Haveroon, or the mystery of the missing child

In 1687, Maria Cornelissen Moerincx, an unmarried maid of 22 years from the vicinity of Roosendaal, was accused of giving birth. But the child was missing and the father unknown. Maria denied everything and dismissed it as gossip. However, there was milk coming from her breasts and that was seen as irrefutable proof that she had given birth. Because she could not show a child, she was imprisoned. In one of the ancient texts related to this story, a plant is mentioned: haveroon. The person who transcribed it could not identify it and came to me. A search for the botanical details of this story provided answers, but also new questions.

Maaike van Kregten. Tijdschrift voor Fytotherapie 2022 nr. 1.
Translations are by me, corrections are welcome!

A witness stated that Maria had said: “It itches in my belly, it’s like I’m with child, I wish I was as thin as you”. In addition, Maria’s niece [or cousin] is said to have asked this witness ‘if she had no haveroon in her garden‘, to which she replied in the negative, but indicated that it was in her mother’s garden. When asked what she wanted it for, the niece had replied that: ‘The second bark, boiled with periwinkle in sweet [fresh] milk, was good to set off the period, and ‘that she wanted to give it to her niece Maria‘ [1].

Source: West Brabants Archief Archiefnummer roo – 0023, inventarisnummer 359, folio 36v.

The impression is created that a remedy is being discussed to end an unwanted pregnancy. The recipe contains the ‘second [inner] bark’ of haveroon in combination with periwinkle and is to be boiled in fresh milk. As I only recognized periwinkle, I first consulted Philippe van Wersch, author of the book Folklore of wild plants in the Netherlands and Belgium. He told me that in the Roosendaal dialect, the ‘h’ is often not pronounced and that in the time before spelling rules existed, this letter was written or left out at will. So the search continued for averoon and that yielded results: it turned out to be Artemisia abrotanum [2].

A search in a number of old herbal books (Table 1) shows that the menstrual effects of this plant were known. Among others, Dodonaeus (1517-1585) refers to Dioscorides (40 -90 AD) as a source of information on this plant; so it had apparently been used for menstrual complaints for a very long time.

YearAuthorTitleMethod of
±1543Leonhart FuchsDen nieuwen herbariusFlowers and seeds boiled with water and drunkBrings women their period
1554Rembertus DodonaeusCruydt-boeckThe dry seed of Averoone is powdered or extracted in water or wine, and drank.… women who cannot get their natural illness.
1625Tabernae-montanusNeuw KreuterbuchThe uppermost shoots, together with their round, yellow buttons and flowers, are boiled in water or wine, or in good beer, and the boiled brew is sweetened with honey or sugar, and such drink is drunk warm in the morning and evening, three or four ounces at a time.Stimulates menstruation
1698Steven BlankaartDen Nederlandschen herbariusMedicines made from the flowers, seed and leavesStimulates menstruation. Expels feutus, afterbirth and lochia.
Table 1. Mentions of Artemisia abrotanum in relation to ‘women’s issues’.
Artermisia abrotanum L.
Foto Agnieszka Kwiecień, Nova

In the pharmacopoeia of around that time and in the (wide) surroundings of Roosendaal, the plant is known, but seems to be hardly used. It is mainly an ingredient of an unguentum martiatum (nerve ointment), and the leaf and herb are used [3]. Dodonaeus mentions various effects of periwinkle (Vinca spp.) on the uterus. For example, it helps against pain during childbirth or to prevent miscarriage, but also helps the expulsion of the afterbirth [2]. Fuchs reports, as does Dodonaeus, that it is mixed with milk and rose oil and inserted as a pessary ‘to make the pain of the mother seize’. Fuchs [4] and Blankaart [5] recommend it for various types of bleeding. The plant is not mentioned in Tabernaemontanus. A search in the pharmacopoeias yields nothing. In the Amsterdam, Antwerp and Rotterdam pharmacopoeias the plant is mentioned, but does not seem to be used. Vincae does not occur in the other pharmacopoeias studied [3].

The recipe given here differs from what is described in herbal books. The specific use of the bark could be for anti-bleeding effect of tannins. Cooking in milk may have been intended to better extract the essential oils and to improve the solubility of the Vinca alkaloids. Unfortunately, no modern research can be found to substantiate the effects described in the old herbal books. The plants are studied, but not specifically for effects in ‘women’s issues’.

Periwinkle (Vinca major L.).
Foto DinaKuzia

It is not known whether Maria actually took the drug described here, what she needed it for, or whether she was pregnant at all. Given the time frame in which this all takes place, she cannot have had a full-term pregnancy. So she could not show a child either. Nipple discharge was used as proof that she had recently given birth. However, no further signs of childbirth seem to have been sought, whereas after a recent childbirth more signs can be seen on a body. Moreover, the statements come from only one person, who has received most of the information only indirectly. What happened here? Unfortunately, we can only speculate about that. But if Maria was pregnant and used the drug, it was probably at a fairly early stage of the pregnancy. After an abortion or miscarriage, fluid can also come out of the breasts, among many other possible causes [6,7]. Maria could therefore have been right, namely that she had not been pregnant. Perhaps she had certain physical problems, hormonal or otherwise, with which her cousin wanted to help her with the mentioned recipe. At a time when padded bras did not yet exist and she had moisture stains on her outer garments, gossip could easily arise. But if the plants in the recommended remedy have a hormonal effect, they could also have been the cause of the nipple discharge.

What happened to Maria we will unfortunately never know. In any case, we can conclude that around the 17th century, (h)averoon was a valued and much-used plant, which in modern times has been (too) little researched. In particular, the possible hormonal effects of both plants in the recipe could be further investigated. Unfortunately, there is still very little pharmacological and clinical research on herbs that were and are used in women’s complaints.

[1] Transcriptie Gerard Haast. Haast G. Maria Cornelissen Moerincx: ongehuwd en zwanger op Vroenhout in 1687. Tijdschrift van de heemkundekring de Vierschaar. 2021;39(3):41-45. Oorspronkelijke tekst: West Brabants Archief. Rechterlijk archief Roosendaal en Nispen, 1557-1811. Protocol van allerhande akten, 1685-1811. Archiefnummer roo – 0023, inventarisnummer 359.
[2] Dodonaeus R. Cruydt-boeck. Antwerpen: Balthasar Moretus; 1644. In te zien via: https://leesmaar.nl/cruydtboeck/index.htm
[3] Farmacopees van Antwerpen 1660;Amsterdam 1683; Dordrecht 1708; Rotterdam 1709; Leiden 1718. https://www.stichtingfarmaceutischerfgoed.nl/resources/gedigitaliseerde-farmacopees
[4] Fuchs L. Den nieuwen herbarius. Basel: Michiel Isingrin; 1545. In te zien via: https://www.uu.nl/bijzondere-collecties/collecties/oude-en-bijzondere-drukken/populair-drukwerk/den-nieuwen-herbarius-1545
[5] Blankaart S. Den Neder-landschen herbarius ofte kruid-boek. Amsterdam: Jan ten Hoorn; 1698. In te zien via: https://www.dbnl.org/tekst/blan012nede01_01/index.php
[6] Gynaikon klinieken. Abortus hulpverlening. https://www.gynaikonklinieken.nl/abortus ; geraadpleegd: 7-12-2021.
[7] Gezondheidsplein. Vocht uit de tepel. https://webspace.science.uu.nl/~ooste108/ExpD/website3/veranderingborstvocht.html; geraadpleegd: 7-12-2021.