The Early Modern Matter of Fecal Medicines

Whilst perusing some seventeenth century recipes for medicines I stumbled across a few curious ingredients. Granted, many of the ingredients found in Johanna St. John’s recipe book – aside from now common herbs and spices like cinnamon or saffron – might look odd to the modern eye. Some of the ingredients that struck me were spermaceti (sperm whale fat); the sole of an old but clean shoe, burnt to ashes; a crab’s eyes, and the black tips of its claws.

As I read I couldn’t help but assume that the addition of spices, or the use of wine, sugar, and brandy might have best served to make some of the recipes more palatable. But then something caught my eye that all the cinnamon, saffron, and distillation could not possibly conceal. To put it lightly, it was, well, poo. Precisely, for smallpox, “a sheep’s dung, cleane picked”. Clearly you would want to make sure you were getting pure, uncontaminated crap. The recipe goes on to instruct the user to mix a handful of the stuff into a pint of white wine, “mash it well” and after leaving it to stand a full night, to serve a spoonful or two at a time. But wait, there’s more! A note tucked into the margin recommends this smelly recipe for gout and jaundice. Fecal wine, if you will: good for what ails you.

Manure. Credit: Petr Kratochvil

In the mid-seventeenth century Nicholas Culpeper’s Pharmacopoeia Londinensis (1652) heavily criticized the Royal College of Physician’s required inventory for Culpeper and his fellow apothecaries. In his work, which translated the tome on medicine to English from Latin for the first time during the English Interregnum, Culpeper wrote this of a section featuring “living creatures” and “their excrements”: “alack! alack! the king is dead, and the College of Physicians want power to impose the turds upon men” (Culpeper, 52). Culpeper was right, it seemed many were holding onto ideas about fecal medicine. However, while most insisted that ordure altered by the art that was physick was medicinal, some practitioners had more radical ideas about the uses of feces and medicine.

Culpeper’s Pharmarcopoeia, Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Paracelsus was an enthusiastic alchemist, whose writings from the mid sixteenth century blasted Galenic based humoral models that were then commonly taught at European universities. Historian Philip Ball explains that Paracelsus’ particular alchemy “was concerned not with gold making, but with medicines” (Ball, 164). The Swiss magus claimed that regular doctors forced “worthless, bookish remedies” on the sick  “by following ancient methods” strictly for gain (Ball, 165). Paracelsus claimed to have found an alternative to the medicines of the ancients by experimentation, which left him with the conclusion that alchemical processes could render the virtues of nature by separation: “a parting of the detritus and waste of mundane reality from the vital healing forces of nature” (Ball, 165).

Line engraving of Paracelsus, Wellcome Library no.7594i. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

And he just loved manure, as you may have guessed by now. Paracelsus was convinced by his alchemical experimentation that “‘decay is the beginning of all birth’ – and of all health, for ‘that which prevents putrefaction also will prevent health'” (Ball, 205). This is how Sir Robert Boyle, eminent scientist of the Royal Society would come to recommend human excrement, dried into powder, and blown into the eyes as a treatment for cataracts (Sugg, 152).*

During the period of the English Civil War, the writings of Paracelsus polarized the medical community, and Ball argues that as civil war approached, Paracelsians formed line with Parliamentarians while Galenic minded scholars went with the Royals (Ball, 358). Historian Richard Sugg explains,  “Paracelsianism flourished during the Civil War and Interregnum, congenial to many of those who – like Culpeper – practised iconoclasm at various levels” (Sugg, 39). Despite congeniality in iconoclasm, Culpeper wasn’t having the dung. Unfortunately for him, however, the divergent views of medicine both found their respective reasons to prescribe crappy remedies, with Paracelsians and Galenics promoting poop for years to come (Sugg, 163-168).

*Boyle’s manuscript reads: “Take Paracelsus’s Zebethum Occidentale (viz. Human Dung)”. Boyle explains that his recipes are classed by letter: “whereof A, is the Mark of a Remedy of the highest classes of these”. The recipe for cataracts was marked with an ‘A’.

Works Cited:

Ball, Philip. The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

Boyle, Robert. Medicinal Experiments 5th edition. 1712. Gale DocNumber: CW10708275

Culpeper, Nicholas. Pharmarcopoeia Londinensis, or The London Dispensatory. 1652.

Sugg, Richard. Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians. London: Routledge, 2011.

The Wonders of Unicorn Horns: Preventions and Cures for Poisoning

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.

An Experiment in Teaching Recipe Transcription

This term, my third-year class on “Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe” was involved in my research: testing the Textual Communities crowd-sourcing transcription platform.*  The class has been busy collaboratively transcribing the seventeenth-century recipe book of Johanna St John and it’s been an adventure for us all.

Johanna St John’s Book, Wellcome Library, WMS 4338. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The students had little to no experience in digital creation or transcription at the start of term, but in the last three months, they have learned the logic of XML and gained an appreciation for the exactness required in transcription. These are habits of thought, as well as useful skills.

The Textual Communities site was by no means complete when we began our transcriptions. As we became familiar with Johanna St John’s book and worked on our transcriptions, it became easier for us to identify what we needed the system to do. Every week, we would discover at least one new problem with it. But Peter Robinson and Xiaohan Zhang have been constantly developing the platform in response to our needs, from figuring out how to implement semi-diplomatic conventions  in XML or to represent marginal notations to ensuring that the preview and submit buttons work. By witnessing this process of creation, the students have also learned much about the way in which digital resources are constructed and the choices that researchers make in both transcription and data design.

We have had to be flexible and patient: research is a messy business of failures and false starts. Advanced researchers are only too familiar with this, but it’s something that undergraduates often don’t see–or think about it only in terms of their own work. When teaching, we ordinarily (and for good reasons) present students with a set syllabus and assignment description, from which we don’t deviate. But this term, we have had to revise a number of deadlines and assignment guidelines as we encountered research problems along the way. Truly research-led teaching!

This is by way of an introduction for the next few posts, which will focus on Johanna St John’s book and have been written by some of the students.


* Two of my collaborative research groups, Recipes: Food, Magic, Science, and Medicine and Early Modern Recipes Online Collective, will be launching projects on this platform in 2013. Stay tuned!

Dr. Crawford Long’s Remedy for Insect Bites – Another Use for Ether

By: Michelle DiMeo

On May 20, 1847, Dr. Crawford W. Long was called to see a child residing 6 miles outside of Jefferson, Georgia, who had been bitten by an insect four hours earlier. He was at least 100 yards away when he “distinctly heard her screams”. The child was in extreme pain and suffering from various symptoms, including stomach cramps, difficulty breathing, chest pain, and muscle spasms in the abdomen. The family had given her “about half pint of brandy … two portions of sen[e]ka snake root boiled in ^sweet^ milk and … two teaspoons full of Aqua ammonia, but all without the least benefit”. Dr. Long administered “eighty drops Tinct Opii, a teaspoonful of Hoffmans Anodyne, and the application of the strong Aqua ammonia on a pledget of cloth to the bitten part and retaining it until vesication was produced”. After seeing some improvement, he continued with doses of Hoffman’s Anodyne and the Tincture of Opium in thirty minute intervals, noting the patient was “greatly relieved”.[1]

Hoffman's Anodyne
With Permission from

The preferred remedy, primarily a combination of Hoffman’s Anodyne and opium tincture, worked as an anti-spasmodic and a pain-killer. Hoffman’s Anondyne was a compound sometimes known as “Spirit of Ether”, produced through a process of distillation. Though originally named after the German physician Friedrich Hoffmann (1660- 1742), the recipe was still popular across Europe and the US during the mid-19th century. One 1850s pharmaceutical study of the remedy’s chemical properties found that versions of it varied greatly between commercial manufacturers, between international pharmacopoeia, and from Hoffman’s original recipe.[2]

Dr. Crawford Williamson Long (1815-78), an American surgeon and anesthetist, is one of the first physicians to have administered ether as an anesthesia for surgery. After receiving his M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1839, he practiced medicine in New York before returning to his home state, Georgia, in 1841. As early as 1842, Dr. Long used sulfuric ether during the surgical removal of a tumor. He continued to use ether in operations over the next few years, but he failed to publish his results until 1849, after anesthesia was already heralded as a major medical innovation.[3]

Dr. Long's Remedy for Insect Bites
The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, MSS 2/0093-01

While Dr. Long is celebrated today for his innovative use of ether in surgery, the double-sided single-page manuscript from which this story was taken shows that he was also using popular ether-based medical remedies to treat common household ailments, such as insect bites. After the turn of the nineteenth century, ether was drunk in medical remedies in the United States and Europe and became a popular recreational drug in many European countries.[4] In this manuscript, Dr. Long reports that he successfully administered this treatment a second time and he was writing this account specifically because “A great variety of Sovereign remedies have been recommendend [sic] ^as being usefullest^ for the treatment of bites of poisonous insects”, but there was “still great diversity of opinion among the Members of the Medical profession”.

Dr. Long’s narrative is also a good reminder to us that sub-divisions within the medical field were not as defined in the past as they are today: there was nothing wrong with a surgeon exploring pharmaceutical remedies. Further, the fact that he records in detail the household remedies his patient had already tried before he administered his own validates the possibility of their effectiveness, even if they were ineffective in this particular case, and it offers a good example of how diverse medical treatments were often intermingled.

[1] The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, MSS 2/0093-01, “Holograph remedy for poisonous insect bites, c. 1847”. This item also includes a typed donation letter from 1971 recording the provenance of the item.

[2] William Procter, Jr., “On Hoffman’s Anodyne Liquor”, American Journal of Pharmacy, 28, 1852, 213-18.

[3] W. M. Crawford, “An Account of the First Use of Sulphuric Ether by Inhalation as an Anaesthetic in Surgical Operations”, Southern Medical and Surgical Journal, 5, 1849, 705-713.

[4] Science Museum, “Ether”, Accessed 11/9/2012.

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine