Monthly Archives: March 2020

A Remedy to Cure all Ills

A Remedy to Cure all Ills

If there is one thing in life people can agree on it is the magical medicinal properties of chicken soup. From sniffles to full blown flu this simple recipe is credited for helping alleviate many symptoms and is thought of as the ultimate cure – alongside more modern cold and flu tablets that it is.

Chicken soup has a long history, its recipe changing through the centuries with different family versions claiming to be the best. The humble cure all started in the form of a broth or jelly in the 18th century and later moved to using the broth to make the soup we all know today. These recipes are not always indicated as ‘medicinal’ in cook books – however there is evidence that they were used to cure ills.

Taken from an 18th Century cook book this recipe for ‘Cock Broath’ uses ivory shavings believed to have medicinal properties. It is an ingredient we would not see in modern recipes, due to the lack of proof of its medicinal properties – despite still being used in many Chinese medicines.

The phrase ‘ivory shavings’ gives a modern audience the image of thin sliced curls of stiff ivory – inedible and surely adding a crunch to the broth. However, this was not the case. Ivory was expensive and every part of it was valuable, including the dust produced from carving it into fine sculptures. This dust had multiple uses, and its popularity in Europe came from its uses in stiffing straw hats. It might be presumptive to state a link here, but it is also plausible as to why the dust was more common in cooking then we might think, given ivory’s price.

In Chinese culture, ivory is said to help sore throats and consumptive fevers, and is even said to change colour when it touches poisoned food, and more – all of which are myths. That’s not to say that they were originally, a myth today may have been truth in the 18th century and the medicinal properties of ivory easily accepted. Medicine was still based on humoral theory, and aliments were treated as single symptoms. With further digging we could find out whether ivory was attributed to a certain humour – but for now, most information on ivory is that it’s trade is currently banned.

Ivory aside, jellies were often used as medicinal cures. One used by Henry Baker was a ‘black current’ jelly for a sore throat that he had been given by a vicar. Baker praised the effects until he noticed that it had stopped working so well, and complained to his friends of it. They told him that it he shouldn’t use an old batch and needed a fresh one for it to have an effect again – and lo and behold, upon making it fresh he once again praised its effectiveness.

Now granted, black current jelly isn’t the same as chicken soup, but what we are seeing in Barkers story is the faith people had in medicinal jellies. Not only has Baker recommended the jelly, which we see in cook books with marks or ticks by ‘proven’ recipes, he has also identified that medicinal potency is linked to the age of the jelly. We see this today in the (maybe) famous line from films – ‘eat it while it’s still fresh’.

We wouldn’t think of eating a chicken jelly today to cure a cold, as we often associate jelly as being cold whereas chicken soup is ‘hot and hearty’. A black current jelly on the other hand would still be normal to eat for a sore throat. It’s not that jellies have lost their place as cold foods – more that our taste buds have changed since cold meat jelly.
But what’s all this got to do with chicken soup though I hear you ask? The answer: chicken soup didn’t start off as chicken soup – first we see it as broths and jellies.

Moving into the 19th century, we see a chicken broth tailored to ‘invalids’ in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management that uses a fowl “unsuitable for eating”. Previously, cook books had been mixed with food and medicine recopies, Mrs Beeton’s book split the medical food recipes from everyday in her section for ‘invalids’. This split indicates the acknowledgement of the need to tailor recipes, and we see chicken broth clearly associated with the sick, and not just as a recipe used for a multitude of dishes.

Although not specifically chicken, Mrs Beeton also discusses the need for beef tea and jellies to be readily available for the sick. She does not know the full nutritional value of using beef tea and jellies but is using advice given by Florence Nightingale to support their effectiveness.

Just like today, the magical healing powers of chicken soup are endorsed by one well-known name, and backed up by word of mouth. The origin of the success of chicken soups is unclear – however it is clear that it has been a cure for a long time. Despite the headlines associated with chicken soup as a ‘cure all’ there isn’t medicinal evidence to fully support this. There are many health pages advocating its benefits and easily a few thousand plus will attest that it can cure a cold.

In reality, chicken soup is the personification of home and health. From its beginning as broths and jellies to the soup made from these original bases, chicken soup has been present in the household for several hundred years. Its association with comfort helps build the image of a home cure that people claim has worked for them time and again. As we are yet to find a better medicinal cure I believe it is safe to say chicken soup will continue to be the remedy to cure all ills.



Baker, Henry ‘Some Observations concerning the Virtue of the Jelly of Black Currents, in curing Inflammations of the Throat. By Henry Baker, F. R. S., Philosophical Transactions, Vol. 41 (1739-1741), pp. 655-60

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, electronic <> [accessed 24th January 2020]

Chaiklin, Martha, ‘Ivory in World History- Early Modern Trade in Context’, History Compass, Vol. 8, no. 6 (2010), pp.531-32


Wei, Clarissa, ‘The Myths of Medicinal Ivory’, KECT, < > [accessed 24th January 2020]

Another Trip into Early Modern Medicine

Now, I didn’t literally trip over but I did hurt my leg. Perhaps I’m not very good at taking care of myself. Anyway, it turns out that tendon knots don’t go away if you ignore them. In fact they kind of get worse. Whoops!

                How does my injured leg and apparent incapacity to go to the doctors have anything to do with an early modern recipe book? I hear you ask. Well, from the amount of medicines contained in these recipe books and as there was little distinction between professional practice and lay treatments,¹ I think it’s reasonable to assume that the families this type of book belonged to didn’t have regular access to a doctor therefore making these books a necessary alternative. Now don’t get me wrong, I have access to a doctor, just not the inclination to go, so it got me wondering how a person without access to a doctor would deal with my injury and there it is… the recipe book.

                To find anything relating to leg, or more accurately knee, pain, I had to flip through a great deal of this woman’s recipe book (V.b.400 of the Transcribathon project) and, while I mentioned my suspicion of her organisational skills in my last post, this gave me a new appreciation for how well she categorises her recipes. She deals so comprehensively with each element of a possible ailment before moving onto the next, showing how well acquainted she was with potential health problems and if not well-read in them then certainly well connected to be able to build such a collection. Such extensive medical reading by women is demonstrated by Elaine Leong in her examination of two other women’s medical recipes. In this study she reveals just how dedicated these women were to reading about medicine and how they would then apply their own thinking and organisational needs to what they had read. One of these she describes as being written with the purpose of being a standalone book because the author did not have regular access to this medical knowledge, therefore necessitating her own usable collection.² This book has a similar feel to it.

                Anyway, before I go onto dealing with leg pain I ought to give you a bit of a set up about humoural theory, how treatments were intended to restore balance and maybe something a little peculiar.

                When a person is sick nowadays it usually is quite helpful for them to rest and sleeping is particularly good as it allows your body to devote the entirety of its energy to fighting off whatever infection is causing it. However, the Galenic theory of medicine, which survived for quite a long time (with blood-letting still being practiced much later than I would care to admit), prescribes a theory of opposites that was intended to restore a person’s humours, or fluids that controlled everything about a person, and so if a person is feverish and tired, you cool them down (helpful) and you make them do exercise (not so helpful).

Recipe from p.133 of Receipt Book V.b.400 (EMROC)

In the section spanning from pages 133-6, she deals mostly with how to combat a fever BUT intermixed with these medicines are also those to help a person sleep. The inclusion of recipes to induce sleep amongst those for fever suggests that she had linked the two in treatment, going against this theory of opposites. Without further research into how prevalent it was to recommend sleep when someone was ill, I can’t say if this is peculiar or not; I can say however that I found it interesting to see that this woman had made this link between two different factors, fever and fatigue, so clearly that she combined recipes that are completely unrelated in a way that goes against a prevailing medical theory. This combination is particularly significant, as we will now see, because she adheres to humoural theory in her other recipes.

                So, finally I came to something relating to my injury in 2 pages from 148-9. The recipes over these pages often refer to either an ache (spelt acke), pain, or more specifically a rheumatic (spelt rhumatick) pain which could be taken to imply more of an inflammation of a joint, muscle or tendon rather than just pain.

                Page 148 begins with an overarching recipe of how to ‘Draw the Rumatick oyle of Rosses’. Now, in beginning the section with this recipe without stating specifically where to use it, it’s clear that this oil is essential in treating any of the following aches and pains, hence why it is given prominence as it needs to be done before anything else.

Recipe from p.148 of Receipt Book V.b.400 (EMROC)

If we were to consult Nicholas Culpeper, a doctor and author of Herbals, then we can see the reason why. In his descriptions of the value of roses, he recommends the use of rose oil against aches, or more specifically, ‘against heat and inflammation’ as the rose oil will cool and heal it.³ (Do you see the humoural theory of opposites that I mentioned before? Treat a hot inflammation with a cool oil in order to restore balance.) The author of this recipe book echoes this theory in her method for making her oil of roses, insisting that it should be kept somewhere cool, seeing that the pot that contains the mixture is placed in the cellar or buried somewhere cool. The significance of this theory is visible again when it is on a ‘knee very hott’ (inflamed) that the restorative ointment is applied.

                The similarities between the two texts in their reference to using opposing temperatures to cure an inflammation, especially as both are writing specifically about roses, is clear evidence that these recipe books were based on medical theory and well-researched so that they can be used in the absence of a learned medical professional. The deviation above is perhaps an example of her relying on her own observation instead and supporting the idea that as well as relying on professional medicine, some lay people managed to create treatments that were better.⁴

I might stick to using Voltarol and muscle exercises though; I think my landlord may take issue with me burying a pot of pressed roses in the garden for 3 months.

Voltarol – my preferred joint pain relief
(picture taken by me)


¹Nagy, D., Popular Medicine in Seventeenth Century England (Ohio, 1988), p.43.

²Leong, E., ‘ ‘Herbals she persueth’: reading medicine in early modern England’, in Renaissance Studies, 28, 4 (2014), pp.556-78.

³Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (London, 1653), p.301

⁴Nagy, Popular Medicine in Seventeenth Century England, p.48.

Alcohol: Luxury or necessity?

Alcohol  has been a staple in our everyday lives throughout history all the way to present day, with  a healthy average of one drink per person per day, even with half the world’s population being non alcohol consumers. In fact the oldest firm evidence found of alcohol brewing was in 7000BC Jiahu China. Here evidence was found of famers fermenting rice, grapes, hawthorn berries and honey in clay jars. However, evidence has shown that alcoholic beverages have been invented independently on different continents at different times. Of course consumption habits are influenced by cultural and religious norms meaning, its highest consumption was in European countries. Here patterns in drinking behaviour were largely universal, this meant that sharing a drink was seen as a sign of social solidarity and heavy drinking was only acceptable for men not women.

Alcohol has had many different uses throughout time which was influenced by European expansion, social developments and scientific discoveries. 

Alcohol as medication

The active ingredient common in all alcoholic drinks is ‘yeast’. This is a single celled organism which eats sugar and excretes carbon dioxide and ethanol, this is the process of fermentation. The ethanol which is produced is toxic to other microbes that compete with them for sugar inside a fruit. This provides an antimicrobial effect benefit for the drinker, meaning that alcohol can fight bacteria inside the body and encourage the health of the immune system.

Alcohol as a dietary staple

The consumption of beer provided calories as well as essential vitamins to many diets which were often poor and lacked nutrition. B vitamins such as folic acid, niacin, thiamine, riboflavin were all present in ancient brews, which helped aid healthy development. Before the sanitation of the modern world, beer was also a more sterile way of hydration than water. Here getting drunk was just a bonus of a ‘healthy’ life. Alcohol could also be contained in wood or clay containers without spoiling so it was good for transportation and may have been the only source of hydration on ships and other lengthy travels.

Alcohol as a status symbol

Wine was primarily drunk by the elites, this is because ingredients to make wine were not easily accessible eg grapes so wine was usually imported which increased its costs. Alcohol such as beer and mead would most often be drunk by the peasantry as this was much cheaper to make, with easily accessible ingredients and it would often be home brewed.

Alcohol as social glue

Alcohol was seen as a necessary component of a marital bond which could arouse affections, symbolize their union and consummate their marriage. Alcohol was also a part of business and social relation building

Alcohol for men and women

Unlike men, women’s alcohol consumption was less readily acceptable and only in moderation. Alcohol could heat a woman’s passions and lead to inappropriate masculine behaviour. If members of the opposite sex were not married and shared a drink, this could be a symbol of inappropriate sexual play and could be labelled as disorderly behaviour. Women with drinking problems could expect no support from the state, while men were expected to drink in order to conduct business effectively and to uphold their masculine reputation.

Alcohol as the inciter of violence

Drinking becomes a problem if it threatens the stability of the household or if it has the potential to burden the rest of the community. This meant that as long as the individual households were up and running and the head of the household was able to work, then there was no need for the authorities to get involved in these affairs. However, if the household members failed to live up to the demands of their estate and lacked order and discipline, then neighbours and authorities had the right to interfere and restore domestic harmony.

Alcohol was a by product of civilisation due to amounts of excess grain, need for caloric intake and the human desire for mind altering substances. Alcohol distillation began in Europe in 12th century Italy in the school of Salerno which was a medieval medical school, the most important of its kind. Alcohol distillation was used for medical uses such as aiding digestion and to stimulate conviviality. Alcohol distillation is the boiling and vaporisation in order to achieve a higher concentration of alcoholic content. English parliament promoted the production of gin in order to use the surplus of grains and raise taxes. This lead to the flooding of markets with cheap spirits and by 1733 the London area alone was producing 11 million gallons of gin a year. This number however saw a decline by the end of the century due to a growing stigmatisation towards drunkenness.

As we can see here, alcohol has been a steady part of our history, which can explain our attraction to it till this day. However, it has had many different uses throughout time and only in most recent years has it been enjoyed for its intoxicating effects.


B. Ann Tlusty, Drinking, family relations and authority in early modern Germany, journal of family History article, Jul 2014

Andrew Curry, National Geographic (magazine), Our 9,000 year love affair with booze, Feb 2017, accessed 18/03/2020

Alcohol problems and solutions, Alcohol in the 18th century: European expansion, accessed 19/03/2020


            Transcribing an Early Modern Household Recipe!

Reading someone else’s handwriting can be a daunting task in any occasion, however, when coupled with old italic handwriting and phonetic spelling the text in front of you may even appear as completely unreadable at first glance. trust me, we’ve all been there! luckily for you I have put togethere some of the most important rules to follow when reading old handwriting. so whether you’ve got an essay due or you simply enjoy looking at old recipes then look no further.

First of all, it is important to look at the text as a whole, this is due to the phonetic spelling which was followed by most people. There was also no standardised spelling of the English language until the 18th century so noting the date of the text can help with identifying specific words. Try to identify the different letters which may sometimes occur in random order. it is also helpful to find out where the text was written as regional accents affected the spelling of words. Sounding out the word in the accent of the author can both fun and helpful so don’t be shy. Identifying the type of text you are looking at can also help to predict which phrases or words are likely to appear. However, if you struggle to identify the word straight away, you can label it as a question mark and come back to it later.

Once you’ve had an initial look at your chosen document you may have identified some emerging patterns between the letters, here are some things to look out for: The writing of ‘Y’ and ‘I’, ‘I’ and ‘J’, ‘U’ and ‘V’, ‘S’ and ‘F’. In the example below you can see what looks like a long ‘f’ in the writing style of ‘please’ and ‘of’. Although these letters look awfully similar they represent ‘S’ and ‘F’ where appropriate so its important to be careful.

Cookery and medicinal recipes [manuscript], ca. 1675-ca. 1750.: folio 27 verso || folio 28 recto

Another important thing to know is the meaning of superscript letters which is represented with a single letter followed by a raised smaller one such as this ‘Wt‘. these are just a shorter way of writing a word with ‘Wt‘ meaning ‘with’, ‘Wth‘ meaning ‘which’, and ‘Mr’ meaning ‘master’. The example below shows how the word ‘which’ may appear in the text.

Cookery and medicinal recipes [manuscript], ca. 1675-ca. 1750.: folio 27 verso || folio 28 recto

Thorn is also important to look out for which is represented by letters such as ‘Y’ which stands for ‘TH’, ‘Ye‘ which stands for ‘THE’ and ‘Yt‘ which stands for ‘THAT’. The example below shows how the word ‘THE’ could be represented in your chosen document. However, it may not be clear straight away which thorn is being used, therefore, it is important to keep coming back to the text with a fresh perspective for further analysis.

Cookery and medicinal recipes [manuscript], ca. 1675-ca. 1750.: folio 27 verso || folio 28 recto

In sources such as recipes, account records, town registers etc numbers can be represented in Roman numerals as the standard ‘I’=’1’, ‘II’=’2’. However, when written in English documents these numbers may look more like ‘j’=’1’, ‘ij’=’2’ etc. This will depend on your particular document. If you’re looking at a will or a similar type of document then understanding the money calculations which were used is a useful tool to have. A Pound is marked by ‘li’/’£’ and is equivalent to 20 Shillings. A Shilling is marked by an ‘S’ and is equivalent to 12 Pennies. A Penny is marked by a ‘d’ and is equivalent to 2 Halfpennies.

Cookery and medicinal recipes [manuscript], ca. 1675-ca. 1750.: folio 27 verso || folio 28 recto

The above example however, shows that there wasn’t a standardised way of writing anything, so to fully understand a text you will have to play around with it, maybe even ask your friend to look over it too, just to make sure you didn’t miss anything. However you choose to tackle this task, make sure to take your time and don’t give up! Happy transcribing.

  1. stradomskyte&dir=Transcribathons/EMROC/Va429

The Joys of 18th Century Baking: Small Cakes

Ever since I was a boy, on my Birthday I have most looked forward to my birthday cake, my affinity for my mother’s home-baked, Victoria Sponge cake, with homemade strawberry jam and cream center can only be rivaled for my passion for History. This year, I have decided to give my beloved mum a break from this task because, after 24 years of baking for her little prince, I believe she has earned a day off. This had left me with a predicament, with my mum kicking back on the sofa watching “Harry Potter” this year, the burden of making a birthday cake falls on my shoulders. Conveniently, I needed an idea for this blog post, therefore I decided to combine my two troubles together an eliminate them at once. Therefore for my 24th Birthday, I would be eating my birthday cake, 18th-century style!


The preparation for this certain project starts, unlike most recipes, as for this birthday cake one must decipher 18th century English and transcribe the recipe in order to prepare and plan out the bake. By using Dromio, I had selected my desired cake to blow my candles with. 

Ingredient’s used for the bake:

As a historian, I have tended to focus my career and talents upon the study of the past and analysis of historical literature, therefore my talents have never expanded to baking. With this considered, I had decided to go in the direction of ‘Small Cakes’ to fully take advantage of my limited baking knowledge.

Combining my experience with transcribing with my basic skills as a baker, transcribing this recipe did prove to be a trial. For example, whilst transcribing I was met with the word “Sack”. Due to my evident inexperience with the kitchen, I was dumbfounded at this term, and why I needed 4 spoon fulls of this unknown ingredient. I first believed that I had transcribed the word incorrectly, but after a quick consultancy with my peers, I exhaled knowing that I had indeed, completed my contribution as a historian correctly. Therefore, I had to deduce what a “sack” is. A swift search on Oxford English Dictionary soon sent me in the direction I needed: sack was a sweet wine derived in the Spanish regions, nowadays known as Sherry.

With the recipe correctly understood and transcribed, it was now time to get my hands dirty (literally) and bake my Birthday cake.


The method behind the bake was one thing I had to make alternations for since I do not own a brick oven or a stone-lined bread oven which is what most households in the 18th century would have used to cook their food. This meant I had to adjust the baking time to correspond to the heat of my oven.

I am fortunate to have use of an AGA, a cast-iron oven that retains its heat and burns continuously. I decided to use the AGA as it’s suggested to be alike to a baker’s brick oven which would mean I could yield more accurate results whilst keeping somewhat true to the methodology of the bake.

I first decided to half the recipe, because I wasn’t positive on my baking ability. Keeping true to the recipe, I used my hands to mix in the butter and flour together. This was exceptionally messy and sticky work, as at this juncture, the recipes full amount of butter was combined with half of the recipe’s flour.

With all aspects of the ingredients added, the mixture yielded a thick dough texture

After beating the eggs separately, I added them to the mixture. I decided to go with an electric whisk to speed up the process, this yielded interesting results as the mixture became a sticky dough-like texture, which after adding the rest of the flour, the Rum (the closest thing I had to sack in my cupboards) and the currants, resembled a bread dough. This initially made me question my baking talent once again as I was sure I must have gone wrong somewhere. But keeping true to the recipe allowed me to see results of which I had not expected.

Results & Final Thoughts.

Fresh out of the Oven…

Due to the bread-like texture and the use of 4 eggs, the cakes rose and were delicious. These cakes hail a somewhat scone-like texture but were incredibly sweet. Upon serving these cakes to a, admittedly reluctant, family, my mum suggested that these cakes would be brilliant with a serving of custard. Overall everybody seemed to be impressed that such a simple recipe could yield results so satisfying, the cakes buttery sweet taste combined with the hint of rum and fruitiness of the currants allowed this recipe to fill us up upon our taste test. This is not surprising, as baking within the 18th century typically showed a stodgier bake instead of the lighter bakes we typically associate with cakes to this day.

Would I do this again and would I serve these cakes again? Yes, I believe that this easy to follow recipe can yield results which can be the centerpiece to any afternoon tea, I would hasten to suggest to any avid baker/historian reading this that the butter can be overpowering, so I would alter the amount of butter you use for this recipe as it can affect the bake and devour the delightful flavours that the recipe incorporates. But even for a novice, this recipe is easy to re-create and has room for interpretation which could allow one’s creative side to flourish. But overall the cakes allow the person eating them to actually taste a bit of history, which in my opinion made this year’s birthday unforgettable

A scone like texture which works perfectly as a sweet snack!

Aqua Mirabilis

On page five of the V.b.400 “receipt manuscript” a recipe for “Aqua Mirabilis” appears. Aqua Mirabilis can be translated from latin in two ways: the ‘miracle water’ or ‘the wonderful water’. Either way, the name promises something spectacular. To get this miracle water you will first need to take “gallingale cloves cubebes ginger melitele grains cardinomum mace nutmegs of each one graine, the juce of celendac half a pint”. Cloves, ginger, cardamom, mace, and nutmeg are all relatively common spices used in modern cooking but not medicine. “Gallingale” is spelt “galangal” nowadays and is “The aromatic rhizome of certain Asian plants… of the ginger family, used in cookery and herbal medicine”. “Cubebes” are just “cubebs” and are “The berry of a climbing shrub Piper Cubeba or Cubeba officinalis, a native of Java and the adjacent islands; it resembles a grain of pepper, and has a pungent spicy flavour, and is used in medicine and cookery.” “melitele” is “melilot” which is “Any of the genus Melilotus the dried flowers of which were formerly much used in making plasters, poultices” and “celendac” with a little respelling is “celandine”: “Its thick yellow juice was formerly supposed to be a powerful remedy for weak sight.”

Aqua Mirabilis title from vb400

So together these spices and juices, with three pints of water and white wine, make a remedy? Well first you have to distil the ingredients for 24 hours, or more if possible. Then you separate the water from the leftover herbs and you burn that leftover matter into ashes. Then you add rainwater to those ashes, let it sit for two days, drain the water and keep it, add more rainwater to the ashes and let sit again. Finally you drain the water away, throw away the ashes, mix the reserved waters and let them sit over a fire until the water evaporates until you have salt leftover. Mix these crystals with the first water reserve and that is your spirit. Your aqua mirabilis.

According to the book “The virtews are these”:This water can “disolveth the swelling in the lunggs”, “tongues [that] be wounded or perished it mightily composeth them”, “he that useth thy water shall not need to be lett blood”, “it expelleth the Rhum and filleth the stomack, it conserveth a good colour and youth in his estate, it also preserveth the memory, it destroyeth the palsie of the tongue and limbs” and even better “ if one spoonfull be given to one att the point of Death… it retrieveth them” What an incredible miracle cure! Of course, if it did do these things we’d still be using it nowadays and it has sadly become obsolete. I was however interested to find a recipe that I had never heard of for something supposedly so incredible, and was curious to see if anyone else wrote about this concoction or it was a one-book recipe. Surely someone else would have been using this? Both the OED and British History websites list account for Aqua Mirabilis with use going back as far as 1673. In both of those descriptions the same less complex recipe is followed from Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary. This 1755 dictionary that lists Aqua Mirabilis as “The wonderful water, prepared of cloves, galangals, cubebs, mace, cardomums, nutmegs, ginger, and spirit of wine, digested twenty-four hours, then distilled. It is a good and agreeable cordial.” The benefits are not touted as much as in the recipe book but the inclusion in a dictionary means that it was a popular enough remedy around that time to make its mark and have the approval of the author.

Definition from Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary

Aqua Mirabilis also appears in the 1677 Pharmacopoeia translated by William Salmon, still claiming to cure a great many ills, John Locke kept a recipe in his notes that is likely he got from the Pharmacopoeia, and The Lady Sedley’s Receipt Book from 1686 includes a recipe for aqua mirabilis that is “very close to the original prescription”. More interestingly,The Countess of Kent’s Choice Manual of rare and select secrets of physick and chirurgery has two different recipes for aqua mirabilis. The first recipe calls for “Take three pints of White wine, one pint of Aqua vitae, one pint of juice of Salandine, one drachm of Cardamer, a drachm of Mellilot flours, a drachm of Cubebs, a drachm of Galingal, Nutmegs, Mace, Ginger and Cloves, of each a drachm, mingle all these together over night, the next morning set them a stilling in a glass Limbeck.” The second recipe goes as such; “Take Galingall, Cloves, Quibs, Gin∣ger, Mellilip, Cardamonie, Mace, Nutmegs, of each a drachm, and of the juyce of Salledine half a pint, adding the juyce Mints and Balm, of each half a pint more, and mingle all the said Spices be∣ing beaten into pouder with the juyce, and with a pint of good Aqua vitae, and three pints of good White wine, and put all these together into a pot, and let it stand all night being close stopt, and in the morning still it with a soft sire as can be, the still being close pasted, and a cold still.”

Recipe from Elizabeth Gray’s manual

These two recipes are pretty similar to the manuscript one, but most importantly both recipes contain sections of the “virtues” of aqua mirabilis and the Countess of Kent’s list of virtues is almost identical to v.b.400. “This Water dissolveth swelling of the Lungs, and being perished doth help and comfort them, it suffereth not the bloud to putrifie, he shall not need to be let bloud that useth this water, it suffereth not the heart burning, nor Melancholy or Flegm to have dominion, it expelleth urine, and profiteth the stomack, it preser∣veth a good colour, the visage, memorie, and youth, it destroyeth the Palsie. Take some three spoonfuls of it once or twice a week, or oftner, morning and evening, first and last.” Is it possible that both of these receipt books copied down the recipe from the same or similar sources? How interesting that two recipes can have almost identical wording from two seemingly unrelated sources.

So there you have it, aqua mirabilis, the wonderful water, the miracle tonic, guaranteed to save you from death! Willing to give it a try?


Kent, Elizabeth Grey, Countess of, “A choice manual of rare and select secrets in physick and chyrurgery collected and practised by the Right Honorable, the Countesse of Kent, late deceased ; as also most exquisite ways of preserving, conserving, candying, &c. ; published by W.I., Gent.”, Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership, 2011, <;view=fulltext>, sections 5, 6, 7, [accessed 24/01/2020]


“Page View, Page 152.” A Dictionary of the English Language: A Digital Edition of the 1755 Classic by Samuel Johnson. Edited by Brandi Besalke. Last modified: December 6, 2012.

Nancy Cox and Karin Dannehl. “Aqua – Aqua mirabilis,” in Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities 1550-1820, (Wolverhampton: University of Wolverhampton, 2007), British History Online, accessed January 23, 2020,

“aqua mirabilis, n.”. OED Online. December 2019. Oxford University Press. (accessed January 26, 2020).

“celandine, n.”. OED Online. December 2019. Oxford University Press. (accessed January 26, 2020).

“melilot, n.”. OED Online. December 2019. Oxford University Press. (accessed January 26, 2020).

“cubeb, n.”. OED Online. December 2019. Oxford University Press. (accessed January 26, 2020).

“galangal, n.”. OED Online. December 2019. Oxford University Press. (accessed January 26, 2020).

There is no Distinction Between Cooking or Medicine in Early Modern Cookbooks – Why?

A Doctor, a Herbalist, and a Chef – the early modern ’cookbooks’ have a common theme in that there is very little distinction or separation between the recipes; a recipe for making a Sweetmeat cake would be next to a solution for heat in the face, followed by how to whiten cloth using methods found at home[1]. Similar to how a husbandman was expected to be proficient in many different roles in Graham Markham’s book, the wife of a family was expected to be more than just someone who cooked or was simply the mother of the family as is the case for some modern thinkers. However although this is an impressive collection found in almost all of the early modern cookbooks for women, what it actually shows is that early modern women did not really make the special differences that modern society puts between medicines and cooking; instead they saw it all together as one area of knowledge. How far this was the case and why are some important questions that may help to give insight on the values and mind set of early modern housewives.

[1] ‘Cookery and medicinal recipes [manuscript]’, (ca. 1675-ca. 1750), <>. P. 15-17

‘To Whiten Cloth’ – a recipe for whitening cloth using household materials. ‘Cookery and medicinal recipes [manuscript]’, (ca. 1675-ca. 1750),<>, P. 17

An early modern wife, as according to Gervase Markham again, was expected to be proficient in main areas of work and expected to be a part time doctor and be able to draw out bones, be able to create medicines ‘for any consumption, and, as some attitudes sometimes never, still be expected to cook ‘puddings of all kinds’.[1] Similar to Markham’s book on what it took to be a good husband, this is a daunting list of things that one woman was supposed to know how to do but again, there are similar considerations to Markham’s other book. Firstly, it is quite unlikely that whoever owned the book would be expected to remember all of it and never touch the book again; rather it is meant to be used as a reference book that can be used when needed and that the reader would only needed a passing knowledge rather than having the detailed understanding that an actual expert would have. Also, it is unlikely that the average housewife would have access to a book like this and that it would be read by middle class petty landowners wives instead. One of the largest things to consider is the literacy rates of women of the time that were almost always lower than similar classed men, often around 90% of illiteracy in most areas.[2] As such the book would have had to have been read to the wives by either their educated husbands or local educated men, and then most likely read to the poorer women that worked for the wife, and by extension her household. All together what these considerations mean is that Marham’s attempt at creating a ‘cookbook’ similar to others at the time did not draw a line between medicine and foods as described earlier; he instead packaged it all together in a way that can provide a refence guide for middle class housewives of the time rather than creating separate books for cooking, herbal remedies etc.

[1]Gervase Markham, The English hous-wife containing the inward and outward vertues which ought to be in a compleat woman … a work generally approved, and now the fifth time much augmented, purged, and made most profitable and necessary for all men and the general good of this nation, (1653), pp. 4-5

[2] David Cressy, ‘Literacy in Seventeenth-Century England: More Evidence’,The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 8, No. 1, (Summer, 1977), p.148

The wife of the house is explaining what needs to be done to a servant near the back of the image. Frontispiece from William Augustus Henderson, The Housekeeper’s Instructor, 6th edition, c.1800.

With the plainer and more common household cookbook, this lack of separation between cooking and medicines is more noticeable and organic. Household cookbooks tended to be things that were passed down through families, with each generation adding new recipes they have found or editing older ones. But across these generations there is still no distinction between cooking for eating and cooking for medicinal or household purposes. Its not until 1853 with Modern Cookery for Private Families by Eliza Acton that the idea of what a modern cookbook is set down, the idea of a reference book that is solely just for foodstuffs with measures and detailed instructions. Before this the majority of cookbooks were still collections of all types of recipes that were vaguely worded.  Even going into the more ‘rational’ minded eighteenth century where there was a greater interest in the professionalisation of areas of study such as medicine cookbooks were still including medicinal recipes.[1] This shows that even though there is definitely a shift towards having a book that is solely about cookery there is still some aspect of the earlier mindset of not separating the cookbooks, only keeping all types of work in the kitchen together.

[1]Hannah Glasse The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy, (1747), p.328

An explanation for this lack of separation however could be one of convenience. Households passing down these cookbooks were simply writing down what they knew worked and what they assumed their families would need to know. They were unlikely to want to leave behind a large number of books all written on separate subjects; they are likely to have preferred to keep it all together for cost, time, and accessibility reasons. Cost wise, it was far cheaper to get one big book of blank pages that could be added to over time rather than a large number of separate books. Time wise it took significantly less time to write short recipes in one book rather than separating them. As for accessibility the issue of illiteracy rates in women shows up again, as it would be easier to get somebody to read out a small section of one cookbook that was needed at the time rather than reading out verses from various books. Despite this however, the fact that even though printing and literacy rates went up which made it far easier to produce these cookbooks, mass produced and handwritten cookbooks continued to make no distinction between cooking food and creating medicines.

Literacy rates of all women in Norwich showing that 89% were illiterate, this was common across England at the time. David Cressy, ‘Literacy in Seventeenth-Century England: More Evidence’,The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 8, No. 1, (Summer, 1977), p.1448

Overall one of the most common elements of early modern cookbooks that could be found in the homes of middle-class housewives was that they were a jack of all trades book. In it would be recipes for food, medicines, and basic first aid. This shows that for the most part there was no real distinction between the preparation of food and the preparation of medicines; they were essentially the same business and it was expected for women to be able to do both. While there are some explanations that this was more due to practicality rather than cultural reasons, the fact that it endured for so long suggests that this is not the case for all cookbooks.



Collecting recipes and gifting hand-written recipe books: still a family tradition?

There is a time in everybody’s life when they move out from their parent’s house and start their adult life. Cooking and starting a recipe collection is a key part (for some) of becoming an adult. While reading Elaine Leong’s and Amanda E. Herbert’s articles it struck me that there are many things in common with early modern people and with us – modern people. Family recipes, cookbooks were an essential part of their lives, but from my experience it is still important to many today.

Female alliances

Early modern women’s shared labour, attempt to cooperate/collaborate can be seen in household inventories, guidebooks, prescriptive texts and manuscript recipe books.[1] What I found really interesting is that women did not just get advice from their closer group within their class, but also from below their class. Mary Chantrell is a perfect example to this, as she noted that one of her recipes were from a laundress, and another had been approved by an older woman.[2]They trusted those who had experience and wisdom, no matter their class. According to Herbert, examples such as this one prove that elite women contacted and worked with women of all kinds both within and outside their homes. Recipes allowed them to share their knowledge about ingredients and materials, also about how to negotiate with male shopkeepers, which means seeking other women’s advice was a tool to advance their female independence too.[3]

Manuscript recipe books

The covers of an early modern recipe book
Image Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Manuscript recipe books were handwritten books, including lists of ingredients and step-by-step instructions for making food, cosmetics, handicrafts and medicines.[4] Women shared advice and knowledge within these books to a range of women; it could be to relatives, servants, neighbours. In addition, they defended female education, knowledge and space against the male physicians and authors.[5] Recipes were the main platform for saving information and knowledge for the future in the early modern household.[6] Many gathered recipes alone, but most times they borrowed the recipes from their friends, family members and neighbours (the closer the person the more reliable the recipe was).[7] Some recipes were passed onto next generations. If they lent their book to someone else, they could communicate on the margins of the pages, as that was a place for more information or adaptions to be shared.[8]

Pages from an early modern recipe book
Image Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library.

Women were proud of these collections, and noted which recipe was from whom. Recipe books were worthy enough to mention in inventories, moreover, their value made them to be the perfect gift.[9] Mothers gave them to their children to guide them, especially to help their daughters to become a proper housewife. Recipe books, especially when given as a gift, had a ‘starter’ portion, which was quite helpful from my point of view. This ‘starter’ collection could be inherited or copied by the owner of the book. [10]

Female alliances and recipe sharing in the modern world

Montserrat Cabré’s blog about recipes and emotions made me think about how giving recipe book as a gift was more an act of love, rather than just to a guide to become a housewife. Cabré argues that recipes connect women and generations, furthermore she adds it created a space for conversation. Food and dishes that the whole family loves always brings back nice memories, so passing on this knowledge is not only a help of survival, but an act of love too.

The front page of my mother’s recipe book. The writing means “Miracle of miracles”. This title was given by my mother’s sister, but we do not know the reason behind it. It is sort of a family mystery.

When I was reading the articles by Leong and Herbert, it surprised me how similar early modern recipe book traditions and my family’s traditions are. My mother has been collecting recipes for sixteen-seventeen years at this point. Her collection consists of two notebooks, they have both printed and handwritten material, a mix of everything. Similar to early modern examples, my mother wrote adjustments to her recipes too, especially to the ones which she collected from others. When I decided to move to the UK from Hungary, my mother gifted me a notebook with my favourite recipes inside of it, which is basically the ‘starter’ portion of my collection. I think this is the most interesting similarity, as ‘starter’ collection as a whole was a completely new information to me. I never thought it was a way to gift recipe books, I just thought it was something clever my mother did.

Some random pages from my mother’s recipe book. Similarly to early modern examples, my mother wrote some comments next to recipes too. Here she noted that the recipe on the left is very delicious, and that the right one is from somebody else.

Early modern recipe books were not only useful for everyday life, for example in Anna Cromwell’s situation they came handy when emigrating to the Americas.[11] These recipes helped her to adapt to the new ingredients and dishes. I would like to think that in a way I was in a very similar situation to Anna Cromwell when moving to England, as my mother’s gift helped me adjusting to the new environment and helped me feel like I am home. Using my mother’s gift as a guide I had to adapt to different ingredients and spices. Obviously my situation was not as drastic as back then, but between countries there are very significant differences when it comes to basic ingredients like milk and flour (even salt is less salty here than back home!) and recipes needed to be adapted to achieve a similar result as back home.

To have another example from today’s world, my mother’s friend received a recipe book from her mother too. But this one looked more similar to the early modern ones because it did not only have food recipes, but also tips and tricks when it came to the household. For example it had advice on what to do when someone was expecting guests, what to do when red wine spills on the table and so on. In a sense it is very similar because its purpose was to prepare the daughter to become a knowledgeable ‘housewife’. I think these two examples show that we still have female alliances in a way, as the knowledge sharing/recipe collecting tradition never changed, only the time and space. 

Recipes collected from printed material

Ever since I received my gift I have been adding new recipes and adjustments to it. Early modern wives, daughters even male members of the household did the same thing; they expanded their collections, wrote adjustments next to recipes. It was very interesting to see how similar early modern examples were to my case, because my family never knew about ‘starter’ collections until I read the articles by Leong and Herbert. Hopefully I will be able to carry this tradition, which has been around since the early modern times.


Herbert, Amanda E., Female alliances; gender, identity, and friendship in early modern Britain (New Haven, 2014).

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

Montserrat Cabré, ‘The Emotional Life of Recipes’, <> [accessed 21 January 2020]



[1]Amanda E. Herbert, Female alliances; gender, identity, and friendship in early modern Britain (New Haven, 2014), p. 116

[2] Ibid, pp. 107-108

[3] Ibid, p. 105

[4] Ibid, p. 102

[5] Ibid, p. 103

[6] Elaine Leong, ‘Collecting Knowledge for the Family: Recipes, Gender and Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern English Household’, Centaurus, 55 (2013), p. 83

[7] Herbert, p. 105

[8] Ibid, p. 114

[9] Leong, p. 86

[10] Ibid, p. 91

[11] Herbert, (2014), p. 110