Wigging Out: Mrs. Corlyon’s Method for Extracting Earwigs From The Ear

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

Unidentified species of Earwig, order Dermaptera, possibly Forficulidae, by JonRichfield,Wikimedia Commons
Unidentified species of Earwig, order Dermaptera, possibly Forficulidae, by JonRichfield,Wikimedia Commons

There is a remarkable passage in a sermon John Donne preached before the king in Whitehall in 1627. Donne reiterates the need for an openness to the word of God, to an ear that is receptive to the Word. “Take head what you hear,” he recites again and again, “take heed what you hear.” Be open always to Christ, loquens Scriptura, the “living, speaking Scripture.”

And yet, while emphasizing the critical import of a perennial openness, Donne also preaches caution about WHAT enters the ear. Unlike the eyes or the mouth, we cannot close off our ears: “Our Savior Christ proposes it as some remedy against a mischief, That if the eye offend thee, thou mayst pull it out, and if thy hand or foot offend thee, thou mayst cut it off, and thou art safe from that offence. But he does not name or mention the ear: for, if the ear betray thee, though thou doe cut it off, yet thou art open to that way of treason still, still thou canst hear.” The ear is a profoundly vulnerable site of ingress.

To emphasize the vulnerability of hearing treason or libel, Donne brilliantly turns to the analogy of an earwig that crawls into the ear at night, when we are at our most vulnerable and open: “And certainly, there is no Lycanthropie so dangerous, not when men are changed into devouring wolves, as when these Earwigs are transformed into men.”
The power of Donne’s analogy lies in part in the long-held fear that earwigs take advantage of nighttime to crawl into people’s ears and, not to put too fine a point on it, eat their brains.

Of course, it wasn’t just earwigs that were feared—people were also nervous about fleas and lice. But the earwig held pride of place in this fear because of the specificity of its name (though the idea that earwigs might crawl into a sleeping person’s ear is false). That fear was widespread and continues to this day (see below for video of Taylor Swift sort-of-pretending to be afraid of earwigs crawling in her ear for an example of how persistent this idea remains):


While there are many recipes for obstructions in the ear, in Anne Corlyon’s recipe book, we find a treatment specifically for earworms:

A Medicine to drawe an Earwigge out of the Eare
Take a sweet Aple and rest it in the fyer until it be half roasted, then take of the softest of it, and spreade it very thick upon a lynnen cloth, and lay it so your eare is hot as you can suffer it, and lye upon the same syde, and when you do feel it stir, you must lye very still until it be come to the Aple, and then you must very sodainely pluck it away lest the Earewigge retorne into your heade againe. And if you thinkcke there be any extra laye a new one to your ear.

Presumably the earwig will be tempted by the sweet roasted apple and the warmth of the linen cloth and venture out of the ear canal, where he will be “sodainely” snatched away.

The use of smells to treat bodily ills was widespread, and in Mrs. Corlyon’s recipes for treating issues in the ear, smells and heat seem to be critical elements. On the same page as the earwig treatment, there are three recipes for “the singing in the Eares.” The first calls for baking a loaf of bread and spicing it with nutmeg, then placing it “as hotte as you may suffer it” next to the ear. The second such recipe advises boiling a quart of sack, spicing it, and pouring a little bit in the ear canal. And the third advises cutting off the top of an onion and filling it with mithridate (an unspecified poison antidote), salad oil, and aquavitae, then roasting the onion, wrapping it in a cloth, and holding it next to the sufferer’s ear.

Not all earwig recipes relied on heat and smell, however. Over at the blog Early Modern Medicine, Jennifer Evans has an example of an earwig recipe that uses no heat at all, but instead calls for poisoning the earwig with a combination of wormwood, rue, and southernwood.

Whether the literal bug or the figurative metaphor of a man who implants treason or heresy by crawling into the listener’s ear, earwigs clearly pointed to an early modern anxiety about vulnerability and interiority. If only a little bit of roasted apple placed on the ear could draw out all such anxieties!

Mrs. Corlyon’s Pimple Cream: A Toxic Topical

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

Reading an early recipe book can be an emotional roller coaster. There’s disgust (“’Snail water’? With real snails? Eww”), delight (“’A pudding of pippins’? That’s like something out of The Hobbit!”), and dismay (“NO! Do not drink the cordial of horse dung! Don’t do it!”).

Most of these emotions arise from the awareness of historical difference, the sensation of reaching across time through these documents and sensing the foreignness of the past.

More often, however, are the prosaic moments, when you think, “Oh, well of course they had to worry about THAT, too.” Headaches. Cooking up extra fruit from the harvest. Toothaches.

And pimples. Ah yes, they also had to deal with pimples.

Salve for pimples on the face. Ms, 14th century, Vienna. Wellcome Library, London.
Salve for pimples on the face. Ms, 14th century, Vienna. Wellcome Library, London.

In Mrs. Corlyon’s A Booke of Diverse Medicines, we find a “A medicine to cure a face that is Redd, and full of Pimples.” It seems unique to me in that similar recipes address redness of the face (perhaps rosacea) or claim to cure pimples or boils, but they are not often treated together. The reason might be the different humoral imbalances thought to cause each: a red face would arise from an excess of blood, while the pus from a pimple or boil would develop from too much phlegm.

Mrs. Corlyon’s recipe, however, attempts to treat both at the same time. For curing the redness in the face, she advises, “Take two penny worthe of quicksilver [mercury], putt it in a little glasse add thereto so much fasting Spitle as will serve to kill it, then shake them well together, and the quicksilver when it is killed will looke like duste.”

The concept of “killing” the quicksilver and turning it to dust confused (and intrigued) me. I wonder if perhaps the potassium present in saliva reacts with the mercury to form a precipitate? It might look similar to the reaction in this video “How to Make the Pharoah’s Serpent” around 4:55.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PC3o2KgQstA

Obviously, the chemicals used in that experiment are purer, but perhaps something similar might have happened in this recipe? (At any rate, and completely off topic, do keep watching the video to see what happens when mercury thiocyanate is ignited—it is one of the coolest and most disturbing things I have ever seen!)

The quicksilver dust is then to be ground with bay oil and made into an ointment used morning and evening for two weeks. The quicksilver, with its cold and dry properties, would balance out the heat and moistness of the excess blood in the skin.

"Cures for red face and pimples." A book of diverse medicines, Mrs. Corlyon. MS.213 Wellcome Library, London.
“Cures for red face and pimples.” A book of diverse medicines, Mrs. Corlyon.  MS 213. Wellcome Library, London.

The recipe then tells us that for a week before using the ointment, the person being treated should have been drinking a special brew: 10 gallons of beer to which is added half a pound of madder (a plant often used in dying cloth red, but also valued as a medicinal with hot and dry properties). This was to be drunk in the morning and evening and “at divers times.” The addition of the madder would balance the phlegmatic humor in the body that was causing the pus to form pimples.

Mrs. Corlyon also advises the person being treated “keep close in [their] chamber” as their skin will actually look worse during the treatment, “untill such tyme as the humor be killed that is betwixt the fleshe and the skinn.”

At first glance, this recipe seems ridiculous. Who would smear mercury on their face and stay drunk and locked in their chamber for two weeks in order to get better skin? But then, don’t we still do this with chemical peels and other kinds of non-surgical cosmetic treatments? At least in Mrs. Corlyon’s recipe, the patient has sufficient beer to drink to lessen the pain.

 

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):

Pygeons

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.

Of Hedgehogs, Whale Vomit, and Fire-Breathing Peacocks

rotfling hedgehogs
Hedgehogs from a 13th-century bestiary. British Library, Royal 12 F XIII, fol. 45r. Found on the “Discarded Image” Tumblr

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

I told my children we were making hedgehog pudding for Halloween.

They were horrified.

So was I when I read the title of an entry in the recipe book of Lady Ann Fanshawe (1625-1680), “To make a Hedg-hogg.” (I’ll admit to some hypocrisy in this. Why it would be more viscerally disgusting to eat a hedgehog than, say, a pig has to do with mere custom and perceived adorableness. That and the question of what to do with the sharp, prickly bits.)

The kids were relieved, as was I, to learn that the hedgehog in question was made up of only a few ingredients, and hedgehog wasn’t among them:

To make a Hedg-hogg

Take 3 pints of sweet creame, and boile in it some Nutmegg and Mace and when it boiles put in being very well beaten five Eggs white and all, and so stir it and let it boile and when it is turned to curds and whey poore it into a strainer and so hang in up to drayne for 6 or 8 houres when the whay is runne all out take halfe a pound of Almonds blanched and very finely beaten with Rosewater and temper them with the curd and sweeten it well with Sugar, and put some Rosewater and Ambergreice into it and soe make it up in the fashion of a Hedghogg and put in two Currants for the eyes and stick all Almonds all over the back of it, and put it into a dish and into the dish put white wine & Sugar or raw Creame and serve it to the table. (303)

This hedgehog, then, is not just food: it’s food art. It’s also an excellent example of the early modern period’s preoccupation with making food look like something it’s not, turning the gustatory experience into a visual pun or trick–nourishment for the eyes as well as the palate. Ken Albala, writing about the banquet in Europe between 1520 and 1660, discusses this predilection for spectacle: “a meal [was] a form of theater . . . replete with an audience, stage sets, props, and interludes.” He goes on to note that “if abundance and variety itself could no longer impress, then culinary virtuosity, wit, and allusion take their place” (12).

As the wife of Sir Richard Fanshawe (1608-66), ambassador to Madrid, Lady Anne Fanshawe’s table would have been such a place of political theater, a stage for displaying power, wealth, position, and intention.

An examination of the rest of Fanshawe’s recipe book, however, finds that the entries tend more to the useful, practical, and every day. In this, it is an example of the growing popularity of cookbooks for women in this period. Sara Mueller notes that “prior to the late sixteenth century, elaborate banquets . . . were prepared by professional male chefs for royal, aristocratic, and ecclesiastical households. However, beginning in the late sixteenth century and continuing throughout the seventeenth century, cookery books featuring banqueting receipts began to be published on a large scale” (107).

Lady Ann Fanshawe’s recipe collection was not published; rather, like other early modern receipt books, it was a highly personal and eclectic assortment of instructions for things as diverse as making laudanum, concocting a powder to aid in miscarriage, and stewing a lamb’s head.

But like those banqueting recipes in the published cookbooks, the inclusion of this recipe points to a common theme in early modern aesthetics: the interplay of art and nature. In this case, that intimate connection is implicit in the cooking process: like other fields of artistry, raw materials are transformed by skill, by techne. Mueller provides an extraordinary example of this preoccupation with culinary transformation that highlights the maker’s artistry:

After giving a detailed receipt for cooking a peacock that will look even more striking dead than it did alive—a feat achieved by carefully killing the bird, removing the flesh from the still-feathered skin, roasting the flesh, and then sewing the cooked flesh back into the raw skin—the English translation of Giovanne de Rosselli’s receipt book, Epulario, or The Italian Banquet, published in England in 1598, gives instructions on how to make the dish even more spectacular: ‘If you will have the Peacoke cast fire at the mouth, take an ounce of Camphora wrapped about with Cotton, and put it on the Peacockes bill with a little Aquanity, or very strong wine, and when you will send it to the table, set fire to the Cotton, and he will cast ore a good while after. And to make a greater shew, when the Peacoke is rested, you may gild it with leafe gold, and put the skin upon the same gold, which may be spiced very sweet.'(106)

Lady Fanshawe’s homey little hedgehog pudding was not intended to compete with the grandeur of the transformed (and reformed) peacock described here, but as disparate as they are, the two dishes share an emphasis on transfiguration and display.

As for our little hedgehog pudding, the kids and I agreed that we would leave out the ambergris. None of us wanted to hunt down a source for expensive whale vomit, which in any case is for the best. I’ve since learned that it’s illegal to possess ambergris in the United States. I bought some rosewater at a local Lebanese restaurant/store, and I cooked up the curds and whey while the kids were at school. Our final creation was a bit squat, a bit formless, but identifiable as a hedgehog. It tasted sweet, the rosewater a faint scent that I imagine would have been overdone by the distinctive, earthy ambergris. Overall, it was a conditional success… It worked, but I wouldn’t do it again.

hedgie
Here’s the homely, humble little hedgehog we made. He’s a bit formless, but he made up for it with very yummy prickles.

I do not think we’ll be attempting the gold-leafed, fire-breathing peacock for Thanksgiving. Turkey will do, thank you very much.