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History Carnival 159: A Question of Scale

By Lisa Smith

Image credit: Wikipedia, Pratheep P S, www.pratheep.com.
Image credit: Wikipedia, Pratheep P S, www.pratheep.com.

Welcome to History Carnival 159! We’re delighted here at The Recipes Project to be hosting the September edition. It’s been a great month for history blogging and I was spoiled for choice. Some months, themes just seem to suggest themselves. What jumped out at me was ‘big’: discoveries, personalities, thinking and questions…

First up, September 2016 was notable for an exciting  discovery in Canada’s north: the HMS Terror. The HMS Terror was one of the lost ships of the Franklin expedition, which had set out in 1845 to explore the Northwest Passage. Out of the ones written this month, my two favourites were by Tina Adcock and Shane McCorristine. The first I like as much for its presentation (a Twitter essay) as for its powerful story in which Adcock looks at the forgetting of indigenous knowledge and the legacies of colonialism. The second is an article by Shane McCorristine rather than a blog post, but I’ve included it for its supernatural twist to the history of the expedition. (And we are heading into the spooky month of October, after all.)

HMS Terror. Image credit: After George Back - National Archives of Canada / C-029929.
Image credit: HMS Terror, After George Back – National Archives of Canada / C-029929.

There were also a lot of big personalities who arrived in my submission pile. Yvonne Seale provides a beginner’s reading list for medieval nuns, which includes some fantastic biographies of interesting women and will appeal to academics and non-academics alike. James Keating introduces us to the iconic Australian feminist, Vida Goldstein, and her contributions to the international suffrage movement. He considers why Australian women like Goldstein remained marginal figures in the transnational campaign, despite their early success back home. (Answer: local context is everything.)

The one woman I really wanted to meet, though, was Mary Scales*, an Australian psychic and ancestor of Samadhi Driscoll. In Driscoll’s words:

A famous clairvoyant, Mary would fall into dramatic psychic trances in which she would foretell the future. She apparently foretold everything from the Boer war to the winners of the Melbourne Cup. Then there were her highly-publicised and victorious court appearances in both criminal and civil trials – one of them at the High Court of England, where Mary’s eccentric antics captured the imaginations of the media worldwide.

Need I say more?

In September, thoughts of historians lightly turn to thoughts of… methodology. There was a lot of big thinking going on this month. As part of a roundtable on LaShawn Harris’ book, Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City’s Underground Economy, Brian Purnell reflects on ‘The Difficulty of Uncovering Obscure Lives and Hidden Histories’. He wonders: ‘How can a researcher and writer find information and recreate a story about people and practices that, by their very nature, did not want to be found or known?’ The result, he notes, is a complicated methodology and messy categories. Categories were also Brodie Waddell’s inspiration for thinking about early modern society, more specifically terms used to describe people’s social status.   As Waddell puts it, “if we hope to understand past societies, we need to know much more about how people labelled themselves and their neighbours, and how these labels related to the concrete realities of daily life.”

Clara Peeters, Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels, 1615. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Clara Peeters, Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels, 1615. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

For Nadine Weidman and Will Pooley, historical imagination and narrative were at the heart of their musings. Weidman revisits Laurel Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale to think about how ‘Ulrich faces, as all historians must, the fundamental unknowability of the past’—in her case through imagination, close-reading and contextualisation. Pooley wonders how we can find causes for behaviour in the past and the importance of big (issues) and small (individual behaviour) scale in the narratives we find. I also include his post for its reference to cheese and magic and one of the post’s comments, which is a cracking example of cheese-related history.

Historians were also asking some big questions. Some questions were with the intent to explain. Andrea Eidinger attempted to answer her students’ question: how can they identify peer-reviewed articles? Her focus is on Canadian History journals, but she gives useful advice for students more generally! If you’ve ever wondered how Spanish got its ‘n’ with a tilde, there’s a helpful v-log for you. Other questions were broader. David Brydan looks at Franco’s Spain to identify how the Francoists found their way around a tricky situation: “how to talk about international cooperation without adopting the language of liberal or socialist internationalism, particularly without recourse to the familiar internationalist language of peace, freedom, tolerance and equality?” For Migraine Awareness Month, Katherine Foxhall has a thought-provoking post entitled ‘’Migraines were taken more seriously in the past – where did we go wrong?’

But historical recipes, in particular, highlighted the way in which fragments of information can be used to answer big questions.  RP editor, Amanda Herbert, has the chance to use a test kitchen to try out old recipes. She concludes that ‘through careful study and experimentation, our community of scholars uncovered important, large-scale concepts: questions of authorship and identity, experiences of material culture, evidence of labor patterns, constructions of gender and social status, and examples of the cultivation, dissemination, and sharing of early modern knowledge.’

An episode in Tristram Shandy: Doctor Slop, having fallen off his horse, is greeted by Obadiah. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.
An episode in Tristram Shandy: Doctor Slop, having fallen off his horse, is greeted by Obadiah. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

With all of the ‘big’ themes going on this month, it is important not to forget the opposite—those small stories, those fragments. September certainly offered up some tasty crumbs of history. Hels offered a few thoughts on Shakespeare’s schooling. Rebecca Johnston looked at one fascinating letter, which was written to the Cheka in 1921 to request the release of an art historian and critic, Nikolai Punin. And last, but certainly not least, Sharon Howard offers a tale of a strange horse-related accident in eighteenth-century Denbigh.

Take care and travel safe, everyone. See you at History Carnival 160, which will be hosted by Frog in a Well on 1 November!

*Could Mary Scales’ name be any more appropriate for this month?

Say – horse – cheese

By Laurence Totelin

Last time I blogged for the Recipes Project, I talked about mares. I’d like today to return to mares, their milk and the cheese made with it.

Gold Scythian belt buckle with horse. Seventh century BCE. Source: Wikipedia
Gold Scythian belt buckle. Seventh century BCE. Source: Wikipedia.

These were not delicacies that the Greeks and Romans themselves enjoyed. Instead, they had observed their consumption among the Scythians, a series of tribes, often nomadic, inhabiting large expanses of Eurasian steppes in antiquity. The Scythians, and their taste for mare’s milk and cheese, were a topic of fascination among the classical Greek authors. The historian Herodotus devotes a long passage to the way in which the Scythians milked their mares: they used slaves they had blinded for that purpose. One slave blew into the mare’s vulva with a bone tube, while another milked the mare (Histories 4.2). This is a well-known and much discussed passage among ancient historians. Enough to state here that much appears to have been lost in translation between the Scythians and Herodotus’ source! The Greeks did not drink milk themselves on a regular basis (although they used it in medical context), and established a linked between ‘otherness’ or ‘barbarism’ and milk drinking.

What will retain me today is the use of the mare’s cheese recipe in a physiological analogy. The author of the Hippocratic treatise On Generation, On the Nature of the Child and Diseases IV (which dates to the end of the fifth century BCE or the beginning of the fourth) was very fond of analogies, some of which are rather wacky. In the passage that concerns me, he compares the physiological process whereby a bad humour is heated and agitated in the human body to the making of mare’s cheese:

If the man is not purged, as the humour is stirred, there is produced an amount that is excessive. This is similar to what the Scythians make with mare’s milk. For they pour the milk into wooden bowls and shake it. As it is stirred, it foams up and separates. The fatty part, which they call butter, as it is light rises to the surface; the heavy and thick portion sinks to the bottom; they separate it and dry it. When it has become firm and dry, they call it ‘hippakē’. The whey of the milk is in the middle. Similarly in the case of man: when all the humour in his body is stirred, all the humours are separated by the principles I have mentioned: the bile rises to the top, as it is lightest; then comes the blood; third the phlegm; and the water, as it is the heaviest of the humours. (Diseases 4.51, 7.584 Littré)

Milk curdling: butter at the top, whey, solids at the bottom. Source: MARTYN F. CHILLMAID/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Milk curdling: butter at the top, whey, solids at the bottom. Image Credit: MARTYN F. CHILLMAID/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

This is a rich and surprising passage. It mentions four humours, but those are not the four humours we all know (bile, phlegm, blood and black bile). Instead, we find bile, blood, phlegm and water. It is relatively little known that there is only one text in the Hippocratic Corpus that mentions the four humours that would become, under the influence of Galen, canonical: Nature of Man. The number and name of humours varies from one Hippocratic treatise to the next. Our author has a predilection for his ‘water’, the heaviest of all his humours, which he compares to the heavy portion to the Scythian milk. One wonders why this Greek author has chosen a Scythian process as a comparing point. The Greeks did make cheese, but their cheese was of the soft type, kept in brine. They did not make butter and hard cheeses. They did not churn (shake) their milk. The recipe the author provide is reasonably clear, although I would personally find it difficult to make cheese by following it. Looking forward to my feta-based dinner now!

Eating of curds and whey: rennet in ancient medicine

Last month, I examined the issue of ‘curdled milk in the breast’ in Greek and Roman medicine. The texts I quoted all used the words ‘cheesy’ (turōdēs) or ‘to make cheesy’ (turoō) – they did not refer to rennet (putia), the curdling agent in cheese making. This month, I look into the role of rennet in ancient medicine, and particularly in ancient embryology and gynaecology. Rennet is a liquid found in the stomach of young mammals; it helps sucklings digest their mother’s milk. Used in cheese making, it causes milk to separate into curds (solid element) and whey (liquid element). In a well-known passage, Aristotle (fourth century BCE) compared the action of semen in generation to that of rennet in cheese making:

The action of the semen of the male in ‘setting’ the female’s secretion in the uterus is similar to that of rennet upon milk. Rennet is milk which contains vital heat, as semen does, and this integrates the homogeneous substance and makes it ‘set’. As the nature of milk and the menstrual fluid is one and the same, the action of the semen upon the substance of the menstrual fluid is the same as that of rennet upon milk (Generation of Animals 739b21-27. Translation: A.L. Peck).

Scholars have found similar analogies between generation and cheese-making in various cultures: semen is like rennet; women’s blood is like milk; children are like cheese.[1] In this context, it is interesting to note that actual rennet was used in ancient medicine either to help or to hinder conception, as well as for various other purposes. The pharmacological writer Dioscorides (first century CE) writes:

A weight of three oboloi of hare’s rennet taken with wine is suitable for those bitten by wild animals, for dysenterics, for women who suffer from discharges, for blood clots, and for coughing up blood from the chest; applied to the cervix with butter after menstruation, it aids conception, but if drunk after menstruation, it causes barrenees… (Dioscorides, De materia medica 2.75. Translation: L. Beck)

The reader can be forgiven for not immediately seeing the linking factor between these conditions. After several paragraphs, Dioscorides provides the key: rennet, he says ‘congeals substances that have been dissolved and dissolves substances that have been congealed’. Rennet dissolved clots of blood; in the case of bloody sputa and female discharge, it must have either liquefied that blood, enabling its elimination, or ‘curdled’ it; applied in a pessary, it facilitated the role of semen in ‘curdling’ the menstrual blood; but drunk after menstruation, it probably ‘dissolved’ any ‘curdled’ blood in the womb, that is, it caused what we would an early abortion; in dysentery it may have ‘curdled’ faeces in the intestine. What about the role of rennet in the treatment of bites? Bites were thought to cause blood clotting, hence the recommendation to use rennet.

After discussing hare’s rennet, Dioscorides turns to seal’s rennet, explaining that it is particularly good in cases of epilepsy and uterine suffocation, that is, the feeling of suffocation that accompanies movements of the womb. Both ailments were conceived as forms of ‘suffocation’ (pigmos). The rationale for the use of rennet might have gone something like this: suffocation is caused by a ‘choking’ agent; rennet can dissolve what is congealed; rennet will dissolve the choking agent in uterine and epileptic suffocation. Interestingly, seal’s rennet is the only rennet mentioned in the Hippocratic Corpus (a series of texts written in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE), where the following recipe is recommended for the treatment of uterine suffocation:

If the womb leans and lies against the groin: the skin of seal’s rennet, sponge and bryon (possibly a sea-weed); chope them fine; mix together with seal oil; and fumigate. (Hippocratic Corpus, Diseases of Women 2.203).

Theophrastus, in his Enquiry into Plants (late fourth century BCE), informs us that the all-heal of Heracles, mixed with seal rennet, helps in epilepsy (9.11.3).

Why seal’s rennet? Surely it would have been simpler to get the rennet from a hare or a calf? Well, seals were seen as liminal animals in the ancient world: they breast-fed their cubs, yet looked like fish; they lived both on land and in water. Their rennet – and Dioscorides says that one must use the rennet of a cub who cannot yet swim – must therefore have been thought valuable in the treatment of diseases that themselves involved ‘liminal’ states: the ‘near-death’ condition that characterizes epileptic seizures and other forms of suffocation.

 


[1] See in particular Ott, Sandra. “Aristotle among the Basques: the’cheese analogy’of conception.” Man (1979): 699-711.