Words of the Wise: Colonial Maya Medicine

By R.A. Kashanipour

Early Spanish settlers, administrators, and chroniclers frequently lamented how Old World diseases ravaged native communities in the New World. The famed Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas described the ferocity of the first epidemics: “Then came a terrible plague, and almost everyone died, and very few remained.”[1] We know much about the devastation, but less about the everyday responses of the victims of disease, especially in the Americas where death and destruction accompanied conquest and colonialism.

In colonial Mexico, native scribes and healers recorded local remedies and cures as they treated populations ravaged by endemic and epidemic sicknesses. Over the next few posts, I will highlight overlooked medical manuscripts and touch on some curious and confusing remedies from colonial Yucatán.

During the eighteenth century, a series of anonymous Maya curanderos (folk healers) recorded local ideas of science and medicine in a manuscript titled Tratado de las siete planetas y otro de medicinarium (Treatise on the Seven Planets and another on Medicine). Commonly known as the Chilam Balam de Kaua, this work circulated beliefs and practices about the natural world as it passed among healers. The work synthesized European accounts of astrology with Maya understandings of the ritual calendar.

And healers recorded remedies for common afflictions and ailments that reflected the intertwined relationships of the colonizers and colonized. An early passage of the work admonished readers to hold the knowledge with respect and care. “Very good are the words of the wise. [These are] recipes in the Maya language for those Indians that want to understand this medicine. Arte, it is called for those who are sick, also for those that are strong and well. Very good are the words of the wise.” [2]

Title Page of the manuscript known as the Chilam Balam de Kaua.  The work derives its name from a sixteenth century Maya shaman known as the Chilam Balam (Jaguar Priest) and the community in which the manuscript was written, Kaua.  This image is of a Photostat from 1920 housed at the Library of Congress.  The original manuscript is lost.]
Title Page of the manuscript known as the Chilam Balam de Kaua. The work derives its name from a sixteenth century Maya shaman known as the Chilam Balam (Jaguar Priest) and the community in which the manuscript was written, Kaua. This image is of a Photostat from 1920 housed at the Library of Congress. The original manuscript is lost.]

The healers of the Chilam Balam de Kaua recorded remedies in indigenous terms that often reflected European categories of disease. Cures addressed common illnesses, such as cough (en), cold (sis), fever (chakuil), and periodic epidemic diseases like smallpox (nohoch kak), yellow fever (vómito de sangre), or measles (sarampión). There were remedies for everyday afflictions: headache (chibal pol) and earache (chibal xicin). Others were punctuated with magical intervention, including sorcery (pulbil yaah) and evil flowers (mal floral). Treatments attempted to reduce the aches that welcomed life–childbearing (alancil) and painful swollen breast (ya umil chup)–and the pains that greeted death–bleeding (kik) and cancer (caanzeel). There were remedies to treat the difficulties of manual labor: wounds (cinpahal), swellings (chuchup), and broken bones (sayal bac). In total, the Chilam Balam de Kaua contains over three hundred and thirty remedies.

One of the numerous cures for fevers captures the interaction between Mayan and Spanish knowledge systems.

A remedy for fever (tzacal chacuil) by the ancient people, here is the consumption tree (nech bac che), its other name is fever tree. This is boiled in water to wash people who have a fever. [The affliction] is called weakness (nach bahal) in their language and this is ético in the language of the Spaniards. Then leaves of the plant should be taken with the leaves of the night herb (akab xiu), whose leaves are pleasant smelling. The same amount of leaves are mixed together and boiled until soft. They may be taken [this way]. When the water is half finished, the affirmed may be bathed with the hot water, as hot as can be allowed. Four or five times, this is done… When covered and cool, they may arise to chocolate (cacau) leaves and the night herb… The consumption tree is to be twisted with the chocolate plant.[3]

Fevers were undoubtedly common in colonial Yucatán. As with most Yucatec remedies, the application appeared straightforward and matched symptoms with treatment. The heat of the fever was to be broken with a simmering herbal bath, followed by a concoction of herbs with chocolate.

The record keeper, however, also noted that remedy’s pre-Hispanic origins, establishing a connection to the past. In diagnosing the affliction, however, ancient Maya knowledge linked with contemporary Spanish perspectives. These fevers were called nach bahal or ético and, as such, the remedy could apply to Mayas and Spaniards alike.

The materials for the remedy were exclusively comprised of wild herbs, tying the uncontrolled disease with the unconquered frontier. While most healers may have sourced domesticated plants from herb vendors (yerbateros), this remedy required plants of the forest. The cure required knowledge of Mayan biological landscapes; to produce this remedy, the healer needed access to the untamed frontiers of the province.

This remedy, like so many of colonial Yucatán, showed that “the words of the wise” involved the convergence of distinct traditions in the everyday practices of curing. The Chilam Balam de Kaua and other medicinal manuscripts from colonial Latin America illustrate the localized processes in the production and circulation of medical knowledge in the early modern world.

[1] Bartolomé de Las Casas, Historia de las Indias (México: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1951) 3: 270.

[2] Chilam Balam de Kaua (photostat reproductions), f. 7, Container 25,Ac. 4056, Indian Languages Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

[3] Chilam Balam de Kaua, f. 175.

Now you see it? No you don’t! Images in Alchemical Manuscripts

By Anke Timmermann

The scene seems almost idyllic: a stone basin in a green landscape, a stylised cloud floating above with the heads of three blond, chubby cherubs. But then we realise that the sweet, angelic faces are spitting a greenish-blue liquid into the tub, from whence it flows through a spout into a glass vessel. This means business!

Glasgow University Library, MS Ferguson 6, s. xvii. By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.
Glasgow University Library, MS Ferguson 6, s. xvii. By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.

The business at hand is the manufacture of the philosophers’ stone as outlined in the Rosarium Philosophorum, a popular alchemical tractate first printed in 1550. It represents one of the increasing number of illustrated alchemica that emerged from the fifteenth century onwards. Manuscript pages came to life with pictures of alchemical metaphors previously confined to descriptions. Colourful animals or humanoid figures (representing substances) were now shown engaged in activities (chemical processes and reactions), from knowing each other in the Biblical sense to mutual ingestion, in fiery or watery environments alike.

But, as exciting as this development was, alchemical practitioners still needed to translate imagery into practical terms to make sense of these ‘visual recipes’. Like the interpretation of recipe texts, and especially in combination with verbal recipes, this proved to be a difficult task. Today it is historians who try to find a recipe for the meaningful description and analysis of alchemical images.[1] Here the little flask above, gathering the angelic fluids so faithfully, demonstrates how complex the business of alchemical history can be.

Glass vessels feature prominently in alchemical images from the late medieval and early modern period. The image above might indicate the use of an actual glass flask in this step of the manufacturing process, or, more likely, simply be intended to conjure up the mental image of gathering liquids with any appropriate vessel. However, in many visual alchemical scenes such as the Splendor Solis series or the Ripley Scrolls, drawn glass containers were clearly not intended to represent actual equipment, but rather to provide a visual frame for a process depicted in figurative form.

The translucence of glass benefited the artist aiming to reveal alchemical processes within a conceptual, as opposed to actual, space. By contrast, in actual laboratory practice, glass vessels were generally only used for distillation “where they may be used without fear of breaking or melting”.[2] What we see, and what contemporary readers saw, in these ‘visual recipes’ is not an object, but a concept.

Glasgow University Library, MS Hunter 110 (T.5.12), s. xiv, f. 28r. By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.
Glasgow University Library, MS Hunter 110 (T.5.12), s. xiv, f. 28r. By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.

A much more pragmatic depiction of a similar flask may be found alongside Albertus Magnus’s appropriately-named Straight Path in the Art of Alchemy in GUL MS Hunter 110. This manuscript is roughly two hundred years older than the copy of the Rosarium Philosophorum above. Instantly recognisable as a receiver for distilled liquid, drawn complete with the entire apparatus, this flask nevertheless surprises in comparison with the previous image: this illustration does not show any liquid either before or after distillation. Such detail would have been realistic, but perhaps unnecessary for contemporary readers to understand the experimental setup.

Glasgow University Library, MS Ferguson 67, s. xvi, f. 10r. By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.
Glasgow University Library, MS Ferguson 67, s. xvi, f. 10r. By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.

Our final image could be mistaken for a regular kitchen if it weren’t for the distilling apparatus shown in the foreground[3]. This piece of equipment was familiar to readers who had an alchemical background from practical manuscripts (like the previous one), but also to those employing distillation for medicinal or other purposes. This image reminds us of the intersection of alchemical recipes with those of other recipe literatures, in word and image.

What is particularly wonderful about this image is a detail that might be overlooked when considered in isolation from the other illustrations: the liquid in the receiving vessel is shown to stand at an even, calm level, while the liquid in the heated vessel is boiling, bubbles clearly visible. The present, nervous reader of this manuscript cannot help but worry about the stability of the glass, which could melt or break at any moment. It is only in comparison with other flask depictions that this detail emerges.

Questions about different purposes of illustration as well as local, temporal and individual preferences in visualising different aspects of the alchemical work come to mind. But is this a detail contemporary readers would have picked up on?

Well, now I see it. But maybe I shouldn’t.


My focus on the flask, just for the purposes of this blog post, was inspired by Tillmann Taape’s excellent recent post on distillation.

[1] Two seminal articles in this area are Barbara Obrist, ‘Visualization in Medieval Alchemy’, HYLE-International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry 9 (2003), 131-70; see also Obrist’s earlier oeuvre on alchemical images. And Christoph Lüthy and Alexis Smets, ‘Words, Lines, Diagrams, Images: Towards a History of Scientific Imagery,’ Early Science and Medicine 14 (2009 ), 398-439.

[2] John French, The Art of Distillation (London, 1651), Book I. See also Tillmann Taape’s posts on this blog.

[3] This manuscript is described and analysed in Paul Engle, “Depicting Alchemy: Illustrations from Antonio Neri’s 1599 Manuscript”, in Dedo von Kerssenbrock-Krosigk, ed., Glass of the Alchemists (New York, NY, 2008), 48-61.

A History of Science Spectacular in Manchester

By Laura Mitchell

People standing in a museum at a reception, with a dinosaur skeleton behind them.
The opening night reception at the Museum of Manchester. All photos by the author.

A few weeks ago I was fortunate to present a paper at the 24th International Congress on History of Science, Technology and Medicine (iCHSTM), which was held at the University of Manchester from July 21st to 28th. The congress operates under the auspices of the Division of History of Science and Technology of the International Union for the History and Philosophy of Science (IUHPS/DHST) and the 24th congress was organized by the British Society for the History of Science. Held every four years, this year’s congress had the theme of “Knowledge at Work”. Because this was such a large conference with such a broad range, I am going to divide up my post thematically: Social Media, Sessions and Public  Events.

SOCIAL MEDIA

Well before the start of the conference, the organisers of the iCHSTM were dedicated to giving it a strong presence in social media. This can only be a good thing with the way that social media and academia seem to be joining up, especially in the blogosphere and on Twitter. First, the iCHSTM organisers have had a conference blog running since May. This began with select presenters offering brief descriptions of the papers they were to present, and evolved to include a daily “Congress Transmission” that provided summaries of the previous day’s events and any updates to the day’s program.

There is a conference Flickr page, updated as the conference progressed, that will give readers a glimpse of everything that was going on (and if you look carefully you may see your intrepid reporter in there somewhere).

For those who missed the conference–or even conference attendees who want to catch something again–there is a iCHSTM Youtube page, which has videos of many public events, including some great comedy bits from the Bright Club night.

The iCHSTM has a very active Twitter page and dedicated hashtags for the conference (#iCHSTM #histsci #histech #histmed). These were great resources for finding out the latest news and changes, as well as for following the livetweeting of sessions throughout the conference.

SESSIONS

Charles Burnett of the Warburg Institute presents on the works of Ptolemy in medieval Europe.

The number of sessions and presenters at the conference was impressive: nearly 1400 presenters in 411 sessions, according to the website. The topics ranged from ancient astrology to asbestos in 1940s Quebec. As a result, it is impossible to do justice to the sheer breadth and variety of papers that were given in Manchester. Here is a sampling…

In a session that I chaired, “Spaces and Practical Knowledge”, Anita Guerrini of Oregon State University discussed “The Ghastly Kitchen”. The early modern kitchen, she argued, was a site of life science, namely, dissection. It was an ideal place for conducting scientific experiments, being where instruments for dissection were kept and the cooking of animal parts occured. As well, senses such as taste and smell were important in discovering the properties of objects. Audio of her paper can be found, along with that of other iCHSTM bloggers, here.

In a session on “Geology and Literature”, Gowan Dawson (University of Leicester) spoke on “Dickens, Dinosaurs and Design”, comparing the harmony of Charles Dickens’s serialised novels with the perceived harmony and order of dinosaur skeletons. Dawson looked at the language used by both Dickens and his friend Richard Owen, a comparative anatomist. Dawson suggested that Dickens drew on the procedure and terminology that Owen used for the preparation of skeletons for display. Although the work of these two men may seem miles apart, both men wanted to bring about a similar harmony in their work, or a “fusing together” of vertebrae and chapters.

In the same session, Stephen M. Rowland (University of Nevada Las Vegas) examined “Mark Twain and Historical Sciences”. Twain wrote about science throughout his career (such as Paleontology in 1871 and Life on the Mississippi in 1883), and also interjected scientific remarks into his fiction works like Tom Sawyer. Rowland presented a number of examples from Twain’s prolific career, arguing that Twain followed scientific developments. Although Twain’s early works poked fun at new ideas and reflected contemporary American skepticism, Twain later used the respectability of science to argue against religious fundamentalism and Biblical literalism.

Janine Rogers (Mount Allison University) combined two of my favourite things– codicology and museums–in “The Medieval Codex and Early Science Collections and Museums”. She argued that there is a connection between the medieval codex and its focus on ordinatio and compilatio and early collections and museums. Compilatio viewed the compiler of the medieval book as God’s editor; thus, the book was a mirror of the universe. It was tied to the idea of unio, a union of all knowledge. Similarly, ordinatio, the placement of texts and images on the page, was a theological activity. Even the grotesque marginal imagery served to discuss or critique the main text. Rogers contends there was a similar adherence in early science collections and museums to the idea of knowledge be all-encompassing. The ideal museum, particularly in Victorian architecture, mirrored the layout of the ideal manuscript page, enclosing all knowledge within its walls.

Constance Putnam delivered a fascinating paper on the practice of rural medicine in the mid-twentieth century and the acquisition of medical knowledge by those not formally trained (“Knowledge-making in a rural general practice in mid twentieth-century America). Putnam’s research drew on the archive of thousands of her mothers’ letters. Her mother was not formally trained in medicine, but worked for decades as a laboratory technician and medical assistant with her husband in rural New England. Putnam’s archive demonstrates that the role of wives working in unofficial capacities was necessary for a rural medical practice to succeed.

PUBLIC EVENTS

iCHSTM also included a number of excursions to introduce attendees to Manchester and its involvement in the history of science, and public events to engage the wider population. These events included a tour of the Old Trafford, historical tours of Manchester, an Alan Turing opera, a Victorian séance event, a beer festival, and several musical performances.

Mr. Selwyn (Tim Cockerill) demonstrates some explosive properties on an audience member.
Some of the authentic 19th-century equipment used in the Victorian Science Spectacular.

One of the most…explosive was the Victorian Science Spectacular. This was presented as a demonstration of Victorian science in the 1890s. Four presenters: Aileen Fyfe as Miss Ann Veronica Stanley, a learned scientific gentlewoman; Katy Price as Mr. George Wells, inventor and brother of H.G.; Iwan Rhys Morus as Professor Marmaduke Salt of the Royal Panopticon of Popular Science; and Tim Cockerill as Mr Selwyn, chemical conjuror and assistant to Professor Salt took turns to present their apparatus to the audience. The demonstration consisted of experiments involving electricity, such as telegraphy and Jacob’s ladders, and demonstrations of the latest magic lanterns and cinematographs. With a few exceptions they used authentic period pieces. This was a fascinating look into the kinds of experiments that were used in the public scientific demonstrations of the nineteenth century, and how they blended entertainment with education. The question period following brought up a number of questions about the reaction of contemporary audiences, the practicalities of transporting the apparatus, and how this presentation has been used to engage the public with the history of science.

James Sumner subjects an innocent pint of beer to suspicious looking chemicals.

One of the highlights of the conference was James Sumner’s talk “Chemists, brewers and beer-doctors”, given in the local pub on Wednesday night. Sumner, co-organiser of the Congress, gave a demonstration of the chemical changes that unscrupulous “beer-doctors” performed on beer in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With the price of malt dependent on the harvest, it became difficult to make a profit during the years of bad harvests. Thus, brewers turned to chemicals and science to turn a watered down pint into something indistinguishable from its full-powered brethren. Sumner subjected a pint of beer to many of the same chemicals that were used by these brewers, including innocuous substances like caramel colouring and vinegar. However, he refrained from the more dangerous substances like the metals that were used to give the impression of drunkenness (and which could lead to death in the wrong amounts). If this topic interests you be sure to check out Sumner’s new book, Brewing Science, Technology and Print, 1700-1880, which has just come out from Pickering & Chatto.

iCHSTM held a Bright Club comedy night following Sumner’s beer presentation, with five brave academics performing sets. This was a fun evening with a lot of great humour. Who knew that asbestos could be funny? All of the routines from the evening are online at the iCHSTM’s Youtube page so you don’t have to take my word for the quality, you can see for yourself.

The next congress will be held in the summer of 2017 in Rio de Janeiro, so keep an eye out if you want to catch this great conference the next time around.

Medieval Fertility and Pregnancy Tests

By Catherine Rider

Tests are a familiar part of modern pregnancy.  There are tests to show if a woman is pregnant and track the progress of the pregnancy, often revealing in the process whether she is expecting a boy or a girl.  If a woman does not conceive after several months of unprotected sex, there are also tests which aim to find out if anything is wrong.  These tests are based on modern technological advances and medical understandings of how the body works, but the desire to understand, predict and test matters concerning pregnancy and fertility is not new and tests for many of the same purposes appear frequently in medieval and early modern recipe books.

Recipe books contain numerous tests to show whether a pregnant woman is expecting a boy or a girl – for example, place a drop of milk from her breasts in water, and if it sinks then the child is a boy, but if it floats, the child is a girl.[1]  However, the majority of tests were for when pregnancy did not happen.  They claimed to tell the reader whether a woman could conceive, or whether the ‘fault’ lay with the man or the woman.   The most popular was a test that had to be performed by both partners.  As one anonymous fifteenth-century English recipe collection explained:

Knowing the default of conception, whether it belong to the man or the woman. Take two new earthen pots, each by itself; and let the woman make water in the one, and the man in the other; and put in each of them a quantity of wheat-bran, and not too much, that it be not thick, but be liquid or running; and mark well the pots for identification, and let them stand ten days and ten nights, and thou shalt see in the water that is in default small live worms; and if there appear no worms in either water, then they be likely to have children in process of time when God will.[2]

M0007080 A monk-physician examining a flask of urine

Physician examining a flask of a woman’s urine, c. 1300, © Wellcome Library, London

This test had a long history.  It can be found as early as the twelfth century, in a southern Italian gynaecological treatise that was attributed to a female physician named Trota.[3]  Along with other fertility tests, it continued to appear in medical textbooks throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern period, and was often copied into recipe books.

I’m interested in what this and similar fertility tests can tell us about medieval understandings of infertility.  For example, the bran-and-urine test shows medieval and early modern medicine recognised that men as well as women could be infertile.  This was certainly true in longer, more academic medical texts which often contained numerous recipes for medicines to cure infertility in either sex. In the recipe books, remedies for male infertility are much rarer, but the fertility tests show that many recipe collectors acknowledged it as a possibility – in theory at least.

But how exactly were these tests intended to be used?  It is very difficult to know.  The recipe collections do not tell us who used these tests, or under what circumstances, or even if they were used at all.  So far I haven’t found any references to them in other sources that might shed light on these questions.  In theory it is possible that they were used to test the fertility of a prospective husband or wife before marriage.  This would be an attractive (and logical!) idea because in pre-modern society having children was important for both men and women, but infertility was not recognised as a ground for divorce.  Once you were married to an infertile partner, you were stuck with him or her.  However, if the tests were used in this way it has left no trace in the sources.

Another possibility is suggested by the last line of the recipe: ‘if there appear no worms in either water, then they be likely to have children in process of time when God will.’ An alternative version of the same recipe, copied in the fifteenth century by an educated layman named Robert Thornton, gave a different interpretation: if no worms appeared in the water, ‘then may men help them to have children with medicines.’[4]  It was possible that the test would show neither partner to be infertile. In these cases, the tests may have been designed not primarily to lay blame, but to offer reassurance that conception was possible and that the couple would conceive in time. It was worthwhile seeking medical treatment or praying in the hope of attracting God’s favour.

A final reason why pregnancy and fertility tests may have been so popular in medieval and early modern recipe books is perhaps the simplest of all.  They promised clear answers about the mysteries of conception and pregnancy for men and women going through a process which was – and still is – fraught with as much uncertainty and anxiety as excitement.

 


[1] The Liber de Diversis Medicinis in the Thornton Manuscript (MS Lincoln Cathedral A.5.2)¸ ed. Margaret Sinclair Ogden, Early English Texts Society original series. 207 (London: Oxford University Press, 1938), p. 56.

[2] Warren R. Dawson, ed., A Leechbook or Collection of Medical Recipes of the 15th Century (London: Macmillan, 1934), p. 171.

[3] The Trotula: a Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine, ed. and trans. Monica H. Green (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), pp. 76-7.

[4] Liber de diversis medicinis, ed. Ogden, p. 56.

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine