A Snake Oil from Tenth Century al-Andalus

Illustrations of snakes in an Arabic version of Dioscorides' Materia medica (Kitāb al-Ḥašāʾiš). Leiden University Ms. Or. 289, fol. 60b, http://hdl.handle.net/1887.1/item:1578609
Illustrations of snakes in an Arabic version of Dioscorides’ Materia medica (Kitāb al-Ḥašāʾiš). Leiden University Ms. Or. 289, fol. 60b, http://hdl.handle.net/1887.1/item:1578609

Leonie Rau

Historians of medicine might know him as Abulcasis, the ‘Father of Surgery,’ but Andalusian physician Abū al-Qāsim Khalaf Ibn al-‘Abbās al-Zahrāwī (936–1013) wrote about much more than the inner workings of the human body. As Katarzyna Gromek has explored in her post on “Treating winter ailments – recreating three recipes from al-Andalus in the Iberian Peninsula,” al-Zahrāwī devoted parts of his famed Kitab al-Taṣrīf li-man ‘aǧiza ‘an al-ta’līf  (“The Book of Management for Those who are Unable to Compose”) to topics such as perfumes. At the time these were understood not necessarily as sensorially pleasing fragrances, but as remedies used to treat illnesses.

The book furthermore contains pharmaceutical chapters dealing with compound drugs such as stomachics, laxatives, eye-salves, and various oils. While most of his recipes for distilling and infusing oils call for ingredients like rose petals, bitter almonds, or basil, two of his formulas read as fairly peculiar to the modern eye.

The first of these is a literal snake oil, and al-Zahrāwī offers not one but two methods for its extraction, translated from the Arabic below:

Take three parts sesame oil and pour into a ceramic pot. Throw in five to ten black vipers, depending on their size. Close the pot’s lid and cook on a small flame. Take off the fire and leave to cool a little. Then open the lid, careful of the steam, and leave until it has cooled completely and the vapour is gone. Strain into a bottle and use as we have described by brushing it [onto the skin] with a brush. If you see that it causes harm, stop using it, then take it up again until it cures you, God willing.

Another method of extracting snake oil is to “cast [the vipers] into boiling water and to cook them until they fall apart. Then gather the oil from the water’s surface and store it. When it is needed, mix the oil with a bit of sesame oil and use, for it is stronger, God willing.[i]”

According to al-Zahrāwī, this snake oil is “useful against anything similar to leprosy when applied to [the skin].”

Viper flesh has a long history of being included in so-called theriacs—cure-alls and antidotes supposedly effective against all sorts of poisons, in use from antiquity up until the 19th century—because it was thought that viper flesh contained a cure to the snakes’ own poison. While there is no modern scientific basis for any of these claims, medical practitioners like Galen believed that theriacs containing viper flesh were effective against leprosy.

As if snake oil wasn’t odd enough, al-Zahrāwī immediately follows this recipe with an oil made from flying ants:

Take a thousand flying ants and soak in one pound of white lily oil. Leave in the hot sun for two weeks and use as an oil rub.[ii]

Some ant species do have medicinal properties, with one even being used to suture wounds, but otherwise most effects found through the medicinal use of ants are related to the insects’ venom. Even if al-Zahrāwī does not specify where exactly on the body this oil is to be rubbed, his indication that it is “useful for arousal” might give us a rough idea.

We luckily find clarification in a similar recipe, listed by Persian philosopher and scholar Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (1201–1274) in his Kitāb Albāb al-bāhīya wa-l-tarkīb al-sulṭānīya (translated by Daniel L. Newman as The Sultan’s Sex Potions), which assembles a variety of aphrodisiacs and sexual stimulants apparently in use in the medieval Arabic-speaking world.

Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī  directed the reader to use just a hundred regular black ants instead of al-Zahrāwī’s thousand flying ants, and calls for “blue liquorice oil” instead of lily oil, but otherwise describes a similar preparation. He does, however, explain that it is to be used “on your fingers, teeth, armpits and elbows,” so that, “[e]ven if you were to engage in coitus with ten women during the night, you would not be incapacitated.”[iii]

It can only be hoped that al-Zahrāwī’s readers were somehow aware of these directions for the administration of this oil, since we can (hopefully!) only speculate what a flying ant oil might feel like when applied to one’s private parts.


[i] I would like to thank Timo Blocksdorf for his help in deciphering the uses of viper flesh, and Nicolas Hintermann for his feedback on this text.
Hamarneh, Sami, and Glenn Sonnedecker, A Pharmaceutical View of Abulcasis Al-Zahrāwī in Moorish Spain. With Special Reference to the „Adhān“ (Leiden: Brill, 1963), p. 84, my translation.

[ii] Hamarneh, Sami, and Glenn Sonnedecker, A Pharmaceutical View of Abulcasis Al-Zahrāwī in Moorish Spain. With Special Reference to the „Adhān“ (Leiden: Brill, 1963), p. 84, my translation.

[iii] aṭ-Ṭūsī, Naṣīr al-Dīn, The Sultan’s Sex Potions. Arab Aphrodisiacs in the Middle Ages [Kitāb Albāb al-bāhīya wa-l-tarkīb al-sulṭānīya]. ed., tr., and introduced by Daniel L. Newman (London: Saqi Books, 2014), p. 118f.


Leonie Rau is a master’s student in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Tübingen, Germany. She is currently writing her thesis on a medieval Arabic pharmacological manuscript and plans to pursue a PhD after her graduation.She also writes and edits for ArabLit and ArabLit Quarterly and can be found on Twitter @Leonie_Rau_.

When Medicine is a Sin: Sex and Heresy in Colonial Mexico

Farren Yero

Laboring in the Mexican mining district of Real del Monte, José Antonio de la Peña met Manuel Arroyo in the summer of 1775. The two young men struck up a secret relationship, sharing a bed, a blanket, and a provocative cure for syphilis. It was the latter that landed Arroyo in an inquisitorial cell, charged with the crime of heresy.[1]  As the trial records indicate, de la Peña had received over thirty bocados (or mouthfuls), the term Arroyo used to describe acts of fellatio he performed upon his friend in order to treat his venereal disease. Their sex life, however, was not the problem. It was the men’s potentially heretical claim that “it is not a sin to suck human semen for reasons of health” that galvanized ecclesiastical authorities to intervene.

Fig. 1: Inquisition Case of Manuel Arroyo. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.


The Holy Office of the Inquisition did police sexual proclivities.[2] However, maintaining religious orthodoxy remained their primary concern. For them, challenges to Catholic doctrine—including what might or might not constitute a sin—posed a far greater risk to the social order than clandestine sexual partners, even ones of the same sex. After all, if health demanded doctrinal exception—as Arroyo implicitly suggested—the Church would be hard pressed to preserve the strictures by which it managed its flock, a problem we continue to see play out over issues around access to contraception and abortion today. That Arroyo professed his oral ministrations to be acts of Christian duty only exacerbated the struggle to parse out the significance of his unusual claim.


According to Arroyo’s testimony, his acts were done to remove “bad thoughts” of women, prevent men from sinning with them in the first place, and—even more confounding for the judges—to heal. Arroyo insisted that, when aided by the medicinal effects of camphor and aguardiente (distilled spirits), these same benefactions were treatments for syphilis—an illness interpreted by Arroyo (and many others) as an outward symptom of impurities within. To prove this point, Arroyo recalled, for example, his quick recognition of the telltale pustules dotting his friend’s genitalia, a rash that purportedly required him to perform fellatio, employing a gargle of mixed herbs, in his words, “for his health, for his wellbeing, and for his remedy.” Though certainly damning, Arroyo did not shy away from these convictions. Instead, he worked tirelessly to convince his captors of their legitimacy, providing elaborate and intimate details of his time with de la Peña to defend his own knowledge and position as a healer.


When the local priest in Pachuca first learned of this strange ministry, he turned to a neighboring ecclesiastical judge, at a loss for what to do. Did something like this fall under the purview of the Inquisition? Or was this a matter for the civil authorities? Perhaps this was best left for the Protomedicato, the royal medical tribunal? Arroyo’s unorthodox assertions wove together the mind, the body, and the spirit, creating jurisdictional confusion and reflecting the myriad ways in which early modern patients and practitioners understood their relationship to health and disease. Because of this, his Inquisition case can tell us a great deal about how people made sense of their own bodies beyond the world of printed and professional medicine.


Read alongside indigenous-language volumes, such as the Chilam Balam, discussed by Ryan Kashanipour, and published tracts by natural philosophers, examined here by Heather Peterson, Inquisition documents can enrich our understanding of “different ways of knowing” the body, as Pablo Gómez puts it in his study of the Spanish Caribbean.[3] This is true for scholars working on both sides of the Atlantic. Early modern physicians throughout the world sought out and studied indigenous pharmacopoeia, such as chupirini or chinanteca, but Arroyo’s case suggests how patients themselves understood the value of such herbs and their relationship to disease. Translated primary source readers, such as Women in Colonial Latin America, can allow students the opportunity to weigh in on such cases, like that of Isabel Hernández, a midwife and healer, who appeared before the Inquisition in 1652.[4]


Of course, modern readers—not unlike colonial inquisitors—might question whether a remedy like Arroyo’s “bocado” can really be considered medical in nature. When caught, did the denounced simply turn to health to mask an otherwise compromising affair? We can’t necessarily rule it out. Yet, if Arroyo did make it up, then he also contrived a number of authorial forms to back it up as well. As he explained to the inquisitors, he knew that the remedy worked because a woman had performed it for him. To be sure it took effect, she would extract his semen for her doctor, who was able to then determine if it was, in his words, “damaged.” If this was not proof enough, Arroyo confessed that she had first learned this remedy through none other than her local priest. This kaleidoscope of evidence, regardless to what extent we believe him, suggests the complexities that underlay beliefs about medical efficacy at this time. We see similar kinds of invocations in other Inquisition cases, provided by the thousands of colonial subjects imprisoned at one time or another in the dungeons of the Inquisitorial Palace, a building that ironically enough, became the medical school for the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Today, it houses museums to both institutions: mannequins lay prone, emulating the bodies from which doctors and judges sought secrets hidden within.

Fig. 2. Palace of the Inquisition, now the Mexican Museum of Medicine. Photo by the author. 



[1] BANC MSS 96/95m, 13:1 (1775). The Mexican Inquisition Collection. The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

[2] On the question of sexual deviancy in this case, see: Zeb Tortorici, “Heran Todos Putos”: Sodomitical Subcultures and Disordered Desire in Early Colonial Mexico,” Ethnohistory (2007) 54 (1): 35-67.

[3] Pablo F. Gómez, The Experiential Caribbean: Creating Knowledge and Healing in the Early Modern Atlantic (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

[4] Nora E. Jaffary and Jane E. Mangan, Women in Colonial Latin America, 1526 to 1806: Texts and Contexts, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2018).

Magical Charms, Love Potions, and Surreal Tricks

A compact fifteenth-century paper book, MS Sloane 1315 (British Library, London), stands as a manuscript witness to many of the works of popular Middle English instruction.

The book might be said to be a miscellany or multi-text manuscript that is home to vernacular works of the kind that were widely-read and much copied in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Among its many texts is

  • a copy of the courtesy text The Boke of Nurture, purported to have been compiled by John Russell in the service of Duke Humphrey of Gloucester;
  • a treatise on lucky and unlucky days;
  • a leechbook;
  • a verse lunary called “The Thirty Days of the Moon” (extant in several manuscripts of this kind);
  • an abridged version of the widely-circulated Wise Book of Philosophy and Astronomy;
  • a copy of the popular herbal known as the Agnus Castus;
  • a medical regimen with the title “A Generall Rewle for to yeue Medycyns”.
‘The Zodiac Man’, or homo signorum, is a diagram of a human body and astrological symbols. This example is taken from a 15th-century Welsh manuscript. Credit: National Library of Wales.

But why stop there? Sloane 1315 also preserves a dietary, and is well-illustrated with useful diagrams, charts, and curative aids in the form of calendars and astrological tables. There is even a homo signorum at ff. 68–69.

The manuscript, originating in the south-east of England, is likely to have served a individual practising astrological and herbal medicine, collating a series of texts and tables that would have been useful to that individual.

The layout and page placements in the manuscript suggests regular consultation. For example, there are clear headings supplied throughout. Although the manuscript is in many ways unremarkable, it is clear and accessible, written in a legible cursive hand.

BL MS Sloane 1315, f 28r. Courtesy of the British Library Board.

The book is, however, remarkable in one aspect. In the midst of the many works is a curious collection of short medical recipes, interspersed with a series of short texts that might be described as recipes and charms. Some of these recipes are magical or fantastic, or contain properties associated with illusion or trickery. Laura Mitchell has previously written at The Recipes Project about ludic and lascivious medieval charms.

The ones in Sloane 1315 are strangely at odds with the rest of the texts, sitting rather uncomfortably with the diagnostic and curative theme of the volume as a whole. They are extremely varied, to the point of almost being random: some of the more extreme examples with spell-like qualities include charms to “make a flodde of water to com into a howse”, to “make a lofe of brede to dawnce in an oven or on a tabull” (which calls for the use of quicksilver), and “to make a howse seeme full of snakys.”[1]

There is a method as well to “make a lampe to bren wythowte fyre”, which seems to involve soaking a wick in oil, and one to “make a whyte spotte on a blacke horsse”, which involves anointing a horse with water which has been steeped in a special herb. One that caught my eye (and too late for Valentine’s Day 2019!) is a short instruction “How to Make a Woman to love the”, which I transcribe here (with light edits):

Take the harte of coluere and bren hit on a ty3le ine to powder, and yeve here thereof in mete or dryncke; and sche schall love the

The text calls for the “harte of a coluere” – the heart of a snake – to be burned and ground into powder, then sprinkled into the food or drink of a woman. It reads like something that students at Hogwarts might create using snake fangs or skins in their Potions lessons, and indeed this section of the book has a fictive quality to it: we cannot imagine that any of these instructions could possibly work by delivering what their titles promise.

However magical and impossible they might be, moreover, they are framed as recipes, manifesting many of the same features as the recipe text-type while also bearing some relation to charms. The “take and make” formula that is so familiar to us–and common to premodern recipes–is interrupted only slightly by the strangeness of the ingredients and the apparent simplicity in achieving what seems to be rather a difficult effect.

All things considered, these recipes do seem to fit their context. Sloane 1315 is clearly a manual for giving care, containing works that will be familiar to any student of medieval astrological and herbal medicine. The strange recipes are not textually distinguished from other works in the volume; rather, they are normalised, and look as if they are intended to fit in with the book’s other contents. Their regular appearance masks their unusual qualities, and though the love-recipe might seem at first fairly innocuous, the fact that it and its co-texts are disguised to dovetail with the other works in the book may give us pause. In short, the fantastic nature of these texts may not sit well with the pretty practical bent of the book as a whole.

They cause me to pause because they recast the way in which I think about the rest of the book. On the one hand, they may have been used in unscrupulous ways. If, as literary scholar Douglas Gray observes, this is the kind of manuscript that would have been used by “leeches, ‘wise women’, and ‘cunning men'”, then these people would have occupied positions of trust in a community (35). Can we countenance, then, the possibility that the individual who owned this book may have been involved in a lucrative side-line, peddling recipes that didn’t work and perhaps selling the ingredients as well: quicksilver, snake’s hearts and skins? The recipes seem ripe for facile dissemination, being short enough to have been memorised or quickly copied, and they may have been used to bolster the credibility of the owner of the manuscript, showcasing his knowledge of strange or exotic methods or ingredients.

Or perhaps their function is altogether different. Could they have been intended to introduce humour to the healing context? Perhaps they functioned like the modern-day prank box, a kind of textual cabinet of curiosities, intended to entertain clients who were not feeling well, or appealing to younger audiences? As Gray writes, one can “sympathize with the curious owner or reader eager to discover” the varied arts described therein, and the owner of the book may have just wanted to spread some joy and mischief (35). What we read here may be an entirely personal impulse to collect (or create) fun from a pretty standard, recognisable textual tradition and format. Or perhaps the book provides further evidence of the close relationship between medicine and magic in this period (that persisted in some contexts in later centuries; see Lisa Smith’s post on an eighteenth-century magical manuscript), giving expression to a particular understanding of popular medicine as, in some respects, fanciful? Whatever the scenario, Sloane 1315 is a fascinating volume, hiding amongst its popular medical works a collection of weird and wonderful textual gems and raising all sorts of questions about the varied role of the folk practitioner in this period.

With thanks to Mary Wellesley.



[1] See Douglas Gray, Simple Forms: Essays on Medieval English Popular Literature (Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 35.




Fertility in the Early Modern Household

Leah Astbury

Domestic recipe books in early modern England abound with remedies to promote conception and prevent miscarriage. Frances Springatt’s recipe book, for example, contained a remedy ‘To help conception and strengthen Nature’, taken morning and night.[i] Notably, the vast majority of these receipts were explicitly for women, and in particular, intended to cleanse the womb. The Boyle family book contained a remedy for ‘Barrenness’ that opened up the womb when ‘shutt up, cleanseth the Same, Cherisheth the Seminal Vessels, Comforteth and Enliveneth the Womb & maketh it fit for Conception.’[ii]

Fig. 2. A woman seated on a obstetrical chair giving birth aided by a midwife who works beneath her skirts. Woodcut. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection CC BY.
Fig. 1. A woman seated on a obstetrical chair giving birth aided by a midwife who works beneath her skirts. Woodcut. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection CC BY.

The historical consensus has been, in Olwen Hufton’s words, that ‘under most conditions’ childlessness was attributed to female incapacity in early modern England. Aside from ‘brewer’s droop’ and impotence from bewitching, early modern people would have failed to consider the possibility of male impediment.[iii] Jennifer Evans’ work on fertility and aphrodisiacs has shown, however, that printed medical guides and advertisements understood problems with husbands, wives, or the couple together as causes of childlessness.[iv] So why then in domestic receipt books are remedies that target the causes of male sterility – weak seed, frail erection and lacklustre desire – so hard to find? This tension between the possibility of male infertility in printed material and absence in personal collections points to a complex system in which women were positioned as the caretakers of fertility, even if their bodies were not at ‘fault’. To revise Hufton’s claim, early modern people did know that men were responsible for childlessness but worked to minimise evidence of this. In this post I’m going to offer a few hints in domestic recipe books of the ways in which wives might labour to improve their own, and their husband’s, fertility without making male impediment or failure known. This is part of a larger book project examining the experience of pregnancy, childbirth, and afterbirth care in early modern England.

Fig. 1. Frances Springatt (& others), Collection of cookery and medical receipts: with later additions by several hands, Wellcome Library, MS 4683. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection CC BY.
Fig. 2. Frances Springatt (& others), Collection of cookery and medical receipts: with later additions by several hands, Wellcome Library, MS 4683. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection CC BY.

The first clue is in the prevalence of recipes that promised to reveal which party was responsible for childlessness. Such tests normally involved husband and wife each urinating on a seed or grain and observing their growth; the seed that failed to thrive indicated sterility. The inclusion of these diagnostic tests in domestic collections indicates at least a willingness to consider male impediment, even if evidence of their use is lacking.[v]

Second, the gender of the intended recipient of fertility recipes was often left unspecified or vague. Two remedies in the Jerningham family recipe book, one to ‘stir up’ lust and another to ‘causeth conception’, did not specify whether they were for a man or woman.[vi] Others were explicit that they could be useful for men and women. Frances Springatt’s remedy to help conception (Fig. 2) included the instructions that ‘man should take of it as well as the woman.’

More evidence can be found in recipes that were designed to be administered before or through the act of sex. Jane Jackson’s book instructed the user to anoint the man’s ‘yard’ with a concoction before sex in order to further chances of conceiving.[vii] Another suggested that both the ‘yard’ and the ‘womans private alsoe’ should be anointed. Then, the husband should simply ‘deale with her; and shee shall conceaue.’[viii] Such remedies configured men as the agent of cure, even if they were actually the intended recipients.

Recipe books did contain remedies to strengthen the yard, but importantly never mentioned sexual function. James Shrowl’s recipe book contained a remedy ‘To heale any Lame Member’ in which the ‘member’ was bathed for half an hour, ‘chaft’ with an ointment and then wrapped in lambskin before bed.[ix] Generation or even the ability to have sex was not mentioned. Many of these remedies were concerned with curing venereal disease and one might imagine rich fodder for the historian of fertility. And yet genital problems in men, in this context, were rarely linked to sexual performance or generative ability, further evidence to suggest that male sexual impediment was more embarrassing than childlessness understood to come from problems with the womb.

A final example from the almanac of Sarah Jinner suggests the ways in which male fertility was expected to be discretely managed by wives. The recipe section in Jinner’s almanac, which she advertised, ‘might be kept in good case and serve to the mutual comfort of man and woman’, included ‘A Confection to cause fruitfulness in Man or Woman.’ This powder, she noted, could be surreptitiously sprinkled ‘upon the parties meat’.[x]

The remedies found in domestic books skirt around the topics of weak male seed and impotence, but reading against the grain reveals the ways in which domestic practice, and in particular wives, might be able to manage male impediment without naming and shaming.


[i] Frances Springatt (& others) 1686-1824, Wellcome Library, MS 4683, fol. 92r.

[ii] Boyle Family, ‘Receipt Book’, Wellcome Library, MS 1340, recipe 312 fol. 86r.

[iii] Olwen Hufton, The Prospect Before Her. A History of Women in Western Europe, vol. 1 (London: Fontana Press, 1997), p. 174. Randolph Trumbach makes a similar argument in The Rise of the Egalitarian Family: Aristocratic Kinship and Domestic Relations in Eighteenth-Century England(London: Academic Press Inc., 1978), p. 167.

[iv] Jennifer Evans, Aphrodisiacs, Fertility and Medicine in Early Modern England (Boydell & Brewer, 2014).

[v] As Catherine Rider has shown on this blog, these tests were not new to the early modern period and can be found as early as the twelfth century. https://recipes.hypotheses.org/2017

[vi] Jerningham family recipe book, Staffordshire Record Office D641/3/H/1, p. 63 and p. 67.

[vii] Jane Jackson, ‘Her Booke’, 1642, Wellcome Library, MS 373, fol. 82v.

[viii] Jane Jackson, ‘Her Booke’, 1642, Wellcome Library, MS 373, fol. 83r.

[ix] James Shrowl, 1625-c.1750, Wellcome Library, MS749, unfoliated.

[x] Sarah Jinner, An Almanack and Prognostication for the Year of Our Lord 1659 (London: 1659), sig.B8r.

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