Did the medical recipes within early modern recipe books represent early modern medicine and medical understanding?

Having just completed my online exhibition text on the use of medicinal recipes within the receipt book of Margaret Baker, I was researching how the medical recipes within Baker’s book compared with medicinal understanding in the time period. This involved studying the medical recipes in Baker’s book and determining whether the ingredients used in her medical recipes were the same ingredients that would have been recommended by physicians of the time in order to treat a particular disease or ailment. The result of this examination was that Baker’s medical recipes were heavily comparable to the recipes of early modern physicians.

As a result of this research, I began to wonder whether the medical recipes present in other early modern recipe books would tie in as closely with early modern medical knowledge. Therefore, the goal of this blog post will be to examine the medical recipes from a different early modern recipe book, one written by a Mrs. Elizabeth Hirst and dated 1684. From this research, I will hopefully gain a better understanding as to whether Margaret Baker’s medical knowledge was an exception to the norm, or whether it was common for women of the household to possess extensive medical knowledge in early modern England.

An example of one of the recipe’s in Hirst’s recipe book

The first recipe from Hirst’s book is a recipe entitled “To stop Rhewme in the eye” (Hirst 31). Rhewme (or rheum) is a watery thin mucus that discharges from the eyes and crusts together.  The recipe instructs the user to make a plaster from several herbs, as well as frankincense and the white of an egg, and apply it to the temple of the patient. In JohnGerard’s Herball, he explains that the user can make a remedy to “keepeth backe the watering of the eies” using rofeleaves, frankincense and the white of an egge (Gerard 1211). Hirst’s recipe is clearly very similar to Gerard’s, although she substitutes the rofeleaves for several other herbs. Nonetheless, her recipe conforms to the medical knowledge of the time, and Culpeper’s Pharmacopoeia seems to suggest that the herbs are not really necessary at all. Culpeper says that “Frankincense… being applied to the temples, stops the rheum that flows to the eyes” (Culpeper 74). This demonstrates the Frankincense was the key ingredient that Hirst needed to include in her recipe, and her inclusion of this demonstrates her knowledge of early modern medicinal practice.

The second recipe that I will be examining is a much simpler recipe that is designed “to cure a feaver” (Hirst 37). The recipe simply instructs the user to infuse rhubarb in white wine, and make the patient drink it in the morning. Hirst explains that this will allow the passing of stool and help trapped wind to escape. In Pharmacopoeia, Culpeper states that rhubarb “sleeped all night in white wine” will “purgeth but gently” (Culpeper 11). This purging is reffering to the passing of bile in the stool. Once again, this demonstrates that Hirst appeared to possess extensive medical knowledge, and this particular recipe shows that she is not only aware of the recipe but also how the remedy works.

A final recipe that I will explore is a recipe “to take away pimpl’s or redniss in ye face”(Hirst 39). Hirst informs the reader to take a small piece of brimstone and mix it with white wine to form a cream, which should then be applied to the skin of the patient. Once again, we can find a very similar recipe in Gerard’s Herball, Gerard’s version uses white wine vinegar as opposed to white wine, and adds in the root of an iris as well as the brimstone. Gerard states that the recipe “taketh away sun burning, freckles/spots, the morphew, with all deformities of the face”(Gerard 1341). However, Brimstone appears to be the ingredient that actively heals the skin, as Culpeper states that “brimstone… takes away leprotics, scabs and lech” (Culpeper 42), all three of which are skin issues. Once again, Hirst demonstrates that she has an excellent understanding of medicine, and that the recipe she has used conformed to the medical theories of her contemporaries.

Although a rather small sample size, all three of the recipes that I selected from Hirst’s recipe book were recipes that were thought to be scientifically accurate in the early modern period. This demonstrates that Hirst appeared to have an excellent knowledge of medicine for a woman of her time. Whether the recipes are her own or not, she was clearly very well read and likely studied the medical field of her own volition. This evidence, supported by the study I have already conducted on the recipes in Margaret Baker’s book, appears to demonstrate that early modern women (or at least the ones who published recipe books) were quite knowledgeable when it came to medicinal practise and theory. It appears that Baker’s aptitude for medical recipes was not an exception to the norm, but rather, at least in the case of Hirst, her peers possessed an equal or perhaps even greater understanding of medicine than Baker did.

By Felix Wills


Culpeper, Edward, Pharmacopoeia Londinensis, or the London Dispensatory  (Royal College of Physicians) London, 1720

Gerard, John , The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes (Sidney Thomson Fisher) London, 1636

Hirst, Elizabeth , Receipt Book (Wellcome Library MS-2840) London, 1684


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