Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

16th-century Medicine for the Fascination of 21st-century Audiences

July 19th, 2013

Yesterday, KU announced a magnificent gift to the libraries and the KU Medical Campus from the estate of the late KUMC Dean Stata Norton Ringle and her husband David Ringle. One of the projects that tied Stata Norton Ringle to the Kenneth Spencer Research Library was her translation of a manuscript from our collections.  Produced circa 1562, Libro de i secretti & ricette, also known as the Jesuatti Book of Remedies (MS Pryce E1), is a collection of remedies used by the friars of the Order of Saint Jerome in Lucca, Italy to treat an array of ailments. These range from the common (digestive problems, colds, wounds and sores) to the cosmetic (baldness) to the strange (“For the crust that comes on the head of little children“) to the most dire (the plague, malaria). The remedies recorded in the manuscript are a variety of galenical mixtures of herbs, alchemical distillates, prayers, and incantations.

Page spread from the Jesuatti Book of Remedies featuring distillation diagrams
Jesuatti Book of Remedies. Lucca, Italy, circa 1562. Call number: MS Pryce E1. Click image to enlarge.
Image courtesy of KU Libraries Flickr Photostream.

This volume so captivated Professor Ringle that she taught herself Renaissance-era Italian to undertake its translation. The result was a digital edition, published in collaboration with KU Libraries’ Center for Digital Scholarship, that combines her annotated English translation with manuscript page images.

Browsing the digital edition, it’s easy to see why a professor of pharmacology, toxicology and therapeutics, like Dr. Ringle, would want to share this fascinating manuscript with scholars and the public at large. We have it on good authority from our web gurus that the most scatological, blush-inducing, and comically bizarre search terms driving internet traffic to the KU Libraries website tend to be page hits for the Jesuatti Book of Remedies. (I won’t list those search terms here, but this passage should give you a sense of some of the more sensitive topics the remedies address).

To celebrate the late Professor Ringle and her work, we reproduce three remedies from her translation and encourage you to continue on and peruse the entire volume online.  In her  preface, she wisely cautions that the translation is for “historical information only.”  We hope you enjoy reading these remedies, but please don’t try them at home!

Best remedy for headache. [From folio 13 verso]

Take 1 handful each of good marjoram and rosemary and make fine powder of them. In the morning take half a glass of good white wine and put therein a tablespoon of this powder, heat it and drink this early in the morning and soon you will be cured. This is also powerful to save the teeth so they will not decay and it will give you a good breath. It is the thing used by gentlemen. […]

To make gray hair dark. [From folio 19 recto]

Take equal amounts of soft dark soap and quicklime and yellow litharge and incorporate them in the form of an unguent and with this rub the gray hair several times and it will become dark. Continue this rubbing according to how you see the need as it turns from being white to dark.

Another for the aforesaid and also good. Take the juice of beets mixed with ashes made of chicken feathers and boil them together a while. Rub yourself with this in the evening when you go to sleep. […]

To remove redness from the face and make it the way one wants. [From folio 162 verso].

Take 1 ounce of native sulfur, 1 dram each of white incense and myrrh and ½ ounce of camphor. Powder everything very finely and mix it with ½ lb. of rose water and distill it in a little glass still. Preserve this water well-closed and bathe the face in the evening and morning with a sponge, rubbing well. Soon the redness of the face will disappear. This has been tested by many persons. [...]

Image of the Jesuatti Book of Remedies, folio 13v: Best remedy for headache Image of page of Jesuatti Book of Remedies giving remedy for making gray hair dar. A page from the Jesuatti Book of Remedies:

From the Jesuatti Book of Remedies digital edition: (left) “Best remedy for headache” folio 13v; (center) “To make gray hair dark” folio 19r; and (right) “To remove redness from the face and make it the way one wants,” folio 162v. Translated with notes by Stata Norton. Electronic edition published by the Center for Digital Scholarship, University of Kansas Libraries, 2010. http://etext.ku.edu/view?docId=jesuatti/jesuatti.xml. Click images to enlarge.

And the oldest item in the Kenneth Spencer Research Library is…

July 12th, 2013

…a cuneiform clay tablet a little over 4000 years old!

Photograph of Cuneiform clay tablet (MS Q4:4)

Ancient History: Cuneiform clay tablet, Umma, ca. 2055 BCE.
Call number: MS Q4:4. Click to enlarge.

This small baked clay tablet dates from ca. 2055 BCE in Umma in southern Mesopotamia (the location of modern-day Iraq).  Like many cuneiform tablets, it is an administrative document: in this case, an inventory of materials — such as asphalt, bitumen, and fish-oil — used in caulking the ship Ur-Gilgamesh.

Cuneiform is among the earliest systems of writing. It involves pressing signs into soft clay with a wedge-shaped tool. The tablet pictured above is in the Sumerian language; however, the library also holds later tablets in Akkadian.

Image of box containing Spencer Library's Cuneiform Tablets

Spencer’s cuneiform tablets, ca. 2112-529 BCE. Call Number: MS Q4. Click image to enlarge.

In all, Spencer houses eleven cuneiform tablets. The smallest of these (MS Q4:1, the top left tablet in the box) may possibly be even older than the ship caulking inventory. However, since it lacks a date of rule, its age can only be narrowed to likely sometime during the Third Dynasty of Ur, ca. 2112-2004 BCE. Interestingly, this tiny tablet is itself a receipt for something small: one dead lamb. Other tablets in the collection include votive inscriptions praising King Singashid of Uruk and Amnanum (MS Q:7-8) and a court record concerning a missing servant (MS Q4:10).

Since the ability to read Sumerian and Akkadian is a fairly specialized skill (we’re guessing you didn’t learn it in grade school either), Spencer has been fortunate enough to benefit from the expertise of its researchers.  Thanks to scholars and KU faculty members, such as Professor Paul Mirecki in the Department of Religious Studies, we are able to give a much better answer to the frequently asked question, “What’s the oldest thing in the library?”

Karen S. Cook and Elspeth Healey
Special Collections Librarians

“As Quiet as the Holy Sabath in a Civilized Land”

July 3rd, 2013

Beside marking the United States’ 237th birthday, tomorrow is also the 150th anniversary of the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi, a turning point of the Civil War. Spencer’s Kansas Collection contains a handful of accounts by Union soldiers who participated in the siege and capture of the bluff city on the Mississippi River. The most detailed record is contained within seven diaries kept by James W. Jessee (1838-1907).

Photograph of cover of James W. Jessee's Diary

Cover of James W. Jessee’s Diary. December 1, 1862 – August 2, 1863.
James W. Jessee Papers. Call number: RH VLT MS E4 Vol. 3.

Within his diaries, James recorded the day-by-day details of his three years as a corporal, and then sergeant, in Co. K, 8th Regiment of Illinois Volunteer Infantry. He included descriptions of army life, commentary about the war’s progress, updates about the weather and his health, and accounts of his regiment’s involvement in some of the most significant campaigns and battles of the Western Theater.

Photograph of James W. Jessee's diary entry at Vicksburg for July 3-4, 1863

James W. Jessee’s diary entry for July 3rd and 4th, 1863. James W. Jessee Papers.
Call number: RH VLT MS E4, Vol. 3. Click image to enlarge.

Above are James’s diary entries for July 3rd and 4th, 1863. Like other sections of the diary, they were written in a code apparently devised by James: vowels, “y,” and “w” are substituted with the numbers one through seven. Luckily, James’s great-great-grandson Alan D. Selig has transcribed the diaries, returning them to standard English while retaining original spelling, punctuation, and capitalization.

Before Vicks July the 3d 1863 Health good as usual now at present. Weather very warm and Sultry Boys in fine spirits and full of hope

8t A.M. flag of truce came out in front of A. G. Smiths division. Borne By two generals who was Blindfolded and taken to [Union general Ulysses S.] grants head quarters. A cessation of hostilities ensued. federal and Rebel troops stood upon their rifle pits with impunity. a Bout ten A.M. a reb. fired at the Col. of the 32d C. wounded one man the Col. ordered the Picket to fire. a peice of artilery fired with grape killing 17 rebs &c

afternoon [Confederate general John C.] Pemberton met Grant in front of our division. to arrange terms of Surrender. that Being the object of the flag of truce the whole afternoon was spent in in consultation By the two Gen’s. and the most of the night, as I understand.

7 P.M. called into line and sent out on Picket. orders not to fire untill further orders all very quiet indeed. feel quite lost.

no news from the rear to day. —

Before Vicksburgh, Sat. July 4th 1863 thus the eighty Seventh anniversary of our national independence was ushered in as quiet as the Holy Sabath in a civilized land. all was peace and quiet. we could scarcely realize that we was at war. and in front of a hostile foe. though now subdued by hunger 8t A. m. rebel officers came out. sent a communication to “Grant” which said that vicksburgh was ours. was called in to get ready to march into town, and at twelve the Brigade was formed and [Union general John A.] Logan’s division marched in and took formal Possession of the Place got into town just at two. PM. and to my great surprise found the City But little injured By the Morter fleet. they have caves dug all through town to hide in in times of Bombardment, found the Rebs nearly starved and much fatigued. &c they had actualy Been eating mule meat, also hostile against Pemberton. and many disgusted with the Rebel service. moved out & camped Back of the Rebel works, the question is which out Ranks Grant or the 4th of July

Photograph of James W. Jessee's military promotion appointment to Sergeant, Company "K" of the 8th Regiment of Illinois Infantry Volunteer, June 18, 1864.

James W. Jessee’s appointment to Sergeant, Co. “K,” 8th Illinois, June 18, 1864.
James W. Jessee Papers. Call number: RH MS Q68. Click image to enlarge.

Born and raised in central Illinois, James W. Jessee moved to Kansas with his family when it became a territory in 1854. As residents of Douglas County, members of the Jessee family were active in the free-state cause. James returned to Illinois in the winter of 1858, settling in as a farmer and preacher. The twenty-two year old mustered into the 8th Illinois on June 25, 1861; records at the Illinois State Archives describe him as 5′ 8 1/2″ with brown hair, hazel eyes, and a light complexion. After mustering out of the army on July 30, 1864, James once again became an Illinois farmer. He, his wife Marie Caroline Standiford Jessee (1847-1922), and their children later relocated to Kansas, settling on a farm in Osage County where James resided until his death.

Caitlin Donnelly
Head of Public Services