Blood and beauty secrets?

Modern Books and Manuscripts 2013-05-20

This post is part of an ongoing series featuring items from the newly acquired Santo Domingo collection.

Searching for information about flowers, medicine, and the secret to great skin?  Look no further than this beautifully illustrated French volume Les fleurs et secretz de medecine.

Until the late 19th-century the practice of bloodletting was regularly used to prevent illness and disease.  The idea is that blood and other bodily fluids typically referred to as “humors” needed to remain in balance for a person to be healthy.  So if someone was sick with anything from a headache to a more serious illness, bloodletting was a common occurance.  This concept of bodily humors came from Hippocrates who believed that human moods occur as a consequence of imbalance in one of the four bodily fluids.  The four fluids included blood which meant you were brave and passionate, yellow bile indicated you were easily irritable and angry, black bile meant you were downcast and short-tempered, and phlegm meant you were tranquil and impassive.

Hippocrates also believed in the practice of cupping, or local suction that is created on the skin to help mobilize blood flow and promote healing.

Cupping is a method strongly connected to traditional Chinese medicine.  It is believed that noted herbalist Ge Hong wrote about a form of cupping in the early fourth century in A Handbook of Prescriptions.  Later books written during the Tang and Qing dynasties described cupping in great detail; one textbook included an entire chapter on “fire jar qi,” a type of cupping that could alleviate headaches, dizziness and abdominal pain.  Though the popularity of cupping has risen and fallen over the years it has again become a desired procedure particularly with celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston.

But if you simply want the secret to skin as beautiful as a child’s don’t fret- just turn to the later pages.  You would only need a host of ingredients like aloe succotrin, borate, alum feather, cardamom, white lead, quicksilver, gall of a goat, camphor, and French blood and voilà!

Les fleurs et secretz de medecine was published in 1949 but the original French translation was published in Poitiers around 1544.  The woodcuts are credited to Gilbert Poilliot and the illustrations to Marie-Eve Mathis.  This copy is printed on velin de Rives, a sturdy cotton based paper, and is accompanied by a selection of uncolored woodcuts in the back of the volume.  This was a limited publication of only 1000 copies and this particular copy falls somewhere in the range between 41 to 100 though we could not find a specific copy number.

Les fleurs et secretz de medecine / Maistre Raoul Dumont Vert ; illustrations de Marie-Ève Mathis ; gravées sur bois par Gilbert Poilliot.  Monaco : Le Livre d’art, 1949. R128.6 .D89 1949 can be found at the Countway Library at the Harvard Medical School.

Thanks to Alison Harris, Santo Domingo Project Manager and Joan Thomas, Rare Book Cataloger, for contributing this post.