The Acceptance of Charms in the Fifteenth Century

By Laura Mitchell

L0060591 Recipe for staunching blood with cockerel in MS 5262
Wellcome Library, London. Recipe for staunching blood with cockerel in MS 5262, early fifteenth century. Includes the Longinus miles charm.

For a while now I’ve been very interested in medieval people’s relationships with magic texts. What drew them to copy down their particular texts? Did they delight in the absurdities of directions to become invisible or to remove women’s clothing or did they truly believe it would work? Was it something ordinary or something to be ashamed of and obscured (as in the fifteenth-century book I discussed previously)? For this post I want to consider one point that I have often wondered about; namely, when were charms used? Were they the first line of defense or a last resort or somewhere in between? Naturally, for the majority of people and cases we will never know. However, I have come across an interesting pair of recipes that shed some light on the place of charms within medical practice.

The recipes in question are a charm to staunch blood and a non-magical recipe to do the same that is to be used only if the charm has failed.

I first ran across this pair of recipes in HM 1336 (folio 30r), a fifteenth-century medical book at the Huntington Library. In this copy the charm is missing and all that has been copied is the non-magical recipe with its injunction to be used only if a charm has failed. I don’t believe this omission is due to a reluctance to include charms since there are charms and natural magic texts elsewhere in the manuscript. More likely there was a corruption in the line of transmission somewhere.

I have since found this charm-recipe combination in two other Huntington manuscripts, also from the fifteenth century: HM 58 (folios 75v-67r) and HM 64 (folio 23r). In these cases the charm and recipe have survived together:

Here is for staunching blood

The soldier Longinus pierced the side of our + Lord Jesus Christ + with a lance and the blood poured out continuously and by means of the water of our redemption I adjure you, blood, through Christ + through his side + through his blood + stay + stay + Christ + and John went into the river Jordan and he struck the water and it stopped. Thus make the blood of this body in the name of Christ + and Saint John the Baptist Amen. Our Father Ave Maria.

To staunch blood when the vein is cut and will not be readily staunched with the aforesaid words.

Take a piece of salt beef, lean and none of the fat, as it may stop the wound and lay it into the embers in the fire and let it roast until it be thoroughly hot and all hot put it onto the wound and bind it fast and it will staunch at once and never stream on [I] guarantee.1

This pairing of a charm and non-magical recipe highlights just how casually the categories of magic and medicine could overlap. For some people, anyway, charms were not only just as valid as non-magical recipes, but they could also be more potentially more effective than non-magical medical recipes.


1.Here is for to staunch blode
Longinus miles latus + dominum nostrum Jhesu christi + lancea perforauit et continuo exiuit sanguis et aqua in redempcionem nostram + Adiuro te sanguis per ipsum + christum per latus eius + per sanguines eius + Sta + sta + christus et Johannes astenderunt in flumen Jordanis, aqua obstiuit et steta Sic faciat sanguis istius corporis .N. In christi nomine et + Sancti Johannis baptiste + Amen pater noster Aue maria.
For to staunch blode when the veyne is corven and wille nott gladli be staunched with the wordis afore rehersed
Take a peice of salt Beff lene and none of the fatt as itt maie stapp the wond and leie itt ynto the emeres in the fyre and lete itt rosti till it be throgh hote and all hote putt it to the wonde and bynd itt fast and itt staunche anon and neuer streme on wrantize
Text is taken from HM 58. Transcription and translation are my own. The differences between the various texts are quite minor.

I smell a rat! Fumigation in Mesopotamian and Hippocratic recipes for women’s ailments – Part 1

By Ulrike Steinert

In my first post on the blog, I described some of the difficulties in studying Mesopotamian medical texts from 2nd and 1st millennium BCE Babylonia and Assyria. In the following two contributions, I would like to discuss similarities between Babylonian and Hippocratic recipes applying “fumigation from below” as a therapy for gynaecological disorders. In this part I will present the recipes themselves with some comments on fumigation in general. In the next post I will compare Mesopotamian and Hippocratic concepts of women’s ailments and their treatment gleaned from the fumigation recipes.

The specific treatment form of fumigation from below is so far attested only a few times within the Mesopotamian gynaecological corpus, but fumigation of the (whole body of the) patient or of specific body parts (e.g. the ears) is more commonly found as a treatment type in other areas of Mesopotamian therapy. Surprisingly, the situation is reversed in the Hippocratic texts: most attestations within the Hippocratic corpus are found in the gynaecological treatises, while fumigation is otherwise rare (Goltz 1974, 232). Here, I would like to point out some similarities and differences between the Babylonian and Hippocratic sources with regard to the therapeutic procedure itself, and with regard to the female ailments treated by fumigation from below in each tradition.

Before comparing the recipes, the term “fumigation” should be clarified. In fumigation, hot and dry vapours or smoke are led to a body part, while in the cognate procedure of “fomentation”, hot water vapours are used to lead medicinal substances to a body part (Totelin 2009, 52; Goltz 1974). The differentiation between both techniques was not very strict in Greek medicine, except in the gynaecological treatises (Goltz 1974, 235). The main difference between both procedures is the apparatus: in fomentation, a vessel containing the drugs and some water is heated over a fire and the vapours are led to a body opening through a reed, while in fumigation substances are directly thrown into the fire or onto glowing charcoals or ashes. In Mesopotamian medical texts, fumigation consists of burning aromatic substances on a fire or on charcoals (usually a brazier is used), exposing the patient (or specific body parts) to the fumes (Goltz 1974).

It may come as a surprise that in both Mesopotamian and Hippocratic gynaecology fumigation from below was applied for some identical purposes and ailments. In Hippocratic gynaecology, fumigation was used to treat infertility, with the incentive to open or soften the uterus for conception.[i] Interestingly, fumigation was regarded as a patent method both to stop fluxes and to expel retained fluids from the womb.[ii] More often however, fumigation was applied to return the womb to its correct position, if it had moved elsewhere in the body.[iii]

By contrast, the theory that the womb could move within the body and cause illness is unknown to Mesopotamian medicine. But one prescription applies fumigation from below to stop bleeding during pregnancy (naḫšātu), comparable to the Hippocratic use of fumigation for fluxes. Further, both in Hippocratic and Mesopotamian gynaecology fumigation from below was prescribed when fluids were retained or blocked in the womb. While the Hippocratic texts speak of blocked menstrual or postpartum blood (lochia), the Babylonian texts describe a similar condition called “(b)locked fluids” (lit. “water”). Because this condition is sometimes mentioned in the context of postpartum complications, it is possible that the word “fluids” here refers to the lochia, but this is far from certain, since the word “fluids” can stand for several things in different contexts, e.g. for the amniotic fluid or for vaginal discharge other than blood. Yet, Mesopotamian texts describe very similar symptoms in connection with the condition “(b)locked fluids” as the Hippocratic texts do in connection with disease conditions caused by retained menses (see Steinert 2013 for discussion). Should the Akkadian expression “(b)locked fluids” be a euphemistic term for the retained menses?

BAM 237 (VAT 8577+), a collection of gynaecological recipes from Assur. Source: Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (http://cdli.ucla.edu/dl/ photo/P285323.jpg)
BAM 237 (VAT 8577+), a collection of gynaecological recipes from Assur. Source: Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (http://cdli.ucla.edu/dl/photo/P285323.jpg)

One of the prescriptions for fumigation from below is contained in a Neo-Assyrian text from Assur (ca. 7th cent. BCE), devoted to treating bleeding during pregnancy:

BAM 237 i 26’-27’:
“You scatter “human bone” over charcoal, you let the woman sit down above it. If (the haemorrhage) does not stop, you repeat (it), and let her sit down (again), ditto (i.e. and it will stop).”

From a second, contemporary recipe on a Babylonian tablet found in the palace library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, we learn a few more details about the procedure:

K. 8678+ rev. 9’-12’:
“If ditto (i.e. a woman is (b)locked regarding the fluids): you dig a hole, you make it two fingers [deep], […],
[…] you cover (it). You throw flour? into it, one tenth of a litre of ka[mūnu-spice?],
[…] solid pieces? of resin, one thirtieth of a litre of ṭūru-aromatic […],
[…] you spread on coals; you make the woman sit down above it.”

Although the text is fragmentary and presents difficulties, the procedure is quite clear and bears similarities to a few Hippocratic recipes for fumigation of the womb (presented in Part 2 of this post). The apparatus is simply a hole in the ground, which functions as a receptacle for burning charcoal and the fumigants. The woman’s pubic region is exposed to the fumes.

 


[i] E.g. Diseases of Women 1.75, L 8.164; cf. Diseases of Women 2.154, L 8.330; Sterile Women 230, L 8.438ff. describes a fomentation with a gourd for the same purpose.

[ii]DW 2.114, L 8.246; DW 2.195, L 8.376; DW 1.78, L 8.186.

[iii] For discussion see King 1998; e.g. Diseases of Women 2.123, L 8.266 movement to the head; DW 2.126, L 8.272 womb attaches itself to the hypochondria; DW 2.127, L 8.272 movement to the liver; DW 2.133, L 8.284-6 fomentations when the womb moves to the hip joint; DW 2.203, L 8.390 womb fixes itself to the loins. Sometimes, the patient is described to suffer from more than one symptom at the same time, e.g. in Diseases of Women 2.154, L 8.330 the womb is “irritated”, the menses are blocked and the woman does not conceive.

References:

Goltz, Dietlinde (1974) Studien zur altorientalischen und griechischen Heilkunde. Therapie-Arzneibereitung-Rezeptstruktur, Wiesbaden.

King, Helen (1998) Hippocrates’ Woman. Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece, London/New York.

L = Littré, Émile (1962) Œuvres completes d’Hippocrate. Tome Huitième, Amsterdam.

Steinert, Ulrike (2013) “Fluids, rivers, and vessels: metaphors and body concepts in Mesopotamian gynaecological texts”, in: Journal des Médecines Cuneiformes 22, 1-23. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3791376/

Totelin, Laurence (2009) Hippocratic Recipes. Oral and Written Transmission of Pharmacological Knowledge in Fifth- and Fourth-Century Greece. Leiden, Boston.