Thumbing through a couple early modern collections of secrets always turns up strange and fascinating techniques and recipes. Some seem obviously useful, such as how to make a candle burn under water or make one burn forever. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, recipes to treat wounds and restore health are common. We find numerous recipes about curing various types of tooth aches (which also suggests a rather refined taxonomy of dental pains), or recipes for removing corns and warts., or how to cure a tooth ache. Some recipes seem to treat familiar issues, such as the recipe for an ointment that you comb into your roots to make the hair on your head grow thick and lush, or the recipe for a paste that when applied to your limbs removes hair. Or the paste that prevents pimples.
But other recipes seem of limited or very particular use. For example, at least a handful of books of secrets include a technique for making a chamber appear to be filled with snakes. Far from a temporary fad, we can find these recipes in books from at least the mid-sixteenth century until the mid-seventeenth century.
Most of the techniques are broadly similar, varying only in the details. These two recipes offer typical instructions:
- From Thomas Hyll’s A Briefe and Pleasant Treatise (1586):
How to make thy Chamber appeare full of Snakes and Adders. TO doo this, kyll a Snake, putting the same into a Panne with Waxe and let it so long boyle: vntyll the same be throughe drye, and of that Waxe make a Candle, lighting the same in the Chamber, and then after shall appeare, as though there were a thousand creeping in thy Chamber.
- From Richard Amyas’s An Antidote Against Melancholy (1659):
A device to make a Chamber to appear full of Adders and Snakes. Kill a dozen Adders and Snakes, and take the oyl of them, and mix it with wax, and make a Candle, light it in a Chamber where rushes are, and the rushes will appear to be Adders and Snakes about the Room.
In what context would this secret be useful or even desirable? Were people in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England inveterate and enthusiastic pranksters? Was this some form of defense, terrifying would be burglars and thereby protecting your belongings? How are we to read and understand these recipes, which seem so different from the more utilitarian and practical recipes?