Tag Archives: mandrake

Response to The Mystery of the Elf Hoof

So, we’ve come to the end of our university project. Our website is finished, and we are almost ready to graduate – scary stuff. If you haven’t seen the website yet, you really should, it’s awesome (no bias here at all). My section was dealing with the weird and wonderful that can be found in Baker’s recipes, and talking about whether she meant what we thought, whether she was actually trying these recipes and if people were using supernatural style ingredients in their cooking.

On the initial draft I got a bit carried away, and ended up being far too specific about an individual ingredient. It was largely a response to Lisa Smith’s post, discussing whether or not Baker was using elves feet in her recipes.

On page 102 recto of Baker’s book she provides a recipe to help convulsive fits in children, which featured the ingredients a dead mans skull and elves feet. Specifically the hoof of an elf that lives in the mountains, preferably with ten claws on one of his feet.

While not completely impossible, it is unfortunately unlikely that Baker’s recipe originally called for actual elves hooves. Historian Lisa Smith wrote a blog post about what she thinks Baker may have been eluding to with this mysterious ingredient. Her theory concludes that Baker was referring to a type of herb – suggesting that elecampane or mandrake are the most likely culprits.

Courtesy of Wellcome Images

Elecampane can also go by the name of elf dock, or elf wort, which already suggests a connection between the plant and elves hooves. The plant was used for a lot of medical recipes, and there is even a variety that grows specifically in the mountains. The roots even (supposedly) look a little like claws. The problem with this is that elecampane is generally used for whooping cough, and to soothe colds rather than being associated with epilepsy or convulsions. In Culpeper’s Complete Herbal & English Physician (originally published in 1653) he describes the uses of elecampane as:

“The fresh roots of Elcampane preserved with sugar, or made into a syrup or conserve, are very effectual to warm a cold windy stomach, or the pricking therein, and stitches in the sides caused by the spleen; and to help the cough, shortness of breath, and weezing in the lungs. The dried root made into powder and mixed with sugar, and taken, serves to the same purpose, and is also profitable for those who have their urine stopped, or the stopping of women’s courses, the pains of the mother, and the stone in the reins, kidneys, or bladder; it resists poison, and stays the spreading of the venom of serpents, as also putrid and pestilential fevers, and the plague itself.”

Well the uses are certainly varied, however do not mention being useful for seizures or the falling sickness. Judging by Baker’s many recipes for convulsive fits we can guess that it was quite prominent at the time, so if elecampane was being used to help seizures it likely would be mentioned here. Baker’s recipes are generally fairly typical for the time so it is unlikely that she would be using this herb in a way no one else was. So what about mandrakes?

Mandrakes have a long history of being associated with magic, even today they appear in the Harry Potter franchise. Sorry, J.K. Rowling did not come up with the idea that mandrakes scream when they are pulled from the soil, the idea of the mandrakes curse has existed for hundreds of years. Because of their human-like shape people believed that when they were pulled from the ground mandrakes would scream and kill whoever was near. There were some ways around this, strangely featuring hungry dogs.

Credit: Wellcome Library

Mandrakes were used in herbal remedies, including to help epilepsy so it already seems more convincing than elecampane. However mandrakes tend to grow in swampy areas with rich soils, rather than in mountains as instructed by Bakers recipe. They were also viewed as dangerous, and gave quite powerful hallucinations. Bearing in mind that this is a recipe intended for children would a mother be inclined to use a root that is known to be dangerous even in the 17th century? While people were known to use opium to calm children at this time, the dangerous effects of this were not as widely known.

One of the problems with assuming that Baker was referring to a herb is that way the instructions are phrased it makes it sound like some sort of animal. The main reason for this is because it refers to the ‘elves’ living in the mountain – not growing. While this may seem pedantic, when you are trying to work out what exactly someone who lived 400 years ago is thinking sometimes pedantry is necessary. When referring to where you can find plants elsewhere in the book Baker always seems to say grow, so why the sudden change to lives? Lives suggests some kind of animal rather than a plant.

For me was what pushed me to eliminate elcampane from the possibilities. But why does it not completely eliminate mandrakes as a possibility? Well, this is because of the myths surrounding the mandrakes. As stated earlier, mandrakes bear resemblance to human figures, and because people believed that they screamed when pulled up it is likely they thought mandrakes were living creatures rather than plants. Looking at old images and diagrams of mandrakes seemed to confirm this, as they are generally drawn as human with extra planty bits. This could explain why it is described as having lived on a mountain, rather than grown. The claws would be parts of the root.

But if mandrakes are meant to be humanoid, then that fits in with the foote and perhaps the clawes, but what makes less sense if the houfe. One comment on Lisa’s blog posts points to the fact that elks were often used to help seizures.

In A Compleat History of Druggs, on the section on elks it reads:

“he is very subject to the Falling-Sickness; and as soon as he is attack’d with this disease, he fails not to put his left foot to his left Ear, to cure himself thereof; which has given Occasion to the antients to believe that the Elk’s claw, or the Horn upon the left Foot, was a specific for the Epilepsy.”

Now we have a living creature, with hooves and claws which were used as medicine to help cure epilepsy. While Elks generally live in woods and forests they are found on mountains, which again fits in with the description given by Baker. The only thing that gives cause for concern is that she states the best kind have ten claws, and even if you count split hooves as two claws it still doesn’t quite match the description. There were also no Elks found in Britain at this time, and the Eurasian variety tended to live in forest areas rather than in the mountains.

However, because elks have such a strong association with curing epilepsy and they are sometimes described as having claws it seems most likely to me that this is what the recipe originally called for. I think she was given this recipe by someone who had connections to the continent, and unfortunately mistranslated one word.