Tales from the archives: Green sickness, red plants

In September, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 470 posts in our archives and over 117 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.)

But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month, I want to share a post by Helen King on the green sickness. In this post, Helen asks why red plants feature so prominently in treatments for the green sickness. She suggests that the redness of the plants was meant to restore a proper menstrual flow. I have chosen this post not only because of my interest in ancient gynaecology, but also because it features a photo of a copy of William Langham’s ‘Garden of Health’ (1597) held in my own institution, Cardiff University. Time for a little trip to  the Special Collections and Archives I should think.

I hope you enjoy it! And if you have any favourites you want us to revisit, please send in your nominations

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By Helen King

I’ve been interested for a long time in green sickness, a condition affecting girls at puberty that involved menstrual suppression, often along with some sort of dietary ‘blockage’. The remedies for it, over the 400 or so years that it was recognised as a disease, raise all sorts of problems. For example, in the 19th century it was seen as a form of anaemia, so iron was prescribed. In the 17th century, before that level of knowledge of blood existed, ‘steel filings’ were often part of the remedy, and iron is a constituent of steel. So, how did they know to use steel? Or was this nothing to do with the iron content, but instead about steel being imagined as ‘cutting through’ the blockages?

Langham’s text. From http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/insrv/libraries/scolar/digital/healthyreading.html . Copyright: Cardiff University, used with permission.

William Langham wrote ‘The Garden of Health’ in 1597. It was based on earlier recipe collections, and I came upon it when I was thinking about using recipes to tease out what exactly was supposed to be causing the symptoms – so, if the recipe involved plants that were clearly evacuative, then this could suggest that the cause of the disease was seen as a blockage. Langham arranged plants in simple alphabetical order, rather than arranging the material under the names of diseases; but, as part of his accessibility, he also gave a list of conditions with references to the different plant entries where the reader could find out more.

Langham gives a range of recipes for green sickness. One is packed full of ‘red’ plants –

‘seethe powder of the Keyes [i.e. the ash tree] with Betonie, red Sage, red Mynts, and Magerom [marjoram] in running water from a pottell [= 2 quarts] to a quart, and drink thereof a good draught with sugar warme morning and evening’

Elaine Hobby pointed out to me that this recipe also appears in 1677 in ‘The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight’ by ‘T.P.’ (possibly Hannah Woolley), but with ‘red Fennel’ instead of ‘red Mynts’. There was a second edition of Langham in 1633, and maybe the author used this.
So what’s all this red about? Betony, sage and marjoram often appear together in later collections as a gentle sternutatory. Red sage and betony are used against bilious attacks. Ash keys feature today on ‘wild food’ sites with the warning that they are very bitter and need to be boiled several times before eating, but what was used here was the ripe seed, dried and then reduced to powder. The ash-powder is used elsewhere for the stone (by provoking urination), jaundice and dropsy.

So maybe there’s something here about getting rid of obstructions. But to me, all this redness suggests the colour of blood, and the use of running water also makes me think that this is aimed at restoring or establishing a normal menstrual flow. How do we balance the known effects of the plants chosen, with the symbolic power of red? Comments please!

Helen King is Professor of Classical Studies at the Open University, UK. Her book on green sickness is  The Disease of Virgins.

You can find more of Helen’s thoughts on the green disease in this recent The Conversation article  also available in the Guardian

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).

Nosebleed: the many virtues and names of Yarrow

By Gabriella Zuccolin

Yarrow. From Dioscorides, De medicinali materia. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Yarrow. From Dioscorides, De medicinali materia.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Before starting my research on anomalous bleeding and vicarious menstruation in medieval and Renaissance medicine, I was already well aware that according to Hippocrates, Aphorism V.33, “in a woman when there is a stoppage the menses, a discharge of blood from the nose is good”. What I did not know then is that the absence or irregular flow of menstruation puzzled physicians and their patients until the beginning of the twentieth century.

Cases of compensatory bleeding – even in men suffering from hemorrhoids or nosebleeds — are so common in old medical literature that a comprehensive list would include endless instances. And the list does not end, as one might expect, when a clear link between menstruation and ovulation was finally drawn in the first half of the nineteenth century, that is to say when the ancient theory of menstruation as primarily having a cleansing and purifying function was finally dismissed in favour of a straightforward connection between menstrual flow and reproduction.

Only the identification of endometriosis, where endometrial tissue is found in abnormal situations outside the uterine cavity, nasal mucosa included, finally transformed the theory of vicarious menstruation into popular folklore in the 1930s.[1] Hence the idea of turning back to the past and trying to study gendered differences through the lens of the nosebleed, often seen as the supreme example of the compensatory bleeding theory. What were thought to be the causes of nosebleeds? Do the remedies used vary between men and women, or between menstrual and other bleeding? And in which cases did physicians provoke nosebleed as a therapy? What might this study tell us about gendered medical theories and practices in the Renaissance?

While looking for answers to my research questions in collections of recipes, which as far as I can see do not include any gendered difference in the omnipresent recipe “ad sanguinem de naribus sistendum/to staunche blode of thy nose”, and only rarely tackle the issue of provoking a nosebleed, I was especially fascinated by the recurrence of one herb with many names: Yarrow-Achillea millefolium. This also was known as Nosebleed, Sanguinary, Soldier’s woundwort, Military Herb, Knight’s Milfoil, Thousand-leaf, Thousand-seal, Thousand-weed, Bloodwort, Staunchweed, Venus’ eyebrow, Carpenter’s Weed, Seven Year’s Love, Snake’s Grass, Sneezewort, Devil’s nettle, Devil’s plaything, Bad Man’s plaything, Old man’s pepper… The herb is drying and binding, and renowned of old for quickly halting any bleeding when applied to external wounds.Homer recounts that the centaur Chiron taught Achilles to use yarrow on the Trojan battlefield when staunching wounds, hence the name of the genus, Achillea; its specific name, millefolium, is derived from the many segments of its foliage.

To provoke a nosebleed, one might inhale a pinch of powdered yarrow or push a rolled up yarrow leaf into the nostrils. A poultice of yarrow applied to the neck or temples could stop a nosebleed. As a wash, it was used to stop bleeding from piles, but as a drink it would help their pain. A cataplasm treated cold fits, sores and bruises. Yarrow was also used for toothache and internal bleeding (including excessive menstrual flow), either as a tea or by chewing the leaves.

Yarrow’s many uses were attested by an army of ancient and medieval medical authors, as well as by renowned early modern physicians and naturalists — Girolamo Fracastoro, Konrad Gesner and Leonardo Fioravanti. In his Considerations touching the Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy (1663), Robert Boyle discussed the different effects of substances “inwardly given or outwardly applied”:

And Mille-folium or Yarrow, besides the vertues it hath inwardly against diseases of quite other natures, being worn in a little bag upon the tip of the stomack, was the secret against agues of a great Lord, who was very curious of receipts and would sometimes purchase them at very great rates; and a very famous physitian of my acquaintance did since inform me that he had used it with strange success (p. 212).

Other evidence of yarrow’s medical success emerged in 2010, after the analysis of plant DNA in Greek-made pills from a 130 BC shipwreck revealed the presence of yarrow.[2] Recent pharmacological studies of medicinal plants mentioned in Anglo-Saxon medical works also confirmed that yarrow may well have been effective for treating wound and bacterial infections and as a febrifuge[3].

But the most detailed description of the virtues of this herb I have found so far is the one given by the botanist and surgeon John Gerard (1545-1612) in his Herball or Generall historie of plantes (1633). The Cambridge Library’s copy contains a funny anecdotal note on Cambridge student life:

The leaues of Yarrow doe close vp wounds, and keepe them from inflammation, or fiery swelling. It stancheth bloud in any part of the body, and it is likewise put into bathes for women to sit in. It stoppeth the laske, and being drunke it helpeth the bloudy fluxe. Most men say that the leaues chewed, and especially greene, are a remedy for the tooth-ache. The leaues being put into the nose do cause it to bleed, and ease the paine of the megrim. It cureth the inward excorations of the yard of a man, comming by reason of pollutions or extreme flowing of the seed (…) the juice be injected with a syringe, or the decoction. This hath been prooued by a certain friend of mine, sometimes a Fellow of Kings Colledge in Cambridge, who lightly brused the leaues of common Yarrow, with Hogs-grease, and applied it warme vnto the priuie parts, and thereby did diuers times helpe himselfe, and others of his fellowes, when he was a student and a single man liuing in Cambridge.

I am not sure how and if this advice could be of any use to today’s students. Browsing the many volumes of medical consilia, observationes and curationes of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, I still have not found examples of therapeutically induced nosebleeds in women. After all, cupping, bloodletting and leeching were considered more handy and controllable options of intervention to interfere with a missing or irregular menstrual flow.

But please do let me know if you spot one!

For some cases of vicarious menstruation, see these posts by Helen King (ear hemorrhage), Lisa Smith  (tongue ulcer) and Sarah Read (leg ulcer). For a case of a menstruating man, see Lisa Smith’s post on “Manly Menstruation?“.


[1] V.S. Skultans, Research Note. Vicarious Menstruation, Social Science and Medicine, 21.6 (1985), 713-14.

[3] F. Watkins et al., Anglo-Saxon pharmacopoeia revisited: a potential treasure in drug discovery, Drug Discovery Today, 16. 23–24 (2011), 1069-75.

Green sickness, red plants

By Helen King

I’ve been interested for a long time in green sickness, a condition affecting girls at puberty that involved menstrual suppression, often along with some sort of dietary ‘blockage’. The remedies for it, over the 400 or so years that it was recognised as a disease, raise all sorts of problems. For example, in the 19th century it was seen as a form of anaemia, so iron was prescribed. In the 17th century, before that level of knowledge of blood existed, ‘steel filings’ were often part of the remedy, and iron is a constituent of steel. So, how did they know to use steel? Or was this nothing to do with the iron content, but instead about steel being imagined as ‘cutting through’ the blockages?

Langham’s text. From http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/insrv/libraries/scolar/digital/healthyreading.html . Copyright: Cardiff University, used with permission.

William Langham wrote ‘The Garden of Health’ in 1597. It was based on earlier recipe collections, and I came upon it when I was thinking about using recipes to tease out what exactly was supposed to be causing the symptoms – so, if the recipe involved plants that were clearly evacuative, then this could suggest that the cause of the disease was seen as a blockage. Langham arranged plants in simple alphabetical order, rather than arranging the material under the names of diseases; but, as part of his accessibility, he also gave a list of conditions with references to the different plant entries where the reader could find out more.

Langham gives a range of recipes for green sickness. One is packed full of ‘red’ plants –

‘seethe powder of the Keyes [i.e. the ash tree] with Betonie, red Sage, red Mynts, and Magerom [marjoram] in running water from a pottell [= 2 quarts] to a quart, and drink thereof a good draught with sugar warme morning and evening’

Elaine Hobby pointed out to me that this recipe also appears in 1677 in ‘The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight’ by ‘T.P.’ (possibly Hannah Woolley), but with ‘red Fennel’ instead of ‘red Mynts’. There was a second edition of Langham in 1633, and maybe the author used this.
So what’s all this red about? Betony, sage and marjoram often appear together in later collections as a gentle sternutatory. Red sage and betony are used against bilious attacks. Ash keys feature today on ‘wild food’ sites with the warning that they are very bitter and need to be boiled several times before eating, but what was used here was the ripe seed, dried and then reduced to powder. The ash-powder is used elsewhere for the stone (by provoking urination), jaundice and dropsy.

So maybe there’s something here about getting rid of obstructions. But to me, all this redness suggests the colour of blood, and the use of running water also makes me think that this is aimed at restoring or establishing a normal menstrual flow. How do we balance the known effects of the plants chosen, with the symbolic power of red? Comments please!

Helen King is Professor of Classical Studies at the Open University, UK. Her book on green sickness is  The Disease of Virgins.