Laxatives, confections, & stimulating pies


From behind the bar, Julea cleaned cups and watched the tavern's patrons. The newest wore a very particular smile when he listened to Kanna talk ā€” stiff and patient, but definitely attentive. He twitched every time the old witch's hand went close to the belt of herbs and crystals at her hip.

The last thing she needed was a bunch of Neo-Valorists hunting in her town, so Julea poisoned his next drink. A little laxative solved the problem nicely.

If you missed my previous stories featuring the Cult of Valor, check out:

The Laundress & the Fungal Growth
The art of getting clothes clean is basically magic
Fortifications originally protected us from nature


Whenever I read a story (like this one) where a character slips someone a laxative, I think about college pranks. Specifically, people putting depilatory chemicals in shampoo, laxatives in brownies, and itching powder in underwear drawers.

(Once, as a teenager, I threatened my father with the latter; he was not amused.)

When I think about laxatives, I usually think of thick pink liquid, like what comes in a bottle of Pepto Bismal. If I'm reading a fantasy novel, I expect some kind of potion or herbal tea.

I don't expect milk.

But one of the interesting little tidbits I learned from Tamed by Alice Roberts is that the Romans used exactly that as a laxative.

Lactose tolerance is relatively rare in adult humans, looked at globally. It's mostly a European phenomenon even now, and it's recent. Scientists have done genetic studies of ancient populations across Eurasia. It turns out that even though we have evidence that Neolithic humans ate milk products (like cheese), the genetic mutation that lets people drink milk without getting stomach aches is new. Like Bronze Age new, and even then, only about 5-10% of Europeans were lactose tolerant.

By the time the first century BCE rolled around, Roman scholars were still making lists of which types of milk were the most effective laxatives. Since mare's milk has such high lactose content, it's recommended for medicinal use. Next most effective were donkey's milk, cow's milk, then goat's milk -- which is usually described as being gentler on the stomach, at least in parenting circles.

That was only 2,000 years ago. Adult lactose tolerance is pretty common in Europe now, but less than 30% of adults in Kazakhstan are lactose tolerant. Kazakhstan, tucked between southern Russia and western China right up to the Caspian Sea, is incidentally the homeland of apples and a bunch of other delicious fruits. Apparently the forests are beautiful, but I digress.

I was talking about laxatives.

Milk obviously wasn't the only substance used as a laxative in the pre-industrial world. Senna was a popular herbal remedy. It's described as having a "urine yellow color" with a "fragrant and sickening odor." It tastes "nauseous and bitter." In fact, it was apparently the perfect laxative (effective but not dangerous) except for the taste. Since it tasted so bad, it was usually mixed with tamarind, sugar, coriander, or ginger. It had to be taken with lots of water.

Senna was usually given as an infusion (like tea), not a tincture (highly concentrated ā€” think vanilla extract). Tinctures don't have enough liquid to be effective as laxatives. Instead, it would be made into a syrup, a powder (mixed with coffee, but hard to get the dosage right), or a sugary confection (great for pregnant women, but hard to make).

Rhubarb is an alternative, but a weird one. It has laxative and anti-diarrhea effects, due to its tannin content. A bunch of my friends like the pie, so I was startled to learn this. Rhubarb is easy to grow and doesn't have to be replanted every year, so I've considered planting some in my garden, but honestly the amount of sugar you need to make it palatable is a bit of a turn-off for me.

There are others, but what most herbal laxatives have in common is how they work. They mostly stimulate the intestines (i.e., make them contract) and draw fluid into the colon, which helps things move along.

And help people like Julea solve other problems, too.


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