Catch the Hare: Remedies for the Stone

By Saskia Klerk, with Sietske Fransen

In our previous post we have seen that the writer of BPL3603 was especially interested in Van Helmont´s Dageraed because of its recipes to which he added notes about personal experiences to prove efficacy. There I wondered if we would find the same practice in his selections from some of Van Beverwijck´s writings.  

The parts taken from Van Beverwijck can be found near the very end of the manuscript. They are not placed on their own, like the citations from Van Helmont, however. Instead, they are interspersed with copies from another source, a master Wilm Reijmers. It is the latter’s remedy for breaking the stone that appears to have renewed the writer´s interest in the subject of stone breaking remedies in general and in some of Van Beverwijck´s writings more specifically. He had already included remedies for bladder stones within the alphabetical scheme of the manuscript.

Reijmers sent his remedy in a letter to the writer of BPL3603. Reijmers declared that the remedy pulvarised the stone in the bladder of his patient and the grit was driven out through the urine. Apart from a complicated dosage and a twelve-day long treatment, the recipe also required a living hare. After a short additional passage taken from Van Beverwijck, the manuscript writer says: “I cannot resist to tell something memorable about these matters.”

Goeree was a Northeasterly island of the Province of Zeeland, shown here on a cutout from a map of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands (1664-1665), from the 'Grooten Atlas; oft, Werelt-beschryving; in welke 't aertryck de zee en de hemel wordt vertoont en beschreven' by Joan Blaeu. Middelburg is shown in red in the bottom left corner, Rotterdam and Dordrecht in the upper right. Courtesy of the National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam.
Goeree was a southwestern island of the Province of Holland, shown here on a cutout from a map of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands (1664-1665), from the ‘Grooten Atlas; oft, Werelt-beschryving; in welke ‘t aertryck de zee en de hemel wordt vertoont en beschreven’ by Joan Blaeu. Middelburg is shown in red in the bottom left corner, Rotterdam and Dordrecht in the upper right. Courtesy of the National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam.

What follows is an account of events as told by master Reijmers, and confirmed by a burgomaster of Goeree, a Mr. Klimmert.

Two children were suffering greatly from the stone and the local stonecutter Sasbout had been called in.[1] After visiting the children he declared both had quite a large stone in the bladder and there was nothing else to do but to remove them by cutting. One of the children came from a rich farmer’s family. He was operated for the stone and died shortly afterwards. The parents of the other child were poor, and were therefore asking to gather the money for the treatment from church gifts. The church masters, however, didn´t think it advisable to hand over the money, fearing what had happened to the other child.

At this point Reijmers got involved. He said he could easily break the stone inside the body, that is, if a living hare could be provided. It wasn’t hare season though.

Copper engraving by Marcus Gerards (1521-1590) to the fable of the hare and frogs as told by Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695) and translated by poet and playwright Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679) in Vorstelijcke warande der dieren (Amsterdam 1617, 1730).
Copper engraving by Marcus Gerards (1521-1590) to the fable The Hares and the Frogs as told by Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695) and translated by poet and playwright Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679) in Vorstelijcke warande der dieren (Amsterdam 1617, 1730).

The next thing we are told is that the boy himself, still greatly pained by the stone, came across a hare caught up in the bushes behind his fathers´ house. In a great struggle, that attracted the attention of neighbours and injured the child himself, the child managed to get hold of it and bring it to his parents. They told master Reijmers what happened, and he cured the child as described above. Reijmers explained that when put together, the grit from the child´s urine (which was collected in a blue cloth) would have made a stone the size of a small chicken egg. 

The author of BPL3603 went on to add that Reijmers successfully treated several others in this way afterwards, to great wonder of the operator (this most likely referred to Sasbout). It is clear that the compiler of BPL3603 shared master Reijmers´ and Sasbout´s wonder at the incident on Goeree. While Reijmers wondered at how the hare was caught, and Sasbout wondered at how Reijmers remedy was successful, the compiler ended his account by praising God. “God alone is the glory, that has giving natural things such power and the people its use,” he wrote. 

I think we can learn several things from this anecdote.

Stone found in the bladder of Thomas Adams, late 17th century. Royal Society Classified Papers, vol. 14i, document 22. Reproduced by permission.
Stone found in the bladder of Thomas Adams, late 17th century. Royal Society Classified Papers, vol. 14i, document 22. Reproduced by permission.

Firstly, on a social-historical level, we saw how poor families could make an appeal to the church for financing medical care. As lay people in medical issues, the council weighted the costs and risks of the operation, both financial and social. Secondly, undergoing an operation for the stone was expensive and something more readily undertaken by the wealthy. However, it was not safer. In this story, the poor child was better off. Finally, the main function of the anecdote was to show that the remedy was effective, similarly to the way the author used Van Helmont to prove the efficacy of remedies for the plague.

Realising this, I began to notice that the pattern in how the writer of BPL3603 processed the medical knowledge he came into contact with, repeated itself in what he selected to copy from Van Beverwijck. My next post will be dedicated to these choices, while Sietske will first investigate more recipes by Van Helmont. Is that another case in which a recipe was personally passed on to the compiler of BPL3603?

 

[1] Two famous stonecutters by the name of Sasbout were active in the area around this time and are mentioned in contemporary sources. The Jakobus Sasbout who was operator in Middelburg and Jacobus Sasbout Souburg, operator in Dordrecht, might have been the same person, especially since Souburg is a village near Middelburg. A.J. van der Aa., Biographisch woordenboek der Nederlanden (Haarlem: J.J. van Brederode, 1852-1878) part 17-1, 133.

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.