Revisiting Laurence Totelin’s Fevers and the Dog Star in Antiquity

Well, the Dog Days of summer are upon us once again…To help us cope with the heat, we revisit Laurence Totelin’s wonderful post from 2018.  In “Fevers and the Dog Star in Antiquity”, Laurence tells us about the origins of the term “Dog Days” and about various ancient remedies for seiriasis a fever whose name evokes the Dog Star Sirius. Keep cool, everyone! Elaine Leong

By Laurence Totelin

Summer this year in the UK has been particularly hot; we have experienced a heat wave for the first time in almost a decade. The hot days between roughly the tenth of July and the fifteenth of August are known as the Dog Days, so called because they are under the astronomical influence of the Dog Star (canicula in Latin, hence the French “canicule”, sometimes also used in English), also known as Sirius. Greek and Latin poets, starting with Homer and Hesiod, sang of the effects of the parching heat on the environment and people:

When the golden thistle blooms and the chirping cicada
Sits in a tree and pours down its shrill song
Continuously from under its wings, it is the season of exhausting heat,
Then goats are fattest, wine is at its best,
Women are most lustful, but men are weakest,
Because Sirius dries up the head and the knees,
And the skin is parched by the burning heat.
[Hesiod, Works and Days 582-588]

The constellation Sirius in the ninth-century manuscript Harley MS 647 . Source: wikipedia

To the Greeks, women were wet and men dry. The heat of the Dog Days caused both men and women to become drier; this brought positive effects to women, who became more like the ideal male, but weakened men. That weakness, however, was not a morbid state; it was not an illness.

Medical texts composed in later antiquity described a disease called seiriasis, which was an inflammation of the meninges accompanied by a burning fever. Its name evoked the Dog Star Sirius, although the physician Soranus of Ephesus suggested that the origin of the word seiriasis might be slightly more complex:

Some people state that the disease is called ‘seiriasis’ after the star [Sirius], because of the fever; but others state that it is thus called after the sunken forehead, because among farmers ‘seiros’ is the name of a hollow object in which they put and keep seeds. [Soranus, Gynaecology 2.55]

Soranus, and other medical writers, recommended the application of various ingredients to the forehead as treatment for the illness: egg yolk mixed with rose oil, the leaf of the heliotrope, grated colocynth, the skin of melon, or the juice of nightshade with rose oil. Most of these products, available in mid-summer, were thought to be cooling, and therefore effective in the treatment of fevers: opposite is a cure for opposite. The heliotrope, however, was not known as a cooling drug. The therapeutic principle at play here seems to be that of homeopathy (similar is a cure for similar): the heliotrope, the plant that follows the heat of the sun, is a remedy for a burning fever.

An altogether more colourful remedy for seiriasis is recorded in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History:

The inflammation of infants which is called seirasis is improved by the bones that are found in dog excrement, worn as amulets. [Pliny the Elder, Natural History 30.135]

Girl playing with a dog on a Greek funerary stele, second century BCE. Credit: British Museum

Bone shards are sometimes found in dog poop, and these might be what Pliny was referring to here. This ingredient was most certainly chosen because of the perceived link between seiriasis and the Dog Star Sirius. One can only imagine the despair that would lead the sleep deprived parents of a sick child to put their trust in such an amulet.

Revisiting He Bian’s Fetch Me at Pearl Nest Street: Rhubarb Pills as Panacea in Qing China

Today we revisit He Bian’s fascinating post from 2018. Here, He tells us about the global trade in Chinese rhubarb (dahuang) roots, panaceas and notions of difference in premodern theories of the body. Fascinated by this post and want to learn more about drugs in early modern China? You’re in luck as He’s monograph Know your Remedies: Pharmacy and Cultures in Early Modern China is now out with Princeton University Press. Have you ordered your copy? Elaine Leong

He Bian

In the late eighteenth century, American ginseng opened up a new niche market in Qing China. At the same time, Chinese rhubarb (dahuang) roots, harvested from the northwest regions of the empire, were transported by Chinese traders all the way to the southeast coast and sold off to foreign customers in Canton (Figure 1). Part of these transactions took place in the Ryukyu Kingdom (present-day Okinawa Islands), a vassal state of the Qing but also an important node of global trade that crisscrossed the West Pacific. At some point in 1789, the Qing court issued an edict to the Ryukyu king that explicitly forbade him from selling rhubarb to Russians, with whom the Qing was then engaging in an all-out trade war. Rhubarb featured prominently in the Qing strategy because they believed that Europeans imported so much of this drug that they could not live a day without it.[1]

Figure 1. Chinese or Turkish rhubarb (Rheum palmatum): flowering and fruiting stem with leaf. Coloured zincograph after M. A. Burnett, c. 1842. Credit: Wellcome Collection,
Figure 1. Chinese or Turkish rhubarb (Rheum palmatum): flowering and fruiting stem with leaf. Coloured zincograph after M. A. Burnett, c. 1842. Credit: Wellcome Collection,

Yet is it really true that pharmacological visions in early modern China and Europe were so different that they could not possibly reach a consensus over rhubarb’s properties ? Classical Chinese pharmaceutical literature listed rhubarb as a drug with a “very cold” nature, and generations of physicians were taught not to use the cold drug in curing cold-natured diseases. This suggested that Russians (and other Westerners, as seen in this post on rhubarb in early modern England) had different bodies than the Qing Chinese, as they depended on rhubarb as an all-round cure. Pharmacological theories, in other words, engendered a vision of difference that seemed insurmountable.

During my recent reading of Qing medical recipe books, however, I discovered that rhubarb in fact functioned as nothing short of a panacea for Qing Chinese. This is evident in the text Bianyong liangfang (Excellent Recipes for Expedient Use), which appeared in the Jiaqing reign (1796-1820). Compact (only 2-juan in length) and very nicely printed (with carved woodblocks), it arranges pills, powders, tinctures, and decoctions by symptom. The book has about 120 pages, and most recipes are merely a few lines in length. What surprised me was that one very long recipe at the end of the text takes up the entirety of 13 pages. The remedy in question, mi shou Qingning wan (Secretly transmitted pill of purity and tranquility), calls for “several dozen pounds” of good quality rhubarb roots as the principal ingredient. Rubbed clean and steeped in rice water, the rhubarb was sliced, sun-dried, processed with “ash-less good rice liquor” for three days, and then put through a lengthy, elaborate protocol of fifteen rounds of steaming. Each steam involved a different set of herbs. Finally, makers took the resultant rhubarb paste, mixed it with “yellow ox milk” (using cooked honey as substitute if there was no milk), boy’s urine, ginger juice, and rolled it into tiny pills. The recipe listed hundreds of common illnesses that could be treated with this pill, ranging from headache and hemorrhage to gynecological disorders.

Figure 2. Luo Benli ed. Bian yong liang fang. Vol. 2b, p. 50b. c. 1796-1820. Princeton University Library. Downloadable PDF available at
Figure 2. Luo Benli ed. Bian yong liang fang. Vol. 2b, p. 50b. c. 1796-1820. Princeton University Library. Downloadable PDF available at

I have tried to look up this recipe in earlier Chinese medical texts, and my preliminary findings suggest that it probably came into existence no earlier than the seventeenth century. It became wildly popular in the eighteenth century, and recipe books serve as evidence of its widespread consumption. On the last page of Bianyong liangfang (Figure 2), the compiler, Luo Benli, announced that he had a batch of rhubarb pills prepared during his tenure in Guizhou – a southwestern province of China – and that, in case of emergency, readers could “call upon my house on Pearl Nest Street” and look for the “residence of Mr. Luo of the Ministry of Defense (bingbu Luo zhai).” Pearl Nest Street (zhuchaojie), a neighborhood in Qing Beijing not far from the Forbidden City, featured prime real estate. As a military official who had served in the frontier provinces, Luo was less bound by medical norms of the day and possessed the financial and political capital to manufacture elaborate pills like these. Was there, in other words, a sub-culture of health and medication championed by military elites such as Luo, which stood distinct from classical prescriptions?

One last word about this recipe that hints at a hidden connection between different cultural realms in early modern China: Sun Xingyan (1753-1818), a prominent scholar who combed through medieval sources for fragments of ancient texts, published the same recipe for Pill of Purity and Tranquility in his scholarly series. The inclusion of this Qing text alongside ancient monographs so bewildered modern bibliographers that they mistakenly attributed the recipe’s author to a seventh-century figure. In fact, Sun Xingyan made it clear that it was a contemporary remedy and provided an elaborate scholarly argument to defend rhubarb’s all-around efficacy to cure both hot and cold-natured illnesses. He also suggested that “vulgar physicians” despised the pill because if everyone had access to this remedy then their businesses would be lost. Therefore it does appear that, when it comes to rhubarb, Qing Chinese scholars and military commanders were no less enthusiastic than what they imagined about the Russians.

[1] I recommend this excellent essay by Chang Che-Chia (translated by Penelope Barrett) for more on this curious episode.

Revisiting Diana Luft’s Treating the Stone in Sixteenth-Century Wales

Today we revisit a post originally published in 2017 by Diana Luft on a sixteenth-century recipe against the stone ascribed to a certain Vicar of Gwenddwr, Wales. The recipe is in Welsh, but includes names of some ingredients in English, perhaps indicating an English original. I hope you will enjoy rediscovering this post about a beautiful part of Wales. Laurence Totelin

By Diana Luft

Image of the village of Gwenddwr. Permission granted by the owner of the website Radnorshire Images (John Crellin).
Image of the village of Gwenddwr. Permission granted by the owner of the website Radnorshire Images (John Crellin).

National Library of Wales MS. Peniarth 182 is a miscellany in the hand of Huw Pennant, a poet who lived and worked in Gwynedd and then Carmarthenshire at the turn of the sixteenth century.[1] The manuscript has the look of a personal collection, and it was written over a period of five years, from 1509 until the scribe’s death in 1514. It contains pedigrees, chronicles, religious texts, and texts of a medical nature, including a list of the dangerous days of the year, a short herbal based on Macer Floridus, and two collections of medical recipes. These collections are united by their subject: they all treat the condition tostedd or bladder stone. The first collection has been gleaned from a medieval source; its five recipes can be traced to the four earliest medical manuscripts in Welsh. The second is a mix of recipes that can be traced to fourteenth- and fifteenth-century sources, with the addition of a unique remedy ascribed to an unnamed Vicar of Gwenddwr in Breconshire.

Writing in 1801, Theophilus Jones described the village of Gwenddwr as ‘a vile assortment of huts’, adding that, ‘the best fabric in it is the alehouse’.[2] It may be that the village had fallen on hard times by the nineteenth century, as it seems that its sixteenth-century vicar was recommending a rather complicated, and expensive, course of treatment for bladder stones. Here is the recipe in full:

Rhag y tostedd, medd Bickar Gwenddwr

Kymer ddyrnaid o saets, a’r gymaint arall o’r persli gwraidd ag oll, a’r gymaint arall o’r alisander, a’r gymaint arall o’r ‘selver’ (yr hwn a elwir kynga’r koed), a’r gymaint arall o’r ‘mors off maed lik’ (hynny ydyw, barfav kennin o’r rai ni fflannwyd yn y blaen), a xxxiii o rawn yr eiddaw, a dyrnaid o’r ‘betoni’ (yr rain a elwir kribe sanffred). Golch yn lan hwynt a phwnia mewn mortar kyn vaned a’r grinsaws. Yn ol hyny, bwrw hwynt mewn llestyr glan olchiad, a bwrw arnvn yno dri chwart o hengwrw kadarn, a thri chwart eraill o Rwmnai da. Kymered wraig a dwylaw glan olchiad, a gwasged hwynt hyd pan el ffrwyth y llysiav yn y ddiod. Oddyno kymrud lliain glan a’i hidlo ef yn dda, oddyno bwrw ymaith y soeg, oddyno brew y ddiod hyd pan el chwart o’r chwech chwart dan y brew. Oddyno yskimma ef yn lan, ag oddyno tyn y ddiod oddiar y tan, a bwrw ar y ddiod geinhiagwerth o’r graynys, a dimewerth o’r coleandur,  keinhiagwerth o bowdwr syngir, dimewerth o bowdwr galingall, gwerth tair keinioc o saffrwm, dimewerth o bowdwr licorys. Dod y ddiod ar y tan a gad i verwi ias vechan i gymryd ffrwyth y llysiav. Oddyno tyn i’r llawr, a phan oero ef ddigon, dyro dy ddiod mewn llestyr pridd. Ystopia ef yn dda a lliain glan, a gad yno i sefyll dridiav a theirnos. Yn ol hynny, hidler y ddiod drwy liain glan a rodder i’r glaf y’w yfed yn oer y bore a’r nos, yngwres y gwaed. Arvered o hyn, a iach vydd drwy nerth Duw. Poed gwir Amen

For the stone, says the Vicar of Gwenddwr

Take a handful of sage and the same amount again of parsley, roots and all, and the same amount again of alexanders and the same amount again of ‘cleavers’ (which are called wood burdock), and the same amount again of ‘moss of leek cuttings’ (that is, the beards of leeks which have not been planted before),[1] and thirty-three ivy seeds, and a handful of ‘betony’ (which are called St. Brigid’s combs). Wash them clean and pound them in a mortar as fine as green sauce. After that, put them into a newly-washed vessel and add three quarts of strong old beer, and three more quarts of good Rumney wine. Let a woman with newly-washed hands be brought, and let her press them until the essence of the herbs goes into the liquid. Take a clean linen cloth and strain it well, and throw away the residue, then boil the liquid until one of the six quarts boils away. Skim it clean, remove the liquid from the heat, and add a penny’s-worth of grains of paradise, a halfpenny’s-worth of coriander, a penny’s-worth of ginger powder, a halfpenny’s-worth of galangal powder, three penny’s-worth of saffron, and a halfpenny’s-worth of liquorice powder. Put the liquid on the heat and let it boil for a little while to take the essence of the herbs. Then put it aside, and when it cools enough, put the liquid into an earthenware vessel. Stop it up well with a clean linen cloth and leave it to stand three days and three nights. After that, let the liquid be strained through a clean linen cloth and let it be given to the sick person to drink cold in the morning and at body temperature at night. Let him use this and he will be healed through the strength of God, Amen.

While Pennant’s text is in Welsh, the vicar’s original recipe was likely in English. Most of the ingredients are given in Welsh, but three are in English with Welsh explanations (cleavers, leek grass, and betony). It is not uncommon for Welsh recipes to use English borrowings, especially for foreign or exotic ingredients. The medieval recipe collections contain ingredients such as alym (alum), arment (arnament), atrwm (atrament), brwnston (sulphur), cod (cobbler’s wax), kopros (copperas), and opium. But the English words in this recipe do not refer to foreign or exotic ingredients, rather they indicate the common native herbs. The names of the imported ingredients are borrowings, but they are very old borrowings which have already been incorporated into Welsh. For example, the form coleandur (coriander) appears in Welsh in the earliest herbal glossary, while saffrwm (saffron), licorys (liquorice), and syngir (ginger) are found in the fourteenth-century recipe collections. Thus, while the imported ingredients in this recipe are borrowings, it is the explanations of the common herbs which indicate an English source.

Urine wheel from a fifteenth-century Welsh medical manuscript, NLW 3026 (Mostyn 88), a medical miscellany in the hand of the prolific scribe and poet Gutun Owain. Permission granted by National Library of Wales.
Urine wheel from a fifteenth-century Welsh medical manuscript, NLW 3026 (Mostyn 88), a medical miscellany in the hand of the prolific scribe and poet Gutun Owain. Permission granted by National Library of Wales.

Pennant does not say how he has come by this recipe, whether he has copied it from a book, received it from a friend or neighbour, or perhaps been in correspondence with the vicar himself.  This is the last remedy in this manuscript, all of which treat a common and very painful condition. The collections of remedies in this manuscript, written over a period of years, all treating the same condition, beginning with old remedies taken from manuscripts and ending with what may be the result of correspondence with a contemporary, seems to tell a tale of increasing desperation in the face of an intractable illness. It is impossible to say whether Huw Pennant suffered from bladder stones himself, but the medical texts he chose to include in his collection would seem to suggest that he did. They would also seem to suggest that his interest in these remedies was not academic, but rather practical, that is, that he intended to use them, and may have done so. The cause of Pennant’s death is not recorded. I can only hope that, whatever it was, he received some relief from the ailment that seems to have plagued him for so long.

[1]      This seems to be a reference to the propagation of leeks by removing the seed from the seed head and allowing the head to develop small clones of the parent plant upon it (leek grass), which can then be planted out. I have interpreted mors as representing English ‘moss’, in the sense of a plant resembling moss (OED ‘moss, n.1’ II.4) or perhaps ‘hairiness’ (MED ‘mos’ 1(a)), and maed as representing English ‘math’ that is, a cutting or a mowing, from Anglo-Saxon mæð (OED ‘math, n.1’) and thus mos off maed lik as a cutting of leek, which results in the production of leek grass which is hairy or moss-like in appearance.

[1]      On Huw Pennant see Cartwright, J. 2016. The Middle Welsh Life of St. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins. In Cartwright, J. ed. The Cult of St. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins. Cardiff: UWP, pp. 163–86.

[2]      Jones, T. 1809. The History of the County of Brecknock. Vol. 2 of 2. Brecknock: George North, p. 296. You can judge for yourself, from the photograph of the village taken by John Crellin in 2011 for his Radnor Images website ( and used with his kind permission here, whether Jones’s opinion holds true today!


Revisiting Lisa Smith’s Coffee: A Remedy Against the Plague

Editor’s note: Today, we revisit a post by our editor Lisa Smith on the use of coffee as an eighteenth century cure-all against smallpox and the plague. The botanist Richard Bradley claimed that coffee would be effective in treating such diseases because it ‘lifted the spirit’. I certainly find that caffeine lifts my spirits, even if temporarily, but we know that high spirits are unfortunately no protection against COVID-19 and other viruses. Still, there is no harm in taking a break – caffeinated or not – and I hope that this post will give you good cheer. Laurence Totelin

By Lisa Smith

1721, London: The plague raging in Marseilles threatened London’s busy ports. The British government took action, asking a core group of physicians to devise a plan in case the plague reached London. Smallpox was already rampant and the King had ordered a series of inoculation experiments on prisoners. Troubled times.

Enter the impecunious botanist Richard Bradley. (I discussed his interesting life in a recent blog post.) When he wasn’t in debt to booksellers, he made a living from popular medical and scientific writings, such as The virtue and use of coffee, with regard to the plague, and other infectious distempers (London, 1721). He wrote: “At this time, when every Nation in Europe is under the melancholy Apprehension of an approaching Plague or Pestilence, I think it the Business of every Man to contribute, to the utmost of his Capacity, such Observations, as may tend to the Service of the Publick.”

And in the face of the plague and smallpox he offered… coffee. Remedies prescribed by other physicians, he insisted, “are little different from each other.” Coffee, however, “is of excellent Use in the time of Pestilence, and contributes greatly to prevent the spreading of Infection.” Who knew?

Apparently the Turks. Bradley explained: “in some Parts of Turkey, where the Plague is almost constant, it is seldom mortal in those Families, who are rich enough to enjoy the free Use of Coffee.” In his treatise, he discussed coffee’s efficacy and provided (most tantalizingly for the coffee-mad Brits) “an Account of the best Method of roasting the Berries, and preserving them after roasting.”

Coffee tree (Coffea arabica). Line engraving by H. Burgh, c.1726
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

I present to you Bradley’s instructions for preparing coffee. First, he recommended spreading out the ripe berries to dry and harden beneath the sun. The husks were then to be removed so that the berries could be toasted in an “airy place to clean them.” Finally, the berries were ready for the roaster, and this was an important step: the roasting process, Bradley claimed, would determine “the Goodness of the Liquor.” Never fear, though, Bradley had “taken some pains to experience the best Method of roasting it.” His conclusion was that the berries would be heated most equally by placing them in an iron vessel and turned on a spit over a clear or charcoal fire. His personal preference was “roasted in a middle way, not overburnt.” To modern readers, this seems like a lot of work, but Bradley reassured his readers that this process could easily be done at home, as apparently many “Persons of Distinction in Holland” did.

Making the beverage also required special equipment and techniques. To prepare the decoction, earthen or stone vessels were best, as metal spoiled the flavour. Boiling the coffee evaporated “too much of the fine Spirits”. Pouring boiling water over the powder of ground berries and infusing it for four or five minutes in front of the fire would be better and “much exceeds the common way of preparing it.” He provided an alternative, too: grinding the berries into powder, adding the powder and water into a stone or silver coffee pot and leaving the pot in front of the fire for a couple minutes. The liquid was always “thick and troubled” after brewing, but could be made “clear enough for drinking” by adding a spoonful or two of cold water to force the grounds to sink.

Coffee was worth the effort, being the ultimate cure-all. Bradley described its many virtues, which included treating head pains, vertigo, lethargy, coughs, moist and cold constitutions, consumptions, swooning fits, digestive problems, sleepiness, running humours, sores, scrofula, drunkenness, rheumatism, gout, intermitting fevers and infection. It could also purify the blood, provoke urination, stimulate the menses and deworm children. Indeed, it was particularly beneficial for menstruating women. According to Bradley, Arabian women drank coffee during their “periodical Visits, and find a good Effect”, such as contraction of the bowels and toned up genitals. Coffee was not for everyone though. Those suffering from melancholy vapours, hot brains, or paralysis should avoid it.

The reason that coffee would be so efficacious in treating infectious disease was that it lifted the spirits—and those “whose Spirits are the most overcome by Fear, are the most subject to receive Infections”. The correct use of coffee supported the drinker’s “vital Flame”, protecting the drinker from fear and despair. To gain coffee’s maximum benefits, Bradley recommended the following dosage: at least twice a day, first in the morning and at four in the afternoon.

Coffee breaks: good for your health!