Tag Archives: Paracelsus

Bright Red, Dark Red: Coral’s Color-Coded Virtues

By Jennifer Park

I have long wanted to explore the fascination with coral as an ingredient in the history of science and medicine. Laurence Totelin wonderfully began her post on the use of coral in an ancient amulet by placing coral “centre stage,” noting its curious and complex categorization as animal, plant, or stone, and bringing attention to the other posts in which the red ingredient has cropped up. In tandem with these fascinating mentions of coral, I have been struck for years by a remarkable image in the medieval French Livre des simples médecines which depicts coral on an apothecary’s shelf in a beautiful, vibrant red.

Livre des simples médecines, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS n.a. fr. 6593, fol. 12322.

In this post, I’d like to focus on coral’s red color, a key indicator of the ingredient’s effectiveness, and its naturally occurring virtues as explained in early modern texts. In his medical treatise, translated into English as Paracelsus his Dispensatory and Chirurgery (London,1656), the physician Paracelsus provides an entire treatise on “the Vertues and Preparations of CORALS.” From the start, Paracelsus’s examination focuses on the color of red coral, determining two main kinds: a “dark red colour, or toward a purple colour,” and “a bright, shining red colour” (39). It is the quality of the redness of coral, Paracelsus insists, that indicates its virtue and effectiveness.

Coral that has the “clear, bright, shining red colour”—and additionally which is “full of boughs, and no where broken”—is “full of power and vertue” (40). This virtue is lessened if the coral has “clefts” or is missing parts. Paracelsus uses this to begin his analysis of color differences in coral, and how those color differences indicate the use value of the coral in a number of different remedies.

Paracelsus’s starting premise is that the corals that have the bright red color are “pleasant and delectable,” while the “dark red” or purple are “not pleasant to the eye” (40). Correspondingly, Paracelsus advises that if you carry coral with you, one should “chuse and love the bright Coral,” but “beware…the dull, dark Coral” (40). This leads to Paracelsus’s emphasis of the role of color in distinct affective differences in coral. “As joy differs from sorrow, and laughing from weeping” he outlines, “so these two sorts of Corals differ the one from the other” (40). Therefore, a “sick or weak man, who would have his heart merry and joyfull” would “increase his disease and sadnesse of heart” were he to carry with him the darker colored coral (40-41).

In addition to the affective differences in brightly or darkly colored red coral, the redness of the coral, according to Paracelsus, serves to address one’s susceptibility to various mental, psychosomatic, and spiritual concerns. For example, bright red coral is “good to quicken Phansie, or imaginative faculty” (41), which helps to aid the “studie of Secrets, of Arts and Sciences, and new Inventions” without tiring the mind (41). This is because bright red coral prevents the mind from being infected by “the Divel,” or with “impurity, wickedness or vanity” (41); the dark red coral, however, “doth the contrary” (41).

Bright red coral also protects against “Phantasms, or nocturnal spirits” as well as “vain visions, or vain sights, call’d Spectra” (41). Phantasms and nocturnal spirits were believed to be both good and bad, related to nightmares. Though not of much use to humans, these phantasms were cumbersome in that they could trouble one’s thoughts. Bright red coral provides a remedy, as these phantasms “fly from these bright Corals as a dog from a staff,” although one must beware of the darker colored corals which, in contrast, attract these nocturnal spirits (42). Spectra, on the other hand, are ghosts, or as Paracelsus describes, the “Starry bodies of dead men” (42). These ghosts “cannot endure to be where the bright Coral is,” and thus bright red coral can be used as protection from them. In contrast, however, “dark coloured Coral allures” the ghosts (42).

It is perhaps due to the influence of bright red and dark red coral on both psychosomatic and supernatural afflictions, the spirits and ghosts that can plague early modern minds, that it also gains the reputation of aiding with melancholy. Melancholy, according to Paracelsus, is “a disease which makes a man sad whether he will or not; that he grows weary of every thing, and becoms dull: and by his diverse thoughts and speculations makes him grieve and weep” (43). Bright red coral is able to drive melancholy away, whereas the dark red coral increases melancholy.

Indeed, the early modern description of these virtues of a coral’s redness fits with the ways in which we ascribe affective significance to colors. The vibrancy of red coral thus contributes to its use in recipes that draw upon its redness, not only for its affective influence but also for its sympathetic properties, like the blood staunching remedies of antiquity that Laurence Totelin brings to light and the eighteenth-century bloodstone that Marieke Hendrikksen examines. As Paracelsus himself exclaims, “the mysteries and secrets of Corals are wonderfull” (51)!

Van Helmont´s Recipes

By Saskia Klerk, with Sietske Fransen

Five years ago the Special collections of the University Library Leiden acquired the book and manuscript collection from the estate of J.M.H. van de Sande (d. 2010), a Dutch pharmacist. As part of the ERC-project on the writing practices of physicians, led by Volker Hess and Andrew Mendelsohn at the Charité in Berlin, I examined one of these manuscripts, now catalogued as BPL 3603. One of Van de Sande´s special interests was Paracelsus and Jan Baptista van Helmont (1579-1644). This interest would explain how this Dutch language manuscript of seventy folios came into his possession. Indeed, on the ex libris of Van de Sande´s Bibliotheca Pharmacia, the note “612.8 Helm”, suggests that Van den Sande catalogued the manuscript with other works by Van Helmont. More pencil writing on the same page reads “Van Helmond´s recepten” or Van Helmond´s recipes.

Sietske Fransen, who has researched Van Helmont and his son Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont (1614-1699) (see for example (16/10/2014) and (30/12/ 2014 ), and I decided to contribute a new series on this Dutch recipe book to The Recipe Project. It will be a great way to continue our research on this manuscript and share our discoveries, similarly to the way Hillary Nunn and Rebecca Laroche have done here. Our starting point will be to ask what the manuscript can tell us about its anonymous author or authors and their reading and writing practices.

Taking a closer look at the manuscript it is clear that it contains material from Van Helmont’s publications besides recipes. It also contains recipes from Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535) and Johan van Beverwijck (1594-1647), amongst others. Its dating of ca. 1677 is based on the appearance of this date on the first page of the manuscript and correlates to the latest dates noted with the recipes.

Universiteitsbibliotheek Leiden BPL 3603 fol.2r
Universiteitsbibliotheek Leiden BPL 3603 fol.2r. The first recipe is for “amborstigheit”, or shortness of breath.

The recipes themselves are at first arranged alphabetically according to the affliction they are directed at. From about halfway through the manuscript, however, they are also grouped together according to the product of the recipe or its main ingredient. They are evenly and uniformly distributed over the page and leave only limited space for additions. All of the recipes are in Dutch. The initial alphabetical order as well as the little annotation space suggests that the manuscript was carefully  designed as a more or less final record of recipes.

Universiteitsbibliotheek Leiden BPL 3603 (n.p.) fol.1r
Universiteitsbibliotheek Leiden BPL 3603 (n.p.) fol.1r. The date “1677” can be seen at the bottom of the third table.

A few things immediately intrigued us about the manuscript. Instead of a title page, the first page contains three very basic tables: that of pharmaceutical signs; of astrological signs; and a list of conversions of Arabic to Roman numerals. On the final page we find a table entitled “explanation of characters in general use of alchemists” and one of “characters and weights of medics and apothecaries”. A question we would like to raise for further discussion is what the inclusion of such tables, says about the intention behind the compilation of the manuscript.

Furthermore, those few sources for the recipes that are named, appear to be printed books. The sources show that the compiler of the collection was a keen reader of medical works in Dutch. The popularity of these publications can be gauged from their increasing number on the market in the decades before and following the composition of the manuscript. Much less is known however about how and by whom these books were read. This manuscript promises to tell us a great deal about the practices of a reader of these publications.

Finally, it is very exciting to see texts by two contemporary physicians from the Northern and Southern Netherlands together in the manuscript. Although Van Beverwijck from Dordrecht and Van Helmont from Brussels both wrote in Dutch, they are rarely discussed together in the historical literature. This is understandable from the character of their writings.

An engraving and the beginning of a poem by Cats, illustrating the chapter "What life consists of and by what means it is maintained in health". Johan van Beverwijck, Schat der Gesont heyt (Amsterdam 1643) p. 60.
An engraving and the beginning of a poem by Cats, illustrating the chapter “What life consists of and by what means it is maintained in health”. Johan van Beverwijck, Schat der Gesont heyt (Amsterdam 1643) p. 60.

Van Beverwijck published several medical books in Dutch, most notably Schat der Gesontheyt (Treasure of Health) and Schat der Ongesontheyt (Treasure of Unhealth iness), which became very popular and appeared in many editions from the 1630’s onwards. In these publications his medical writings were alternated with poems by the famous Dutch poet Jacob Cats (1577-1660) and illustrated with engravings. The fame of these books made Van Beverwijck a household name. Van Beverwijck thus effectively adapted the medicine he was taught at university to a non-academic audience.

Van Helmont on the other hand is best known for his Latin works, such as Ortus Medicinae (The Rise of Medicine, 1648), while his Dutch medical publication Dageraed (1659) is much less known. And despite the vernacular language, this book is not as accessible as Van Bever- wijck’s publications with its poems and pictures, and was not read widely by the seventeenth-century Dutch audience.

Despite their contrasting reputations, the compiler of BPL 3603 apparently considered both authors to be valuable resources for his recipe book. The manuscript provides us therefore with an exciting example of seventeenth-century comparative reading of two authors that were thought to be read by different audiences.

We look forward to finding out more about the assembler of the manuscript as well as the way in which he used his sources. Next month, Sietske will discuss the material from Van Helmont further.


The Early Modern Matter of Fecal Medicines

Whilst perusing some seventeenth century recipes for medicines I stumbled across a few curious ingredients. Granted, many of the ingredients found in Johanna St. John’s recipe book – aside from now common herbs and spices like cinnamon or saffron – might look odd to the modern eye. Some of the ingredients that struck me were spermaceti (sperm whale fat); the sole of an old but clean shoe, burnt to ashes; a crab’s eyes, and the black tips of its claws.

As I read I couldn’t help but assume that the addition of spices, or the use of wine, sugar, and brandy might have best served to make some of the recipes more palatable. But then something caught my eye that all the cinnamon, saffron, and distillation could not possibly conceal. To put it lightly, it was, well, poo. Precisely, for smallpox, “a sheep’s dung, cleane picked”. Clearly you would want to make sure you were getting pure, uncontaminated crap. The recipe goes on to instruct the user to mix a handful of the stuff into a pint of white wine, “mash it well” and after leaving it to stand a full night, to serve a spoonful or two at a time. But wait, there’s more! A note tucked into the margin recommends this smelly recipe for gout and jaundice. Fecal wine, if you will: good for what ails you.

Manure. Credit: Petr Kratochvil

In the mid-seventeenth century Nicholas Culpeper’s Pharmacopoeia Londinensis (1652) heavily criticized the Royal College of Physician’s required inventory for Culpeper and his fellow apothecaries. In his work, which translated the tome on medicine to English from Latin for the first time during the English Interregnum, Culpeper wrote this of a section featuring “living creatures” and “their excrements”: “alack! alack! the king is dead, and the College of Physicians want power to impose the turds upon men” (Culpeper, 52). Culpeper was right, it seemed many were holding onto ideas about fecal medicine. However, while most insisted that ordure altered by the art that was physick was medicinal, some practitioners had more radical ideas about the uses of feces and medicine.

Culpeper’s Pharmarcopoeia, Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Paracelsus was an enthusiastic alchemist, whose writings from the mid sixteenth century blasted Galenic based humoral models that were then commonly taught at European universities. Historian Philip Ball explains that Paracelsus’ particular alchemy “was concerned not with gold making, but with medicines” (Ball, 164). The Swiss magus claimed that regular doctors forced “worthless, bookish remedies” on the sick  “by following ancient methods” strictly for gain (Ball, 165). Paracelsus claimed to have found an alternative to the medicines of the ancients by experimentation, which left him with the conclusion that alchemical processes could render the virtues of nature by separation: “a parting of the detritus and waste of mundane reality from the vital healing forces of nature” (Ball, 165).

Line engraving of Paracelsus, Wellcome Library no.7594i. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

And he just loved manure, as you may have guessed by now. Paracelsus was convinced by his alchemical experimentation that “‘decay is the beginning of all birth’ – and of all health, for ‘that which prevents putrefaction also will prevent health'” (Ball, 205). This is how Sir Robert Boyle, eminent scientist of the Royal Society would come to recommend human excrement, dried into powder, and blown into the eyes as a treatment for cataracts (Sugg, 152).*

During the period of the English Civil War, the writings of Paracelsus polarized the medical community, and Ball argues that as civil war approached, Paracelsians formed line with Parliamentarians while Galenic minded scholars went with the Royals (Ball, 358). Historian Richard Sugg explains,  “Paracelsianism flourished during the Civil War and Interregnum, congenial to many of those who – like Culpeper – practised iconoclasm at various levels” (Sugg, 39). Despite congeniality in iconoclasm, Culpeper wasn’t having the dung. Unfortunately for him, however, the divergent views of medicine both found their respective reasons to prescribe crappy remedies, with Paracelsians and Galenics promoting poop for years to come (Sugg, 163-168).

*Boyle’s manuscript reads: “Take Paracelsus’s Zebethum Occidentale (viz. Human Dung)”. Boyle explains that his recipes are classed by letter: “whereof A, is the Mark of a Remedy of the highest classes of these”. The recipe for cataracts was marked with an ‘A’.

Works Cited:

Ball, Philip. The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

Boyle, Robert. Medicinal Experiments 5th edition. 1712. Gale DocNumber: CW10708275

Culpeper, Nicholas. Pharmarcopoeia Londinensis, or The London Dispensatory. 1652.

Sugg, Richard. Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians. London: Routledge, 2011.