Bad History, diseases, drugs, magic, Pliny the Elder, remedies

Pliny on corns and bras



Feet showing different types of corns. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY


Corns: always with us, at least since we’ve worn shoes. Pliny the Elder (Natural History 28.62) recommends beef suet and powdered frankincense to treat them, which sounds a lot more pleasant than some of his remedies for foot conditions: fresh dung from wild boars or pigs also features for corns and calluses while, for sciatica, it’s boiling goat’s dung under the big toe. Dung features extensively in ancient remedies for a wide range of conditions, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find it here; it’s in more obviously ‘medical’ texts as well as in Pliny’s encyclopaedia aimed at the interested member of the Roman elite.

But that’s not all he says about corns. In a recent discussion on the MOOC which I put together on health and wellbeing in the ancient world, a learner stated that Pliny’s cure for corns was to look at the stars whilst oil was poured on the hinge of a door. I’d never heard of that, so I did some searching.

It turns out that, elsewhere in the very same book of Natural History, Pliny offers another remedy for corns, a remedy which may appear to us to be in a different league from suet and frankincense, or indeed dung. More magical, less medical? Here’s what he writes: ‘If a corn or callus is cut when a star is falling, they say that it is very quickly cured, and that applying to the forehead the mud obtained by pouring vinegar over a front door’s hinges relieves headaches, as does also the rope used by a suicide if tied round the temples’ (28.12).

However, weird as all that may sound to us, it’s definitely not saying that looking at stars while pouring either oil or vinegar on a door is a cure for corns; that would be merging two remedies for very different conditions. I think the most readily available source for the merged version – courtesy of Google Books – lies in Zachary Friedenberg’s Magic, Miracles, and Medicine(2010) where, in a list of Pliny’s recommendations of ‘remedies in nature’s pharmacopoeia’, he states ‘For corns, whenever sighting a shooting star, pour a little vinegar on the hinge of a door. This is sure to rid one of corns.’

The late Dr Friedenberg (he was an MD) went on to contrast the ‘unrestrained imagination and hearsay forcefully presented as proven facts’ in Pliny with the rejection of ‘such magic’ by ‘Physicians trained in the tradition of Hippocrates’. Hmm, must be reading a different Hippocratic Corpus to the one I know, then, because there are plenty of remedies there too which we would probably count as magic! The version used by Dr Friedenberg is similar to that found in the Southern California Practitioner for 1906: anyone who ‘when he sees a shooting-star, soon after pours a little vinegar upon the hinge of a door, is sure to be rid of his corns’.

But there’s really no excuse for merging the remedies in this way. In terms of the translations available in 1906, the 1855 translation of Pliny by John Bostock and H.T. Riley translation keeps them very much separate: ‘If a person is extracting a corn at the moment that a star shoots, he will experience an immediate cure, they say. By pouring vinegar upon the hinges of a door, a thick liniment is formed, which, applied to the forehead, will alleviate headache: an effect equally produced, we are told, by binding the temples with a halter with which a man has been hanged.’ Quite clearly, two conditions.

The use of the rope used to hang a man (or used by him to hang himself) as a headache cure recalls the (in)famous comment by Pliny that he finds wearing a woman’s bra on his head is good for this condition, the ancient logic of which was famously discussed by Amy Richlin in her 1997 essay for the Hallett and Skinner collection Roman Sexualities, ‘Pliny’s brassiere: Roman medicine and the female body’ (reprinted in Laura McClure’s collection Sexuality and Gender in the Ancient World and also existing in a 2014 version). The bra is, in Latin, a fascia, a bandage, more of a breast-band: in the remedy with the hanged man, what you tie on your head is a laqueum, a halter.

What’s different here is that Pliny’s use of the bra is reported as his own practice: ‘I find that headaches are relieved by tying a woman’s bra on my head’ (28.76). Richlin commented on ‘the strangeness of this image, outstanding even among Pliny’s weird parade … a man in a toga sitting and working late into the night by lamplight, with a contraption on his head that looks like something Madonna would wear’, although of course she immediately qualifies that by noting that the item of clothing is more like a bandage. In Richlin’s analysis, Pliny thinks that ‘something is exuded from women’s bodies that would make a brassiere cure a headache’, but the hanged man remedy would suggest that pressure on the head is the most important factor, and I wonder if it’s simply that a bra is easier to come by than a halter from a hanged man.

So, no, it’s not true that Pliny’s cure for corns (or indeed anyone’s cure for corns) was to look at the stars whilst oil was poured on the hinge of a door. It’s always worth going back to the original or at least to a translation of it, rather than believetaking secondary sources at face value. As here, they may well be compressing the original to make it sound even more ‘weird’. Yes, ancient remedies – whether we classify them as ‘magical’, ‘medical’, or ‘folk traditions’ – may well appear ‘weird’ to our contemporary eyes, but let’s at least get them right.

3 thoughts on “Pliny on corns and bras”

  1. Brava! for all of your wonderful posts. I suppose we should not be surprised at the amount of crummy scholarship (in quotes?) that we’ve inherited from past generations. Thanks for making your correctives conveniently available.

    Liked by 1 person

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