For the last five years, the Recipes Project has been running an annual September Teaching series. That series has proven extremely successful, and the blog is now a mine of resources for any teacher in search of inspiration. Repeatedly, posts published as part of the series have demonstrated the extraordinary pedagogical power of historical recipes, as texts or as interface between the written and the material.
Parallel to this, fostering the career of younger scholars has always been part of the Recipes Project’s mission. It has published — and continues to publish — the work of MA and PhD students, some of whom have now settled into their careers, academic or otherwise.
Inspired by my own experience as a contributor and editor of the Recipes Project, in the academic year 2015/16, I decided to incorporate blogging into the assessment of my Cardiff University UG module on Greek and Roman Medicine. I was overwhelmed by the quality of the work of my students. Most of them had neither studied ancient medicine nor blogged before, but they took on both challenges! They inspired me to push myself further as a teacher.
They also sowed a seed in my mind: what about starting an undergraduate series for the Recipes Project? So, this month, for the first time, we are showcasing the fabulous work of four undergraduate students: Joanna Cunningham, Allison Shichen Du, Eboni John, and Hazel Lunn.
We hope that our readers will enjoy their work. We also hope that those readers with teaching responsibilities will consider encouraging their UG students to blog and share their fresh insights into historical recipes.
Recently, I have noticed fewer pigeons at Cardiff station. This probably mean that there has been a cull, which even though I’m no fan of pigeons, made me feel rather melancholy. So, in honour of the humble pigeon, here is, fresh from our archives, a fab post by Caroline Petit on pigeon excrement in Galen’s recipes.
Although Galen is more than reluctant to use disgusting ingredients and remedies wherever possible (De simpl. med. ac fac., X, 1), his catalogue of simple remedies, his recipes and case histories show that animal and even human dung and urine are not absent from his therapeutic arsenal. But this is not as contradictory as it sounds, because Galen uses careful qualifications in his approach to excrements. Why, did you think he was going to spread dog’s feces all over your face? Fear not, Galen uses only non-smelling dung.
Galen reports an interesting case. In the dead of night, Galen was once called to the bedside of a Roman lady (Meth. med. V, 13); she had begun spitting blood and became extremely concerned, as she had heard Galen warn people against this dangerous symptom (Rome was justifiably anxious about the Antonine plague). She believed only prompt treatment would get the better of it, and she called for him. When Galen arrived, she begged him to submit her to whatever treatment he would deem suitable to cure her; the treatment designed by Galen would make any modern patient shiver, as it sounds very drastic indeed:
“I ordered the use of a sharp clyster and rubbing, and binding around of the legs and arms as much as possible, along with a heating medication. Then, having shaved her head, I applied the medication made from the excrement of wild pigeons. After an interval of three hours, I led her to the bath and and washed her without touching her head with any oil. Then I covered her head with a well-fitting felt cloth and, according to the prevailing season, I nourished her with thick gruel alone, afterwards giving her bitter fruits. Then, when she was about to go to sleep, I gave her the medication made from vipers that had been prepared four months before, for such a medication still has the juice of the poppy in strong degree whereas, in medications that have been aged, the strength becomes less. (…) Then, at intervals I repeatedly used on her head the customary salve from thapsia. I provided total care and nourishment for the body with passive exercises, rubbings, perambulations, abstinence from baths and a moderate and succulent diet. This woman became well without the need for milk.”
The poor woman, who was certainly elegant, perhaps fashionable and accustomed to elaborate hair styles (at least this is how we usually picture Roman ladies – Galen doesn’t comment on his patient), had to endure the shaving of her head, then the prolonged application of a paste made with pigeon dung – a well-known ingredient, known for its heating and drying properties, at least since Dioscorides (Mat. med. II, 80). The rest of the treatment is strikingly strong, with several powerful heating remedies (for example thapsia, which could cause burns if used at a high dosage) and must have been difficult to endure, especially as it lasted for a number of days. But the excrement of wild pigeon catches the eye, because it belongs to the much-maligned category of ‘disgusting’ (bdelura) remedies: so why does Galen mention it so casually here, in the case of a woman who must have been more delicate than any other, and for a readership who may have been just as sensitive as this poor woman? Well, Galen explains elsewhere in book X of his treatise on simple drugs that the key thing is to have dung that doesn’t smell, in order to remove the nauseating factor. For dung does have remarkable properties. Thus some forms of dung, especially the one coming from wild pigeons, is absolutely devoid of bad smell and is a powerful, reliable remedy praised by all. For some smelly kinds of dung (as in dog’s dung), it is preferable to let it dry first, before grounding it and thus, again, removing the problem of smell. Dung is disgusting only as long as it smells of dung. But once it is transformed into a powder, a paste, or any other pharmaceutical form you can think of, it is perfectly acceptable and pretty useful, as it is easy to find and inexpensive. What’s not to like?
From Wednesday 19th to Saturday 22nd September the international Conference “The Words of Medicine: Technical Terminology in Material and Textual Evidence from the Graeco-Roman World” was held at the North-West University of Potchefstroom (South Africa). Sixteen scholars from around the world exchanged knowledge, research and experience, and worked together on the exciting field of ancient medicine and its technical vocabulary. Papers presented at the conference approached the topic from different perspectives and in different typologies of texts and sources – Greek medical authors, as well as non-medical texts, papyri of medical content, Latin prose and poems. While on this journey into the words of medicine, they have explored the degrees of technicality used to express medical concepts and issues, the socio-linguistic aspects of medical vocabulary, the (re)use of medical terms and images in Greek and Latin authors up to Late Antiquity, that is, the crossing of medical terminology into other literary genres, but they have also dealt with the material side of ancient medicine and its practice. The deep interdisciplinary approach which has inspired the conference has proved to be fruitful to enhance our knowledge of the Graeco-Roman medicine and its technical vocabulary through the analysis of its sources, both textual and material. One of the aims of such an approach was to promote connections between disciplines also in a modern institutional context, given the relevance of the reconstruction of medical profession and health care of the ancient world for the Medical Humanities and, in general, Health Sciences. The main aim was to contribute to “revitalise” the past and to make it more accessible by rediscovering the medical terminology in its real and concrete dimension and allowing its issues to come alive, in a way that can improve our understanding both of the past and the present.
On Wednesday evening, the Conference was opened by a cocktail reception and the Keynote address delivered by Stephen Harrison from the University of Oxford, who investigated the medical imagery in Horace’s poetry. The first panel, on Thursday 20th, was inaugurated by the Keynote address given by Alessia Guardasole from Paris-Sorbonne, who focused on a diachronic and contextual study of the technical vocabulary employed by Galen in his pharmacological treatises. As a second speaker of that session, Nathalie Rousseau from the same University scrutinised other remarkable aspects of the technical words of medicine according to Galen.
The second and the third panels provided an
opportunity to explore the medical terminology and the medical practice in the
Greek papyri from Egypt. Anna Monte from the Humboldt University of Berlin analysed
the terminology of private letters on papyrus dealing with medical topics.
Isabella Bonati from the North-West University of Potchefstroom, organizer of
the conference, surveyed the medical words and the context of medicine in the
ostraca from the Roman praesidium of
Mons Claudianus, in the Eastern desert of Egypt. Francesca Bertonazzi from the
University of Parma approached the technical vocabulary of surgery in the
papyri focusing on some terms for “threads”. Dimitris Roumpekas from the
University of Athens dealt with metaphors and medical terminology in the light
of the papyri of Graeco-Roman and Byzantine Egypt.
During the fourth panel, entitled ‘Illness and healing in Greek non-medical texts’, Caterina Manco from the University Paul-Valéry of Montpellier approached the medical terminology of Thucydides, and Maria Konstantinidou from the Democritus University of Thrace discussed the topic of disease and healing in early hagiographical texts. The day was concluded by a panel on ‘Technical terminology of specialized medical fields’. Jane Draycott from the University of Glasgow examined the vocabulary utilised in ancient Greece and Rome to refer to assistive technology, specifically mobility aids, in ancient textual evidence, and Tara Mulder from the Vassar College of New York approached the terms for uterus in ancient Greek medical and philosophical texts, early Christian writings, magical amulets, and Greek magical papyri.
The sixth panel on Friday 21st discussed the medical words and their technicality in Latin prose. Cristoph Weilbach from the University of Leipzig analysed the presence of medical themes and the manipulative command of medical language in the epistles of Seneca the Younger, and Michiel Meeusen from the King’s College of London explored Gellius’ acquaintance with technical scientific knowledge and his use of medical terminology in some passages of the Attic Nights.
The seventh session moved to the reuse of medical terms and images in Latin poems. Katharina Pohl from the University of Wuppertal dealt with Cassandra’s medicine-image in Dracontius’ De raptu Helenae, and Ezequiel Ferriol from the University of Buenos Aires with the trans-textual and trans-generic transformations in Quintus Serenus Sammonicus’ Liber medicinalis.
The following day, the conference was brought to a close with the last session concerning diseases and disorders between literature and medicine. Matthew Chaldekas from the University of California-Riverside focused on melancholy as a technical term and literary model in Sophocles’ Trachiniae. Finally, a rich and stimulating discussion concluded this journey into the words of medicine that will result in the publication of a peer-reviewed volume.
What makes a recipe alchemical? Its inclusion in an alchemical treatise, one might suggest. Indeed, naïve as it may sound, such a simple answer opens an interesting perspective from which to look at the ancient alchemical tradition.
The earliest alchemical writings produced in Graeco-Roman Egypt (1st-2nd c. AD) include recipes that describe a variety of techniques for dyeing and manipulating the natural world – a spectrum of practices that goes far beyond simple attempts to produce gold out of ‘vile’ metals. Some of these techniques, ancient authors claim, were inherited from the Egyptian or Babylonian tradition; others reached Byzantium or Baghdad, often through translations of Greek texts into Syriac and Arabic.
This long-lasting tradition is as fluid as the boundaries of ancient alchemy. By mapping the specific practices and recipes detailed in each alchemical work, it will be possible to investigate changing ideas of alchemy over time as well as how these ideas responded to specific technological settings. On top of that, it will also be possible to follow the trajectories of single recipes which moved across works written in different languages or pertaining to different disciplines, such as medicine or natural philosophy.
But let’s take an example from a set of texts that are being investigated in the framework of the ERC project AlchemEast, acronym for “Alchemy in the Making From ancient Babylonia via Graeco-Roman Egypt into the Byzantine, Syriac and Arabic traditions (1500 BCE – 1000 AD)”. Ancient natural philosophers and physicians recorded specific techniques for extracting mercury from cinnabar, its natural ore.
In his book On stones, Theophrastus, successor of Aristotle as head of the Lyceum, explained that it is possible to produce mercury by grinding cinnabar with vinegar in a copper mortar with a copper pestle. The same procedure is described by Pliny the Elder, in book 32 of his Natural History, where the medical uses of minerals – mercury included! – are illustrated (NH 32.123).
Modern chemists noticed that these accounts actually described a mechano-chemical reaction between copper and cinnabar, a mercury sulfide: copper would react with sulfur, thus liberating free metallic mercury (chemically speaking, a redox reaction). With the assistance of Lucia Maini and Massimo Gandolfi, two chemists of the AlchemEast team, we did replicate the technique with some adjustments. Rather than using a copper mortar – which proved to be very difficult to find in the shops that supply chemical labs today! – we decided to use a ceramic mortar where to grind pure cinnabar, acetic acid and copper powder.
After grinding the
mixture for a while, we were actually able to produce a layer of blackish
powder (a mixture of metacinnabar and copper sulfide) on which a few drops of ‘dirty’
mercury were moving.
The same procedure is described in ancient alchemical texts as well. The Graeco-Egyptian alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis (3rd-4th century AD) credits legendary figures, such as Maria the Jewess or Chymes, the eponymous hero of alchemy (called chymeia in Antiquity), with the use of similar technique for grinding cinnabar with vinegar in a lead or tin mortar. Different metals were therefore used. In the lab, we actually tried to use tin rather than copper powder, thus obtaining a shiny mercury-tin amalgam.
preliminarily observe how this extraction technique was a kind of transdisciplinary
know-how, shared by experts in different fields. A certain degree of variation
is detectable in alchemical texts, which mention various metals. Moreover, ancient
alchemists believed that mercury could be extracted from any metallic (or even
mineral) body: did this idea in some way
depend on the empirical evidence they tried to conceptualize when treating
cinnabar with a variety of metals?
This kind of questions are at the basis of the AlchemEast project, which explores ancient recipes from a double angle: as textual units that travelled over time and space; as invaluable windows on a wide spectrum of real practices and techniques. Textual criticism, replications, and historical investigations are critical keys to unlock ancient alchemical sources, from Babylonian tablets to Greek, Syriac and Arabic manuscripts. This post is only a first, tentative attempt to illustrate how we applied this method, a preliminary result of our investigation, which, needless to say, is still “in the making.” We plan to continue keeping you posted in the following months.
 David E. Eichholz, Theophrastus, De Lapidibus, edited with Introduction, Translation and Commentary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 81.  Lazlo Takacs, “Quicksilver from Cinnabar. The First Documented Mechanochemical Reaction?” JOM. Journal of the Minerals, Metals and Materials Society, 52 (2000): 12-13.  Marcelin Berthelot and Charles-Émile Ruelle, Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs (Paris: G. Steinheil, 1887-1888), vol. 2, 172. Part of Zosimus’ writings is only preserved in Syriac translation, where one finds further interesting details: cinnabar must be ground in the sun; copper filings are added to cinnabar and vinegar before grinding. The Syriac books of Zosimus will be published within the AlchemEast project.