Tag Archives: Early modern household

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)

Notes:

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.

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.

Notes:

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

Stereotypes about the early modern household and the reality

When people think about the early modern household, most think of the stereotypes regarding to gender roles. Even though I took modules on early modern topics before, taking HR650 allowed me to realise some of my thoughts on the early modern household were not necessarily correct. This blog post will look at the stereotypes about gender roles, the spaces/rooms in the household and their purpose, and household hierarchy. I will try to give an example for certain cases which proves the stereotypes slightly or fully incorrect.

  1. Household hierarchy

The household was seen as the husband’s castle, but the household was not organized “towards a rigorous spatial segregation of the sexes”.[1] Instead the lines between household work was blurred, the tasks overlapped between the spheres. [2] The wife did not have as much power as the husband, but her power within the household was still significant. Mistresses had to overtake as the head of the household when their husbands were away, which meant their authority was respected within the household. In addition as Amanda Flather suggests in Gender and space in Early Modern England, most of the time women had the keys for the house/rooms, which gave them the freedom and power to go wherever and whenever they wanted within the house.[3]

Family picture from early modern England
Picture taken from: https://www.elizabethi.org/contents/essays/marriage.htm


After the husband and wife, their children were next in the household hierarchy. Even though they did not have much power, they were still above the servants. After the children in the hierarchy, the male servants (if there were any) were next and lastly the female servants. Female servants had the least power. (Plus they could be assaulted by their masters too) Servants did not have any privacy as they did not own the keys for their own rooms, which meant their master and mistress could walk into their room if they wanted to.

  1. Gender roles

 The stereotypes of early modern gender roles are usually about how women belonged in the kitchen, mostly working within the household, and not having any power in their marital relationship. Some primary sources suggest the opposite however. As the example of Alice Le Strange’s household records show us, wives could handle money, even sort out some businesses. She noted their financial situation; how much money they earned, what did they spend that money on, basically about the movement of money within their household. She wrote about everything related to the household.[4]

Pages from Alice Le Strange’s record book
Image taken from: https://norfolkwomeninhistory.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/lest-bk15.jpg

Furthermore it was not only Alice Le Strange dealing with the financial situation of the household, since women had the keys, they most likely knew where the money of the household was stored. Women also payed bills and rent, (even sold goods,) which means they did not only do the domestic tasks.[5] This proves the theory of how a marriage in the early modern times was more an economic partnership rather than a love based relationship.
In addition Alice Clark’s research suggests that in the pre-industrial economy when many businesses where operated in the household, women had a chance to take part of the agricultural work and trade.[6] The borderlines between men’s and women’s jobs were blurred, everybody was part of most tasks.

  1. Rooms/spaces of the household

The size and the numbers of the room within a household depended on where the house was located. Houses in towns and on the countryside looked significantly different, especially their layout. Based on the drawing found in The English Husbandman, the kitchen and other food preparation rooms (either for their own consuming or to sell products) were one third of the whole household. These rooms were clearly not open to visitors. But surprisingly not only women and servants went into these rooms, children and husbands went into them as well. From the dining parlor (marked B on the picture below) there was a room for the mistresses’ use (marked D on the picture below). The reason why I am pointing that out is because according to Gender and space in Early Modern England all sexes could enter all rooms.[7] Even though some room names included their owner, it might have been used by everyone living there.

The ideal house plan by Gervase Markham, The English Husbandman (1613)
  1. Spaces within the household and their purpose

As mentioned before there were no gender specific rooms in the household, the lines were blurred. For example when we think of a kitchen, we associate the space with women and servants. Even though it was the place where women and servants actually worked together, everybody in the household could come and go. Moreover, some husbands/men actually were interested in cookery. There was a discussion about this topic in one of the seminars which I found very interesting. The discussion was about how not all elite women kept records of the household, sometimes their husband took over. They could add small changes to some recipes as well. Before taking this module I would never have imagined men taking an interest in cookery or recipe noting in this time period.  Some liked to experiment, which means they were welcome in the kitchen and even used it. Interestingly since medicine making and cookery were similar to the processes of practicing chemistry, at this age women were naturally in the “scientific field”. Even though women most likely had more knowledge on the subject, only men could publish their discovery, such as Henry Baker’s observation of the blackcurrant jelly to cure sore throat. This is another example of how women were associated with medicine and healing, but it was still only men being able to publish their discoveries.

In conclusion it can be said that even though husbands/masters were the head of the household, their mistress/wife had more power than the stereotypes let us believe. Spaces within the household were not gender specific, for example men did go about the kitchen too. In addition men actually took part in cookery and recipe books even though the stereotypes suggest those were female task.

Bibliography

Flather, Amanda, Gender and space in Early Modern England (Woodbridge, 2007).

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

Markham, Gervase, The English Husbandman (1613).

Whittle, Jane and Elizabeth Griffiths, Consumption and gender in the early seventeenth-century household: the world of Alice Le Strange (Oxford, 2012), Chapter 2.

…….

[1] Amanda Flather, Gender and space in Early Modern England (Woodbridge, 2007), p. 40

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. p. 75

[4] Jane Whittle, Elizabeth Griffiths, Consumption and gender in the early seventeenth-century household: the world of Alice Le Strange (Oxford, 2012), Chapter 2.

[5] Amanda Flather, Gender and space in Early Modern England (Woodbridge, 2007), p. 47

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. p. 43