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How to cook your dragon and a medieval cure for old age

In the Middle Ages, old age was recognised as a major cause for physical and mental  impairment. The Franciscan friar Roger Bacon (c. 1214-c.1294) compiled all existing remedies against the ‘accidents of old age’ and thus produced the ultimate medieval guide to prevent and cure old age. Intriguingly, one of his remedies involved cooked dragon flesh.

How to cook your dragon

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Dragon in fifteenth-century Italian herbal. © The British Library, Sloane 4016, f. 38

Roger Bacon was one of the great scientific minds of the thirteenth century. A professor at the universities of Oxford and Paris, Bacon was an expert in various fields, ranging from grammar to logic, astronomy and philosophy. He also had a keen interest in the occult, alchemy and medicine. Prompted by Pope Clement IV (d. 1268), Bacon wrote the encyclopedic Opus Majus, a work that deals with virtually all fields of medieval science. In book VI of this work, on ‘Experimental Science’, Bacon touches briefly on how to cure old age, noting a particularly effective remedy made from the flesh of dragons which are only known to the Ethiopieans:

For it is certain that  wise men of Aethiopia have come to Italy, Spain, France, England and those lands of the Christians in which there are good flying dragons, and by secret art they possess lure the dragons from their caverns. They have saddles and bridles in readiness, and they ride these dragons and drive them in the air at high speed, so that the rigidity of their flesh may be overcome and its hardness tempered. Just as in the case of boars and bears and bulls that are driven about by dogs and beaten in various ways before they are killed for food. After they have domesticated them in this way they have the art of preparing their flesh, similar to the art of preparing the flesh of the Tyrian snake, and they use the flesh against the accidents of old age, and they prolong life and sharpen their intellect beyond all conception. For no instruction that can be given by man can produce such wisdom as the eating of this flesh, as we have learned through men of proved reliability on whose word no doubt can be cast. (Roger Bacon, Opus Majus, trans. Burke, pp. 624-625)

The Ethiopeans, it seems, are the dragon-riders of the Middle Ages and the flesh of their domesticated dragons could cure old age! In his Opus Majus, Bacon does not touch upon the preparation of the dragon flesh, noting only that it is to be prepared in the same manner as that of other snakes.

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Roger Bacon presents is work on old age to a patron. © Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 211, f. 1r.

Fortunately, Bacon also compiled another work, entitled De retardatione accidentium senectutis [Concerning the slowing down of the accidents of old age] which was translated by Richard Browne in 1638 as “The Cure of Old Age and Preservation of Youth”. This compilation of existing medicinal writings on senescence (e.g. by Galen, Avicenna and Aristotle) does reveal how one is to prepare the flesh of serpentine beings so as to cure the “accidents of old age”:

… let four inches be cut off the Head and Tail, let the Guts be taken out, let them be washt very clean with Water and Salt, and let them be boiled again and again in Water and Salt, till the Flesh may easily be pulled and separated from the Bones, then let them be beaten in a Mortar, let the Flesh be anounted with the Oyl of Balm, and dryed in the Shade.

And a Man must take heed, that the Sunbeams do not fall upon the Flesh before it be dried, nor afterwards; For the Sun by his Power doth spoyl the Flesh of its Vertue, so that it expels no Poyson received either by Bite, or in any Drink. (trans. Browne, p. 114)

Bacon further notes that you can spice up your dragon flesh by adding “Cloves, Nutmeg, Mace, Citron-Rind, Zedoary and a little Musk” (trans. Browne, p. 118). You can mix all this with wine and then make rolls and little tablets (p. 145). Mmm.

Bacon’s occult remedies for old age 

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The Four Ages of Man and the Four Humours. With ‘Sanguinus’ (blood-man) as a young man top-right and ‘Flegmaticus’ (phlegm-man) as an old man bottom-right. © The British Library, Egerton 2572, f. 51v

Eating the flesh of Ethiopean dragons (or other serpentine beings) is not the only occult remedy for old age mentioned by Bacon. In all, Bacon includes seven ‘secret’ substances that may prolong life and cure old age:

1. Gold
2. Pearl
3. Rosemary
4. Drinking human blood of young people
5. The bone of a stag’s heart
6. Lign-aloes
7. Flesh of a snake [viper, tyrian snake or dragon]

A number of these occult remedies are examples of what may be termed ‘sympathetic magic’, a type of magic based on imitation or correspondence. The stag, for instance, was rumoured to live for a very long time and, so, the bone of its heart would prolong life as well; snakes seem to renew their youth by changing their skins and, therefore, their flesh has rejuvenating powers; gold was incorruptible and was considered a cure against corruption. Bacon’s advice to drink the blood of young people may be explained by what he, and may other medieval thinkers, considered to be the ultimate cause of old age: the loss of natural heat and natural moisture. Blood, according to ancient humoral theory, was both hot and moist and, therefore, a good supplement for the elderly who were typically cold (the elderly were also associatied with a loss of natural moisture, but an increase of extraneous moisture, i.e. phlegm, etc.).

Accidents, causes and remedial activities

Bacon’s De retardatione accidentium senectutis is not just a work of occult magic. It also outlines the various symptoms of old age, most of which still ring true today:

The Accidents of Age and Old Age are, Grey Hairs, Paleness, Wrinkles of the Skin, Weakness of Faculties and of natural Strength, Diminution of Blood and Spirits, Bleareyedness, abundance of rotten Phlegm, filthy Spitting, Shortness of Breath, Anger, Want of Sleep, an unquiet Mind, Hurt of the instruments, that is, of those, wherein the Animal Vertue does operate. (trans. Browne, pp. 22-23)

For each of these ‘accidents of old age’, Bacon mentions a specific cause: wrinkling of skin, for instance, is caused by heat and often found among those who work over a forge (therefore, ladies are advised to turn away their faces from a fire, if they want to retain their beauty). Other causes of old age include “touching cold things”, “superfluous Drunkenness”, “frequent Washing”, “frequent sports of Venus”, “immoderate Blood-letting” and “frequent and daily drinking of Water” (trans. Browne, pp. 78-79).

Throughout his work, Bacon also provides a number of activities that may undo or prevent the effects of old age, such as:

1. Vomit once or twice a month, especially in the afternoon (p. 82)
2. Anoint oneself with oil every morning, preferable mixed with sheep’s fat (pp. 123-125)
3. Live in warm places, avoiding cold and moist places (p. 139)
4. Bathe once a week, or once every 10 days (p. 141)
5. Avoid violent labour and exercise (p. 142)
6. Experience “Wrath, Joy, Mirth, Anger, and what ever provokes Laughter, as also Instrumental Musick, and Songs, to converse with Company which discourse facetiously, to look on precious Vessels, the Heavens and Stars, to be clothed with Variety of garments, to be delighted with Games, to obtain Victory over ones Enemies, to argue with ones most dear and beloved Friends.” (trans. Browne, p. 128)

Many of these activities, as Bacon relates, will cause your blood to flow and, in the case of vomitting, will get rid of the cold and moist humor that is prevalent in old people (Phlegm).

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Old man avoiding violent exercise in the margins of this glossed manuscript © The British Library, Burney 182, f. 3v

A medieval diet for old men

Bacon notes that remedies such as the ones that he has provided will do an old man no good if he does not also take care of what he eats and drinks: “Diet without Physick dometimes did good, but that Physick without due order of Diet never made a man one jot the better” (trans. Browne, p. 15). Here is a sample of the range of foodstuffs Bacon prescribes for the elderly:

1. Salad with lettuce, esp. against want of sleep (p. 34)
2. Flesh: Calf, kid, lamb, young goose, small birds; avoid: beef and goat. (p. 139)
3. Herbs: Pepper, ginger, cloves, saffron; avoid: mustard, garlick (p. 140)
4. Fruit: Figs, grapes, raisins (p. 140)
5. Nuts: Almonds, pine nuts (p. 140)
5. Avoid mushrooms, mulberries, melons and cucumbers (p. 140)

Note how the elderly are advised to eat the meat of young animals, which may be another example of sympathetic magic.

Wine is like a dragon

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Dragon with the head of an old man. © The British Library, Harley 1340, f. 8

A typical advice for healthy aging today is to drink wine (e.g., see here). Roger Bacon, too, deals with the anti-aging effects of wine and notes that there are five healthy properties to wine: “1. Heats the whole Body; 2. As it were pierceht the Members; 3. Tempers the Humors; 4. Excites Natural Heat; 5. Chears the Heart” (trans. Browne, pp. 103-104). Not all  types of wine are equally beneficial, however. Bacon notes that sour and old wine should be avoided and that white wine should only be drunk with a great deal of water. The best sort of wine is red wine, since it increases blood (the loss of which is the cause for old age) more than white wine does. Listing the beneficial effects of red wine, Bacon notes how “it will preserve the Stomach, strengthen the Natural Heat, help Digestion, defend the Body from Corruption, carry the Food to all the Parts, and concoct the Food till it be turned into very Blood: It also cheers the Heart, tinges the Countenance with Red, makes the Tongue voluble, begets Assurance, and promises much Good and Profit” (trans. Browne, p. 106).

Drinking too much wine, Bacon warns, will have a contrary effect, since it will darken the understanding, affect the brain, bring fortgetfulness, weaken joints, “Weakness of the Genitals” and “Destruction and Ruin of the Seed” (trans. Browne, p. 107). As such, Bacon concludes, wine “imitates the Nature of the Serpent, which taken immoderately, and not as Phsyicians advise, is mortal: of which well prepared, Antidotes are made that cure Diseases” (trans. Browne, p. 108). So, if you ever do catch that Ethiopian dragon, do make sure to cook it according to Bacon’s instructions and do not bite off more than you can chew!

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Paws, Pee and Pests: Cats among Medieval Manuscripts

Since today is #InternationalCatDay, I figured it was time to reboot the following blog post, which appeared three-and-a-half years ago on medievalfragments and is my most succesful blog post so far. In this present blog, I have added the rather entertaining aftermath of the blog post (I was contacted by The International Cat Association!), as well as a better version of the image of the medieval manuscript that was peed over by a mischievous feline in fifteenth-century Deventer…

Paws, Pee and Pests: Cats among Medieval Manuscripts

Everyone who has ever owned a cat will be familiar with their unmannerly feline habit of walking across your keyboard while you are typing. One of the manuscript pictures tweeted by @erik_kwakkel revealed that this is nothing new:

Cat paws in a fifteenth-century manuscript (photo taken at the Dubrovnik archives by @EmirOFilipovic)

Cat paws in a fifteenth-century manuscript (photo taken at the Dubrovnik archives by @EmirOFilipovic)

Although the medieval owner of this manuscript may have been quite annoyed with these paw marks on his otherwise neat manuscript, another fifteenth-century manuscript reveals that he got off lucky.  A Deventer scribe, writing around 1420, found his manuscript ruined by a urine stain left there by a cat the night before. He was forced to leave the rest of the page empty, drew a picture of a cat and cursed the creature with the following words:

“Hic non defectus est, sed cattus minxit desuper nocte quadam. Confundatur pessimus cattus qui minxit super librum istum in nocte Daventrie, et consimiliter omnes alii propter illum. Et cavendum valde ne permittantur libri aperti per noctem ubi catti venire possunt.”

[Here is nothing missing, but a cat urinated on this during a certain night. Cursed be the pesty cat that urinated over this book during the night in Deventer and because of it many others [other cats] too. And beware well not to leave open books at night where cats can come.]

Caption: Cursed be this cat for peeing over my book! (Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r)

Cursed be this cat for peeing over my book! (© Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r)

Given their inclination to defile beautiful books, why were cats allowed in medieval libraries at all? A ninth-century poem, written by an Irish monk about his cat “Pangur Bán”, holds the answer:

I and Pangur Bán my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

(You can read the full poem here)

The cats were there to keep out the mice. For good reason, because a medieval manuscript offered a tasty treat for the little vermin, as this eleventh-century copy of Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae illustrates. The manuscript has been all but devoured by rats and mice and every page shows the marks of their teeth.

A mouse ate my Boethius! (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 214, fol. 122r)

A mouse ate my Boethius! (© Corpus Christi College Cambridge, MS 214, fol. 122r)

Aside from their book-endangering eating habits, mice could be an annoying distraction, as illustrated by the twelfth-century scribe Hildebert. The illustration shows how a mouse has climbed up Hildebert’s table and is eating his cheese. Hildebert lifts a stone in an apparent attempt to kill the mouse. In the book that he was writing, we find a curse directed at the cheese-nibbling beast: “Pessime mus, sepius me provocas ad iram; ut te deus perdat” [Most wretched mouse, often you provoke me to anger. May God destroy you!]

Hildebert distracted by a mouse. (© Prague, Capitular Library, codex A 21/1, fol. 153r)

Hildebert distracted by a mouse. (© Prague, Capitular Library, codex A 21/1, fol. 153r)

So, while at least two cats are responsible for leaving their unwanted marks on manuscripts, the cat’s mouse-catching abilities may have saved a large number of manuscripts from ending up in a mouse’s belly and may have enabled many a scribe to focus on his work, knowing that his lunch would remain untouched.

The aftermath: My first paw-reviewed article

The blog post above was ridiculously succesful and has been viewed over 75,000 times over the last three-and-a-half years. Various bits of the blog post have also been floating around on the internet, including my own translation of the Latin along with the image of the cat-pee manuscript (sometimes with, but more often without attribution!). The success of the blog post, obviously, boils down to a mix of popular ingredients. The internet has always had a unique relationship with cats, with several websites being devoted only to clips and pictures of our feline friends. The Middle Ages, too, are gaining in popularity with the ongoing success of medieval fantasy series such as Game of Thrones and Vikings. People are fascinated by medieval culture and like learning more about the world of our ancestors a thousand years ago. Combining medieval stuff with cats? The key to success!

About two years ago, the blog post reached its apex of fame, when I received an e-mail from The International Cat Association (TICA). Apparently, they had read my blog post and now wanted to publish it in their magazine. This magazine, TICA TREND with its tagline ‘For Fabulous Felines, Fun and Friendships!’, is shipped to over five thousand cat owners worldwide! My piece was indeed published in the June/July issue of 2015, which also featured the winner of the 2013-2014 Best Household Pet Kitten of the Year’ (you can read it here).

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The TICA Trend magazine. My cat Cnut was most pleased to read the magazine ‘for fabulous felines, fun and friendship’; Breca the Pug was not impressed.

While I am aware that the little publication in TICA TREND is not an academic achievement worth boasting too much about, it does introduce the fascinating world of medieval manuscripts to an audience outside of academia. In all, therefore, I am quite pleased with my first ‘paw-reviewed’ article, even if something appears to have gone wrong in the printing process. The article’s title in the magazine reads ‘Paws, Pee and Pests: Cats among Medieval Century Manuscripts’ and the word ‘Century’ obviously shouldn’t have been there. Perhaps, the error was caused by a cat walking all over the editor’s keyboard – a problem a medieval scribe could relate to!

A better image of the cat-pee manuscript

The image of the manuscript with the scribe’s apology for feline urine that has circulated the Internet for the past three-and-a-half-years was taken with my IPhone from a photographic reproduction of the manuscript in a book. I was pleased to learn that the manuscript has since been digitzed (you can access it here), allowing me to present the Internet with a better quality image. Enjoy:

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© Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r