Concocting history: new year, new experiments

Today I have made some rose hand cream and some coconut body balm. I found the recipes in Gifts from your kitchen: make and gift wrap fabulous, home-made presents by Deborah Nicholas (2012).

So I have taken the plunge. After ten years spent studying ancient – Greek, Roman, and medieval – recipes for medicines and cosmetics, I have started making my own. At the moment, I am only following recipes found in modern books which I got as Christmas presents (thanks Phil!). Ultimately, however, I want to adapt some old recipes for today’s readers. Friends suggested I blog this – another first for me. Today, I thought I’d tell you why I have been so reluctant to experiment with old recipes. Note that I discuss pharmacological remedies and cosmetics together, as both were found in the same recipe collections; were prepared by the same artisans; and shared the same ingredients and techniques.

As an academic (currently a Lecturer in Ancient History at Cardiff University, albeit on maternity leave at the moment), I give talks to a variety of audiences. Without a shadow of a doubt, the question I get asked most often is ‘have you ever tried some of the remedies you study?’. My answer is usually a combination of the following points:

1) I am not a chemist/botanist/pharmacologist. I am a historian and as such, I am more interested in the mechanisms whereby recipes have been transmitted than in the recipes themselves. Needless to say, that answer tends not to cut it – and in its longer incarnations does send people to sleep. It’s also only partially true. I am a keen cook and I do love imagining what ancient medicinal and cosmetic recipes did feel, taste, and the effect they would have had.
2) Ingredients. Ingredients listed in ancient recipes are often difficult to identify. When they are identifiable, they might be difficult to source. Ancient ingredients might have looked and felt quite different to their modern equivalents. For instance, ancient Greek olive oil might not have been much ‘stickier’ than the oil we use today. Besides, many ingredients commonly used in modern cosmetics and medicines were not available in the ancient West. As I was preparing a lovely coconut body balm, I realised that two of the four ingredients listed (coconut oil and cocoa butter) were unknown to the Greeks and Romans. In addition, some ingredients listed in ancient recipes are not particularly appetizing: crocodile-dung face-mask anyone?
3) Techniques. Ancient recipes notoriously give very little explanations on techniques involved in the preparation of remedies. Recipe books that explain techniques in detail are a very recent invention. In the past, people learnt techniques from their parents and teachers. This is what historians call ‘tacit knowledge’. What I can say, however, is that many current techniques did not exist in antiquity. The ancients could not produce ‘essential oils’ as they did not distil. And of course, they did not have all our microwaves and hand-blenders.
4) Tastes and fashions (this applies mostly to cosmetics). One example will suffice. The ancients valued nard very highly. Nard oil was extremely expensive and sought after. Well, I once smelt nard, and I do not want to repeat the experience. Nard is part of the Valerian family and smells like the valerian found in over-the-counter insomnia remedies. Care to have a perfume that smells of sleeping pills?
5) Efficacy (this applies mostly to pharmacological recipes). This is an extremely thorny issue. Many ancient ingredients are efficacious according to modern standards. For instance, olive oil mentioned earlier is still an excellent carrier oil for dry-skin creams; and vinegar can still be used to cleanse wounds, as it has anti-bacterial properties. However, is it legitimate to apply modern standards to ancient remedies? What about the symbolic value attributed to natural products in ancient societies? What about what we now call the placebo effect?
6) Safety. Many ancient remedies had a very strong effect on the body. It is debatable whether they are safe or not. One of the most commonly used types of remedy was the emetic, that is, a remedy that makes you throw up. Not something your doctor would recommend for a common ailment… I could also mention the blistering-beetle pessary (vaginal suppository) recommended to bring about menstruation, post-natal bleeding and the placenta. There is a reason why the blistering-beetle is called that way. Applied as a pessary, it would irritate the delicate vaginal membranes. Not something I ever want to experience!

Thus, I have spent 10 years giving elaborate explanations as to why I was avoiding preparing my own remedies. More and more, however, my own answers are bothering me. How can I get an in-depth understanding of the topic I am studying without experimenting it? Why should I not bring together my skills as an academic historian and as a cook? Why should I use shop-bought herbal remedies but not use my knowledge of ancient pharmacy to adapt them? Time to change then…

I leave you with some comments on two ancient products I have found useful, despite the initial ‘yuk’ factor.

1) Breast-milk. Ancient pharmacological writers recommend breast-milk in the preparation of gynaecological and ophthalmological remedies. You can ask any midwife and she will tell you that there is nothing like breast-milk to treat babies’ sticky eyes. Old texts usually recommend the milk of a woman who has had a boy. I am very lucky to have two boys, so my breast-milk must be very powerful. But if you can only source a mother of girls, I am sure you’ll be fine.
2) Unwashed sheep wool. This was often used as a means to apply remedies into the vagina and as a ‘plaster’ in the ancient world. Sounds discussing and un-hygienic? Well, I once mentioned this to my grand-mother-in-law who grew up on a farm in Wales, and she told me that as a child she did put unwashed wool in her shoes when she had blisters. Unwashed wool is full of lanolin, you see! Maybe not the refined (and very expensive) type you’ll find in shops, but still efficacious lanolin.

This entry was posted in Cosmetics, History of gynaecology, History of medicine, Homemade remedies and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Concocting history: new year, new experiments

  1. Dare I ask, is blistering beetle a plant or er…a beetle? Love the blog, fascinating.


    • Thanks Lesley! Blister(ing) beetles are really beetles. Recipes preserved in the Hippocratic Corpus (a collection of texts dating to the fifth and fourth centuries BCE) give instructions on how to remove their wings, legs etc. I might blog more on the history of the blistering beetle one day. They were also used in aphrodisiacs…


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