Caterina Sforza’s book of secrets

Caterina SforzaCaterina Sforza (1463 – 1509) was a fine example of a medieval noblewoman who was never at a loss when it came to safeguarding her possessions and the good of the family. She was even accused of trying to poison  Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia). A very curious book exists which has been copied in Caterina’s own handwriting. The book includes dozens of recipes and secret remedies. One may presume that Caterina Sforza resorted to using some of these, although their value can be questioned. Here are a few examples, taken from “A Decade of Italian Women” by T. Adolphus Trollope.

A great number refer to subjects, which we must suppose to have been more interesting to Catherine at an earlier period of her life, than when living among “the wall’d-up Nuns.” As, for instance, a receipt “to drive away pallor from the face, and give it a colour.” For this purpose, roots of myrrh must be shred into good generous wine; then “drink sufficiently of that, and it will give you a carnation of the most beautiful…”

Then we have a water to preserve the skin against blotches; another to make the teeth white; and a third to make the gums red; and very many others for the beautification of almost every part of the person.

As a specimen of the medical “secrets,” of which a great number are treasured up in this curious volume, the following may be cited: For infirm lungs, an ointment is to be made of the blood of a hen, a duck, a pig, a goose, mixed with fresh butter and white wax. And this is to be applied to the chest on a fox’s skin. In which the fox-skin holds a place analogous to that of the six pounds of beef in the well-known recipe for making stone soup.

More problematical is a receipt for “a drink to make splintered bones come out of the wound of themselves.”

There are many examples of sick-room practice, based on curious combinations of medical with theological treatment; as in the following method for healing sabre wounds: “Take three pieces of an old shirt, steeped in holy water, and bind them on the wound in the form of a cross. The wound must have been carefully washed; and the patient must have no offensive arms about him. He must say three paters and three aves off; if he cannot, some one must say them for him. For the success of this cure, it is necessary that both the wounded man and the operator be in a state of bodily purity…”

There are among these valuable secrets, waters “to make iron hard;” “to make it as brittle as glass;” “to dissolve pearls;” “to dissolve all metals;” &c., &c.

There are no less than thirteen different specifics against witchcraft.

Then, if you would know whether a sick person will recover, you must “clean the face of the sick with warm paste, and then give the paste to a dog. If the dog should eat the paste, the sick man will recover; if not, he will die.”

Lastly, there are a great number of a kind that, less than any of the others, should have been of any interest to the recluse of the Murate; such as love philtres, specifics against sterility and other kindred inconveniences. Several are for purposes set forth by the noble lady with the utmost cynical directness of terms, but which cannot, under any veil of phrase, be even indicated here. And some instructions there are, which would place any modern English man or woman acting on them, in a very disagreeable position in the dock of the Old Bailey; but which are here, by some theological sharp practice, so cleverly and piously managed, as to attain their object, “senza carico di coscienza.”

In short, there is to be found in the pages of this strangely curious and tell-tale volume, abundant evidence that the woman who could collect, transcribe, and find an interest in preserving such “secrets,”  as many of those here, must, according to English nineteenth-century codes and feelings, have been lost to every sense of decency, and deplorably ignorant of the laws, and even of the true nature of morality. But there is no reason to think that Catherine fell in these respects at all lower than the general level of her age and country. There is ample proof, on the contrary, that in these, as in all other matters, Catherine was essentially a woman of her time—in no respect in advance of her time, or behind it; but furnishing a full and fair expression and type of her age and class, as is ever the case with vigorous, bustling, strong, practical natures of her stamp. The men,who are before their time, whose domain is the future, to their utter exclusion from all dominion over the present, are of another sort.

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