Madnesse, Misfortune, and a Quart of Earthworms

By Robin Kello
MA Student, UNC Charlotte

How do you treat madnesse or frensie? Readers of Edward Littleton’s seventeenth-century A book of receipts which was given me by several men for several causes, griefs and diseases may consult page 77. There they will find a brief remedy that involves placing a boyled roote to the head to drain out the water of madness, then letting the blood from the middle of the forehead.

The day after the transcribathon, my colleagues from UNC-Charlotte and I spent the afternoon in the Folger stacks, and I had the good fortune to read through Littleton’s manuscript. What I found there is a genre-defying compendium of cures, hundreds of pages of secretary hand that inspired in this reader a Giddines in the head.

Littleton’s Book of Receipts charts a wide-ranging constellation of afflictions and curatives, giddily jumping over what have become standardized borders between the physical and mental. No matter what ails you, chances are there are answers to be found here.

You may or may not, however, believe in those answers. On a loose-leaf sheet from Littleton’s manuscript, we find advice that, to a twenty-first century reader, is more astrological than medical. It begins with certaine clymactericall years in a mans life, lists the perilous days of the each month, and then concludes with the suggestion to be especially careful on a few dangerous mundayes, on which you should not begin a journey or any business. Why does misfortune reign on those Mondays? The first Monday in September, out in a field, Cain slew his brother Abel. On the last Monday in December, Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus Christ.

These manuscripts illustrate the ingredients available in early modern kitchens and gardens and a manner of looking to the environment for techniques of care, but as in Littleton’s star-haunted tiptoeing through certain dangerous days, they also show us a portrait of the supernatural beyond the natural and a notion of the spirit in the matter that surrounds us.

Remedies may rest and answers may be found, Littleton suggests, in the grass beneath our feet or the fires in the sky. Another loose-leaf page contains a long list of ingredients lacking a title and a process. It begins with 2 Good handfulls of Anjelica 2 of Saladine and concludes with the following rhetorical flourish: A peck of Garden Snails and a Quart of Earth Worms. Whether this impressive list of herbs and creatures is to be boiled or baked, or whether it is good to eat or good to treat is unclear. Perhaps it is simply a shopping list, like the one the Clown in The Winter’s Tale takes to the woods in preparation for the sheep shearing feast, where he is then robbed blind by the disguised Autolycus.

At the sheep shearing, Polixenes tells Perdita that there is “an art / Which does not mend nature, change it rather, / but the art itself is nature.” Polixenes suggests that nature and artifice, both products of creation, are one. The lines we draw in the dirt to separate one category from another are easily washed away. Manuscripts such as Littleton’s, in giving us a view of the world of those before us, force us to rethink the stability of the boundaries not just between the culinary and the medicinal but between art and nature, and the sciences and the humanities.

They also show us how little some things have changed. We are frenzied. We suffer from griefs and diseases, and we are still looking for answers in texts and kitchen cabinets, flora and fauna, roots and stars.