To break or not to break (Part 2): From Cairo to Dordrecht

By Saskia Klerk, with Sietske Fransen

In the eleventh chapter of his Steen-Stuck (Treatise on the Stone, 1637), Johan van Beverwijck related a story of an encounter in Dordrecht, the Dutch city where he was town physician. A man had shown him the pieces of stone that he said had been broken by the following recipe. Van Beverwijck tried it himself, but had not found the same results. Still, he noted, the pieces of stone that the “trustworthy man” showed him, would together make up a large stone.

Broken bladder stones from Des monstres et prodiges (1573) by Ambroise Paré (c. 1510– 1590). From the Lyon edition of 1664.
Broken bladder stones from Des monstres et prodiges (1573) by Ambroise Paré (c. 1510– 1590). From the Lyon edition of 1664.

Around 1677, the compiler of Ms BPL 3606 copied this passage, leaving out Van Bever-wijck´s skeptical remark. Apparently, he found the display of broken stones, a tactic we have encountered before, to be persuasive proof of the recipe´s effectiveness.

When Sietske and I started our blog series on this Dutch recipe collection, I did not expect most of my posts to be about “stone breaking” remedies such as this one. However, they turned out to have been of particular interest to its compiler. By pursuing this interest, Sietske and I have learned quite a bit about him and his world. For example, we now suspect that he lived in or near the province of Zeeland in the south-west of the Dutch Republic. We also confirmed Sietske´s earlier observation, that the compiler especially noted down remedies that where accompanied by favorable experiences. In my last post, I showed that the compiler of BPL 3606 used Steen-Stuck´s tables of contents to find the information he was looking for.

As I continued studying the manuscript, the question of why there are so many stone-breaking remedies in it became more pressing. In an earlier post, Seth LeJacq laid out the persuasive answer that patients’ fears of surgery led them to explore alternative therapies. Master Reijmers´ story has shown us that the compiler of BPL 3606 shared these fears and desires. Perhaps, this is also key to understanding why he included not only so many recipes for stone breaking remedies in his manuscript, but also three other sections from Steen-Stuck that are not recipes.

Before the recipe, as a “Nota”, the compiler copied a short section on how the stone should be returned to the bladder if it got stuck in the bladder´s neck. In his Treatise on the Stone, Van Beverwijck suggested surgical options to actually remove the stone from the body as well. The compiler copied the most curious of these, after the recipe, as another “Nota”.

Alpinus told of this procedure in Cap. XIV of the third book of De medicina Aegyptiorum (1591) under the title "To remove stones without an incision"
Alpinus described this procedure in Cap. XIV of the third book of De medicina Aegyptiorum (1591) under the title “To remove stones without an incision”

This particular option advised sufferers to blow into the   urethra with a little pipe. Thereby extending it far enough to be able to remove a stone no larger than an olive pit. Despite his interest in the cure, the compiler omits the original source of this procedure, Van Beverwijck´s teacher in Padua, Prosper Alpinus (1553-1617) and the Egyptians amongst whom Alpinus had resided.

The inclusion of treatments such as these  further confirms the compiler´s anxiety towards actually cutting the body. Moreover, I would argue this anxiety was a factor in the transmission of this custom from faraway Egypt to this Dutch recipe collection. Alpinus explicitly mentioned the non-cutting aspect of the procedure in the title of the chapter in which he described it. Van Beverwijck repeated this aspect in Steen-Stuck, before going on to describe cutting the body to remove the stone as a last resort.

Finally, in his exploration of alternative therapies the compiler also recorded knowledge that by 1677 was outmoded to many of his contemporaries.

Section from Van Beverwijck´s, Steen-Stuck (1649) Ch. 11, pt. 4
Section from Van Beverwijck´s, Steen-Stuck (1649) Ch. 11, pt. 4
The same section copied in BPL 3606
The same section copied in BPL 3606

Van Beverwijck named several materials that possessed a stone breaking power. Some of these (such as lime zest and laurel) worked by a manifest quality and others (such as ashes of scorpio and woodlice) by a hidden property. In his note-taking, the compiler was careful to separate these into two lists.

The distinction between manifest and hidden or occult qualities was characteristic of academic Galenic medicine familiar to Van Beverwijck. It was fundamental to explaining the properties of medical materials. Was the way a material worked in the body “manifest”, that is, was it caused by the primary qualities (hot, dry, cold and moist)? Or could this “operation” not be explained from these qualities and was it therefore “hidden”? While this important distinction had come to be questioned by the 1620s, as I described elsewhere[1], Van Beverwijck included it without comment. Accordingly, when the compiler copied out this section, all that mattered to him was that the physician asserted the healing properties of these materials.

Here, the compiler´s fear of cutting the body thus resulted in a quite eclectic collection of materials, surgical techniques and a stone-breaking recipe, originating from as diverse places as Egypt and Dordrecht. Investigating his interest in alternative cures for bladder stones further, has also indicated the practical reasons behind the staying power of (parts of) Galenic medicine, despite its philosophical problems.

[1] Saskia Klerk, “The Trouble with Opium. Taste, Reason and Experience in Late Galenic Pharmacology with Special Regard to the University of Leiden (1575–1625),” Early Science and Medicine, vol. 19, issue 4 (2014): 287-316.

Three Croatian Glagolitic Recipes Against Toothache

By Marija-Ana Dürrigl and Stella Fatović-Ferenčić,

Historians working on recipes often use sources that, from the outside, do not look like recipe books. One of the most common places for recipes to be found in pre-modern manuscripts is in liturgical books, and other works for priests. A recipe from a sixteenth-century Croatian liturgical manuscript reads:

Help for the teeth: On Holy Saturday when the church bells sound Gloria in Excelsis Deo … say three Pater Nosters and three Ave Marias in honor of God and Mary and Saint Apolonia.

Za zubi pomoć: na Velu sobotu kada se počne zvoniti k Slava va višnih Bogu on trat… rci 3 Očenaši i tri Zdrave Marie v čast Bogu i svetoi Marie i v čast sveti Polonii

This recipe is in the Croatian redaction of Church Slavonic language. Church Slavonic was the common language of liturgy and learning among Slavs in the Middle Ages. It is written in the Glagolitic alphabet; its angular variant was used primarily in the Croatian context. This particular recipe is then readable only by a select few. But its topic – toothache – and its location – in a religious (moral-didactic) book – is much more familiar. Marginal recipes are extremely widespread, as previously discussed on The Recipes Project. This post will take us into the world of marginal recipes by and for Catholic Slavs.

Kingdom of Croatia from Wiki Commons
Kingdom of Croatia
from Wiki Commons

In rural parts of medieval Croatia, a kingdom hugging the Adriatic sea, and a meeting point between the Mediterranean and Central Europe, priests also acted as medical practitioners. Recipes and therapeutic instructions are valuable sources, shedding light on outbreaks of epidemics, on ways of treating diseases, as well as on old terminology. The term “medical” has to be taken in its broadest sense, i.e. it pertains to the basic knowledge the priests possessed.



Medical texts in the Žgombić Miscellany (Croatian Glagolitic manuscripts, early 16th c.) by Marija-Ana Duerigl
Medical texts in the Žgombić Miscellany (Croatian Glagolitic manuscripts, early 16th c.)
by Marija-Ana Dürrigl

Texts in Croatian Glagolitic recipe collections do not follow a strict order (which organs are afflicted; which complaints are present; which kind of procedure is to be applied; which quantity of ingredient is to be used), but seem to have been copied randomly from various sources.

Extant recipes against diseases can be grouped into two broad categories. Concrete texts are instructions for curing ailments that invlolve administering various medications (based on experience and on older written sources). Such “concrete” recipes are applied to treat renal stones, sick eyes, gastrointestinal disorders, and other ailments. Prescribed medications are based primarily on local, Mediterranean, medicinal plants. In Glagolitic sources concrete healing instructions are interwoven with what we term abstract texts, i.e. incantations, prayers and amulets, for example against headaches, insomnia, and sore throats. Religious approaches to disease and healing share space on the pages of Croatian medieval recipe collections with empirical instructions, and both co-existed throughout many centuries. One did not exclude the other, and this kind of promiscuitas may seem a curiosity to the modern reader. However, a strict delineation between the different spheres of knowledge and belief did not happen for another few centuries.

A page from Žgombić Miscellany (Croatian Glagolitic manuscript, early 16th c.) by Marija-Ana Dürrigl
A page from Žgombić Miscellany (Croatian Glagolitic manuscript, early 16th c.)
by Marija-Ana Dürrigl

Here we present three small medical texts from a “marginal” source. The book called the Žgombić Miscellany (today in the Archive of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts in Zagreb) contains moral-didactic texts and religious prose (legends, visions, contrasts). On the last folios there are three recipes for treatment of toothache, one of which is quoted above.

The second reads:

Za zubi pomoć: kuša v belom vini kuhai tere zvanu stavi ča naiteple moreš ako bude Bog otil oćeš imat pomoć

Help for the teeth: Cook sage /Salvia officinalis/ in white wine and use it as a very warm compress – God willing you will have help

Recipe in the Glagolitic Alphabet by Marija-Ana Dürrigl
Recipe in the Glagolitic Alphabet
by Marija-Ana Dürrigl





Sage is often mentioned in Croatian Glagolitic recipe collections; one is reminded of the Latin saying „Cur morietur homo quia salvia crescit in horto?“ ‒ Why should man die, when salvation lies in the Garden? The use of sage in this case can be rationally explained, for it contains aetheric oils and can have antibacterial effect. It is still used modern stomatology for disinfection of the mouth.

The third recipe reads:

Za zubi pomoć: ružmarina i smažera od smreki … i beloga vina skup kuhai ako li pol zvre onem maži zubi imaš lek z Božiju volu

Help for the teeth: prepare an ointment by cooking rosemary /Rosmarinus officinalis/ and resin of the juniper tree /Picea albis/ in white wine and smear on the teeth – you will have help with God’s will.

This instruction, as well as the ingredients, suggests that it was more likely used to those suffering with gingivitis or similar problems, rather than against toothache. The resin of the juniper is rich in vitamin C which is important in healing of the gums. Both empirical recipes suggest white wine, which may have been of help in alleviating pain. Both also end with a smilar phrase reflecting a religious view of healing – if it is God’s will, you will be helped.

This sketch from the Croatian Glagolitic heritage shows the significance of “marginal” sources in tracing medical texts. Although not large in number, Croatian Glagolitic medical texts reflect the intersection of (medieval) Christianity and empirical healing. They should be included into a study of the wide framework of healing practices in medieval Europe.

Marija-Ana Dürrigl, Ph.D., is a senior research associate at the Old Church Slavonic Institute, Scientific Centre of Excellence for Croatian Glagolitism Zagreb, Croatia.

Stella Fatović-Ferenčić, Ph.D, is a Professor at the Department for the History of Medicine, Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Zagreb, Croatia.


1 Dürrigl MA, Fatović-Ferenčić S, „Marginalia miscellanea medica“ in Croatian Glagolitic monuments – a model for interdisciplinary investigations, Viator 30, 1999: 383-396

2 Fatović-Ferenčić S, Dürrigl MA, Za zubi pomoć ‒ odontološki tekstovi u hrvatskoglagoljskim rukopisima, Acta Stomatologica Croatica 1997, 31: 229-236 (Help for teeth – odontological texts in Croatian Glagolitic manuscripts)