Tag Archives: humours

Pigeon Blood Visine?: An Early Modern Eye Wash

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

Close your eyes and imagine a chicken. Now a duck. Now a turkey.

Now a pigeon.

If this little experiment has worked the way I envisioned, when you thought of a pigeon you didn’t just think of a different bird but of a different environment. You likely pictured chickens and ducks and turkeys on a farm or in a natural setting (if not on your table).

We think of pigeons, however, as urban birds, mobbing together wherever large numbers of people congregate. Some even see them as “flying rats,” nuisances that spread pestilence wherever they go (see this article for an example of the lengths cities will go to in order to control pigeon populations).

It was not always thus, however. In the early modern period and before, pigeons were highly valued birds. They were good for carrying messages and for eating, but the pigeon was also highly symbolic, representing grace, lightness, and spiritual flight. The pigeon does, after all, belong to the same family (Columbidae) as the dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, pigeons were so prized that the right to keep them was reserved for monasteries and estates .

Pigeons were also often used in medieval and early modern medical recipes. The recipes usually involved pigeon dung, but I have also found a sub-strata of recipes utilizing pigeon blood to treat something called the “stroke of the eye.” Given the description in these recipes, I conjecture that the “stroke” referenced is subconjuctival hemorrhage or, put simply, a broken blood vessel in the eye.

This sort of ocular bleeding can occur from trauma or just simply from sneezing or coughing too hard. It is seldom painful.

While a broken blood vessel may sound like a relatively simple problem, the physical presentation of the condition is startling. (In fact, I would recommend NOT doing a Google Image search of this condition before going to bed. Yes, that’s from personal experience.)

James Heilman, MD. Wikimedia Commons
James Heilman, MD. Wikimedia Commons

However disturbing the sight of this condition, however, the remedy was sure to be worse.

In this anonymous medical manuscript of 1663 (Wellcome Collection MS.6812/26), for example, we are instructed to slit the vein on the wing of a pigeon and allow the blood to spurt into the patient’s eye.

For a stroke or pricke if it causeth payne:

Take a pidgeon and let hi[m] blood in one of the winges in the vein & let the blood spinne out of the veine into the eye & it will helpe you yf you use it 5 or 6 tymes.

A recipe for the same affliction from the recipe book of Lady Anne Fanshawe (Wellcome MS7113/25) is almost identical:

For a stroke or Bruise in the Eye:

Take a Pigeon, & let her blood in the great Veine of the Wing, & let the Blood Springe out of the Veine into the Patients Eye. You must dresse it 6 or 7 times.

And again, from Lady Ayscough’s recipe book of 1692 (MS.1026/30):

For A stroke in the Eyes if there Grow pain thereby or if you be pricked in ye Eyes by any thing.
Take of pigion & let her blood in one of the veins of ye wing and let ye blood spin out of ye vein into ye eyes and it will by gods grace cure it this must be done 5 or 6 nights, at gooing to bed.

In humoral medicine, birds were associated with blood, a sanguine temperament (hot, wet) and the element of air. Because of this, we might surmise that a broken blood vessel—and the ensuing red eye—would signal an excess of blood to an early modern physician. The treatment, then, would be oppositional: the patient would need something cold, dry and earthy… like tree roots, leaves, or plants.

Since the eye itself was considered to be a phlegmatic organ (cold and wet), the blood of the pigeon would balance the humors. Buttressing this idea is the recipes’ insistence that the blood be let from the wing of the bird: the seat of airy flight would be the perfect counterbalance to the watery mucus of the eye.

The idea that a pigeon would be salutary to somebody suffering an excess of phlegm or black bile, because of its choleric and sanguine properties, is reinforced in this direction from Sir Thomas Elyot’s Castel of Helth (1541):


Be easily digested, and ar very holsom to them, which are fleumatike, or pure melancoly.*

But whatever the theoretical underpinnings of the use of pigeon’s blood to treat subconjunctival hemorrhage, the lived experience of having bird blood spurting into your eye must have been horrible. And, according to the recipes, it also would have been frequent: the directions, though short, are consistent in directing the patient to undergo the treatment between 5-7 times. By that time, the white of the eye would have returned to its healthy appearance.

Of course, the eye would have returned to normal in about that time without the treatment, too.

Which leads me to the conclusion that (c’mon, you know you were expecting this) . . . this treatment is for the birds.



*I was pointed to this reference by a note by Michael Robinson in the online version of The Diary of Samuel Pepys.

Like an alien in a strange old world – Reading Mesopotamian medical texts on women’s healthcare

By Ulrike Steinert

Decoding medical cuneiform texts often makes you feel a bit like a detective who has entered a mysterious, foreign world of words and ideas. Not few of my Assyriologist colleagues would probably favour other topics, rather than studying Mesopotamian medical texts, because they are hard to understand, full of strange disease names and unknown drugs, and because these texts have a reputation of being technical, monotonous and boring.

Not surprisingly then, Mesopotamian medical texts remain a poorly known corpus, and few scholars have worked on the subject or published books for a general audience.[i] Although the majority of the texts are still unavailable in proper editions and translations, the situation is steadily improving. Beside a growing number of publications every year, cuneiform medicine is becoming an increasingly recognised topic, and a few research projects are currently investigating these texts, preserved on thousands of fragments of clay tablets and scattered in various museums.[ii] The fragmentary nature of the corpus, consisting of diagnostic and therapeutic texts as well as handbooks on materia medica, written during the 2nd and 1st millennium BCE, and the difficulty of decoding them connected with the cuneiform writing system and the genre (especially the use of many multivalent logograms) have contributed to the lagging behind of research in this field, compared e.g. to Egyptological research on medical papyri.

Let me describe some of the difficulties posed by the Mesopotamian medical texts, specifically those concerned with treating women, to a modern reader. These difficulties result to a considerable degree from cultural differences e.g. between ancient and modern concepts of physiology, disease and therapy.

One problem for the modern scholar is to grasp ancient disease concepts and ideas of physiology from symptom descriptions. The gynaecological texts form a small sub-corpus among the majority of medical tablets devoted to diseases which are normally not gender-specific and which use the male body as a general model. Thus, while the latter diagnostic and therapeutic texts begin with the formula “If a man (suffers from ailment X/symptoms X, Y, Z)”, the gynaecological texts begin with “If a woman …”. The gynaecological corpus, not unlike the modern medical discipline, focuses on female reproduction: (in)fertility, complications occurring during pregnancy, birth, and in childbed, but also includes treatments for abnormal vaginal bleeding and other fluxes, as well as renal, rectal and gastro-intestinal ailments in women. Yet, because the perspective of gynaecological texts was restricted to the diagnosis and treatment of abnormal phenomena, they do not contain descriptions and explanations of normal physiological functions, such as menstruation, which have to be inferred from the sparse information gleaned from the medical texts or other text genres.

A Babylonian tablet with medical prescriptions for women, ca. 7th cent. BCE. Source: Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (http://cdli.ucla.edu/dl/ photo/P238756.jpg)
A Babylonian tablet with medical prescriptions for women, ca. 7th cent. BCE. Source: Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (http://cdli.ucla.edu/dl/photo/P238756.jpg)

For instance, Babylonian healers collected treatments “to stop a woman’s blood” in case “a woman’s blood flows and does not stop”, leaving us at loss to decide whether this refers to unusually heavy menstrual bleeding or to abnormal haemorrhage due to other causes. Beside blood, the texts also treat discharge of “fluids” (literally “water”) from the vagina, which depending on the context, refers to phenomena which modern medicine has come to differentiate, like amniotic fluid (premature rupture of the membranes) and vaginal discharge due for instance to leucorrhea. It becomes clear that the Babylonian healers do not share our differentiations of symptoms and diseases, and that progress with the texts will only be made by investigating their system of ideas about what goes wrong in the body when disease occurs.

This undertaking is somewhat hampered by another characteristic of Mesopotamian medical texts, namely that the writers (Babylonian and Assyrian healers and scholars) rarely recorded their theories (e.g. discussions which took place in the classroom and in scholarly discourse). Yet, some of their concepts of the body, health and disease emerge, often implicitly, from disease aetiologies, names, and from metaphors found especially in the incantations that accompanied medical treatments. These characteristic traits of Mesopotamian medical texts form a contrast to Greek and Roman medical writers who often speculated in writing about physiological processes such as menstruation, conception and the nature of female illnesses based on humoral theory.

Another challenge arising from Babylonian medical texts is to understand the “logic” of ancient medical treatments and recipes even though the majority of the drugs are unidentified, and to reconstruct the cultural context in which the texts were used, e.g. how medical consultation and application of treatments actually took place. Thus, it is still debated whether Babylonian (male) healers actually examined women (and applied the prescribed remedies like tampons), or whether the symptom descriptions in the texts stem from what the patients observed themselves and told the doctor. In upcoming posts on fumigation in Mesopotamian and Hippocratic gynaecology, I will illustrate an approach to discover principles of coherence between the use of particular materia medica and specific complaints.

[i] A real primer presenting a comprehensive overview of Mesopotamian medicine is Markham J. Geller’s Ancient Babylonian Medicine. Theory and Practice. Malden / Oxford, 2010.

[ii] The most ambitious of these projects in terms of scope is “BabMed”, a project at Freie Universität Berlin, consisting of a small research team led by Markham Geller. An overview of publications about Mesopotamian medicine can be found in the regularly updated bibliographies in Le Journal des Médecines Cunéiformes (http://www.ames.cam.ac.uk/jmc/de.html).

Cold, dry and bald

By Laurence Totelin

A few months ago, I read with fascination – and surprise – a post by Jennifer Evans on the treatment of baldness in the early modern period. According to one of her sources (William Drage, a physician and apothecary from Hitchin) anything drying, and in particular sexual intercourse, would be detrimental to he who is thinning on top; women and eunuchs, for their part, rarely went bald because of their moist nature.

I was fascinated to find that the early-modern recipes and remedies listed by Jennifer were very similar to those preserved in texts from Graeco-Roman antiquity. Thus recommendations to cut the hair short; to use a laudanum unguent; to anoint the head with juice of onions/leeks, or with radish oil are all to be found in one of the earliest medical treatises preserved in Greek: the Hippocratic Diseases of Women 2 (chapter 189, 8.370 Littré). Some early modern treatments of baldness that presented, such as Mary Glover’s recipe involving cow’s piss and stinking old shoes, were rather unsavoury, but they pale in comparison with pigeon dung (also listed in Diseases of Women 2.189) or the following recipe, excerpted from Cleopatra’s Cosmetics by Galen:

Deer hunt on a fourth-century BCE mosaic from Pella. Source: Wikipedia
Deer hunt on a fourth-century BCE mosaic from Pella. Source: Wikipedia

Another [remedy against alopecia]. The power of this [remedy] is better than that of all the others, as it works also against falling hair and, mixed with oil or perfume, against incipient baldness and baldness of the crown; and it works wonders. One part of burnt domestic mice, one part of burnt remnants of vine, one part of burnt horse teeth, one part of bear fat, one part of deer marrow, one part of reed bark. Pound them dry, then add a sufficient amount of honey until the thickness of the honey is convenient, and then dissolve the fat and the marrow, knead and mix them. Place the remedy in a copper box. Rub the alopecia until new hair grows back. Similarly, falling hair should be anointed everyday. [Galen, Composition of Medicines according to Places 1.2, 12.404 Kühn]

So how is this supposed to work? Ancient recipes do not come with explanation as to their functioning. One must turn to more theoretical texts to find out more. The philosopher Aristotle devoted a long passage of his treatise Generation of Animals to baldness, stating that this affliction is linked to sexual intercourse:

The reason is that the effect of sexual intercourse is to cool, as it is the excretion of some of the pure, natural heat, and the brain is by its nature the coldest part of the body; thus, as we should expect, it is the first part to feel the effect. [Aristotle, Generation of Animals 5.3, 734b. Translation: A.L. Peck]

He went on to explain that children and women do not go bold because they are incapable of producing seminal secretion. Thus, for Aristotle, the cause of baldness is a loss of vital heat through sexual intercourse. Galen, for his part, sees dryness as the cause of the affliction, explaining that women and eunuchs have moist heads, while bald people have dry ones [Galen, Commentary on Hippocrates’ Sixth Book of Epidemies, 17b.5  Kühn]. The physician’s explanation is closer to that found in early-modern treatises: it is through loss of moisture that the hair thins on top.

Wounded bear. Mosaic from Pompeii. Source: Wikipedia
Wounded bear. Mosaic from Pompeii. Source: Wikipedia

Where do remedies fit within shifting systems of explanation? The burnt ingredients in the Cleopatra remedy could be interpreted as both warming and drying, while deer marrow and bear fat would have been emollient (moistening). But I would argue that these explanations are too simplistic. One needs to go further and look at what brings cold, dry and baldness together.

In ancient humoural theory, cold and dry were associated with the Autumn season. (Clearly the theory was not devised in the UK!) It is in the Autumn of life that man loses his hair. There is no real solution to the problem, but ‘fertilising’ ingredients such as ashes could perhaps help. Fats from animals born in the spring and hunted in the autumn might also add to the efficacy of the remedy.

Sounds too far-fetched and less ‘rational’ than humoural explanations? Consider the following: Aristotle himself compared hair loss to shedding of leaves, and poets sometimes drew an analogy between lush greenery and animal hair (see for instance Columella, On Agriculture 10.71).  Ancient recipes can always be read in many different ways!

Distilling the Essence of Heaven: How Alcohol Could Defeat the Antichrist

by Tillmann Taape

In my last post, I introduced Hieronymus Brunschwig’s Small book of distillation and considered how it presented medical knowledge. Here, I explore how Brunschwig’s reading of alchemical ideas shaped his concept of distilled remedies.

Like anyone living in medieval or early modern times, Brunschwig knew that the world was strictly divided into two separate realms: heaven and earth. While the celestial spheres were perfect and unchanging, revolving in harmonious circles with clockwork precision, the sublunar world was rather different.  All earthly matter was made up of the four elements: fire, air, earth, and water. Unless their qualities were perfectly balanced, they were volatile, prone to haphazard permutations. This was why everything in nature was thought to be constantly changing or decomposing, posing a major health threat to the human body which was also made of earthly matter. In fact, it was governed by bodily humours which corresponded to the four elements, and were just as difficult to balance.

Seeking to keep physical corruption at bay, it is not surprising that Brunschwig turned to alchemy, especially distillation. As he wrote in his Small book, this was a powerful way of transforming and purifying matter (see, for example, Jonathan Cey’s post on alchemy and fecal matter). While Brunschwig did not get much more specific in this particular work, we can look to the Large book of distillation which he published in 1512 for more detailed insights into his alchemical worldview. Numerous references and quotations suggest that the fourteenth-century alchemical writings of the Franciscan John of Rupescissa had a particularly important influence on his concept of distillation.

Haunted by apocalyptic visions, Rupescissa was convinced that the coming of Antichrist was near. In order to prevail in the final battle, evangelical men needed to search for the panacea, a universal medicine which cures all illnesses by adjusting any imbalance of the four humours. According to Rupescissa, the only substance fitting the bill was “quintessence of wine”– alcohol distilled many times over, the stronger the better.

This marvellous liquid was not, like all other earthly things, imbued with the qualities of the four sublunar elements and thus doomed to decay. Instead, it was perfectly balanced, much like the fifth element which made up the heavenly spheres, and therefore incorruptible. Rupescissa also called it “man’s heaven”, indicating that while it did not actually amount to a swig of celestial matter, it could confer the incorruptibility of the heavenly spheres to the human body to keep it healthy. This miraculous substance was hard-won through demanding alchemical processes. Multiple distillation at different carefully-regulated temperatures was followed by “circulation” of the substance in specially made glass vessels to remove any remaining traces of the corruptible elemental qualities. Distillation thus emerges as a process capable of profoundly changing physical matter.

From the many quotations in Brunschwig’s Large book, we can see that Rupescissa’s ideas about distillation and quintessence were central to Brunschwig’s medicine-making. Bearing this in mind, the distilled remedies in the Small book appear in a new light. Like Rupescissa, Brunschwig thought of distillation as a process with some cosmological significance which made sublunary matter “incorruptible” and more “like a heavenly thing” [1].

It is important to note though, that he never referred to the remedies described in the Small book as “quintessences”, and the techniques for their production were mostly quite straightforward. They certainly didn’t appear to be geared towards anything as complex and esoteric as Rupescissa’s celestial panacea. They did not remove all elemental qualities from Brunschwig’s distilled waters, although they did separate the plant’s healing virtues from its material dross, and thus produced more standardised remedies with a predictable effect on the human body and its humours.

Far from Rupescissa’s ideal of incorruptibility, the shelf life of Brunschwig’s waters was clearly limited, and most of them went off after three years. Even before their use-by date, the power of distilled remedies declined over time. This, however, occurred at a highly predictable rate: some, like water of mandrake or water lily, were initially so powerful that they should only be applied externally, but after one year their power was tempered sufficiently to be taken internally. This suggests that, although Brunschwig’s Small book aimed considerably lower than “man’s heaven”, Rupescissa’s concept of distillation was at work here. It did not go all the way to yield the perfect balance and incorruptibility of heaven, but it channelled some of heaven’s clockwork regularity and thus made Brunschwig’s remedies more reliable. The remedies would have a well-defined effect on the patient’s humoural balance, and even though their power would decay over time, it did so at a predictable rate, allowing the practitioner to keep track of its current state.

[1] “unzerstörlichen” and “gleich dem hymelischen”. Hieronymus Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus (Strasbourg: Johann Grüninger, 1509).