Tales from the Archives: Human Milk as Medicine in Imperial China: Practice or Fantasy?

The Recipes Project has over 500 posts in our archives and over 120 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! With so much excellent material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. This Tales from the Archive post ties into this month’s theme on TEXTURES and also reminds us of some of our wonderful past content.

This month we’re sharing a 2016 post by He Bian.  It offers a rich, revealing look into the ways that human milk – like and yet unlike milk from other animals – was imagined as a medicine in Imperial China.  We hope that you enjoy this latest installment from our Recipes Project archives, and if you have any posts that you’d like for us to revisit, please send in your nominations
Amanda & Marissa (editors)

By He Bian

What does milk have in common with blood? According to Kou Zongshi (fl. 1110-1117), author of Bencao yanyi (Extended Interpretations on Materia Medica), they are basically the same vital fluid produced by the female body at two critical moments in a woman’s life. While the first menstrual period signifies the maturation of reproductive power, motherhood is the consummation of that power–miraculously causing the vital fluid to flow upward as milk. After nursing ends, the flow of milk again reverses back to blood, as evident from the return of the menses.

“Human milk.” Anon. Buyi Leigong paozhi bianlan (n.p, 1591), Book 8.

However, Kou’s original aim was to make sense of medical recipes. In particular, he was trying to figure out why do so many recipes for eye medicine use human milk to mix up powdered mineral drugs: a practice that has parallels in different cultural contexts. Since blood is essential for the five senses to function and human milk is essentially blood, Kou reasoned, this makes it an excellent medicine for eye diseases. Another recipe that may have been on his mind is the recommendation to drink “three portions of human milk” to help with obstructed menses. It makes sense if they were considered of the same origin. Like cures like.

Let’s pause here to consider what this means. Working with Chinese materia medica texts often means untangling different strands of thought, modes of compilation and miscellaneous quotations. The entry on each substance (e.g. human milk, renru or ruzhi) often begins with a learned survey of previous literature, including passages from classical literature and histories, and ends with a large (and often unwieldy) body of recipes. The problem is that the prescribed uses of the substances in the first part do not always sit well with the recipes, which are messy, opaque, and often outright strange.

In fact, Kou Zongshi’s work could be understood as a scholar-physician’s attempt to impose order and coherence on the unruly recipes, which were becoming increasingly available in print. [2] The incongruities and tension between theory and recipes, however, allows us to follow the intricate dance between empiricism and rationalism in such texts: when did authors equate recipes with real-life experiences, and when did they treat them as exemplars of theory and formulaic principles? When did book culture begin to shape the ways in which medicines were prepared, consumed, and invented?

Back to Kou Zongshi’s ingenious, if somewhat contrived, speculation over the nature of lactation. It did not seem to have caught much attention immediately. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries witnessed a growing suspicion among medical experts to discipline and curb wet nurses’ sway over childcare, and pediatric treatises abound with warnings against drunken, naughty wet nurses whose milk turns unwholesome to the infant.[3] Again, the female body’s power to nourish but also intoxicate with her transformed milk resonates with similar discourses discussed elsewhere on this blog; notably, alcoholic drinks were seen to be a bad thing that excites her passions, in contrast to ancient Roman recommendations.

In addition, the conquest of Mongols brought about increased consumption of cow and goat’s milk.[4] A leading physician active in the fourteenth century advised consuming those over human milk, which is easily “tainted with poisonous passions.” It looks like the arrival of more abundant dairy products would transform the existing pharmacopeia once and for all.

But not so simple. By the sixteenth century in China, human milk had become a “super food” of sorts, especially among elite families. Kou Zongshi’s dusty theory became a dominant trope, fanning the imagination of the female body as a machine of alchemical wonders, and her milk a sort of elixir that revitalizes the frail and depleted bodies. In the sixteenth-century encyclopedia Systematic Materia Medica (Bencao gangmu), Li Shizhen, the erudite naturalist and capable physician, criticized the excessive fetishizing of human milk. The prudent Li nevertheless included twelve “new recipes” that involve human milk as medicine. Li’s encyclopedia was first printed in 1596; soon after the turn of the century, dietary manuals began to teach people how to prepare dried milk powder at home, after collecting fresh milk from “strong women who just gave birth to boys”. Presumably, women sold their milk not as wet nurses, but directly to pharmacists (as depicted in the picture above).

So did people in imperial China consume human milk as medicine? Quite likely. But was it ubiquitous? Probably not. Recipes can be practical and fantastic, and theorists can explain and inspire. What matters is that human milk as medicine gradually came to be taken out of the context of nursing and acquired a more abstract quality as commodity.

[1] Charlotte Furth, A Flourishing Yin: Gender in China’s Medical History: 960–1665 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999).

[2] Asaf Goldschmidt, The Evolution of Chinese Medicine: Song Dynasty, 960-1200 (London ; New York: Routledge, 2009).

[3] Ping-Chen Hsiung, “To Nurse the Young: Breastfeeding and Infant Feeding in Late Imperial China,” Journal of Family History, 20, 3 (1995), pp. 217-38.

[4] Paul D. Buell, E.N. Anderson, and Charles Perry, A Soup for the Qan : Chinese Dietary Medicine of the Mongol Era as Seen in Hu Sihui’s Yinshan Zhengyao, 2nd Rev. and Expanded ed. (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010).


Tales from the Archives: Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

In my first months of co-editing duties here at The Recipes Project, one of my many delights has been the opportunity to dig back in our archives to rediscover posts I’ve loved over the years, to see them with fresh eyes. As a historian of Japan, I’ve looked forward to exploring and expanding our content on Asia, especially in global exchange. In that spirit, I bring you a classic post on European medicine in Siam (Thailand) from back in 2015, Tara Alberts’ “Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam.”

You may also notice several posts on a mini-theme of…shall we say uncomfortable recipes throughout the month of April, including historical treatments for lice and hemorrhoids already available to read (with more to come). Though I’d hardly put drinking gold at the same level of discomfort, and a fleck of gold leaf in a cocktail can still be a decadent indulgence today, I’d hate to see what a bellyful of Parisian golden medicine would do to a poor king’s stomach. Salud!

Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

By Tara Alberts

In a previous post I discussed how early modern Catholic missionaries sought to showcase the most up-to-date European medicines to impress their target audiences. This was also a key strategy used to gain access to royal courts throughout Asia.

At the court of King Narai (r. 1656-88) of Siam, for example, Europeans joined experts from China, India, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia to provide medical advice to the royal family.  Narai’s court was a cosmopolitan place: the king was keen to hear about foreign technologies and theories, and to encourage foreign trade. The French missionaries of the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP) were determined to take advantage of the opportunities that this offered.

Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons
King Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons

This could be easier said than done. It’s likely that the job of concocting remedies fell to René Charbonneau (1643-1727), a lay auxiliary to the MEP who had trained as a surgeon. In a 1677 he wrote a frustrated letter to a friend in Paris pleading for an easy-to-follow recipe written in French for aurum potabile. ‘The king has asked for drinkable gold’, he wrote ‘but we have not been able to manage it. […] Please write down in a letter the method of making it and purifying it for use, and the manner in which it is taken, written out in full in clear French and not in Latin and not in terms of chemistry as I am not versed in that art.’ (Archives des Missions Étrangères [AMEP] vol. 861, p. 41).

Gold-based medicines had ancient precedents in various European and Asian medical traditions. Like many putative panacea they enjoyed a renaissance in Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth seventeenth centuries. [i] There were innumerable recipes available to create aurum potabile, often using gold flakes or powder alongside other expensive ingredients including precious stones, unicorn horn and spices.

Yet since the sixteenth century, many writers had been extremely skeptical about whether such cures could possibly be of use. The chemist Nicolas Lefebvre, in his Traité de la Chymie (1660), denied that they could have any effect on the human body. Mixing gold leaf into medical concoctions and powders, he asserted, was an ‘abuse in Pharmacy that the Arabs have introduced’ (p. 801). Such medicaments could not be effective as the human body contained nothing capable of breaking the gold down. Lefebvre doubted whether any efficacious cure could really be created from gold, but like other compilers of alchemical compendia, he provided a range of common recipes to purify and use gold in a more sophisticated manner.

An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop. The Wellcome Library, London
An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop, 1665

It seems that the MEP were attempting to use these sorts of alchemical methods to create a ‘true’ drinkable gold (rather than just creating a medicinal draught with added gold flakes) and that this was proving difficult. MEP missionary Charles Sevin (?-1707) blamed the equipment available in Siam. He explained in a letter to his Parisian superiors that they had brought the necessary ingredients to make the king some huile d’or potable, but the glass retorts they acquired there all shattered before they reached the necessary temperatures. (AMEP, vol. 851, p. 190).

Others confessed that their ignorance of alchemical processes was hindering progress. Charbonneau mentions that he had with him Christophe Glaser’s Traité de Chymie (1667). In this, Glaser explains several different ways of purifying gold, and offers several different methods for rendering this purified gold usable as a medical preparation through fulmination, calcination with mercury, or dissolution in the aptly named ‘royal water’ (eau régale or aqua regia – nitrohydrochloric acid). One recipe for a draught containing ‘diaphoretic gold powder’ for example, recommends that after purification the gold should be dissolved in three drams of royal water to which is added a dram of refined saltpeter. This liquid should then be used to soak small pieces of linen, which, once dried, should be burnt. The resultant ashes should be collected carefully using a hare’s foot or a feather and then used to make a pill or a draught using a small amount of wine or bouillon.

Glaser’s stated aim in writing his Traité was to set out the principles and practices of chemistry in plain language, but Charbonneau complained that he found Glaser’s text confusing. He and his confrères had had some success when they attempted to follow Glaser’s instructions with regards to purifying tin, but they were not confident enough to give a demonstration, nor, presumably, to waste their supplies of ingredients needed to make impressive remedies for the king.

There was a clear incentive to make a particularly impressive version of drinkable gold which would showcase the effectiveness of exotic European recipes, and by extension other branches of European knowledge. Yet even the most up-to-date texts explaining how to create these remedies were useless without the necessary skills and equipment to put the theory into practice. No wonder then that MEP superiors in Siam began soon to lobby for missionaries and lay helpers who were skilled in alchemy to be sent from Paris.

[i] Informative overviews of the history of pharmaceutical gold are provided here by R. Console, and here by M. Hendriksen.

Tales from the Archives: ‘Infallible’ Missionary Cures

Everything seems to be unseasonably in bloom in England at the moment–blossom, daffodils, snowdrops, crocus… It is beautiful, to be sure, but horrible for us hayfever sufferers who are walking around with blossoming noses and eyes.

The Recipes Project now has over 700 posts in our archives. (Thank you to our wonderful contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes!) But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be overlooked. So the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers, making old material new once again.

Unsurprisingly, this month I was inspired to look for various flowers in our archives. What inspired me most was the sole entry on crocus–which, in this case, does not even refer to a flower! I’m going back to Tara Albert’s post from 2014.

Two ‘Infallible’ Missionary Cures in Seventeenth-Century Southeast Asia

by Tara Albert

The life of a seventeenth-century Catholic missionary in Asia could be arduous. Many newly arrived missionaries documented their difficulties with the local climate, food, water, and troublesome insects. Above all they fretted about the unfamiliar illnesses that plagued them, and which could bring their endeavours to a premature end. Their letters are peppered with references to concerns about health, and with requests for and advice about available remedies. Preserved in the archives of the Société des Missions Étrangères in Paris is a copy of such a letter, sent in 1692 by missionaries in the Society’s seminary in Siam (Thailand) to their confrères working in Tonkin (Vietnam) (AMEP vol. 850, pp. 152-64). The letter is typical of its genre, containing news, requests for information, pious sentiments, and advice. It also contains intriguing and unusual paragraph – described as a ‘recette’ in the archive’s descriptive catalogue – concerning the use of two curative substances. Breaking off from some unrelated news, the authors suddenly decide to advise their colleagues that:

Crocus metallorum is made from prepared antimony, and if it is infused in grape wine it makes emetic wine, so this crocus is taken solely for purging and evacuating from above and below; it is used for almost every sort of illness, as long as the patient still has enough strength. The dose is from 18 to 30 grains, which is given to the strongest. It is neither heated nor boiled, nor mixed with anything else, it is simply swallowed in wine, or in water, or with sugar, or with a fig – indeed it doesn’t matter with what as long as it is swallowed. Cinchona is a bark from a tree which comes from the New World: an excellent and near infallible remedy to cure all sorts of fevers which are not accompanied by oppressions or inflammations of the chest: it was an English doctor who recently brought these barks to France. We think we sent you the method to use this in the last year, but just in case we’re sending it again this year. (p. 160).

The inclusion of this paragraph raises a number of questions about missionary medicine. In my previous work, which explored conversion to Catholicism in Southeast Asia, I discussed how missionaries often presented themselves as healers in order to convince people of their spiritual powers. This ‘recipe’, however, points to another set of issues which merits further investigation, relating to missionary engagement with medical developments and controversies in Europe, and about missionaries’ interests in using relatively ‘new’ techniques and materia medica on their mission fields.

The first cure – crocus metallorum – is a preparation of a substance which has been discussed before on this blog: antimony. The discussion of its use in this letter is almost an anti-recipe: the remarkable effectiveness of this remedy was such that the composition of the delivery mechanism was unimportant. Indeed the initial illness of the patient hardly mattered – this was a true cure-all. The use of antimonial cures had been extremely controversial throughout most of the seventeenth century. Following a décret of the Sorbonne’s faculty of medicine, and an arrêt of the Parlement of Paris in 1666 permitting their use, they became increasingly sought after.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London La calcination Solaire de L'antimoine. From Nicholas Le Fevre, Traicte de la Chymie (Paris, 1660), opp. p. 899.  Wellcome Library, London
La calcination Solaire de L’antimoine. From Nicholas Le Fevre, Traicte de la Chymie (Paris, 1660), opp. p. 899.
Wellcome Library, London

The second remedy is also a miracle cure of sorts: the ‘near-infallible’ bark of the Cinchona tree, a source of quinine, effective against malarial fevers. No mention is made of the rival missionaries who were associated with this remedy in Europe: the Jesuits, who played an important role in its dissemination. We know from other letters that French Jesuits had supplied some of this bark to Missions Étrangères priests in Siam in the 1680s.  But this letter – which had earlier mentioned the tensions between the two societies – only mentions the ‘English doctor’ credited with introducing the substance to France. This is most probably a reference to Robert Talbor, whose secret recipe for a fever cure based on Cinchona had been revealed in a book published in 1682, shortly after his death. The letter promises that a fuller account of the means of preparing this bark will be sent to Vietnam. I have yet to find this account, but it would be interesting to compare the method to the Talbor recipe, and to Jesuit recipes of the same period.

Both substances held great promise:  they seemed to be extremely efficacious and had become famous, even fashionable in France in the last decades of the century. The use of both medicines by royalty had undoubtedly added to their appeal, and encouraged their acceptance by the medical establishment. Louis XIV had been successfully treated with antimonial wine; Talbor’s cinchona remedies were also credited with saving the life of the king’s son. Yet both remedies were also controversial. Naysayers continued to raise doubts about their efficacy and safety, and about the probity of those who would prescribe them. In many ways they represented new approaches to medicine, championed by those who sought to isolate universal remedies and infallible cure-alls. It seems that members of the Société des Missions Étrangères embraced these approaches, and helped to introduce these ideas to their mission fields.

Tales from the Archives: Lizards and Lettuces: Greek and Roman Recipes for Valentine’s Day

The Recipes Project is now six years old, and that means we host a lot of content! We now have over 700 posts in our archives. (And thank you to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes). But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers, making old material new once again.

This month, we’re featuring a post by our own Laurence Totelin on ancient Greek and Roman aphrodisiacs, which first appeared in 2015 to mark Valentine’s Day. Enjoy!

– The Editor

By Laurence Totelin

As you prepare to tuck into your oysters, followed by a garlicky main course, and a chocolaty desert on Valentine’s night, spare a thought for the Greeks and Romans, whose aphrodisiacs I now present to you. Ancient medical treatises contain numerous recipes for aphrodisiacs. This abundance may give the impression that the Greeks and Romans were a liberated bunch, with a healthy interest in a fulfilled sexual life.

Sexual scene on one of the walls of the lupanar at Pompeii. Photo: Laurence Totelin, October 2014

Certainly, archaeologists have discovered a wealth of sexually-themed Greek and Roman objects over the years. Many, like those found at Herculaneum and Pompeii, were hidden away for decades in ‘Secret Rooms’ in museums, only to come to full light quite recently. One has to be careful, however, not to look at such objects with too modern a gaze. Many had ritual purposes: they were meant to ward off various dangers. And among the perils the ancient feared most was infertility, human, animal, and vegetal. Barrenness of the earth would bring hunger; human barrenness would mean the end of the family line. I believe it is in this context that ancient aphrodisiac recipes are best read.

One of the most impressive collection of aphrodisiacs is to be found in the pseudo-Galenic Euporista. Euporista’ is the title of several ancient medical recipe collections. It simply means ‘Remedies easily procured’, that is, remedies whose ingredients are relatively easy to find, and whose preparation is relatively simple. This particular collection of Euporista is attributed to Galen in the manuscripts, although it is quite clear that Galen himself did not write it. The chapter on aphrodisiacs starts as follows:

Aphrodisiacs for the penis: these stretch the penis and lead to sexual union: pine-cones, pepper, parsley, fillings deer’s penis, turpentine, of each the same amount; mix with honey, and give to drink in wine. [Pseudo-Galen, Euporista 2.2]

This recipe is quite clearly meant to be used by men! It explicitly states that it will stretch out the penis. It features one of the most common ancient aphrodisiac ingredients – deer’s penis – with herbal ingredients. The deer’s penis is very large and was therefore considered useful as a sexual stimulant. Two of the herbal ingredients (pine-cones and pepper) present themselves as seeds, which again had links with fertility. Pseudo-Galen then gives several other similar recipes, most of which seem passably palatable, with the exception of the following:

Another [aphrodisiac]: when the bull defecates after sexual intercourse, mix clay with the pat from the bull, and coat the penis with this poultice. [Pseudo-Galen, Euporista 2.2]

Perhaps one had to have reached a certain level of desperation to make use of that particular remedy. A man under less pressure might have prefered to consume cow’s milk, which features quite often in ancient aphrodisiacs.

Aphrodisiacs could be more complex than those preserved in the pseudo-Galenic Euporista. For instance, the seventh-century author Paul of Aegina transmits the following recipe:

Man orchis (saturion), the penis of deer, of each 2 drams, seed of rocket, pellitory, barley (?), wax, of each 2 drams, turpentine, 1 dr., 3 eggs of sparrows, 3 geckos, pine or iris oil, a sufficient amount. Steep the live geckos in vinegar until 40 days have passed, smearing the vessel [containing the gecko] with dung. [Paul, Medical Collection 7.17.84]

Satyr on a red-figure cup, sixth-century BCE. Source: Wikipedia

The Greek name of the man orchis, saturion, does more than hint at its alleged aphrodisiac properties: this is the plant of the Satyrs, the companions of the god Dionysus, usually represented with huge erections. This plant, like other orchids, has a bulb that can be perceived as resembling a testicle (the Greek word for testicle is – you may have guessed – orchis). Beside this most powerful plant, the recipe also boasts herbal ingredients, deer’s penis, gecko, sparrow’s eggs, and dung.  The gecko deserves special attention. It is a type of lizard whose kidneys in particular were reputed for their aphrodisiac powers. This is what the pharmacologist Dioscorides (first century CE) had to say on the topic:

They say that the part around the kidneys of the gecko, in the amount of one dram drunk with wine, has such a sexually-stimulating power, that the intensity of desire must be checked by drinking a broth of lentil with honey, or the seed of lettuce with water. [Dioscorides, Materia Medica 2.66]

Now the lettuce has always been reputed for its soporific properties – recall Beatrix Potters’ story of the Flopsy Bunnies. Of course, sleep is the worst enemy of sexual intercourse, and if you fall prey to sleepiness, pseudo-Galen gives us a recipe to prevent sleep immediately after his chapter on aphrodisiacs:

Against sleep: Write upon the surface of a bay leaf and secretly place it on the head [of the patient], uttering ‘konkofon brachereon’. [Pseudo-Galen, Euporista 2.3].

Happy Valentine’s Day!