Precious Objects as Materia Medica
Coral & Pearl
In the Secrets of Maister Alexis, translated into English by William Warde in 1558 we find on folio 69 (recto) a recipe for a distilled water which "is very good to make white and to beautifie the flesh, and to take away the wrinckles of the face". It concludes with the confident words “A thinge proved”. It is a complex recipe, too lengthy to quote here, but it begins with the direction to slice “litle greene pine Apples” into thin rounds which are then steeped in goat’s milk for three days. At the end of these three days the slices are to be distilled in an alembic with eight more ingredients, one of which is powdered “pieces of redde corall two ounces”. The final ingredient, snails, links this recipe to Dr Mead’s Snail Water which is featured in our Herb Garret displays. In Dr Mead’s recipe the snails are merely to be “washed and bruised” whereas that of Maister Alexis calls for them to be “well stamped”. Snails are actually a second best ingredient in the beautifying water, only to be used if it is not possible to obtain the preferred “Snailes such as carry no shelles on their backes.” I find it fascinating how limited the English vocabulary was in the 1500s. In my earlier blog on the Marigold flower I mentioned that there was no word for the colour orange until the 1540s, and in 1558 there was evidently no commonly used word for a slug despite there being one for a snail.
It was very common for recipes which included coral to also include pearl. Examples of this can be found not just in learned ‘Books of Secrets’, Master Alexis’s book being just one of this genre. The coral/pearl combination also appears in the receipt books of 17th century gentlewomen. The hand-written receipt book of Lady Anne Blencowe includes directions for making ‘ye red ball’, pills gilded with gold leaf that were taken in a sage posset drink to treat a fever, or in sack (an antiquated word for sherry) in cases of smallpox. It was an expensive remedy to produce and costly ingredients such as saffron, Venetian Treacle and leaf gold which seemingly within the mixture as well as for the gilding, were combined with “red corall and pearl of each 2 drams”. It was widely believed at that time that pearls were a useful medicinal ingredient because they had an absorbent quality, and that coral could cure smallpox in children. However, red balls were taken for neither of these reasons and it could be that the very costliness of coral and pearl was a factor in their inclusion in this recipe.
Coral may have been one of the ingredients that the apothecary of St Thomas’s hospital stored in the Herb Garret. It appears in a fever powder in a book of medicinal remedies that the apothecary would have used, the Pharmacopoeia pauperum. In this treatment for a fever, 8 ounces of powdered red coral is mixed with the same quantity of white amber.
The inclusion of amber brings us onto another category of materia medica that was used throughout the medieval period and well into the 1700s, that of precious stones (amber falling into this category although not a stone).
The Peterborough Lapidary, recently translated and edited by Francis Young , shows that precious stones were being used as remedies for exactly the same medical conditions as those treated with contemporary herbal remedies. Here are three examples which demonstrate this. . You can see from these examples that, like herbs, stones could be used for esoteric as well as practical purpose
The lapidary states “if a man or woman may not piss because of the stone, take the powder of jet and drink it lukewarm with red wine or with sweet cows’ milk and he will soon piss and the stone will also break.” There are many herbs which were used to break or expel bladder stones (‘the stone’) but there are two with names which are particularly appropriate to this blog, Coral Wort and Pearl Wort. These are archaic names given in Culpeper’s Herbal. ‘Coral Wort’ might be Toothwort (Dentria bulbafera) or Coralroot Bittercress (Cardamine bulbafera) and ‘PearI Wort’ refer to a member of the pink or carnation family.
The lapidary also states that jet “prevents witchcraft and charms”. Again many plants were believed to have this quality, Rowan being the most famous example.
According to the Peterborough Lapidary “it will staunch blood by reason of him who has belief”. One of many herbs that were used to staunch bleeding was Yarrow. No belief was required as it is known today that Yarrow does indeed check bleeding. Another plant which was used for the same purpose was Verbena Officinalis or Vervain. Another vernacular name for it was Herb of the Cross. A healer was to recite a certain charm, or incantation, whilst gathering the plant. This seems to have been first recorded in 1610 (J. White’s The Way of the True Cross) although it is highly likely that it was in use in previous centuries. This version has the pivotal lines “Thou healest our Saviour, Jesus Christ / and staunchest his bleeding wound”. However, the version recorded by Thiselton Dyer in 1889 makes it even clearer that this herb could be used to treat anyone’s wound.
All hail, thou holy herb, vervin
Growing on the ground;
On the Mount of Calvary
There wast thou found;
Thou helpest many a grief,
And staunchest many a wound.
In the name of sweet Jesu,
I lift thee from the ground.
Jasper “is also very valuable to women who are labouring with child; and if she has it on her she will be delivered sooner.” Lady’s Bedstraw was held to have the same benefits. It has the name Lady’s, (singular) even though it helped ladies (plural) because of the medieval legend that the Virgin Mary, or Our Lady, gave birth in the stable laying on this herb because the greedy ox and ass had eaten all the hay she otherwise would have laid upon. From this tale arose the conviction that a woman could be safely delivered if she gave birth lying on a mattress stuffed with Lady’s Bedstraw.
The Peterborough Lapidary claims that “Whoever bears it on his left side, no wicked thing will grieve him”. An equivalent herb, to the Anglo-Saxons at least, was a plant they named ‘Bishopwort’, which is believed to be Betony. According to The Old English Herbarium, Manuscript V if the plant is gathered and prepared following a prescribed ritual, and the person using it tastes it powdered root when it is needed “it shields him against dreadful night-goers and against frightful visions and dreams”.
Banyer, H., Pharmacopoeia pauperum: or, the hospital dispensatory...(London: 1729, Eighteenth Century Collection Online [ECCO] print edition facsimile)
Culpeper, N., Complete Herbal (1653) (Manchester: 1826 edition)
Jordan, M., Plants of Mystery and Magic (London: 2001)
Pollington, S., Leechcraft – early English charms, plantlore and healing (Ely: 2000)
Stapley, C., The Receipt Book of Lady Anne Blencowe – Seventeenth Century Cookery and Home Medicine (Basingstoke: 2004)
Thistelton Dyer, T.F., The Folklore of Plants (London: 1889)
Ward, W., The Secretes of the Reverend Maister Alexi of Piemont...translated out of Frenche into Englyshe, by William Warde(London: 1558, Early English Books Online [EEBO] facsimile)
Young, F. (ed, tr), A Medieval Book of Magical Stones – The Peterborough Lapidary (Texts in Early Modern Magic, Cambridge: 2016)
Julie Wakefield began specialising in herbalism at the Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. As a staff member at the Old Operating Theatre she delivers talks on past uses of plants both in the Herb Garret and Southwark Cathedral.