Ich bin ein soapy Berliner

 This week I have been to Berlin for a workshop on ancient scientific, technical and medical texts. I have been to this workshop almost every year since 2005, and it is always lovely to see old friends and make new ones. This year, I took my 10-month-old baby in my hand-luggage. My husband and older son stayed in Cardiff. My parents came to join me in Berlin to help with baby G. It was all a bit hectic! There was a time when the thing that worried me most about conferences was, well, the paper. No longer so: conference-going is now a military-type operation that requires lengthy planning besides writing the paper. But all went well: we made it to Berlin and back; the hotel had provided a baby bed this time (I speak from experience: this does not always happen, even if you say you are travelling with a baby); baby G. enjoyed his time with his grandparents; all the papers were really interesting; and my own paper was very well received. I spoke about what I call ‘ethnic plants’ in the ancient world, that is, plants whose name includes an indication of their – often alleged – geographical origin (for instance cucumber from Megara; iris from Illyria; cumin from Ethiopia). In general, the Greeks and the Romans were quite keen on indicating where goods came from. This never really amounted to a system of appellations controlees, but it is still an interesting phenomenon.

To illustrate this, I thought I’d discuss the only ‘German’ product I could find in ancient pharmacological recipes: soap. Pliny the Elder (first century CE) writes that:

There is also soap (sapo), an invention of the Gauls to make the hair shiny [literally: red]. It is made of tallow and ashes, the best are beech ashes and goat tallow. It exists in two forms: compact and liquid. Among the Germans, it is used more by the men than by the women (Natural History 28.191)

Pliny does not say much about soap preparation – unfortunately. His allusion to this product is merely an opportunity to point out how odd (in his opinion, I hasten to add) the Germans are: their men use this cosmetic concoction more than their women. Greek and Roman authors often stress that women are extremely fond of cosmetics, even though there are many indications that men in antiquity also used them (more on that another time).

The only other author to call soap ‘German’ is Oribasius (fourth century CE). Other authors usually call soap ‘Celtic’ or ‘Gallic’. Aretaeus (a rather obscure figure, probably active in the first century CE), for instance writes:

There are many other remedies of the Celts, which are now called Gauls. Thus, there are the alkaline [literally: that are like natron] substances made into balls, with which they wash their clothes, called soap. It is excellent to wash the body with these in the bath. (Treatment of Chronic Diseases 2.13)

Unfortunately, again, we don’t have a full recipe in Aretaeus, neither do we have one in Galen, who mentions Gallic soap a couple of times as an ingredient in recipes for skin ailments. Recipes for soap are to be found in later medical authors. Thus, both Aetius (sixth century CE) and Paul of Aegina (seventh century CE) have a recipe for a Soap of Constantine:

Soap of Constantine, good to dry up fluxes: pomegranate flower, myrrh, realgar, spikenard, of each two obols; costus, aloes, oak-gall, frankincense, leaves of pomegranates, roses, gum, of each 3 obols; Gallic soap, 1 litra. Grind and sift the dry ingredients; mix with the wet ingredients; add the soap and make pastilles. (Aetius 6.54).

 Here, Gallic soap is the base for this nice smelling concoction. I appears the Romans were not particularly interested in making their own soap, using tallow and ashes. One can wonder whether the soap of Constantine was thus named after the emperor of that name. Naming a recipe after a ‘famous’ person was a common practice. In this context, another recipe preserved by Aetius is particularly fascinating. It is the ‘soap which the Patrician Pelagia used to make her face beautiful.’ Now, I need to do a bit more work on this recipe to provide a translation, but unlike others, it is quite detailed – I might exeriment with it in the future. For now, I just want to say that there circulated around the time of Aetius a story about a certain Pelagia of Antioch, who used to be a famous courtesan, but converted to Christianity and lived a life of repentance until her death. Her life is told in the Life of Pelagia (see here for a translation). A soap named after Pelagia might have struck the right balance between ‘naughtiness’ and ‘sanctity’.  

I must say I did not end this blog-post where I thought I would. I did not expect to find this reference to Pelagia and have now spent a couple of hours reading about her… Not much time to experiment with recipes then. Here is something that can be made in a couple of minutes: uplifting scented bath salts. The scents I have chosen are more revitalizing and uplifting than relaxing, so time your bath accordingly.

You will need

Epsom Salts and essential oils

Epsom Salts and essential oils

–         150 g Epsom salts

–         5 drops lemon essential oil

–         5 drops geranium essential oil

–         5 drops sweet fennel oil (Fennel oil should be avoided in pregnancy)

My uplifting salts in a Berlin-themed box

My uplifting salts in a Berlin-themed box

Mix all ingredients. Put a couple of handfuls under hot running water. Have a long soak!

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2 Responses to Ich bin ein soapy Berliner

  1. Pingback: The Giants’ Shoulders #58: Without theme | Asylum Science

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