Revisiting Chelsea Clark’s The Wonders of Unicorn Horns: Preventions and Cures for Poisoning

Editor’s note: Today, we revisit a wonderful post from Chelsea Clark in 2012 on the intersection of magic and medicine from Early Modern England. Drawing on the seventeenth century  manuscript ascribed to the herbalist Johanna St. John, Clark examines the symbolic power remedies to unwind magical forces.  In this case, the remedy for the malicious magic of poison rests on unicorn, bezoar stones, and the bones of stag hearts.  Magical ailments, after all, would necessitate magical cures.  R.A. Kashanipour


By Chelsea Clark

Johanna St John’s Book, Credit: Wellcome Library, London

In Johanna St. John’s recipe book, the mysterious “Banister’s Powder by Dr Bates” lay nestled between the equally intriguing “Mrs Archers way of makeing My Lady Kents Powder” and the beginning of the letter “R” section of St. John’s efficiently organized recipe book. There is no indication what type of recipe this “Banister’s Powder” was, besides a powder, or what it’s intended use was. Following several pages of recipes for “pox” and “pills” this “Powder” is the tail end of St. John’s letter “P” section, however, even knowing this context offers little information. An analysis of the “Banister’s Powder” ingredients suggests a link between St. John’s early modern medicinal recipes and the presence of magical beliefs associated with medicine in the early modern period.

The first three ingredients required to make the “Banister’s Powder” are: powdered Unicorn horn, east bezoars, and the “bones” of a stag’s heart. Each of these ingredients had longstanding associations with the belief they were capable of preventing or countering the effects of poisoning. To a modern eye, these appear strange items to reside alongside many complicated recipes which rely on an expansive knowledge of medicinal, rather than magical, properties. These ingredients indicate that magical beliefs remained acceptable practices among home practitioners in the early modern period. This is possibly because the science to disprove them was not advanced and medical practitioners were only beginning to be skeptical and move away from such unreliable remedies.

The prevention and cure of poisoning was a genuine concern before and throughout the early modern period. It was quite common to be bitten or stung, to consume poisonous berries, roots, or herbs, or to believe a spell had been cast by a witch (Jackson, 96). It was also common for physicians to diagnose poison as the cause when they could not determine the source of an ailment (Auble, 17). This led to the necessity for remedies to detect, prevent and cure poisoning.

Rhinoceros Horn Vessel, Credit: Wellcome Library, London

 

Pharmacy sign, Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Unicorn horns were actually believed to come from the mythical creature and possess its symbolic purity and strength, though they were most often a narwhal tooth or powdered rhinoceros horn. The horns were commonly powdered and used in poison antidotes or as vessels to drink from before or after ingesting poison (Jackson, 97). Unicorn horns were also believed to have properties which allowed them to detect poison (Knight, 245). In addition to being thought to detect, prevent or cure the effects of poison, the horns were also thought to strengthen your heart, relieve headaches, resist the plague and pestilence, expel measles and small pox, and cure “falling sickness” in children (Brockbank, 3) all of which were reoccurring ailments in the early modern period.

 

Bezoar stones were solid masses from the intestines of goats, sheep or deer that were primarily believed to detect poisons but also, in some cases thought to provide a cure if small amounts of the stone were consumed. “Oriental” or “East” Bezoars, as St. John called for, were the most valuable type which came from a Persian wild goat (Jackson, 97). It was occasionally consumed, but more commonly mounted on a chain and dipped in to drinks to nullify the effects of poison if there was any (Jackson, 97). Queen Elizabeth I reportedly kept one “sett in golde hanging at a little Bracelett … The most parte of this stone being spent” indicating the Queen mounted and consumed her stone (Auble, 18).

Mounted Bezoar Stone, Credit: Wolfgang Sauber

The belief in the magical powers of the “bones” from a stag’s heart originates from a folk tale. The tale is that stags ate poisonous snakes by sniffing them out of holes and then after which they rushed to drink water. The “bones” in their heart were believed to be what protected the stags from being poisoned. The “bones” were actually caused by the degeneration of arteries into flat, oblong bone like objects. Powdering and consuming this “bone” was seen as a preventative measure to protect against the effects of poisoning (Jackson, 97).

Unicorn horn, bezoars and “bones” from a stag’s heart, were the key ingredients to the “Banisters Powder” in St. John’s recipe book. Because of the longstanding beliefs about these ingredients and their associations with poisoning detection, prevention and cures, this recipe was perhaps intended to cure or prevent poisoning. One can imagine the remedy would have been thought to be fool-proof against poison because it combined the powers of each of these ingredients. Although there was a movement away from magical remedies and cure-alls among physicians in the Early Modern period, belief in the curing power of magical objects was still present in the lives of home practitioners such as Johanna St. John. What we would consider scientifically impossible, they were only beginning to discover.

A strong belief in unexplainable phenomenon was common practice and popular beliefs are difficult to dispel, especially when they hold significant symbolic value. Just the other day the North Korean state media associated the discovery of a Unicorn Lair with their new young leader. It is hoped this association would strengthen the nation’s confidence in their young leader because of the symbolic meaning of the Unicorn and its ties to the state’s history. This example illustrates that a belief in the symbolic power of an object, like a Unicorn or its horn, bezoars, or “bones” from a stag’s heart can transcend both time and logic, persisting even when its truth is questionable.

Works Cited:

Auble, Cassandra. “The Cultural Significance of Precious Stones in Early Modern England.” Dissertations, Thesis, & Student Research, Department of History, University of Nebraska Paper 39 (2011).

Brockbank, William. “Sovereign Remedies: A Critical Depreciation of the 17th-Century London Pharmacopoeia.” Medical History 8.01 (1964): 1-14.

Jackson, William A. “Antidotes” Trends in Pharmacological Sciences 23.2 (2002): 96-98.

Knight, Katherine. “A Precious Medicine: Tradition and Magic in Some Seventeenth-Century Household Remedies” Folklore 113.2 (2002): 237-247.

Placing Historical Recipes in Fiction: The Lady of the Tower

By Elizabeth St.John

Sir Walter Raleigh and Mr. Ruthven being prisoners in the Tower, and addicting themselves to chemistry, she (Lucy St.John Apsley) suffered them to make their rare experiments at her cost, partly to comfort and divert the poor prisoners, and partly to gain the knowledge of their experiments, and the medicines to help such poor people as were not able to seek physicians. By these means she acquired a great deal of skill, which was very profitable to many all her life. She was not only to these, but to all the other prisoners that came into the Tower, as a mother. All the time she dwelt in the Tower, if any were sick she made them broths and restoratives with her own hands, visited and took care of them, and provided them all necessaries; if any were afflicted she comforted them, so that they felt not the inconvenience of a prison who were in that place.

Lucy Hutchinson
Biographical Fragment
Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson

Leaping from the pages of Lucy Hutchinson’s memoirs, this insight to a seventeenth-century woman’s life within the Tower of London immediately set me on a hunt for more information about Lucy St.John and the world she inhabited. Writing about her mother, Lucy Hutchinson chose to focus on the attributes of medicinal skills and recipes she used to tend to the prisoners within the Tower. This paragraph inspired the writing of my debut best-selling novel, The Lady of the Tower, and sent me on a glorious journey into the methods and curatives that were an everyday part of Lucy’s life.

Portrait of Lady Johanna St.John by kind permission of Lydiard House & Park.

These  seventeenth-century remedies were precious commodities exchanged by family and friends alike. And since Lucy St.John would have known her nephew’s wife, Lady Johanna St.John, it was no stretch of the “probable” for me to think that Lucy would be familiar with the recipes within Johanna’s collection, or may even have contributed some of her own.

Already acquainted with Lady Johanna and the Lydiard estate through my own family records, I delved into her recipe book, which is archived at The Wellcome Library in London. (Ed. note: this recipe book has been of much interest to many of us here at The Recipes Project, too! See these posts.) The beautifully preserved leather-bound book contains recipes designed to help a knowledgeable and educated woman manage the health of her family, servants and livestock. Relying on a great deal of herbal wisdom, as well as the more exotic ingredients found in the London apothecaries, Lady Johanna’s book is a testament to the importance placed on remedies, in an age where so little was still known about the body and its infirmities. When I decided to use extracts from the book to illustrate Lucy’s learnings in The Lady of the Tower, I was fascinated to discover that many of the herbal properties and therapies Lady Johanna recommend are still used in pharmaceutical production today.

Extract and Photograph is of Lady Johanna Saint John’s Recipe Book, archived at The Wellcome Library, London, MS 4338.

One particular recipe of interest is that for “Gilbert’s Water.”

It is bad for nothing it cures wind and the colick restoreth decayed nature good for a consumption expels poison & all infection from the Hart helps digestion purifies the blood gives motion to the spirits drives out the smallpox for the grippes in young children weomen in labor bringeth the Afterbirth stops floods for sounding and faintings

Lady Johanna St.John
Recipe Book
1680

Lady Johanna devotes two pages of her precious recipe book to Adrian Gilbert’s Cordial Water, which was perhaps indicative of the importance she placed on its curative powers. The recipe itself was complex, requiring Dragons Burnett leaves (probably the simple dragon’s mace, a common weed), and then moving on to a page full of rarer ingredients, such as “Crab’s eyes taken in the full of the moon.”  Promoting the contemporary belief man shared the virtue of the plants digested, Mr Gilbert was taking no chances with his curative, empowering the recipient with dragon strength to fight his condition.

But there is more to the story. Adrian Gilbert was a well-known alchemist and amateur scientist, and half-brother to Sir Walter Raleigh, himself a distinguished botanist. Adrian’s brother, Humphrey Gilbert, was under the patronage of Robert Cecil and Robert Dudley who maintained an alchemical laboratory in Limehouse. Now it gets interesting. When Sir Walter Raleigh was under the care of Lucy St.John during his imprisonment in the Tower of London, Lucy funded his scientific experiments, lending him her hen house in which to perform his alchemy. I don’t believe it is that much of a stretch to think that Sir Walter and his half-brother Adrian Gilbert traded medicinal recipes, nor that Lucy St.John would keep a record of any precious curatives that came into her possession. For her to then pass these on to her niece, who shared her passion for botany, gardens and curatives, would be a natural occurrence.

Writing credible historical fiction is always about linking the probables, and in connecting Lucy St.John with Lady Johanna and using their common interest in medicinal curatives, I brought truth to my narrative. What is undisputed is these interesting women’s common desire to protect their families and charges from the dangers of seventeenth-century life, and a shared concern for health, hope for treatment, and the rewards of recovery.

The Lydiard Chronicles. Available on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited.

Biography

Elizabeth St.John was brought up in England and lives in California. To inform her writing, she has tracked down family papers and residences from Nottingham Castle, Lydiard Park, and Castle Fonmon to the Tower of London. Although the family sold a few castles and country homes along the way (it’s hard to keep a good castle going these days), Elizabeth’s family still occupy them – in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their imprint. And the occasional ghost.

https://tinyurl.com/AmazonElizabethStJohn
www.elizabethjstjohn.com

Exploring CPP 10A214: Enter Lady Honywood, Continued; Getting it on Paper

By Hillary Nunn with Rebecca Laroche

Elaine Leong’s posting about paper’s use as a medical tool inspired me to look more carefully at instances of paper in the Layfield manuscript, which Rebecca Laroche and I have been examining in this series. What I found was much more than I expected. It turns out that concentrating on paper highlights some of the embedded puzzles about recipe transmission that have been lurking in the College of Physicians of Philadelphia manuscript, and even in the Recipe Projects blog itself. My exploration also brings us back to Lady Honywood, proving once more Rebecca’s observation that “one just has to take advantage of a name like ‘Lady Honywood’ if it’s given to you.”

Rebecca and Elaine both have written substantially about Lady Honywood (or Honeywood) in Recipe Project posts before. This past March, Elaine pointed out that Joanna St. John’s 1680 recipe book contains a remedy attributed to Lady Honeywood “for a cancer,” where the medicine is spread on paper and then laid on the sore. Not surprisingly, Lady Honeywood’s name rang a bell for me, since almost two years earlier, Rebecca had devoted two posts to Lady Honywood’s presence in the Layfield manuscript. Lady Honywood’s recipe for the gout, Rebecca showed, hinted that the compiler of the CPP manuscript’s second section had a particular need to treat that ailment since seven cures for gout appear there.

But it turns out that Elaine and Rebecca were talking about the same recipe, or so I found out when I searched for mention of paper in the CPP manuscript. While St. John labels the recipe as a cancer treatment, the Layfield manuscript identifies it as “The Lady Honywood: receite for the Goute, running & swellinge.”

Layfielde_MS Honywood
[1]

The Layfield manuscript mentions the concoction’s effectiveness against cancer as an afterthought, but it is nonetheless there – as is paper as mode of administration. The ingredients are identical as well, with two notable variations. First, the Layfield manuscript walks the user through the process of rendering juice from its herbal ingredients, while St. John begins with the juices:

Wellcome4338Honywood

Otherwise, the only difference is that St. John’s version calls for “bean flower” while the Layfield manuscript calls for “wheaten flour.”

The variation in recipe titles is not uncommon, of course, and it certainly highlights Rebecca’s point about the importance of local needs in the organization of these manuscripts. At the same time, it underscores how easily categorization schemes can obscure connections among texts and contributors. Lady Honywood and her recipe, variant title or no, forge a connection between two manuscripts, the St. John and the Layfield, that otherwise show no obvious overlap. And, ironically enough, a search for paper helped bring to light what had been an unidentified link within this very blog. The overlap between manuscripts, and the one between blog entries, hints further at what connections lie just beyond the reach of our current digital tools. Just more evidence that we need a searchable database of these manuscripts!

Notes:

[1] Below is a transcription for the Layfield hand:

Rx. one handfull of Fetherfew, salladine, smalledge, &
Rhew, of each a handfull, pick them cleane, wash them &
drie the water out cleane, & beate them in a mortar very
small, & then straine the Juce of it into a dish, &
thicken it with wheaten-flower; & put into it the
yelke of anew-laid egg, & as much honey as [that] con-
taines too, all beaten together, & spread it vpon capp
paper, or Grossers browne-paper, & apply it to the
place pained; & as the paine remoues, or moues so
follow it with this medicine –
2. this same also will helpe the Ague in a womans breast
or any bruise, the bloode beinge setled, or kill a felon
or the Kings euell, if it be swellinge or runninge.
If it be runninge lay adrie peece of paper vpon the
soare, & the plaister vpon it, by Gods blessinge it will
do all these cures

Scratching “The Itch Infalable”: Johanna St. John’s Anti-Itch Cure

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

Physical or metaphorical, itches are funny things.

"Just a little to the left" (Image credit: Vannie via Wikimedia Commons)
“Just a little to the left” (Image credit: Vannie via Wikimedia Commons)

Physical itches, as Atul Gawande points out, may well have been a response that evolved to alert us to insects and poisonous toxins. Previously thought to be triggered by the same nerve cells that control the sensation of pain, researchers have discovered that itching actually has its own special neural pathway, hence the biologically distinctive need to scratch (what Montaigne calls “one of the sweetest gratifications of nature, and as ready at hand as any”).

Metaphorical itches, too, need to be satisfied: the itch to write, the itch to see a country, the itch (as my graduate-student knitting circle phrased it) to stitch and bitch.

But then there is “the itch infalable,” a cure for which can be found in Joanna St. John’s 1680 recipe book (Wellcome Library MS4338). If itching is one of our primal biological functions, an “infalable” itch, one that could never be conquered, sounds like pure misery. Here is the text:

For the Itch infalable
Put the 3d part of an ounce of white mercury into a qrt of spring water with an ounce of salt peter & a small handful of ordinary salt let them boyle together gently an hower &a halfe and as it boyles put in more water to keep the same quantity let the party stand naked by the fire & dab in a rag wheresoever you se any itch let it dry in & wear stil the same shirt boyle the shirt in an earthn pot that may be broke & break the bottle for tis poison.

I’ll admit that I was drawn to this recipe by the poetry of the title rather than the contents of the cure, but after taking a few self-indulgent moments to admire what a fine novel title “The Itch Infallible” would make, I began wondering about the actual malady.

With lice, fleas, and newly documented scabies prevalent, itching in the seventeenth century would be a pretty common occurrence. But these were all relatively temporary conditions that could be eliminated, or at least ameliorated, by bathing and disinfecting. What then would an “infalable” itch be?

Robert Hooke, Micrographia, flea (Image credit: Wellcome Library)
Robert Hooke, Micrographia, flea (Image credit: Wellcome Library)

Could it have been responsible for the one mysterious death by “Itch” recorded in John Graunt’s 1679 book, Natural and Political Observations … upon the Bills of Mortality?

The only connection I could find between the seventeenth century and any sort of persistent itching condition is a circuitous, even backwards, one: a very modern and highly debated condition known as Morgellons Disease. Morgellons was named in 2002 by a woman researching the cause of her two-year-old son’s painful itching and lesions. She examined his skin under a microscope and disovered multiple fibers. Her search into medical history yielded an anecdote told by Sir Thomas Browne in a 1674 letter about children in the Languedoc region of France, “called the Morgellons,” who grew “harsh hairs” on their backs.

Full and nuanced discussions of the debate about Morgellons Disease can be found here and here, but to summarize, those who suffer from Morgellons have an insatiable desire to scratch in order to extract what feel like bugs burrowing into their skin. A hallmark of this condition is that sufferers find fibers in the lesions—fibers they say indicate an external source of their misery.

Many medical experts, however, believe that the mysterious fibers are simply from clothes, hair, and lint, and that the source of the patients’ suffering is parasitosis, a psychosis in which people believe they have been infested with parasites. Other experts believe that Morgellons sufferers have a very real neurological condition that causes them to feel the sensation of something crawling on them.

I am in no way suggesting that a person treated using St. John’s recipe in the seventeenth century would have suffered from Morgellons or even from Browne’s “harsh hairs,” but thinking about the possibility of a psychological connection to the very real feeling of bugs crawling over or burrowing into the skin (gah–it’s hard to write that without shivering) might help us reconstruct the lived experience of this treatment .

I could easily imagine a scenario in which a person experienced a real infestation of lice or fleas or scabies and then could not stop imagining the accompanying sensation and itching. If that were the case, a rather elaborate sort of “cleansing” in which one stand naked and exposed, wounds treat and clothing burned–such as we see in St. John’s recipe–could provide a healing for the mind.

Whether or not this treatment would be healthy for the body is another question altogether: contact with mercury is toxic. According to the National Institutes of Health, symptoms of mercury poisoning include vomiting, incontrollable shaking, and blindness.

And, in a bitter twist…itching.