Tag Archives: medicine

Early Modern recipe books for when you’re not ill

If you’ve been following these blog posts, you may have realised a few things; I am terrible at looking after myself and I love organisation. Unfortunately, I have not been ill in a while and my leg pain has been fixed (not sure if I should call this unfortunate though and it was actually a lower back problem, the leg was fine all along) so this post isn’t going to be quite so medical but instead we’re going to look at the layout of recipe books.

Contents page of recipe book Va.429, f. v verso/vi recto(Folger Shakespeare Library)

                Now, some writers were absolute darlings and gave a little collection of contents pages at the front of their book, organised alphabetically with the page numbers listed for each recipe beside it. While similar recipes can be seen in close proximity to each other, this is not a constant in all books. However, the time taken to go through and create such a detailed contents page shows a desire for organisation after the fact of writing, perhaps in order to make the book easier to use in the future despite the layout of some recipes. In my previous post, I explained Leong’s argument that some recipe books were compiled in order to be used for reference,¹ so the immediate availability of the knowledge it contained was something of a necessity. Contents pages like this would have made life easier for a wife and mother, be she new to the role or experienced, or in fact any family member.

                I’ll admit, the example above could be better; her lines could be more parallel and she has three sections for ‘P’ but we shan’t hold those things against her. In fact, closer inspection tells us that we shouldn’t hold it against her at all. If you were to zoom in on the above picture you would see two different handwritings: the first, larger and prettier style being that which divided up the pages, wrote in the letters and added the initial recipes, the second clearly having stuck to the original owner’s organisation and added around it. Only once they ran out of room in the original ‘P’ section (you can see they tried to fit in as much as possible at the bottom) did they add the one above it, keeping the alphabetical order intact and once they had run out of space in that, added the third section under ‘N’, perhaps learning from their previous mistake and leaving themselves as much space as possible for future additions.

‘Anna Maria Wentworth/Her Book 1725’ Va.429, f. i verso/ii recto (Folger Shakespeare Library)

A bit of sly letter comparison to the name written in the front of the book tells us that the original writer was Anna Maria Wentworth in 1725 as the ‘M’ matches.

The second writer is unknown although it is clear they sought to maintain the well-organised, easy-to-use nature of the book.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it really is truly astonishing how much can be learnt from just a few pages.

(This new recipe book is one used in a student project about alcohol, it’s called Old Timey Winey and by all means check it out!)

                Anyway back to the recipe book we’ve been so dedicated to previously, loyalty is everything after all! This book does not have a contents page of any sort, although there is evidence that the first page has been ripped out so whatever was on that was lost. Her first section focuses on ‘Waters’ although they’re not actually waters but rather very strong alcoholic drinks that have been distilled to increase their strength for medicinal use (the ‘water’ comes from the phrase ‘water of life’, NOT a reference to actual water).² Alongside these recipes she also writes of the virtues of these beverages so perhaps this recipe book was less of a collection gone through and organised after writing and more of a well-thought-out study of medicines compiled with the appropriate accompanying information for later use. At the end of this first section, before the second for syrups begins, she has left a few pages blank. How many blank pages, I cannot say but as the original writer’s handwriting ends on page ten and the next page is fifteen (the pages inbetween being missing, perhaps removed simply because they were blank), we can assume that she left five.

Recipes from book V.b.400, p.10 (Folger Shakespeare Library)

A different handwriting is also evident in the recipe at the bottom of the last remaining page of the section. The fact that this second writer made the decision to write this recipe at the very bottom of the page rather than on the next page, at the end of the book or even anywhere that there might have been more space shows how important the organisation of these books was for their use and to the people that used them.

                The fact that this book is organised in that way, with recipes grouped so specifically and leaving so much space for later additions implies that the original writer was not only writing this compilation for her own benefit but with the intent of handing it down so it could be used by other people. This is not so surprising as these books are known to have been passed down through generations: it’s one of the reasons they have survived so long.³ Evidence of this exists beyond finding more than one name on the inside cover or more than one type of handwriting; this shows that the intent was present from the start of its creation, not as an afterthought when they came to have kids.

                Now, as I have now come to the end of my focus on this topic, I should warn against something disingenuous that I’ve done. In each of these posts I have assumed that the writer is a woman; now with the book first mentioned in this post, the name is given but with the book that I have given most attention to, there is no name. While the principle users of these books were women, this does not mean that it was only women that used and wrote in them; they were sometimes the creation of a whole family,⁴ not just the wife and mother.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my little mini-series of blogs, thanks for reading!

¹Leong, E., ‘ ‘Herbals she persueth’: reading medicine in early modern England’, in Renaissance Studies, 28, 4 (2014), pp.556-78.

²Sournia, J., A History of Alcoholism (Oxford, 1990), pp.15,17.

³Leong, E., ‘Collecting Knowledge for the Family: Recipes, Gender and Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern English Household’, Centaurus, 55, 2 (2013), pp.81-103.


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 https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/02/alcohol-discovery-addiction-booze-human-culture/

Alcohol problems and solutions, Alcohol in the 18th century: European expansion, accessed 19/03/2020 https://www.alcoholproblemsandsolutions.org/alcohol-in-the-18th-century-european-expansion/

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