‘A Few Drops of Milk Will Do’: Breast Milk as Medicine

The traditional Madonna lactans: the breastfeeding Mary. Madonna Litta, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci © Wikimedia Commons.
The traditional Madonna lactans: the breastfeeding Mary. Madonna Litta, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci © Wikimedia Commons.

By Julia Martins

A few weeks after my baby was born, I noticed her tear ducts were blocked. Echoing Galen, the midwife suggested a few drops of breast milk to help treat and open the ducts. A few days later, the problem was solved, much to my astonishment. If you Google medical uses for breast milk, you might be surprised at the number of articles mentioning it as a treatment for ear infections, eczema, acne, eye problems, and many other conditions in babies. While most of this evidence is anecdotal, we know breast milk has antimicrobial properties, so it may indeed help.

Using breast milk as medicine is nothing new, however. Nor is it only a Western phenomenon, with human milk being used in imperial China. For centuries, medical recipes (especially those in the vernacular tradition) contended that menstrual blood in its concocted form of breast milk could be used to treat a myriad of conditions. Vernacular books published for a broad readership, such as Thomas Reynalde’s The Birth of Mankind, a 1540 adapted version of the 1513 German midwifery manual Rosengarten by Eucharius Rösslin, contained many recipes using human milk. As a general reproduction and fertility manual, Reynalde’s book also contained advice about childrearing and how to treat childhood ailments. So, when discussing the swelling of infants’ eyes, Reynalde recommended a mixture containing ‘woman’s milk’. He also suggested putting amber dissolved in breast milk inside the child’s nose.

Reynalde’s breast milk medicines for infants, used for ailments ranging from hiccups to stomach issues and sleeping problems, were not unusual. Like many entries in the book, these uses were taken from Ibn Sina’s Canon or Rhazes’ Practica Puerorum. Other early modern books contained milk in their recipes, such as John Gerard’s and John Partridge’s formulas to provoke sleep. As in The Birth of Mankind, these were books aimed at a wide readership, to be primarily used in a domestic setting.

As a readily available, free resource, breast milk was not only recommended for treating children. Since antiquity, it was thought that milk could also answer questions about what the pregnant body contained. In a passage copied from Ibn Sina, Reynalde told readers how breast milk could be used to determine the sex of the unborn child:

But if ye be desirous to know whether the conception be man or woman, then let a drop of her milk, or twain, be milked on a smooth glass or a bright knife, other [or] else on the nail of one of her fingers. And if the milk flow and spread abroad upon it by and by, then it is a woman child. But if the drop of milk continue and stand still upon that the which is milked on, then it is a sign of a man child.

Female trunk, from The Birth of Mankind. © Wellcome Collection.
Female trunk, from The Birth of Mankind. © Wellcome Collection.

Human milk could even be used to treat the one giving birth. Following a difficult birth, early modern people believed that abscesses and other problems could be healed with medicines containing human milk. Reynalde also told readers how, if the foetus died in the womb, drinking breast milk (albeit from another woman) might help someone to ‘expel the dead birth’. This belief was probably inherited from the medieval tradition, such as the Trotula, reminding us of the many continuities in the history of medicine.

‘Woman’s milk’ was not the only kind of milk used in early modern recipes. For instance, in Alessio Piemontese’s Secrets, another best-selling vernacular book published in the period, Piemontese recommended that women drink mare milk to facilitate conception. The milk from a dog just delivered could induce labour in women whose babies had died and needed to be expelled; this resembled the recipe using another woman’s milk. The symbolic association between ‘mothers’ meant that animal milk could have similar effects to human milk, working sympathetically to produce the desired goals.

In early modern medicine, humoral theory played a crucial role in understanding the body and reproduction. In its concocted form of breast milk, menstrual blood was often found in recipes published in the vernacular. Even though human milk as medicine seems to have been more prevalent among laypeople who read and wrote in the vernacular than in higher, more educated circles, such as university physicians, it is important not to trace too sharp a divide between ‘learned’ and ‘popular’ traditions, with perceptions about menstrual blood and breast milk varying widely. However, it is comforting to think of the links between Ibn Sina, 16th-century vernacular books, and what I was told as a new mother that I could do to help my baby, even if the reasons behind these recommendations have changed.

References:
Gerard, John. Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes. London: 1597.

Partridge, John. The Widdowes Treasure. London: 1595.

Piemontese, Alessio. De’ secreti del reverendo Donno Alessio Piemontese. Milan: 1559.

Rhazes, The First Treatise on Pediatrics [Practica Puerorum], translated by Samuel X. Radbill. American Journal of Diseases of Children 112.5 (1971): 369-76.

Reynalde, Thomas. The Birth of Mankind: Otherwise Named, The Woman’s Book. Edited by Elaine Hobby, Farnham: Ashgate, 2009 (originally published in 1540).

Rosslin, Eucharius. Der Swangern Frauwen und Hebammen Rosegarten. Strasbourg: 1513.

Ibn Sina, The General Principles of Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine [Liber Canonis]. Translated by Mazhar H. Shah. Karachi: 1966.

The Trotula: A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine. Edited and translated by Monica Green. Philadelphia: 2001.

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Julia Martins is a PhD candidate in History at King’s College London. Her thesis focuses on the translation of early modern recipes about the female body and reproduction (‘secrets of women’) from Italian into French and English. Her research is about how medical knowledge was changed as it circulated in print in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century vernacular books of secrets, and what these modifications can tell us about the way gender and the sexed body were understood in the period. Julia’s research interests are gender history, the history of medicine, and recipes literature.

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_.

Cooking up the Romans: Mrs Beeton’s Antiquity

By Laurence Totelin

Paragraph 285 of the 1861 edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management is a recipe for baked red mullet with a sauce of anchovies, sherry and cayenne. As is usual in the Book of Household Management, this recipe starts with a list of ingredients (with quantities), followed by the mode of preparation, the time needed for the preparation, the average cost, an indication as to when the dish is seasonable (at all times), some notes on other modes of cooking, and an illustration. Paragraph 285 does not end there, however. It concludes with the following notes, in smaller characters, on the history of the red mullet:

THE STRIPED RED MULLET. — This fish was very highly esteemed by the ancients, especially by the Romans, who gave the most extravagant prices for it. Those of 2 lbs. weight were valued at about £15 each; those of 4 lbs. at £60, and, in the reign of Tiberius, three of them were sold for £209. To witness the changing loveliness of their colour during their dying agonies was one of the principal reasons that such a high price was paid for one of these fishes. It frequents our Cornish and Sussex coasts, and is in high request, the flesh being firm, white, and well flavoured.

Photo of a facsimile of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, showing pages 142 and 143. This includes paragraph 283 on the pickled mackerel; paragraph 284 on the grey mullet, with a drawing of a grey mullet, a type of fish; paragraph 285 on the red mullet, with a drawing of a red mullet, a type of fish; paragraph 286 on fried oysters, with a drawing of the edible oysters; and the beginning of paragraph 287 on scalloped oysters. The text on the red mullet reads as follows: RED MULLET. 285. INGREDIENTS -- Oiled paper, thickening of butter and flour, 1/2 teaspoonful of anchovy sauce, 1 glass of sherry; cayenne and salt to taste. Mode. -- Clean the fish, take out the gills, but leave the inside, fold in oiled paper, and bake them gently. When done, take the liquor that flows from the fish, add a thickening of butter kneaded with flour; put in the other ingredients, and let it boil for 2 minutes. Serve the sauce in a tureen, and the fish, either with or without the paper cases. Time. – About 25 minutes. Average cost, 1s each. Seasonable at any time, but more plentiful in summer. Note. – Red mullet may be broiled, and should be folded in oiled paper, same as in the preceding recipe, and seasoned with pepper and salt. They may be served without sauce; but if any is required, use melted butter, Italian or anchovy sauce. They should never be plain boiled. THE STRIPED RED MULLET. -- This fish was very highly esteemed by the ancients, especially by the Romans, who gave the most extravagant prices for it. Those of 2 lbs. weight were valued at about £15 each; those of 4 lbs. at £60, and, in the reign of Tiberius, three of them were sold for £209. To witness the changing loveliness of their colour during their dying agonies was one of the principal reasons that such a high price was paid for one of these fishes. It frequents our Cornish and Sussex coasts, and is in high request, the flesh being firm, white, and well flavoured.
Pages 142 and 143 of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, showing paragraph 285 on the red mullet [full text of paragraph 285 in the Alternative Text].

Beeton peppered her Book of Household Management with such historical notes, focusing especially on antiquity, which particularly interest me as an ancient historian. In these notes she named various ancient sources: the Scriptures, Homer, Herodotus, Aristophanes, Aristotle, Xenophon, Theocritus, Cato, Caesar, Horace, Martial, Virgil, Pliny, Dioscorides, Galen, Athenaeus, Apicius, and Julius Firmicus. However, in most cases, her knowledge of these sources was second-hand: she had borrowed it from a curious book published in 1853, the Pantropheon, which was circulated under the name of Alexis Soyer, a famous and flamboyant Victorian chef (but origianllly composed in French by Adolphe Duhart-Fauvet). The Pantropheon retraced the history of food and eating habits, with a focus on antiquity. It drew on numerous classical sources, listed, with varying degrees of accuracy, in the ‘table of references’. Beeton only acknowledged Soyer’s Pantropheon once (paragraph 1016), probably deeming the information to be, as it were, ‘in the public domain’.

Some of Beeton’s borrowings are word-for-word copies of what she found in the Pantropheon. In most instances, however, she reworked the Pantropheon’s material . For instance in her paragraph on the red mullet, she brought together various passages from the Pantropheon’s chapter on this fish, and added the information on where to find the fish in the British isles.

Even though Beeton’s historical notes are trivia apparently selected at random, two types of anecdotes recur with particular frequency. First, she often commented on the religious practices of the ancients, usually displaying a critical attitude towards what she deemed to be superstitions.  Second, she often included anecdotes relating to the excesses and cruelty of the ancients. We have already encountered her comments on the cruelty of the Romans towards the mullet. In paragraph 214, which is part of her general introduction on fish, she also wrote that ‘with all the elegance, tastes, and refinement of Roman luxury, it was sometimes promoted or accompanied by acts of great barbarity’. Writing on the luxurious excesses of the ancients (and more particularly of the Romans) was nothing new, but Beeton seems more angered by cruelty towards animals than by conspicuous displays of wealth. The theme of humane treatment of animals is  one that runs through the Book of Household Management: historical anecdotes helped Beeton reinforce her argument against animal cruelty. Thus, even with plagiarised material, Beeton managed to convey at least two moral messages. Her readers may have been oblivious to these implicit lessons, but they cannot have been to her explicit aim to educate her middle-class readers in every aspect of household management and its history.

Photo of a Roman mosiac displaying an eel and three fishes.
Roman mosaic with fish from Utica, Tunisia. Photo by Kritzolina, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia.

Including historical and scientific information in Books of Household management was not entirely new. Books of household managements published at the beginning of the nineteenth century sometimes included sections on geography, history, architecture, or similar topics. Yet, I would argue that what Beeton was doing was new in two respects. First, rather than concentrating all her historical notes in one chapter on the history of food, she offered food history in bite-sized parcels. Second, she integrated those  historical bites into the structure of her recipes. These innovations may appear trivial, but they are not. The readers of Beeton’s Book of Household Management could irgnore her historical notes only with some difficulty. These readers may have chosen not to read them, but it would have been very difficult not to see them. If the readers ever chose to examine some of these historical and scientific notes, they could do so in very little time. Beeton was well aware that time was of the essence for many of her readers who did not often have the leisure to read for pleasure.

It is for this time-poor reader that Beeton pre-chewed and bite-sized history. One could easily imagine a reader of the Book of Household Management pausing for two minutes to read the notes on the red mullet once she had placed her concoction on the stove. In that reader’s mind the trivia she had learnt about that fish thereafter would be associated with the smell of the roasting fish. To today’s reader, Beeton’s didactic method may appear surprisingly modern: she had chopped history into small bits easy to memorise, and by associating them with recipes, she made the learning experience a multisensory one. Of course, it would be wrong to overinterpret Beeton’s didactic method, but it would be equally wrong to deny that Beeton had didactic intentions. The Beetons were fervent advocates of female education.

In her small way, then, Beeton did contribute to the education of the middle classes. Isabella would certainly have disagreed with Sarah Sewell who in 1868 argued that ‘Women who have stored their minds with Latin and Greek seldom have much knowledge of pies and puddings’ (Woman and the Times we Live in, p. 51) . As any aspiring domestic goddess will know a woman’s brain can well accommodate pie and pudding recipes as well as Latin and Greek!

 

From the Archives: Cock Ale: “A Homely Aphrodisiac”

From our archives, here is Joel Klein’s wonderful post that details the Cock Ale, an animal-based alcoholic beverage from Early Modern England. This piece originally appeared in a 2014 edition of the Recipes Project.  Mixologists, take heed!  I will be adding it to my pub queue. – R.A. Kashanipour

By Joel A. Klein

In a stanza from, “The Young Gallants Tutor, Or, An Invitation to Mirth,” an especially lusty song from the 1670s, the anonymous author praised several particular beverages: “With love and good liquor our hearts we do cheer, Canary and Claret, Cock Ale and March beer.”

While Canary Wine, Claret, and Märzenbier are still consumed today, what exactly was Cock Ale? The short answer is that it was an alcoholic beverage made from ale, sack, raisins, and the flesh of a rooster, but to do Cock Ale justice requires a longer explanation.

The first printed recipe for Cock Ale appears to have been published by the Englishman, Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-1665).

Fig. 1: Digby, Kenelm. Engraving by Burnet Reading, fl. 1777-1822. Original Artist: Anthony Van Dyck, 1599-1641.
Engraving of Kenelm Digby. Original Artist, Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). Credit: The Smithsonian Digital Collections.

In 1669, Digby wrote, “These are tame days when we have forgotten how to make Cock-Ale,” and thus he gave a recipe:

Kenelm Digby, "The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened," (London, 1669). Image taken from a later reprint (London: Philip Lee Warner, 1910), p. 147.
Kenelm Digby, “The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie, Knight. Opened,” (London, 1669). Credit: Reprint (London: Philip Lee Warner, 1910), p. 147, at Archive.org .

Later recipes would vary in the details, but this was a common preparation, and such recipes can be reproduced with relative ease.

The association of this particular ale with male vigor and potency was an evident subtext in the early seventeenth century, but eventually, subtext gave way to the explicit. In a famous tract, “The Women’s Petition Against Coffee,” a “Humble Petition and Address of several Thousands of Buxome Good-Women, Languishing in Extremity of Want,” the author(s) of this extraordinary address bemoaned the “Decay of that true Old English Vigour” caused by the excess consumption of coffee.

The Women’s Petition Against Coffee (London, 1674). Image taken from Wikipedia.

The authors lamented that English men had formerly been “the Ablest Performers in Christendome,” but “our Gallants being every way so Frenchified … they are become meer Cock-sparrows.” Likewise, while these fluttered “with a world of fury,” they were “not able to stand to it, and in the very first Charge fall down flat.”

In order to reinvigorate these coffee-addled men, the ladies suggested a solution of outlawing coffee for those under the age of sixty and “returning to the good old strengthning Liquors of our Forefathers,” which included Cock-Ale and “Lusty nappy Beer.” For more on the so-called Coffee Controversy, see Jennifer Evans’ post at Early Modern Medicine.

Within the pages of the 1725 New Canting Dictionary, which defined the words and terms used by “Gypsies, Beggars … and all other clans of Cheats and Villains,” Cock Ale was described as a “pleasant Drink, said to be provocative”–meaning that it excited lust and aroused sexual desire. In a nineteenth-century dictionary of slang, Cock Ale was directly identified as a “homely aphrodisiac.”

There were, however, references to Cock Ale long before Digby’s recipe. The first mention appears in Thomas Drue’s play, The life of the dutches of Suffolke (1631), when one tiler (i.e. one who lays tiles) says to another, “Lets doe our dayes work in an hour / and drink our selues drunke all the day after,” and his colleague answers, “Whope, why the Cocke ale has spurd thee already.”

“The Cocke” was a reference to both the beverage and the place from where it was sold, for after encouraging his partner to abandon their work, the tiler suggested the two “over goe to the Cocke and see if he came a’th kind, if his ale will make a man crow.”

While there have been numerous London taverns by the name of “The Cock,”an especially famous one was The Cock and Bottle on Fleet Street, near Temple Bar (dating back as far as 1549). Frequented by famous writers such as Samuel Pepys and Alfred Lord Tennyson, the tavern sold Cock Ale in bottles and from the tap–sometimes redeemable with a tavern token. In 1668, Pepys wrote, “Thence by water to the Temple, and then to the Cock Alehouse, and drank, and eat a lobster, and sang, and mightily merry.”

Another mention of Cock Ale prior to Digby’s recipe is from 1663, when a sailor from the play, “A witty combat, or, The female victor,” said,

I have heard of Cock-Ale,… And I know not how many sorts more that are the Gentlemens drink as they call ‘em; All is but Ale still, made of Water that runs by Billingsgate. And for my part, when all is done give me the plain wholsome Ale of England without welt or guard as they say, or a deal of mixtures; but of all drinks I hate that of coffee, it dries Mens Brains.

Others, too, were skeptical of the ingredients of Cock Ale, believing that it was merely normal ale that was sold under false pretence at a higher price.

In Richard Ames’ 1693 poem, “The bacchanalian sessions, or, The contention of liquors with a farewel to wine,”  Cock Ale defended himself to his fellow liquors:

For ‘tis but a truth, which is very well known,
How much I’m belov’d by the Sparks of the Town,
And their Mistresses too, who ‘fore Wine me prefer,
When they meet at a House very near Temple bar,
What precious intreigues could my Pimpship discover,
Between a Town Jilt, and a mony’d[?] young Lover.

Thus, while many recipes may have left out the cock, it appears that the ale still led many to enjoy to its desired effects.