Treating a cough … Early Modern style!

Recently I came down with a cough. I know, that sounds so interesting, but I left it untreated, hoping it would go away only now it has shifted onto my chest and is causing my sides to ache from all the coughing so perhaps that wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had.

So I thought I’d take this opportunity to look at some early modern remedies for coughs because who needs modern medicine? Intrigue has to come from somewhere, right? So why not from my own ailments? Let’s look at Receipt Book V.b.400, together.

Looking first at some remedies for a sore throat, the ingredient allum was often repeated.

Recipe from p.111 of Receipt Book V.b.400 (EMROC)

A quick search on the Oxford English Dictionary website told me that allum was an old term for salt. This was reassuring at least. Even now, if you’ve got a throat infection, gargling with warm saltwater still comes highly recommended by the nhs as salt can help fight bacteria and reduce swelling while the warm fluid helps to loosen the mucus. It’s unlikely though that this specific connection between salt and bacteria, was made by early modern recipe writers. Instead recipes were often the result of trial and error, evident in the continued testing and alteration of recipes by younger generations, some are even crossed out entirely if it’s found that they don’t work.¹ If something worked, it was repeated. The use of salt, or rather “allum”, clearly worked with sore throats.

Side note – the prevalence of this ingredient in old recipes could be seen as the basis for the label of ‘gargling saltwater’ as an “old wives tale” in that it literally was just that.

With this discovery in mind and a mental note to double check ingredient names, I continued to look through the book.

The next 3 pages, pp.112-14 are left blank, potentially intended for later additions relating to the mouth and throat issues on the preceding pages. These empty pages tell us something though as they show a desire for organisation. Medicines were not simply written in as and when the author came across them, they were organised in relation to what they treated. Such an organised recipe book would be much easier to use if a family member fell sick as they could flip to the right section and choose from the most appropriate recipes without having to leaf through pages and pages to find something. From these blank pages alone, we can already see a great deal of forethought. Who knew 3 blank pages could say so much?

The next 9 pages are more relevant, pp.115-23, as these include recipes that I could choose from to treat my cough. From the number of recipes available, we can see that a cough was clearly a common ailment leading to the collation of various recipes with the hope that one might just work for the type of cough that was being suffered with. The different variations in coughs also lead to there being many different medicines to treat them all. This variation is visible in the titles of the recipes.

p.116 of Receipt Book V.b.400 (EMROC)

From a focus on stopping phlegm, to a cough felt in the lungs as opposed to the throat to even more specifically phlegm in the lungs when there is pain felt in the sides, there’s one for when it’s accompanied by wheezing, or shortness of breath (I’ll admit I didn’t realise there was a difference) and even a dry cough.

p.118 of Receipt Book V.b.400 (EMROC)

A couple of these titles (above and below) have something else worthy of note in them. Notice the inclusion of the word “wonderfully” in the top one, or “excellent” in the bottom one. These recipes were considered as certain to work then, likely to have been tested by either the author or someone she knew before being given this credit in the title.

p.120 of Receipt Book V.b.400 (EMROC)

A similar implication can be see in the use of the word “approved” in the title on p.120. Approval suggests testing by someone other than herself; it may not say who but they were clearly enough in her esteem to be believed on the efficiency of this medicine before she wrote the recipe down.

I’ll end the suspense and choose a medicine for my cough.

I considered looking at a recipe focused around phlegm as it seemed most appropriate to my current condition but perhaps this is too much information about my cough so instead I settled on one entitled “For the Cough of the Lungs” on p.119. However I also found a recipe 2 pages later entitled “Against the Cough of the Lungs” on p.121. A quick comparison of the two reveals the use of very similar ingredients. Both use rasins, annyseed, sugar and maidenhair (which according to Culpeper, is a plant similar to a fern – ALWAYS double check ingredients because this one confused me – he says that it is good for coughs but should always be used alongside other ingredients as its effects are ‘weak’),² boiled in running water. This mixture is then strained and two spoonfulls are taken in the mornings. The only differences I could find was that the first on p.119 included liquorice whereas the second on p.121 used figs. A couple of questions spring to mind. Why include 2 recipes that are so similar? Did she perhaps forget that she had already written the first? Did she find that figs were a better substitute for liquorice but not enough to discount the first recipe? I turned back to Culpeper, he was so helpful on the topic of maidenhair after all. Liquorice is once again suggested for use when suffering with a cough, but he recommends the use of liquorice, maidenhair and figs together in a drink rather than separately.³ Therefore these recipes may have been put together based on pre-existing knowledge of the benefits of what we might considered were the active ingredients. Perhaps her own testing was what led to their separation between two recipes. It should be noted that the second recipe is more detailed, including a suggestion to clean the raisins, strain the medicine through a linen cloth, and that the user “shall find present remedy probatum oft”. These added details imply she had more faith in second one than in the first as it comes across as more tested.

Either way, I’m not a massive fan of liquorice or figs so I might just stick to my honey and lemon drink.


¹Leong, E., ‘Collecting Knowledge for the Family: Recipes, Gender and Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern English Household’, Centaurus, 55, 2 (2013), p. 91.

²Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (London, 1653) p.221

³Ibid, p.216

2 thoughts on “Treating a cough … Early Modern style!

  1. Once again, I loved how you tried to find an early modern remedy for your health problems! My favourite section of this blog was were you suggested that the empty pages suggest a lot about early modern people’s organisation skills. Do you think that they were more organised than people today?

    1. I’m not sure I could say. I dare say, they are definitely more organised than me! I rely on my rather poor memory instead (or call my mum and rely on her memory) so life would certainly be a lot easier if I were this organised.

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