Tales from the archives: Green sickness, red plants

In September, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 470 posts in our archives and over 117 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.)

But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month, I want to share a post by Helen King on the green sickness. In this post, Helen asks why red plants feature so prominently in treatments for the green sickness. She suggests that the redness of the plants was meant to restore a proper menstrual flow. I have chosen this post not only because of my interest in ancient gynaecology, but also because it features a photo of a copy of William Langham’s ‘Garden of Health’ (1597) held in my own institution, Cardiff University. Time for a little trip to  the Special Collections and Archives I should think.

I hope you enjoy it! And if you have any favourites you want us to revisit, please send in your nominations

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By Helen King

I’ve been interested for a long time in green sickness, a condition affecting girls at puberty that involved menstrual suppression, often along with some sort of dietary ‘blockage’. The remedies for it, over the 400 or so years that it was recognised as a disease, raise all sorts of problems. For example, in the 19th century it was seen as a form of anaemia, so iron was prescribed. In the 17th century, before that level of knowledge of blood existed, ‘steel filings’ were often part of the remedy, and iron is a constituent of steel. So, how did they know to use steel? Or was this nothing to do with the iron content, but instead about steel being imagined as ‘cutting through’ the blockages?

Langham’s text. From http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/insrv/libraries/scolar/digital/healthyreading.html . Copyright: Cardiff University, used with permission.

William Langham wrote ‘The Garden of Health’ in 1597. It was based on earlier recipe collections, and I came upon it when I was thinking about using recipes to tease out what exactly was supposed to be causing the symptoms – so, if the recipe involved plants that were clearly evacuative, then this could suggest that the cause of the disease was seen as a blockage. Langham arranged plants in simple alphabetical order, rather than arranging the material under the names of diseases; but, as part of his accessibility, he also gave a list of conditions with references to the different plant entries where the reader could find out more.

Langham gives a range of recipes for green sickness. One is packed full of ‘red’ plants –

‘seethe powder of the Keyes [i.e. the ash tree] with Betonie, red Sage, red Mynts, and Magerom [marjoram] in running water from a pottell [= 2 quarts] to a quart, and drink thereof a good draught with sugar warme morning and evening’

Elaine Hobby pointed out to me that this recipe also appears in 1677 in ‘The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight’ by ‘T.P.’ (possibly Hannah Woolley), but with ‘red Fennel’ instead of ‘red Mynts’. There was a second edition of Langham in 1633, and maybe the author used this.
So what’s all this red about? Betony, sage and marjoram often appear together in later collections as a gentle sternutatory. Red sage and betony are used against bilious attacks. Ash keys feature today on ‘wild food’ sites with the warning that they are very bitter and need to be boiled several times before eating, but what was used here was the ripe seed, dried and then reduced to powder. The ash-powder is used elsewhere for the stone (by provoking urination), jaundice and dropsy.

So maybe there’s something here about getting rid of obstructions. But to me, all this redness suggests the colour of blood, and the use of running water also makes me think that this is aimed at restoring or establishing a normal menstrual flow. How do we balance the known effects of the plants chosen, with the symbolic power of red? Comments please!

Helen King is Professor of Classical Studies at the Open University, UK. Her book on green sickness is  The Disease of Virgins.

You can find more of Helen’s thoughts on the green disease in this recent The Conversation article  also available in the Guardian

To break or not to break (Part 2): From Cairo to Dordrecht

By Saskia Klerk, with Sietske Fransen

In the eleventh chapter of his Steen-Stuck (Treatise on the Stone, 1637), Johan van Beverwijck related a story of an encounter in Dordrecht, the Dutch city where he was town physician. A man had shown him the pieces of stone that he said had been broken by the following recipe. Van Beverwijck tried it himself, but had not found the same results. Still, he noted, the pieces of stone that the “trustworthy man” showed him, would together make up a large stone.

Broken bladder stones from Des monstres et prodiges (1573) by Ambroise Paré (c. 1510– 1590). From the Lyon edition of 1664.
Broken bladder stones from Des monstres et prodiges (1573) by Ambroise Paré (c. 1510– 1590). From the Lyon edition of 1664.

Around 1677, the compiler of Ms BPL 3606 copied this passage, leaving out Van Bever-wijck´s skeptical remark. Apparently, he found the display of broken stones, a tactic we have encountered before, to be persuasive proof of the recipe´s effectiveness.

When Sietske and I started our blog series on this Dutch recipe collection, I did not expect most of my posts to be about “stone breaking” remedies such as this one. However, they turned out to have been of particular interest to its compiler. By pursuing this interest, Sietske and I have learned quite a bit about him and his world. For example, we now suspect that he lived in or near the province of Zeeland in the south-west of the Dutch Republic. We also confirmed Sietske´s earlier observation, that the compiler especially noted down remedies that where accompanied by favorable experiences. In my last post, I showed that the compiler of BPL 3606 used Steen-Stuck´s tables of contents to find the information he was looking for.

As I continued studying the manuscript, the question of why there are so many stone-breaking remedies in it became more pressing. In an earlier post, Seth LeJacq laid out the persuasive answer that patients’ fears of surgery led them to explore alternative therapies. Master Reijmers´ story has shown us that the compiler of BPL 3606 shared these fears and desires. Perhaps, this is also key to understanding why he included not only so many recipes for stone breaking remedies in his manuscript, but also three other sections from Steen-Stuck that are not recipes.

Before the recipe, as a “Nota”, the compiler copied a short section on how the stone should be returned to the bladder if it got stuck in the bladder´s neck. In his Treatise on the Stone, Van Beverwijck suggested surgical options to actually remove the stone from the body as well. The compiler copied the most curious of these, after the recipe, as another “Nota”.

Alpinus told of this procedure in Cap. XIV of the third book of De medicina Aegyptiorum (1591) under the title "To remove stones without an incision"
Alpinus described this procedure in Cap. XIV of the third book of De medicina Aegyptiorum (1591) under the title “To remove stones without an incision”

This particular option advised sufferers to blow into the   urethra with a little pipe. Thereby extending it far enough to be able to remove a stone no larger than an olive pit. Despite his interest in the cure, the compiler omits the original source of this procedure, Van Beverwijck´s teacher in Padua, Prosper Alpinus (1553-1617) and the Egyptians amongst whom Alpinus had resided.

The inclusion of treatments such as these  further confirms the compiler´s anxiety towards actually cutting the body. Moreover, I would argue this anxiety was a factor in the transmission of this custom from faraway Egypt to this Dutch recipe collection. Alpinus explicitly mentioned the non-cutting aspect of the procedure in the title of the chapter in which he described it. Van Beverwijck repeated this aspect in Steen-Stuck, before going on to describe cutting the body to remove the stone as a last resort.

Finally, in his exploration of alternative therapies the compiler also recorded knowledge that by 1677 was outmoded to many of his contemporaries.

Section from Van Beverwijck´s, Steen-Stuck (1649) Ch. 11, pt. 4
Section from Van Beverwijck´s, Steen-Stuck (1649) Ch. 11, pt. 4
The same section copied in BPL 3606
The same section copied in BPL 3606

Van Beverwijck named several materials that possessed a stone breaking power. Some of these (such as lime zest and laurel) worked by a manifest quality and others (such as ashes of scorpio and woodlice) by a hidden property. In his note-taking, the compiler was careful to separate these into two lists.

The distinction between manifest and hidden or occult qualities was characteristic of academic Galenic medicine familiar to Van Beverwijck. It was fundamental to explaining the properties of medical materials. Was the way a material worked in the body “manifest”, that is, was it caused by the primary qualities (hot, dry, cold and moist)? Or could this “operation” not be explained from these qualities and was it therefore “hidden”? While this important distinction had come to be questioned by the 1620s, as I described elsewhere[1], Van Beverwijck included it without comment. Accordingly, when the compiler copied out this section, all that mattered to him was that the physician asserted the healing properties of these materials.

Here, the compiler´s fear of cutting the body thus resulted in a quite eclectic collection of materials, surgical techniques and a stone-breaking recipe, originating from as diverse places as Egypt and Dordrecht. Investigating his interest in alternative cures for bladder stones further, has also indicated the practical reasons behind the staying power of (parts of) Galenic medicine, despite its philosophical problems.

[1] Saskia Klerk, “The Trouble with Opium. Taste, Reason and Experience in Late Galenic Pharmacology with Special Regard to the University of Leiden (1575–1625),” Early Science and Medicine, vol. 19, issue 4 (2014): 287-316.

Human Milk as Medicine in Imperial China: Practice or Fantasy?

By He Bian

What does milk have in common with blood? According to Kou Zongshi (fl. 1110-1117), author of Bencao yanyi (Extended Interpretations on Materia Medica), they are basically the same vital fluid produced by the female body at two critical moments in a woman’s life. While the first menstrual period signifies the maturation of reproductive power, motherhood is the consummation of that power–miraculously causing the vital fluid to flow upward as milk. After nursing ends, the flow of milk again reverses back to blood, as evident from the return of the menses.

“Human milk.” Anon. Buyi Leigong paozhi bianlan (n.p, 1591), Book 8.
“Human milk.” Anon. Buyi Leigong paozhi bianlan (n.p, 1591), Book 8.

For centuries, Kou’s comment was repeatedly quoted as the dominant theory over lactation in the realm of learned medicine. It also coincides with parallel attempts to speculate on the metaphysical foundation of sex differences in women, and the consolidation of women’s medicine (fuke) and pediatrics (erke) as medical specialties.[1]

However, Kou’s original aim was to make sense of medical recipes. In particular, he was trying to figure out why do so many recipes for eye medicine use human milk to mix up powdered mineral drugs: a practice that has parallels in different cultural contexts. Since blood is essential for the five senses to function and human milk is essentially blood, Kou reasoned, this makes it an excellent medicine for eye diseases. Another recipe that may have been on his mind is the recommendation to drink “three portions of human milk” to help with obstructed menses. It makes sense if they were considered of the same origin. Like cures like.

Let’s pause here to consider what this means. Working with Chinese materia medica texts often means untangling different strands of thought, modes of compilation and miscellaneous quotations. The entry on each substance (e.g. human milk, renru or ruzhi) often begins with a learned survey of previous literature, including passages from classical literature and histories, and ends with a large (and often unwieldy) body of recipes. The problem is that the prescribed uses of the substances in the first part do not always sit well with the recipes, which are messy, opaque, and often outright strange.

In fact, Kou Zongshi’s work could be understood as a scholar-physician’s attempt to impose order and coherence on the unruly recipes, which were becoming increasingly available in print. [2] The incongruities and tension between theory and recipes, however, allows us to follow the intricate dance between empiricism and rationalism in such texts: when did authors equate recipes with real-life experiences, and when did they treat them as exemplars of theory and formulaic principles? When did book culture begin to shape the ways in which medicines were prepared, consumed, and invented?

Back to Kou Zongshi’s ingenious, if somewhat contrived, speculation over the nature of lactation. It did not seem to have caught much attention immediately. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries witnessed a growing suspicion among medical experts to discipline and curb wet nurses’ sway over childcare, and pediatric treatises abound with warnings against drunken, naughty wet nurses whose milk turns unwholesome to the infant.[3] Again, the female body’s power to nourish but also intoxicate with her transformed milk resonates with similar discourses discussed elsewhere on this blog; notably, alcoholic drinks were seen to be a bad thing that excites her passions, in contrast to ancient Roman recommendations.

In addition, the conquest of Mongols brought about increased consumption of cow and goat’s milk.[4] A leading physician active in the fourteenth century advised consuming those over human milk, which is easily “tainted with poisonous passions.” It looks like the arrival of more abundant dairy products would transform the existing pharmacopeia once and for all.

But not so simple. By the sixteenth century in China, human milk had become a “super food” of sorts, especially among elite families. Kou Zongshi’s dusty theory became a dominant trope, fanning the imagination of the female body as a machine of alchemical wonders, and her milk a sort of elixir that revitalizes the frail and depleted bodies. In the sixteenth-century encyclopedia Systematic Materia Medica (Bencao gangmu), Li Shizhen, the erudite naturalist and capable physician, criticized the excessive fetishizing of human milk. The prudent Li nevertheless included twelve “new recipes” that involve human milk as medicine. Li’s encyclopedia was first printed in 1596; soon after the turn of the century, dietary manuals began to teach people how to prepare dried milk powder at home, after collecting fresh milk from “strong women who just gave birth to boys”. Presumably, women sold their milk not as wet nurses, but directly to pharmacists (as depicted in the picture above).

So did people in imperial China consume human milk as medicine? Quite likely. But was it ubiquitous? Probably not. Recipes can be practical and fantastic, and theorists can explain and inspire. What matters is that human milk as medicine gradually came to be taken out of the context of nursing and acquired a more abstract quality as commodity.

[1] Charlotte Furth, A Flourishing Yin: Gender in China’s Medical History: 960–1665 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999).

[2] Asaf Goldschmidt, The Evolution of Chinese Medicine: Song Dynasty, 960-1200 (London ; New York: Routledge, 2009).

[3] Ping-Chen Hsiung, “To Nurse the Young: Breastfeeding and Infant Feeding in Late Imperial China,” Journal of Family History, 20, 3 (1995), pp. 217-38.

[4] Paul D. Buell, E.N. Anderson, and Charles Perry, A Soup for the Qan : Chinese Dietary Medicine of the Mongol Era as Seen in Hu Sihui’s Yinshan Zhengyao, 2nd Rev. and Expanded ed. (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010).

Green sickness, red plants

By Helen King

I’ve been interested for a long time in green sickness, a condition affecting girls at puberty that involved menstrual suppression, often along with some sort of dietary ‘blockage’. The remedies for it, over the 400 or so years that it was recognised as a disease, raise all sorts of problems. For example, in the 19th century it was seen as a form of anaemia, so iron was prescribed. In the 17th century, before that level of knowledge of blood existed, ‘steel filings’ were often part of the remedy, and iron is a constituent of steel. So, how did they know to use steel? Or was this nothing to do with the iron content, but instead about steel being imagined as ‘cutting through’ the blockages?

Langham’s text. From http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/insrv/libraries/scolar/digital/healthyreading.html . Copyright: Cardiff University, used with permission.

William Langham wrote ‘The Garden of Health’ in 1597. It was based on earlier recipe collections, and I came upon it when I was thinking about using recipes to tease out what exactly was supposed to be causing the symptoms – so, if the recipe involved plants that were clearly evacuative, then this could suggest that the cause of the disease was seen as a blockage. Langham arranged plants in simple alphabetical order, rather than arranging the material under the names of diseases; but, as part of his accessibility, he also gave a list of conditions with references to the different plant entries where the reader could find out more.

Langham gives a range of recipes for green sickness. One is packed full of ‘red’ plants –

‘seethe powder of the Keyes [i.e. the ash tree] with Betonie, red Sage, red Mynts, and Magerom [marjoram] in running water from a pottell [= 2 quarts] to a quart, and drink thereof a good draught with sugar warme morning and evening’

Elaine Hobby pointed out to me that this recipe also appears in 1677 in ‘The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight’ by ‘T.P.’ (possibly Hannah Woolley), but with ‘red Fennel’ instead of ‘red Mynts’. There was a second edition of Langham in 1633, and maybe the author used this.
So what’s all this red about? Betony, sage and marjoram often appear together in later collections as a gentle sternutatory. Red sage and betony are used against bilious attacks. Ash keys feature today on ‘wild food’ sites with the warning that they are very bitter and need to be boiled several times before eating, but what was used here was the ripe seed, dried and then reduced to powder. The ash-powder is used elsewhere for the stone (by provoking urination), jaundice and dropsy.

So maybe there’s something here about getting rid of obstructions. But to me, all this redness suggests the colour of blood, and the use of running water also makes me think that this is aimed at restoring or establishing a normal menstrual flow. How do we balance the known effects of the plants chosen, with the symbolic power of red? Comments please!

Helen King is Professor of Classical Studies at the Open University, UK. Her book on green sickness is  The Disease of Virgins.