under microscopes we observe the porosity of skin under microscopes; by X-rays and infrared photography, we see the deep landscape of the body and its material exchange with the outside environment. Such corporeal facts, many may assume, can only be excavated with the help of advanced visual technologies belonging to our age. But Boyle’s pulse-related discussions are testimony to the provocative insights into the openness and fluidity of the body which far predate our rediscovery of it (Murphy). Early modern people approached these facts using their distinct technologies, including the spider at the pulse. But it is that spider at the pulse that can serve as symbol of how early modern people imagined–and experienced–medical interventions that worked beyond, across, and beneath the skin. 

The spiders at the pulse, Boyle’s wrist remedies, and the ESPA aromatherapy substantiate a probably coherent historical lineage of the pulse as a therapeutic locus. Medical activities we engage in today seldom preserve this notion, as most of us view the pulse simply as the synonym of pulsebeat. In such fashion, pulse becomes nothing but a numerical result, told by counting and clocks, not touch. However, our wrists anointed by fragrances remind that we still enjoy the legacy of the pre-modern recognition of the pulse not only as a means to assess the body, but one to manipulate it. 

References

Boyle, Robert.  Essays of Effluviums. London, 1673.

Boyle, Robert. The Works of Robert Boyle, Electronic Edition, Vols. 3 and 13: Unpublished Writings, 1645-c. 1670, ed. Michael Hunter and Edward B. Davis. Brookfield, Vt.: Pickering and Chatto, 2000.

Murphy, Hannah. “Skin and Disease in Early Modern Medicine: Jan Jessen’s De cute, et cutaneis affectibus (1601).” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 94, 2 (2020): 179-214.

 

The Curing Chocolate of Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma of 1631

By R.A. Kashanipour

 
The Indies, personified as a maiden, give the gift of chocolate to the Atlantic world, personified as Poseidon. Front piece to Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma’s, Chocolata Inda, Opusculum de qualitate & naturâ de Chocolatæ (Nuremberg, 1644). Image courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library.
“The number of people who drink chocolate is vast,” wrote the seventeenth century Spaniard, Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma, “not only in the Indies, where the beverage originated, but also in Spain, Italy and Flanders, and particularly in the royal court.”  In the early modern world, the consumption of chocolate was ubiquitous across the Americas (as noted here).  According to Colmenero de Ledesma, a physician and surgeon who traversed the Atlantic to explore colonial Spanish medical practices and remedies, chocolate represented the great gift of the Indies (see image above).  

In Colmenero de Ledesma’s 1631 account titled Curioso tratado de naturaleza y calidad del chocolate , which represented the first full-length printed account dedicated to chocolate, the surgeon celebrated the beverage and confectionery for its healthy and healing qualities. “My desire,” he noted in the opening of the work, “is for the benefit and pleasure of the public, to describe the variety of uses and mixtures so that each may choose what suits their ailments.” Borrowing from indigenous traditions in Mesoamerica, chocolate fit a variety of uses. It could be everything from a ritual beverage to a healing elixir to an everyday imbibement.

 
Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma’s Curioso tratado de la naturalez y calidad del Chocolate (Madrid, 1631). Image courtesy of the the Bibloteca Nacional de España.

By the end of the seventeenth century, chocolate was popular across the Atlantic, particularly in the Europe’s imperial capitals and Atlantic port cities.  However, in spite of its wide-spread use at the everyday level, its consumption was the subject of confusion and consternation by skeptical physicians and the learned classes. Colmnero de Ledesma noted that many Europeans of the era debated its qualities and application.  “Some people say that it obstructs, others that it makes one fat. Some say that it soothes the stomach, while others that it heats and burns. And some say that they drink it every hour, even in the long-days of summer.  I stand to defend this confection … against those that may suggest that this beverage is not good and healthy.”

Colmenero de Ledesma suggested that the consumption of chocolate was both salubrious and satiating.  In the Curioso tratado, he offered a four-part discourse on the qualities of the confection, noting its universal humoral attributes.  “Chocolate, as the Indians call it,” he wrote, managed to contain the four critical elements of heat, humidity, cold, and dryness.  It could be oily and earthy, thick and airy, moist and dry, soft and hard. As a medicament, cacao, the “principal basis” of chocolate, served as an astringent and purgative.

The key to the varied uses of the confection, however, existed in the art of its preparation. By properly incorporating a wide variety of herbs and spices from the New World, chocolate could enliven appetites, elevate moods, and conserve one’s health.  Poorly tempered concoctions could cause illness. Hinting at the Spanish disdain for the subjugated native populations of the colonies, he suggested that the chocolate could also release debilitating qualities, writing that “[t]hose that mix maize, or paniço, in Chocolate produce harmfully release melancholy humors.” Nevertheless, the artful combination of elements could produce a healthy and restorative beverage. 

Colmenero de Ledesma’s Recipe for Chocolate

To every one hundred Cacao beans, mix two large chiles of the type that are called Cilparlagua in the Indies (or you may use the broadest and least spicy chile found in Spain). Add in one handful of anise seeds along with the leaves of the herb called Vincaxtlidos and the other called Mecasuchil [mecaxóchitl], if the stomach is tight. Or, as we do in Spain, mix in the six flowers of the Roses of Alexandria, which are beat into a power.  Add one pod of the Vanilla of Campeche, two sticks of cinnamon, a dozen almonds and hazelnuts, and a pound and half of sugar. Add in enough achiote to give it color. 

To prepare the beverage, Colmenero de Ledesma suggested that the ingredients be ground on a metate, explicitly reserved for grinding cacao. All ingredients, save the achiote, were to be dried and ground individually into a powder. Begin, he directed, by grinding the cinnamon, then the chile with the anise, then moving to the others.  Next carefully mix each pulverized ingredient into the cacao a little at a time. Finally, add the achiote.  Over a low fire, the pulverized mixture is to be seared and dried into a paste, which was to be spooned onto paper or a plantain leaf. The cooled paste would form a tablet that could subsequently be dissolved with water and sugar.

Consumed cold or warm, Colmenero de Ledesma’s recipe for chocolate would invariably have something novel to the seventeenth century palates on both sides of the Atlantic. In the Americas, chocolate was traditionally consumed as a frothy, spicy beverage, free of the sweetness of modern cocoa. Colmenero de Ledesma’s recipe, however, combined herbs and spices of the New World. It is noteworthy that the university-trained Spanish surgeon appropriated and Hispanized indigenous terms, including cilparlagua and mecasuchil, and established them as key colonized aspects of the concoction.  Moreover, the addition of sugar fundamentally redefined the experience of the beverage.  Rather than taking on the earthy and bitter qualities of the cacao, the sugar would have lent an overwhelming sweetness to the beverage.  

When produced with the right art and process, Colmenero de Ledesma suggested that his recipe for chocolate could be remedial, protective, and healthy. “Through my experience in the Indes” he declared, “when visiting a sick person in the heat, I was persuaded to take a draft of chocolate, which quenched my thirst. And, in the morning, if I had fasted, it warmed and comforted my stomach.” Within a decade, Colmenero de Ledesma’s curious treatment of chocolate would be translated and published in England, France, Germany, and Italy. Chocolate, to echo his own conclusion, was “no small matter, to have pleased all.”

“You know I am no epicure”: Enslaved Voices in Eliza Lucas Pinckney’s Receipt Book

By Rachel Love Monroy

The Papers of the Revolutionary Era Pinckney Statesmen

The Pinckney Papers Project at the University of South Carolina includes both the Papers of Eliza Lucas Pinckney (1722-1793) and Harriott Pinckney Horry (1748-1830) and The Papers of the Revolutionary Era Pinckney Statesmen. Both editions are published by Rotunda, the digital imprint of the University of Virginia Press, in its “American Founding Era Collection.” The Pinckney Family represents one of the most important, yet lesser-known, families of the founding period. Eliza is best known for the management of her father’s South Carolina plantations at a young age and subsequent experimentation with cultivating improved strains of indigo in the colony. Her sons, and their cousin, are the subject of The Papers of the Revolutionary Era Pinckney Statesmen: Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746-1825), his brother Thomas Pinckney (1750-1828), and their cousin Charles Pinckney (1756-1824). They served as military, economic, political, and diplomatic leaders in South Carolina and the nation during and after the American Revolution, working as governors, diplomats, military officers, and delegates to the Constitutional Convention.

 

Image 1 – The first page of Eliza’s receipt book marked simply with her name and the date 1756, as well as Rect. Book No. 2. at the top. Citation: Pinckney, Eliza Lucas, 1723-1793. Eliza Pinckney receipt book, 1756. (43/2178) South Carolina Historical Society.

The pages of Eliza Lucas Pinckney’s receipt book reveal one hundred and thirty-nine recipes: ninety-eight culinary, thirty-nine medical, and two household related. With titles from “Plumb Marmalade” to “For an Ague of Fever” they depict an image of Eliza in the kitchen testing, improving, and adjusting her own concoctions. When she reminds us “your mold must be greased with fatt bacon before you put your wafers inn” and “be sure to grease it again each time,” the intimacy of her tone, knowledge of the ingredients, and tactile descriptions paint a picture of Eliza’s fingers stained with currant juice, hands sticky and scented of rosewater, and palate carefully judging.[1] Yet her familiar tone and interjections of advice obscure a different reality. The surviving manuscript is conspicuously clean of grease marks and stains. Eliza’s name is alone printed on the front, but what follows is a forced collective effort not a solitary enterprise. It is Eliza’s work, but it is also the work of enslaved people, their thoughts, inventions, ideas, and alterations. Eliza has erased and appropriated black hands mixing, chopping, stirring, kneading, and folding; black mouths tasting, black minds adjusting, and black voices retelling the recipes recorded in her own hand.

As a plantation mistress in colonial South Carolina Eliza Pinckney was a slave owner. Historians estimate that at the time of her husband Charles Pinckney’s death she kept between two and three hundred slaves.[2] She grew up among slaves in Antigua and inherited them from both her father, George Lucas, and late husband. A 1745 inventory of her father’s slaves at Garden Hill Plantation listed 79 individuals by name.[3] Yet Eliza’s receipt book included no passing mention of black enslaved labor to produce ingredients or execute recipes, no discussion of “Mary-Ann” who “understands roasting poultry in the greatest perfection you ever saw,” or old Ebba who fattens the birds “to as great a nicety.” She left out Daphne who made “a loaf of very nice bread.”[4] In Eliza’s day, recipe books transitioned from products of independent women perfecting their recipes to collections of recipes reflecting the wishes of the household mistress more than her labor. Culinary skill transferred to the author of recipes and away from those who painstakingly executed them. Cooking was still an act of the hands, but not hands in peeling, dicing, or folding, but a hand grasping a pen and recording a recipe on the written page.[5]

Image 2 – An example of the recipes included in Eliza’s receipt book. This page includes recipes for “Little Pudings” and “Rusks.” Citation: Pinckney, Eliza Lucas, 1723-1793. Eliza Pinckney receipt book, 1756. (43/2178) South Carolina Historical Society.

Eliza consumed her slaves’ physical labor, as well as their creative power: their knowledge of native ingredients’ medicinal power in her remedies. Her whitewashing of recipes obscures both the role that slaves played and her own contribution. It is difficult to know how the drama unfolded. Did Eliza dictate and observe, or pass along recipes as an absentee cook? Where did her knowledge end and theirs begin? Were these Eliza’s ideas, or recipes developed by enslaved Africans for which she simply took credit? Eliza readily admitted, “You know I am no epicure, but I am pleased they [the slaves] can do things so well, when they are put to it” Eliza kept “young Ebba to do the drudgery part, fetch wood, and water, and scour, and learn as much as she is capable of Cooking and Washing,” while “Old Ebba boils the cow’s victuals, raises and fattens the poultry, Moses is imployed from breakfast until 12 o’clock without doors, after that in the house. Pegg washes and milks.” Mary-Ann pickled oysters very well, while Daphne cooks.[6]

Image 3 – A medicinal recipe from Eliza’s receipt book entitled: “For the Flux.” Citation: Pinckney, Eliza Lucas, 1723-1793. Eliza Pinckney receipt book, 1756. (43/2178) South Carolina Historical Society

Eliza discounted enslaved workers’ intimate knowledge of rice and sweet potatoes from West Africa and their ability to knead bread to its perfect consistency because they were merely an instrument in her cooking. Hers was the creative enterprise, intellectual pursuit, and scientific experiment. Just as Aristotle had called slaves an “instrument of their owner” a “living tool” Eliza’s slaves acted as her culinary instruments.[7] They were the knives, the ladles, and the frying pans. The kitchen tools were an extension of slave bodies, because to Eliza the slaves were tools themselves, that she held and manipulated. She recognized their contribution no more than she might have noticed the utility of a particular spoon or knife in performing the job at hand. Because just like these inanimate tools, Eliza believed tools of flesh and blood could not perform the task without her. They needed Eliza’s mind, her knowledge, and her creativity to breathe life into their bodies and cook.

 

[1] To make Wafers, in The Papers of Eliza Lucas Pinckney and Harriott Pinckney Horry Digital Edition, ed. Constance Schulz. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2012..

[2] Ted, Morgan, Wilderness at Dawn: The Settling of the North American Continent (New York, NY: 1993), 262.

[3] List of Slaves, George Lucas, May 1745, in The Papers of Eliza Lucas Pinckney and Harriott Pinckney Horry Digital Edition, ed. Constance Schulz. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2012.

[4]Eliza Lucas Pinckney to Harriott Pinckney Horry, n.d. , in The Papers of Eliza Lucas Pinckney and Harriott Pinckney Horry Digital Edition, ed. Constance Schulz. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2012.

[5]Wendy, Wall, Recipes for Thought Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 50

[6] Eliza Lucas Pinckney to Harriott Pinckney Horry, n.d. , in The Papers of Eliza Lucas Pinckney and Harriott Pinckney Horry Digital Edition, ed. Constance Schulz. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2012.

[7] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. David Ross (London, 1980), 212.