Revisiting Chelsea Clark’s The Wonders of Unicorn Horns: Preventions and Cures for Poisoning

Editor’s note: Today, we revisit a wonderful post from Chelsea Clark in 2012 on the intersection of magic and medicine from Early Modern England. Drawing on the seventeenth century  manuscript ascribed to the herbalist Johanna St. John, Clark examines the symbolic power remedies to unwind magical forces.  In this case, the remedy for the malicious magic of poison rests on unicorn, bezoar stones, and the bones of stag hearts.  Magical ailments, after all, would necessitate magical cures.  R.A. Kashanipour


By Chelsea Clark

Johanna St John’s Book, Credit: Wellcome Library, London

In Johanna St. John’s recipe book, the mysterious “Banister’s Powder by Dr Bates” lay nestled between the equally intriguing “Mrs Archers way of makeing My Lady Kents Powder” and the beginning of the letter “R” section of St. John’s efficiently organized recipe book. There is no indication what type of recipe this “Banister’s Powder” was, besides a powder, or what it’s intended use was. Following several pages of recipes for “pox” and “pills” this “Powder” is the tail end of St. John’s letter “P” section, however, even knowing this context offers little information. An analysis of the “Banister’s Powder” ingredients suggests a link between St. John’s early modern medicinal recipes and the presence of magical beliefs associated with medicine in the early modern period.

The first three ingredients required to make the “Banister’s Powder” are: powdered Unicorn horn, east bezoars, and the “bones” of a stag’s heart. Each of these ingredients had longstanding associations with the belief they were capable of preventing or countering the effects of poisoning. To a modern eye, these appear strange items to reside alongside many complicated recipes which rely on an expansive knowledge of medicinal, rather than magical, properties. These ingredients indicate that magical beliefs remained acceptable practices among home practitioners in the early modern period. This is possibly because the science to disprove them was not advanced and medical practitioners were only beginning to be skeptical and move away from such unreliable remedies.

The prevention and cure of poisoning was a genuine concern before and throughout the early modern period. It was quite common to be bitten or stung, to consume poisonous berries, roots, or herbs, or to believe a spell had been cast by a witch (Jackson, 96). It was also common for physicians to diagnose poison as the cause when they could not determine the source of an ailment (Auble, 17). This led to the necessity for remedies to detect, prevent and cure poisoning.

Rhinoceros Horn Vessel, Credit: Wellcome Library, London

 

Pharmacy sign, Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Unicorn horns were actually believed to come from the mythical creature and possess its symbolic purity and strength, though they were most often a narwhal tooth or powdered rhinoceros horn. The horns were commonly powdered and used in poison antidotes or as vessels to drink from before or after ingesting poison (Jackson, 97). Unicorn horns were also believed to have properties which allowed them to detect poison (Knight, 245). In addition to being thought to detect, prevent or cure the effects of poison, the horns were also thought to strengthen your heart, relieve headaches, resist the plague and pestilence, expel measles and small pox, and cure “falling sickness” in children (Brockbank, 3) all of which were reoccurring ailments in the early modern period.

 

Bezoar stones were solid masses from the intestines of goats, sheep or deer that were primarily believed to detect poisons but also, in some cases thought to provide a cure if small amounts of the stone were consumed. “Oriental” or “East” Bezoars, as St. John called for, were the most valuable type which came from a Persian wild goat (Jackson, 97). It was occasionally consumed, but more commonly mounted on a chain and dipped in to drinks to nullify the effects of poison if there was any (Jackson, 97). Queen Elizabeth I reportedly kept one “sett in golde hanging at a little Bracelett … The most parte of this stone being spent” indicating the Queen mounted and consumed her stone (Auble, 18).

Mounted Bezoar Stone, Credit: Wolfgang Sauber

The belief in the magical powers of the “bones” from a stag’s heart originates from a folk tale. The tale is that stags ate poisonous snakes by sniffing them out of holes and then after which they rushed to drink water. The “bones” in their heart were believed to be what protected the stags from being poisoned. The “bones” were actually caused by the degeneration of arteries into flat, oblong bone like objects. Powdering and consuming this “bone” was seen as a preventative measure to protect against the effects of poisoning (Jackson, 97).

Unicorn horn, bezoars and “bones” from a stag’s heart, were the key ingredients to the “Banisters Powder” in St. John’s recipe book. Because of the longstanding beliefs about these ingredients and their associations with poisoning detection, prevention and cures, this recipe was perhaps intended to cure or prevent poisoning. One can imagine the remedy would have been thought to be fool-proof against poison because it combined the powers of each of these ingredients. Although there was a movement away from magical remedies and cure-alls among physicians in the Early Modern period, belief in the curing power of magical objects was still present in the lives of home practitioners such as Johanna St. John. What we would consider scientifically impossible, they were only beginning to discover.

A strong belief in unexplainable phenomenon was common practice and popular beliefs are difficult to dispel, especially when they hold significant symbolic value. Just the other day the North Korean state media associated the discovery of a Unicorn Lair with their new young leader. It is hoped this association would strengthen the nation’s confidence in their young leader because of the symbolic meaning of the Unicorn and its ties to the state’s history. This example illustrates that a belief in the symbolic power of an object, like a Unicorn or its horn, bezoars, or “bones” from a stag’s heart can transcend both time and logic, persisting even when its truth is questionable.

Works Cited:

Auble, Cassandra. “The Cultural Significance of Precious Stones in Early Modern England.” Dissertations, Thesis, & Student Research, Department of History, University of Nebraska Paper 39 (2011).

Brockbank, William. “Sovereign Remedies: A Critical Depreciation of the 17th-Century London Pharmacopoeia.” Medical History 8.01 (1964): 1-14.

Jackson, William A. “Antidotes” Trends in Pharmacological Sciences 23.2 (2002): 96-98.

Knight, Katherine. “A Precious Medicine: Tradition and Magic in Some Seventeenth-Century Household Remedies” Folklore 113.2 (2002): 237-247.

Creating and integrating a database – work in progress

By Marieke Hendriksen

As mentioned in the post introducing the ARTECHNE project at Utrecht University last month, we are in the process of creating a database containing recipes, artist handbooks, and art theoretical texts that can clarify the development of the use of the term ‘technique’, as well as related terms referring to processes of making and doing. The database is linked to Geographical Information Software (GIS), thus creating an online historical semantic map of ‘technique’. Such maps are more than merely nice illustrations; they can reveal connections that remain hidden otherwise.

We are in the fortunate position where we can build the database on an existing one, namely the excellent Colour ConText database. However, we do not simply want to offer a copy of the Colour ConText database, we want to integrate it with other sources on artisanal practices and theories, such as recipes, books of secrets, art theoretical texts, and artist handbooks, from the period 1500-1900, in Latin, Dutch, German, English, French, Italian and Spanish. The entire database has to be searchable with advance searches, allowing users to search full text for occurrences of terms, in particular geographical or linguistic areas and periods, or to trace the changing uses and meanings of particular terms over time, linking various forms of terms and different terms with a similar meaning in relational tables and glossaries.

Sneak preview of the new database website
Preview of the new database website

For example, if we want to know how instructions for making paint have changed in the low countries between 1600 and 1900, we want to be able to select all available sources from that period and area and search them for imperatives, nouns, measurements, and particular ingredients. We also want to be able to distinguish between printed and manuscript sources, artist handbooks and household recipes books, and ideally we want to be able to search annotations and marginalia too, as well as differences between various editions of the same work. That means a lot of different parameters have to be specified for each source, and everything we include must be carefully checked before it is added.

One of the problems we encountered when selecting the first sources we wanted to add was the low reliability of Optical Character Recognition software when used on early modern printed sources – a problem I have written about on my own blog before. We do not just want to combine existing digitized sources in our database, but also to add texts that have not been digitized and made searchable thus far. However, that often involves lengthy correction processes. One of the solutions we are considering is crowd sourcing such corrections. Fortunately, we can also add many digitized sources that are available under Creative Commons licenses (i.e. from the Digital Library of the Netherlands), and various researchers have contacted us to discuss adding their own datasets to the database.

The first edition of the database is now online – have a look at http://artechne.hum.uu.nl!  Please note that this is a first version, and that the database will be improved and continue to grow for the duration of the project. Over the next few months, we will focus on increasing searchability and adding new sources. If you have any questions or suggestions, please contact us at artechne[at]uu.nl.

Finally, we will also explore the options of maintaining the database after the end of the ARTECHNE project, for example by depositing the datasets or even the entire infrastructure with an archival institution.

The ERC ARTECHNE project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 648718) and is a cooperation of Utrecht University and University of Amsterdam.

Seiseinyū and secrets: problems of recipe attribution in early modern Japan

In my last post, I looked at the problems faced by early modern Japanese doctors trying to figure out how to manufacture a new mercurial drug called seiseinyū, which had first appeared in the Chinese doctor Chen Sicheng’s Secret Record of Syphilis (1636). Yet although Japanese doctors eventually found ways to produce seiseinyū, the complicated movement of books and ideas between China, Europe and Japan during this period meant that even doctors who knew how to make the drug could be confused about where their recipes had come from.

The syphilis doctor Tokujitsu Junchoku, hero of Funakoshi Kinkai’s “Illustrated Syphilis War Tales” (Ehon baisō gundan, 1838). Courtesy of Waseda University Library.

One of the most detailed manuscript recipes for seiseinyū was written down in the late eighteenth century by a doctor called Haruhi Gen’an. Gen’an claimed this recipe had been passed down in his family since the time of his ancestor Haruhi Genryō, who in turn had received it from a Dutch doctor called “Seirukettan” in Nagasaki in 1711. Gen’an believed that the Dutch themselves were reluctant to share this secret recipe, and he took great pride in his lineage’s knowledge of it; imagine his surprise, then, when he discovered that Chen Sicheng’s Secret Record of Syphilis, which had recently been reprinted in Japan, contained a recipe identical to the one his family had for generations been treating as secret.

After some thought, Gen’an came up with an explanation for what had happened: just as his ancestor had learned the recipe from the Dutch doctor Seirukettan, the Chinese had also learned about the recipe from European visitors in the early seventeenth century, and Chen Sicheng had tried to pass the recipe off as his own. Indeed, it is curious to note that Chinese and European doctors started using mercurial drugs to treat syphilis quite soon after the disease’s arrival, and difficult to rule out the possibility that maritime contacts might have allowed one medical culture to learn the idea from the other. However, European and East Asian mercurial therapies for syphilis differed in their details, and it seems safer to conclude that they developed independently.

An army of antisyphilitic drugs defeats the syphilis demons. Funakoshi Kinkai, Illustrated Syphilis War Tales (1838). Courtesy of Waseda University Library.

But why did the Haruhi lineage attribute their seiseinyū recipe to the mysterious Dutch doctor “Seirukettan”? It isn’t possible to offer a definitive answer to this question, but a little background knowledge concerning the circulation and uses of medical texts in eighteenth-century East Asia is enough to suggest a plausible hypothesis.

Patients seeking treatment for syphilis tended to seek out specialists in “wound medicine” (yōka), a field that included the application of topical cures as well as surgical techniques. Eighteenth-century Japanese doctors were highly receptive to learning about European surgery and anatomy, which were much more developed than their East Asian counterparts at that time; it would thus be unsurprising for a Japanese practitioner of wound medicine to think of a cure for syphilis as more likely to be European than Chinese.

Nevertheless, Japanese practitioners of wound medicine would also have known about the Chinese surgical tradition and probably would have kept some classic Chinese treatises on surgery in their library. One such treatise was the Complete Book of Proven Remedies for Wounds and Ulcers (Chuangyang jingyan quanshu 瘡瘍經驗全書): the first edition of this book was produced in 1569, and an expanded edition published in 1717 included an additional chapter entitled “The Secret Record of Syphilis” – this was none other than Chen Sicheng’s book, incorporated into the new edition without attribution.

Early modern Japanese doctors often made their own manuscript copies of such medical treatises, especially if the only available printed versions were expensive editions imported through Nagasaki. Sections of multiple books could be copied into a single manuscript volume or a single book could be copied into several separate volumes; as a result, authorial attributions and the status of chapters as sections of larger works could easily become unclear. If something like this had happened to the Haruhi family’s copy of the Complete Book of Proven Remedies for Wounds and Ulcers, the original source of their recipe for seiseinyū could easily become forgotten, giving rise to a family legend that the recipe derived from a Dutch doctor in Nagasaki.

Quantities in Recipes

In my post last month, I discussed an online course in which students contributed their transcriptions of Lady Frances Catchmay‘s recipe book to the Textual Communities site.  Two of these students from Fall 2013 continued their work in the spring, and this post and the next are the results of some of their research.  – Rebecca Laroche

By Kayla Perkins
UCCS

While transcribing a rather long recipe, “A good Receyte to make matheglin” from Lady Frances Catchmay’s manuscript, I came across a peculiar phrase, “. . .toe hundred gallans of fayre water or more. . .” Two hundred gallons?! Even now that would be quite a feat.  Why so much water? This question drove me to discover what Metheglin is and if using such amounts of water was common practice.

Metheglin is a spiced or medicated variety of mead, originally popular in Wales. Starting with the Wellcome’s amazing cache of recipe manuscripts, I first compared Catchmay’s recipe to six others. Each recipe I read through made Catchmay’s preparation more unique, and they were all variants of each other. Despite the variants, however, there are aspects that each of the recipes share.

For instance, in preparing Metheglin, the two main ingredients are equal parts honey and water boiled together. They are continually boiled until the mixture can ‘bear an egg.’ Catchmay does not include this step within her recipe, which places hers in the minority. For each recipe, the quantities of honey and water vary quite a bit. Where Catchmay calls for two hundred gallons of water, the recipes of Mrs. Carr call for just five gallons, and another recipe calls for just a few quarts.

An assortment of herbs and spices is then added to the brew, the most common among the recipes being ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Catchmay is again differentiating here; her preparation does not call for just a handful of herbs. She has the longest, most detailed list for ingredients required. Not only does she advise when it is best to gather these herbs;[1] she also provides directions on how to clean and prepare said herbs.

While the Metheglin is fermenting one has to periodically skim barm off the top. The liquid is then stored in a variety of containers with directions on how long it keeps and when it should be consumed. Thanks to the honey, Metheglin keeps for quite a while. I believe that is why Catchmay chose to prepare such large batches.

Each recipe shows the different levels of what the compiler expects from her reader. Catchmay is extremely detailed with her ingredients, how they should be prepped, and gives an almost exhaustive description of Metheglin’s preparation. The Jacob recipe, however, is not overly detailed. While, one would like to assume that Catchmay was able to read through and gain inspiration from the others. This is not the case as Catchmay’s manuscript dates to around 1625 and the earliest (Elizabeth Jacobs) of the other recipes is dated at 1654. The six recipes in the Wellcome catalog that I read through share too many similarities for it to be coincidence. I believe Catchmay’s recipe was either isolated from or improved on by others. Either way, it is fascinating to see the uniqueness of the recipes and how each preparer made it her/his own. After becoming familiar with the ingredients, I can see Metheglin being a comforting beverage for these coming winter months. Bottoms up!

[1] Catchmay advises the herbs be picked around the time of Michaelmas and Lammas. Lammas takes place around the 1st of August and is celebrated by baking bread taken from the first harvest. Michaelmas takes place near the end of September, for the feasts of St. Michael. I can see this period of the year being used to stock up for the cold months ahead.